No, not another article on Khan Market! The response, in the form of numerous articles in newspapers, is not surprising, considering the number of supposedly elite men and women simmering over the tag so derisively conferred on them by no less a person than the highly popular prime minister himself. The “Khan Market Gang” — as if it is a group of gangsters living (and shopping) there by virtue of the wealth acquired through questionable means, not unlike the robber barons of the US.
This is so far from the truth that those bestowed this title cannot but shake with indignance. As a person who has lived my whole life in the area, from before Independence, who has seen this part of Delhi grow from a remote jungle into the posh, central part of the city that it has now become, I feel I must join issue.
No doubt I am one of those privileged to have grown up in Lutyens Delhi. This was not because I belonged to a rich and wealthy family. It was only because my father, a government servant who, by dint of his hard work and merit, had been able to enter the coveted Indian Civil Service and had got posted to Delhi early in his career. He was the son of a commoner — a teacher in Nagpur — but had studied hard, in a foreign language, and successfully competed against the privileged Britishers in Britain. It was his reward for the struggle he had gone through to reach this position.
The young ICS officer happened to be posted in the relief and rehabilitation ministry during Partition. The huge compound of our government accommodation at 6, Ashoka Road had turned into a shelter home for refugees. My mother looked after them and even opened a training centre for the women to teach them hosiery-making. Several centres were opened by the rehabilitation ministry to provide skills and training to those who had fled Pakistan, leaving behind all their belongings. The refugees were eager to earn their own living. Their hard work and efforts to stand on their own feet earned everybody’s admiration. I remember how Connaught Place had become crowded with small shopkeepers squatting in the corridors, a variety of objects spread out on sheets before them, trying to earn some money.
It was the task of the rehabilitation ministry to settle the refugees and my father was one of those given that onerous responsibility. That is how the Khan Market came into being. It was meant to give the refugees a place where they could earn a living instead of depending on others or on the government.
As mentioned in earlier articles, the market was named after the North West Frontier leader Khan Abdul Ghaffar Khan and his brother, who had helped the Hindu refugees to flee safely from that region. Two other markets in the region, Khanna and Mehar Chand markets were named after the minister heading the relief and rehabilitation ministry, Mehar Chand Khanna.
The area around was developed into colonies where junior government servants could stay. Bharti Nagar, Rabindra Nagar, Lodhi Colony, and several other housing colonies came up in the vicinity. Khan Market flourished as its shops catered to the residents. Of course there was the more affluent class too, in Jor Bagh, for instance, and in Lodhi Estate and Prithviraj Road. My father stayed in both these areas later as the years passed and he acquired seniority. In fact, my mother became so familiar to the shopkeepers that one day, when she left her grandson, a toddler, behind at a shop by mistake, the shopkeeper was able to inform the policeman about where to take the lost child. It was such a relief for us and the modest Khan Market shopkeeper was thanked profusely.
Later, as the wife of someone who had also made it from an underprivileged background in Bihar to a prestigious government job in Delhi, Khan Market became my haunt too. We walked there almost daily from Rabindra Nagar and later Shahjahan Road. Coming down to the next generation, our daughter, too, married to a government servant, continued to frequent Khan Market. Not only this, she became an officer in the Bank of India and was posted at the Khan Market branch for several years. The shops there were a steady attraction for us whether for their books, fashion garments or food items, and the shopowners were always welcoming and friendly.
As the city expanded outwards, Khan Market developed into one of the most popular shopping areas in the capital. And today, frequented by foreigners from the diplomatic colonies, too, it has acquired greater sophistication resulting in prices soaring.
To call the government servants residing around Khan Market, whether senior or junior, a “gang” of elites is to be unfair to many. Indeed, they have struggled hard to reach there. Many have risen from poor homes in villages and small towns. Sheer hard work and dedication to studies has made them conquer the disadvantages of poverty and surmount the lack of an English education, finally letting them achieve their aim of serving the country through jobs in the government.
It is because of the earlier struggles of its members that the clan is now in a prestigious position; not because they were born with silver spoons. Along the way, the members also acquired the liberal attitude that came with education, the secular outlook and the respect for others’ freedom that is the hallmark of democracy.
In short, the Khan Market “gang” deserves to be appreciated and respected, rather than be treated with disdain. Needless to say, this includes the hard-working journalists who also live in that area.
This article first appeared in the print on June 6, 2019 under the heading “Khan Market blues”. Sinha is an author of mystery-adventure and other fiction for children