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Paharganj Redux: Delhi's Real Hipster Scene

Once a hippie hotspot, today Paharganj stands-out as an island of organised chaos, where free spirits from all across the globe congregate to celebrate life every day, write Tanushree Bhasin and Abhirup Dam

Abhirup Dam and Tanushree Bhasin  13th Apr 2013

Photos:Tanushree Bhasin

ow do European fairytales usually begin?" asked Seamus, looking up from his glass of trademark Paharganj milk-coffee. In the midst of an animated discussion involving climate change and human displacement, this digression was kind of odd. Nevertheless, one of us replied, "'Once upon a time...' of course".

"It becomes extremely hard for me every day," he said, lighting the cigarette he'd been rolling, "to find reason for the things happening around us if I don't imagine them as fairytales. But these are fairytales which neither happened once upon a time, nor in an unnamed land far, far away. It's even more surprising that some people are completely ignorant and don't even bother. It's like these things never happened."

"So, do you have a new format for these nouveau-fairytales of yours?" we asked, smirking slightly at this unlikely English sage. "Not a format, but I have a beginning. A borrowed beginning, to be precise, that fits perfectly. Turkish fairytales often begin thus: 'It might have happened, it might not have happened...'" We met Seamus, a 62-year-old hippie from Brighton, at a Paharganj cafe last winter, and as hippies are wont to do, he disappeared from our lives immediately after. But thanks to Seamus, we have a beginning, a beginning to a story we want to tell. What we record here might have happened, might not have happened. We don't bother with claims to 'authenticity'. What follows needs to be experienced, lived, discovered, perhaps even suffered.

No matter where you go in this city, the streets seem to look the same. International capital has Shopper's Stopped every street corner and McDonald'sed every marketplace. Distance, time and politics no longer stand in the way of profit and instant gratification, it is hard for cities and towns to hold on to what really defines them. Yet amidst all this — a lifestyle branded, packaged, advertised and sold to us each day — there is a pocket called Paharganj that remains a bulwark, standing tall for all things irreverent and unconventional. You might not find a Subway here, but in its chaotic arteries you will get to see a unique form of globalisation, one that deals with the movement of people rather than corporations.

Surprisingly, for citizens whose civil annoyance with this place knows no bound, Indian people do frequent Paharganj. Students, young professionals, and loyalists make up for the non-foreign component of crowd-Paharganj.

Paharganj, that age-old hippie hotspot, is going through something of a resurgence. A series of new, cheap and friendly bars and restaurants is pulling in Indians now, not just travelling Europeans and Israelis, and providing an authentic alternative to the TGIF-F-Bar-farmhouse wedding nightlife that has for so long defined the city. In Paharganj's labyrinthine lanes and by-lanes, you can see serpentine walkways teeming with backpackers and crack-addicts, sudden signboards in Hebrew, cafes and watering holes serving you at unbelievable rates. Imagine uninhibited and engaging conversations with strangers. Imagine Walter Pater, Jack Kerouac, Bob Marley, Bugs Bunny, and Sai Baba sharing a table. Imagine Delhi's underbelly, ironically wrapped in peels of street side laughter and joyous street shopping. Imagine Lord Shiva grinning at you from a painted wall hanging as joints get lit. Imagine impromptu get-togethers and after-hours congregations. Imagine travelling musicians with bongos and horns. Imagine meeting beautiful people from around the world, without the acumen of social safety and prejudices. Imagine a seedy Utopia which is more gender sensitive than the posh gated communities of the capital. Imagine all this, and you'll get a little glimpse of Paharganj.

This melting pot of people and cultures owes its hybrid character to its proximity to the New Delhi Railway Station. An important part of the hippie trail of the 1970's, Paharganj retains its cosmopolitan, subversive and countercultural character. It's hard to overlook how profoundly the ethos of the sixties and seventies — with their emphasis on non-conformity, experimentation with drugs, alternative sexualities, religion, and psychedelic rock, influences the culture of Paharganj even today.

But this is not just a hippie trail anymore. Surprisingly, for citizens whose civil annoyance with this place knows no bound, Indian people do frequent Paharganj. Students, young professionals, and loyalists make up for the non-foreign component of crowd-Paharganj. Until recently, barring a few bravehearts, most people looked at this area with fear and suspicion, only making short trips sometimes to indulge in inexpensive shopping. The equation seems to have changed completely now. "It's a complete myth that Paharganj is shady and dangerous. My friends and I come here to drink and eat all the time and we have never felt unsafe. In fact, there is something very liberating about this place," said Mahima Kapoor, an MA student at Delhi University.

You might have begun your night with a few bottles of beer at a local bar but in Paharganj there is no guarantee how and where you might end your night. We met Stu on one of our many evening sojourns in Paharganj. Stu, or Stanislaw Krakowski, was on his second trip to India. When we met him, Stu was already a Paharganj pro, having stayed there for over four months in a rented room. We were at My Bar, partaking in a refreshing 'beer tower' when Stu occupied one of the single-seats that line up a longish table in the middle of the bar. He didn't look lost, perhaps a little bored, especially with the 30-something gentleman beside him sharing his alcoholic excesses. When at Paharganj, be accommodative and benevolent, goes the dictum. We acted accordingly and after five minutes, Stu was enthusiastically brewing up a storm at our table. Such accidental encounters are not uncommon in Paharganj. In fact whenever we've been to the place we've returned with another stranger added to our list of Fascinating People We Will Probably Never See Again.Image 2nd

After another round of the beer, Stu suggested that we all go to his pad, where a few other people were coming over. To err on the side of caution is prudent, we thought. The initial hesitation gave way to journalistic curiosity and we reasoned tagging along. Tucked away in one of the back alleys, the building looked at least half a century old. A rickety wooden flight of stairs lead to 'Stu's pad' on the second floor. When we entered his 10'X10', Stu exclaimed "Isn't this five star luxury for Rs 200 a day?" The floor was covered with mattresses, and a dilapidated table and chair unceremoniously occupied a corner. One by one people started arriving. Jeremy, Stevens, Esme, and Jackie — all backpacking students from London. The guitars and bongo case they were carrying instantly caught our attention. Soon there were more, Israelis, Jamaicans, Americans, flutes, djembes, and to our surprise, Rohini and Santanu, two young professionals from Delhi. By the end of it, the room was packed, about 14 people pressed up against each other, with Mary Jane for company. At one point in the night Stu explained that such gatherings were quite common in Paharganj, but, for obvious reasons, kept under the radar. Paharganj was once known as the centre of Delhi's psychedelic rave scene, and that remains part of its DNA, but there are also these kinds of little jam sessions, and open-hearted generosity. Sounds like a movie? Well, life in Paharganj is its own kind of cinema.

Though such parties are almost always exclusive and based on chance encounters with the right people at the right time, there is no way one can go to Paharganj and not have a good time. Most interesting experiences in Paharganj begin in one of the seedy bars that populate its lanes. My Bar has now become a landmark, probably the cheapest den serving IMFL in Delhi. The place is nothing like your typical south Delhi bars. People don't dress up to come here, popular Bollywood music blares from the speakers, and there are always more men at the bar than women — though this last aspect is standard even in the priciest bars in the city.

"What's fantastic is that even if there are only four women here, they still sit down, we can drink and smoke, uninhibited," said Avalokita Dutt, a writer and a dedicated My Bar customer. White Heart, located right next door, offers a completely different kind of experience. The place overwhelms you visually, red lights flooding all corners of the bar. You realise there are only men here, their heads turned towards the live band performing. A group of four performers — two singers and two with dhols — sing filmy songs that you probably heard in the nineties and never again. Gangs of Wasseypur style, regardless of tune or tempo, the group performs songs such as Main Sharaabi Hoon, Is Pyaar Se Meri Taraf Na Dekho etc, with the customers cheering loudly and requesting their favourite songs.

When we began telling this tale, we turned to the Turkish for cover. Paharganj is a fairytale. It features in the urban morphology as a place up to no good. For some denizens of this great old city it does not exist at all. Whatever happens here can be true, can be false, can be everything or nothing at all. There is a popular Korean eating joint in Paharganj. You need to be taken there for the first time by someone who knows its location. When we were there the last time, the obliging owner, who spends half a year here running the place and the other half in Korea, told us another fascinating anecdote. We all know Norah Jones was in town recently for a concert. Well she came to Paharganj too. She came there with a few friends. "I did not even recognise her. It was only after they put up a flyer on our message board, before leaving, that I realised it was Norah Jones," he said.

It might have happened, it might not have happened. This is Paharganj.

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