When I saw the announcement for a curated walk through Connaught Place or CP (it is still that to me!!) under the title of ‘bookworming’, I was intrigued. Digging deeper, I realized that this was a term used for a walking and experiencing a city through a book! And the book selected in this case was Sam Miller’s “Delhi – Adventures in a megacity”. This was more than I could have wished for – a combination of my 2 favorite activities, reading and walking. And the book in question was one I had read a few years ago.
Sam Miller is a flaneur, which is a French word “for someone who wanders aimlessly through cities” despite having the means to “travel by car, take a taxi, or ride the train; or perhaps even stay at home”. Miller chose to walk in an outward spiral starting with CP as the center. And since this walk planned to cover the first couple of loops of the spiral, the meeting point was early Sunday morning at the Rajiv Gandhi Metro Station. We were a small group of 6 adults and a young child, and we set off with the lead walker and organizer, Shriti. She gave us a background to Miller, his book etc, since probably not everyone was familiar with the book..
The walk took us along the inner circle corridor of E and F blocks, and we crossed over to the Palika Bazaar. This ‘infamous’ underground market, which Miller calls ‘sunless, shrunken, sunken doppleganger of CP’, was a popular destination for shoppers in the pre-mall days!! No one was keen to dive underground, and so we walked over to catch a magnificent view of the iconic Jeevan Bharati building designed by Charles Correa. I must admit that in all the years I have been in Delhi, I have never seen it from this angle.
Then we crossed over to the outer circle, and walked counter clockwise, to take in the Statesman House, which lies at the corner of Barakhumba Road. Further on, we took in Gopal Das Bhavan (where Miller, who was worked for BBC, had his offices), the Fire Station, Shankar Market, Minto Bridge, the VIP entrance to the Railway Station before we crossed the road to take in the youngest sufi shrine of Delhi. All that you see on the road side is a masjid, and then as you go through the small lane at its side you come into the peaceful, paved courtyard that is the dargah of Hazrat Abdul Salam Chisti. This dargah dates back to the early part of the 20th century, and protrudes into the Lady Hardinge Medical College grounds. They had a much larger piece of land earlier, the major part of which was taken away for the new medical college which came up in 1916.
We continued around the outer circle and ended the walk at the iconic Regal building, or Re(g)al Theat(r)e (with the missing G and R, its original name.
This was in its time, a grand cinema hall with ornate balconies and embellishments, columned foyer etc. built to match the grand theatres of London. It with few parallels in the country, Opera House in Bombay and Mayfair in Lucknow come to mind. As single screen halls around the country bow out to the multiplexes, this one has now become a wax museum – the famous Madame Tussad’s, no less!
For me the outing was more than just a walk, as I have been seeing CP since 1955. I grew up in the New Delhi of the 50s and 60s and lived in the sarkari part of it. The go-to market for us was Khan Market – CP was an occasional luxury. During school and pre-med days, it was usually for the occasional family outing to Kwality for an ice cream sundae treat (and that institution is as it was then, although I have not had the ice cream sundae for many decades), an annual expedition to the Khadi Gram Bhavan (still at the same location in Regal Building, albeit much modified) at the time of the Gandhi Jayanti sales, an occasional family expedition to the movies especially in the summer vacations, when cousins were visiting. Many are the morning shows (9.30 am sharp) and matinees (3.30 pm) that I have seen in Regal, Rivoli and Plaza. And then there were the 6 college years at Delhi Gate, when CP was the place for movies, eating out (United Coffee House, Wengers, South India Cafe, all Institutions that still survive) and occasional shopping. Till I left Delhi in early 1973, there was no structure taller than the buildings around the circle itself, all the radial roads were open to low volume traffic in both directions and the central area was a tree filled park. In the late 60s and early 70s, various new structures appeared – Shankar Market, Apna Bazaar in its own (the first department store!) building across from Shankar Market and some landmarks disappeared. The iconic India Coffee House, at the site where Paalika Bazar stands, moved to the new location on Baba Kharak Singh Marg, where a row of shops with various State Emporiums came up.
Between 1973 and 2009, I was only an occasional visitor and did not witness the transformation of the area – the first high rises, the Jeevan Jyoti building, the new Statesman House, the business centers that developed along KG Marg and Barakamba Road, the rejuvenation of the central Park and widening of Barkhamba Road with the building of the Metro. Since I moved back to the NCR in 2009, I have reached CP only about half a dozed times or so. And major efforts have been made to re-do the frontages, clean up and re-pave the corridors etc. especially around the centenary of the Delhi Durbar of 1911. But I was disappointed to see the paan stained corners and the dirty corridors of the outer circle, which smelled like a long continuous urinal. This is suprising, since the whole area seems to have become a long chain of eating places and ‘Bars’. One would think, that at least the owners of these establishments would take some interest, keeping their clientele in mind.
Much remains the same, while much has changed too!! And I really felt good about having made the effort to reach CP for a #morningalk with a difference!