Twenty-five years ago, when India was still in the Dark Ages, Bina Ramani was our bonafide import from America. She was also many other extraordinary things — a feisty, independent woman who spoke freely about her failed marriage in conservative Delhi and set the tongues wagging on the cocktail circuit with her “boldness” when she set up her own business, piquantly named Once Upon a Time, in the city’s unknown backyard, Hauz Khas Village.
The Village, at the time, was truly a village — not without charm, if you found bellowing buffaloes and hookah-smoking geriatrics appealing. A kuchha road and a few ramshackle kuccha-pucca houses made up the rest of it, till Ramani gentrified it with her store. Wannabes trailed her because the rents were low, and to her credit, Ramani’s followers and friends did make some tracks into the village. Soon enough, the oddball boutiques gained a following, the bucolic villagers high on easy rentals replaced their bullock-carts with Marutis, and several restaurateurs and design-store owners, marquee names today, set up their first ventures in the Village.
A quarter century later, Hauz Khas Village is everything Ramani had dreamed it might have been back then, an Indian SoHo with its artists’ studios, its cafés and hangouts, its tattoo parlours and reading rooms. The car park now stretches a half-kilometre from its entrance, and the city’s trendiest can’t get enough of it. From Indians in Versace to expats in search of good food to Lonely Planet backpackers, the Village is the capital’s most cosmopolitan corner, like Goa minus the sea (but with a dirty “lake”). Rents have escalated, artists and calligraphers are thinking about moving out, yet the waiting line of those wanting to lease even a foothold in this increasingly commercial hub keeps getting longer. Compared to the antiseptic malls, this is exotic and Indian, and everyone wants a slice of it.
But its socio-demographics concern the newest group of investors bringing their brands here. Who does Hauz Khas Village represent, they ask – apparently, you can tick only one answer – the chic or the rich? The middle-aged or the young? Brand worshippers or retro fashionistas? At least one restaurateur worries that it’s too bohemian. Why is that so wrong? Bohemians, my friend tells me, like cafes with free wi-fi and cheap coffee, not buzzing restaurants that can turn their covers twice over even as you mark your gratefulness with generous tips.
But where else in the city’s malls would you be on backslapping terms with boutique owners and restaurant managers? “Hey, haven’t seen you around,” they’ll say by way of greeting, even though you only stayed away the weekend if, like me, you have an office in the Village. It’s certainly made me increasingly popular among even acquaintances who want to fix up appointments when, coincidentally, it’s lunch time. That’s when you really wish you weren’t acquainted with these unlikely friends who coax their crêpes and cheesecake, their “specials” and, sometimes, free desserts, sashimi samples and degustation menus on you. I don’t mind the eclectic dining options or even paying for lunch almost every day, it’s the battle with an expanding girth that makes me swear just a little bit at Bina Ramani who started it all, once upon a time...