Tag Archives: Defence Colony

A room on the roof

Notes from the last barsati ♦

BannerDelhi, early morning. The sun burns through the haze, like a lighthouse lamp growing brighter as the bustling port of waking life approaches, pulling the tides of thought out of the ocean of dreams and towards the shores of reality, where I find myself cast up, suddenly solid, embodied. My eyes open to a view of pirate-black plastic water tanks, glinting like crows’ nests, and beige and ochre rooftops like ships afloat in a sea of green leaves, hugged by low white mist. The clouds come down to lightly kiss the ground and dissolve into dew.

It’s a different world up here in this tree-house of a barsati – a magic faraway world. I moved in two years ago and for the first half of my stay, most mornings were like this – a view of light softly stealing over sleepy streets, pale green foliage, the neighbours standing and blinking in their balconies. Then, the house opposite this one came down, and in a matter of months, my picture windows looked out onto the grey prospect of a mountainous slab of concrete. Yet I always knew that those mornings sailing above the Delhi madness were moments snatched from the city’s onward, upward march. The dark mark had long been set above my little barsati as well, and finally, after half a century, its date with a wrecking ball too draws close.

The romance of the room on the roof is related to the trope of the artist in a garret or the musician in a garage – but it has its own special, archetypical place in the blueprint of urban Indian culture. In instances too numerous to recount here, literature and cinema use the barsati as shorthand for the lushness of new love, creativity in full spate, and independence from the stifling air of social propriety below decks. In the memory palaces of Delhi’s older generations, the barsati is a room crammed with nostalgic recollections of youth and of freedom without responsibility.

There have even been attempts at barsati tourism in the city, but of course I’m convinced, like the rest of us living the high life, that mine is the best, and the last. It has had everything a tenant could ever want – not just in terms of physical layout and dimensions. My dear landlord, overturning every stereotype related to his station, certainly never put a price on my soul, allowing me to pay quite possibly the kindest rent in the colony – fulfilling a social obligation more than generating an income. He used to live up here himself during the early days of his marriage and smiles fondly when recounting moving in on his wedding night.

The barsati exudes a pleasant sense of history too, shaded by a tall Ashoka tree, supposedly one of the city’s oldest specimens. Prabuddha Dasgupta had a darkroom here some years ago, and before that the room sheltered Afghani doctors who came to the city as refugees. As the house comes down, inevitably giving way to a more vertically oriented city to house its citizenry, another little edifice of local history will be consigned to dust.

It’s as if the house knows that its tryst with developer destiny is nigh and won’t go down without complaint. The ceiling fan, from the 1960s, whines and squeaks with insistent regularity. In the bathroom, a petulant tap drips all day, the toilet’s tank fills, then sometimes suddenly overflows, exhausting the supply of the Sintex tank above. The other day, a power surge knocked out every light bulb and fried the Internet router. Out on the terrace, the terracotta pots – thick with tomatoes and lettuce all winter – have dried up and gone to seed. The last rainfall brought down a deluge of plaster flakes in the stairwell. The geckos have left, but in the rolled-up chiks, two turtle doves carry on their romance, fluttering incessantly and shredding the tatting to build their own nest, hopefully at a safe distance.

Pretty soon, the house will be reduced to yet another heap of rubble surrounded by piles of grit and sand that cradle the colony’s yellow pye-dogs by night. In time the building will rise again – likely gleaming, probably partitioned into neat little boxes. But by then, I’ll be long gone.

Originally published in Time Out Delhi, July 2013.

Published: July 6, 2013

Spiritus mandi

To market, to market ♦

The Defence Colony sabzi and phalwalas are a sonorous lot, with strength in numbers and vocal prowess. Mornings sound like an episode of “So you think you can hawk?” or maybe the opening song of a kitschy musical: a dim-lit stage, the low murmer of doves, the plaintive refrain of a lone hoopoe. A faraway train whistle; the muted strains of azaan. A piercing cry of “kabaadeeeya” breaks the stillness, followed by a soaring “sabzi-loa!” on C-sharp, then the emphatic litany of “Seblo, papitelo, santrelo! Anaarlo, kelelo, rasbhari-loa!” Even the most glottal-voiced sabziwala projects with confidence, demanding rather than entreating us residents to buy his wares.

Despite the enticement to come out and pay, I prefer to lie in bed, in lazy contemplation of the cartfuls of kharboozas passing me by like the morning sun. “Come buy my fine wares,/ Plumbs, apples, and pears./ A hundred a penny, In conscience too many,” wrote Jonathan Swift in a series of “Verses Made for Fruit-Women”. One can indulge in the projection of the sentiments expressed in this early 18th-century doggerel onto the modern-day phalwala: “My children are seven,/ I wish them in Heaven… Not a farthing will gain them, /And I must maintain them.”

This is rough verse, but some fine lines have been inspired by fruit and veg, and for some reason my weekly round of produce shopping seems to put me in a poetical mood. I’m sure the seths can sense my inexperience with matters of home economy as I meditate for minutes, plastic basket in hand, on the worthiness of a head of lettuce, the dust-coated beauty of a ruby red beet. I wonder if the cabbage knows, he is less lovely than the Rose?

DSC_0026Defence Colony’s Pindi Store and its Khan Market clones are deceptively beautiful dens of thieves, with their glossy baingans and out-of-season mangoes, their shelves of forbidden foreign fruit. I linger amongst the tubers, am lured by the lushness of the leafy saag, half-recalling poems. “Every fruit has its secret,” wrote DH Lawrence, erotically obsessed with the fissures of the “glittering, rosy, moist, honied” fig, the“gold-filmed skin” of the “Oh so red” pomegranate, and the “lovely, bivalve roundness”, the “suggestion of incision” of the velvety peach.

The maal here is almost worthy of Christina Rossetti’s “Goblin Market”, which never fails to make me salivate at its “plump unpecked cherries, melons and raspberries”; “figs to fill your mouth, citrons from the South”; “pellucid grapes without one seed” and “melons icy-cold”. Tempted, like the poem’s two little girls, I briefly handle an asparagus bundle, then, balking at the price, I put it back. I glance furtively at the dragon fruit and guiltily fondle a crisp Fuji apple. Do I dare to buy a peach? They are rupees one hundred fifty, each to each.

On one visit, I ran into a family friend and longtime Pindi patron, who admonished the shopkeeper – “Yeh hamari beti lagti hai” – and I was duly given the family rate. But typically, I slink off to the Safal down the lane, where I dig for spuds and “The cold smell of potato mould, the squelch and slap/ Of soggy peat, the curt cuts of an edge/ Through living roots awaken in my head.” Like Seamus Heaney eulogizing his father, I too think of my forebears – not rooting around in the dirt, but, jhola on arm, queuing up at the sarkari sabzi depot.

Lately, a bit disgusted with Safal’s indolent swarm of fruit flies and flaccid spring onions, I caved at Defence Stores and purchased a couple of those attractively packaged and fairly affordable HUMM Marketing Consultants veggies that have been cropping up at kirana stores all over the city. Vaguely reminiscent of Ikea home accessories in name and sterile aesthetic, these cute little individually priced packs are an example of the ever-more creative ways Indians are using plastic despite bans on polythene, as well as catering to smaller urban households. But the mess of onion skin, carrot peels and Styrofoam in my dustbin was guilt-inducing enough to swear off a repeat purchase, at least until the company finds a less wasteful way to parcel up their goods.

I felt less remorse at trying out one of the capital’s farm-to-door organic produce deliveries not long ago. The company delivered admittedly jewel-like sabzi: nimbus and tinda and moolis, nestled in a crate that they took away again. Who could imagine we’d one day be able to order karonda online? Still, the most fulfilling vegetable harvesting experience this season has been the flowering and fruiting of a row of pots I planted on my terrace this winter. The “broccoli” sprouts from Sundar Nursery turned out to be unruly, purplish gobhi – more flower than cauli – and the baingan is only now putting out its soft mauve blossoms; but each morning, as the sun burns off the latent wisps of fog and the final calls of the sabziwalas fade away, like Walt Whitman, triumphant, you shall see me showing a scarlet tomato.

Originally published in Time Out Delhi, March 2013.

Published: March 15, 2013

Amritsari Meatwala

Khau gali ♦


(Photos: Paroma Mukherjee)

The market under the Defence Colony flyover is possibly one of the least savoury destinations inside the Ring Road. Just behind red and shiny Nirula’s, behind the thekas, men in banians guzzle beer and chomp on kababs at an Afghan chicken stop. We’re more interested in the other side of the bridge, however, where one of Lajpat’s premier street food vendors serves meat for four hours a day to a clamouring horde.

Amritsari Meatwala is a bit hard to find these days, because of Metro construction. Just follow the flies, turning left after the Metro boards into a gali sandwiched between buildings and the construction ditch. Turn right around the corner, and the elevated shop is to your right. Owner Narender Kumar sweats between two giant cauldrons filled with disintegrating brown meat mush; his minions chop onions and fling newspaper-wrapped potlis with plastic containers of meat at the outstretched hands of the customers. There’s a small seating area in the back as well.

AmritsariMeat_TimeOutDelhi_Shah2We can honestly say that if you can handle this meal, you can handle anything. About two-parts chilly-spiked desi ghee to one-part melted meat, the variations are simple: keema with meat lumps on the bone, keema kaleji and keema anda. (There’s biryani as well, but we ignored it.) We got a plate each of keema meat and keema anda, and several thick crusty rotis. The meat retains its heat for ages because of all the ghee. It’s also infused with cardamom, kali mirch, chilly and, we suspect, something of its creator’s essence as well. We especially liked the softness of the crumbling, cooked-through egg yolks. The curries would make a good addition to a boozy dinner party, but we’d recommend you get there early – the meat runs out faster at the stall than it does through your system.

C-125 Lajpat Nagar-I, Defence Colony Flyover Market (98189-95844).  Rs. 70 per plate.

Originally published in Time Out Delhi, July 2009.

Published: July 24, 2009