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From refugee market to elitist outpost: the curious journey of Khan market

The curious journey of Khan market in the national capital.

Written by Narayani Gupta |
Updated: June 3, 2019 10:04:05 am
In the shops of Khan Market, the features and manners of many owners — Hindu relocatees of 1947 from the Frontier Province — are unmistakable.

A few years ago, a student visiting Delhi from Oxford was looking for picture postcards. These are rare items in India, but we tried our luck at a stationer’s in Khan Market. The elderly gentleman at the counter listened to Nadir’s question. Instead of answering, he looked at him intently and asked, “Where are you from?” When his hunch that Nadir was from Pakistan’s North-West Frontier province (after 2010, Khyber Pakhtunkhwa) turned out to be true, he was overjoyed. Coffee/tea and thanda/garam were eagerly offered, and they plunged into a conversation, where nostalgia was inseparable from a sense of community.

In the shops of Khan Market, the features and manners of many owners — Hindu relocatees of 1947 from the Frontier Province — are unmistakable. And in the name of the market, the benign faces of Khan Abdul Ghaffar Khan and his brother Khan Saheb — independence activists, who opposed the Partition — swim before us.

After 1947, Lutyens’ small capital enclave of New Delhi was surrounded by an outer ring of resettlement neighbourhoods, in one of the most impressive projects of rehabilitation India has known. Livelihoods were also addressed, and “refugee markets” was one of the options — in Queensway/Janpath, in front of the Red Fort, and in the empty space at the south end of New Delhi, east of Lady Willingdon Park (later Lodhi Garden). If the place-names in New Delhi celebrated rulers from the past, the new “colonies” and markets celebrated freedom-fighters — hence Malviya, Lajpat, Patel and Rajendra nagars; Ajmal Khan Road, Lajpat Rai Market, Khan Market. These names were inspirational, and the Hindu refugees who got shops and homes in Khan Market saw the name not as that of a Muslim, but of a beloved leader.

Sharada Nayak, a longtime resident of Prithviraj Road and then of Sujan Singh Park recalls:“The construction of Khan Market started soon after Partition and was completed in 1951. We welcomed the convenience of a neighbourhood market. The first shop owners were Hindu migrants from West Pakistan, and many of them lived in small two-roomed flats above each shop. The shopkeepers were all known to us by name, and we were usually welcomed with a cup of tea and a leisurely visit. Girdhari Lal, who had his Empire Stores in Connaught Place, had a branch at the western corner of Khan Market which was run by his son Omi; next to them was Sovereign Stores. These two establishments were our favourite haunts for ice creams, and various foods. It was best avoided in the evenings, when the government liquor store next door made it difficult to negotiate our way through the crowds. The most prominent shop in the middle of the front row of shops was Bahrisons, a book store that is still the most popular, with Mr Bahri a familiar figure at his desk. His son Anuj now runs the book store.”

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On the eastern end next to the Bank of India were a chemist, Bata shoe-store and Mr Gupta’s Vishnu Cloth store where we could buy yardage and go to the tailor next door for our clothing needs. He lived in the flat above his store, as did many of the shop owners. His son, Om Prakash, who was born in the flat above the shop, now runs the Vishnu Cloth store, along with his son, Nayak reminisces, and adds: “Some of the flats were rented by private tenants. I don’t remember ever climbing the steep stairs to the second floor until the Eighties when book stores, dentists, and a small restaurant took over the rented flats”.

According to Nayak, the 1980s saw a change as the younger generation, unlike Anuj Bahri and Om Prakash Gupta, decided they did not want to run the family business. “We miss Empire Stores and Sovereign Stores, and even the bank has completed its lease and has moved out, as businesses with international repute have leased out the space. The middle lane, once used as entrances for residents and parking, was commercialised in 1990,” she says.

The rental value of shops in Khan Market has soared from the 1990s and, as a result, something similar has happened in Lodhi Colony and Meher Chand and Khanna Markets — after the first flush of nationalist fervour, two other refugee markets were economically named after one person, by splitting the name of Mayor Meher Chand Khanna into two. Parking is becoming a nightmare, when shops close in the evening, because a plethora of restaurants have taken over the first floor flats and the central lane. Where once residents parked their cars at the entrance to their flats, shops have taken over.

Nayak laments that “for someone who has shopped at Khan Market for 50 years, prices are now way beyond reach”. “But people-watching has become much more interesting,” she says. Khan Market has been ranked as one of the most expensive retail locations and shops have been taken over by many international brands.

As one of the old shopkeepers told Nayak, “Nowadays people are ready to spend Rs 16,000 on a pair of shoes but not Rs 16 on some practical household item.” However, says Nayak, “most noticeable is the rapid turnover of businesses, restaurants and shops. Here today gone tomorrow, for money is also easy come easy go.”

Badshah Khan, if you were to return, what will you make of the twists and turns of the fortunes of your people in this outpost? You will realise that it is a reflection of the game of dice that is Delhi.

The writer is a historian of Delhi. This article first appeared in the print under the headline ” A refugee spot, an elitist outpost,” on June 3, 2019. 

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