Damn, it feels good to be a gangster. At least in retrospect. It was on a winter afternoon in 2003 when, unwittingly, I joined a gang — one that swindled innocent juniors of their pocket money and squandered them on gol-gappas. The gang members — teenagers, all of us — dressed in rust sweaters and grey skirts and trousers, operated from the confines of a noisy school canteen, past the sand pit in the junior school and all the way to the notorious Khan Market.
It took me 16 years and a one-liner by Prime Minister Narendra Modi to accept that I am, in fact, the OG (original gangster) of Khan Market, since my beloved school, Sardar Patel Vidyalaya (SPV) is only a five-minute walk from there.
In the early 2000s, when my parents reluctantly agreed to let me saunter outside school with two friends, “Khan” was the obvious, most doable option. With Rs 30 in my pocket, the heavy school bag on my back, I galloped away to freedom aka Bengal Sweets, the makers of XL size chole bhature and buttery pav bhaji.
That day, no one could convince me that I was any less of a gangster in my tiny universe of school friends and crushes to impress. Life taught us many lessons as we grew up, and one of them was to not take our Khan Market status seriously.
Before the wisdom of adult life had kicked in, back in the early 2000s, I found myself a best friend in school and together, we convinced Javed bhai and Saleem bhai of Khan Chacha to give our “order” of mutton seekh rolls and paneer tikka rolls priority — much like our Patelian seniors and juniors. When the brothers saw “rust sweater”-sporting kids approaching their khokha, they knew it was time to delay the rest of the orders.
Their clients envied us school children as we raced back to school with our order to catch the bus back home. We, however, swore lifelong loyalty to the “best kebab shop” in town. When money was sparse but the desire was strong, a senior would order an onion roll — a paratha stuffed with onions and green chutney — for Rs 5.
In 2010, as a cub reporter with The Indian Express, I filed a story on Khan Chacha turning into a swanky two-storeyed restaurant in the market. The rolls were costlier, and us old-timers were sceptical but Javed and Saleem’s familiar smiles kept us coming back — till they, tragically, shut shop in Khan Market after a trademark battle a few years ago.
The Khan Market gang was in deep despair, and battled the charm of other kebab shops. Aggressive Twitter and Facebook appeals to “save Khan Chacha” didn’t create a ripple. Not entirely disheartened, we continued to visit our beloved market, with its quaint terrace restaurants that now served “global” cuisine. And the Parisian patisseries replaced Mrs Kaur’s Crepes & More; the mysterious Mrs Kaur who sated many a craving without ever having met us.
But before we get distracted by the grown-ups, let’s rewind to the gang-wars of Khan Market. For a single afternoon, after the last exam of the semester, the market would be flooded with various gangs: The Patelians, the Modernites, the St. Columba’s boys. Arch enemies on the basketball court and acutely aware of past ego battles, the gangs of boys and girls — in their school uniforms — gave each other cold stares. Since there was no Facebook or Instagram, senior-school scandals began at tournaments and reared their ugly heads at Khan Market.
The dogs of Khan Market grew fatter in front of us and the pet shop there was a revelation to me, as near my house – in the ignored Jamna Paar – pet shops hadn’t yet arrived. On one such visit, my mother picked up a red belt for me excitedly, only to be told by an embarrassed teenaged daughter that it was for a dog!
Another cherished memory of the gang members was bumping into former cricketer Ajay Jadeja – a Patelian – in Khan Market, occasionally. It was a rule to do the SPV wave (if you know it, you know it) at him every single time he was spotted.
Now, the gang is in their 30s and spread across the world — a photographer, a filmmaker, a journalist — and with a whole bunch of challenges and fewer solutions. But every single time when the OGs reunite in Khan Market, a rush of memories take over — the first sip of beer at a famous dingy bar, Javed and Saleem Bhai’s gracious service, and the cookies at Mrs Kaur. At the time, little did we know we were the Khan Market Gang. Thank you, Prime Minister.