The Internet Personified: Village People
The rise and fall of Hauz Khas Village.
My amazing apostrophes,
Long ago, I used to work with this Delhi-based recommendation website where we sent out a daily newsletter of what was hot and new in the city. (And then the Fire Nation attacked—sorry, a little Avatar humour for those of you in the know.) This was around 2012ish? I had moved back to Delhi recently from Bombay, I was working on Cold Feet, living in Nizamuddin, dating K, life was good for both me and Delhi, where it seemed like the city had never before been so vibrant, so alive.
A lot of this vibrant aliveness seemed to be originating from Hauz Khas Village. You probably either know of Hauz Khas Village or are intimately acquainted with it, in which case, you probably call it HKV. Us Delhiites—Delhicacies, I used to call us—love to abbreviate things into acronyms. “CP,” we’ll say lovingly, about Connaught Place, “Bhaiyya” to the auto driver, “Take me to CP.” My college—Lady Sri Ram College for Women—was LSR to those who walked down its hallowed halls, and those that only wished they could. Nearby Defence Colony was Def Col, up in North Campus the students shortened Kamla Nagar to K Nags. When we don’t abbreviate, we let the words run together: Malviyanagar and Krolbagh (Malviya (SPACE) Nagar, that is, Karol Bagh, that is.) Kids, in 2012, there were two kinds of people who frequented Hauz Khas Village, the ones who dropped the “village,” making it just “Hauz Khas” (inaccurate because there’s a whole swathe of area including across the road that is all Hauz Khas) and ones who called it HKV. I teetered, like the indecisive person I am, and yet, I visited every week, because every week there was a new restaurant, a new store.
In 2009, when I used to visit Delhi from Bombay, all my friends wanted to go to one place. It was new, it was trendy, it was in Hauz Khas Village—wait, can I just call it HKV for the rest of this newsletter? See, I use my capslock key whenever I type capital letters (I taught myself to type and shift+letter never came organically) and so it’s a pain to do caps on, caps off three times. HKV, ok?—anyway, in 2009, when we wanted to go to a cool new place to drink and dance and chat, there was only one destination everyone was dying to take me to, and that was TLR in HKV. TLR stood for The Living Room, it wasn’t much in terms of food or drink, but up until then HKV had been a sleepy little urban village, Delhi is full of them, where you’d go to buy wedding clothes or take your relatives from out of town on a shopping expedition to.
We have one of Delhi’s several ancient urban villages bordering our much-newer colony. They all have a distinctive character of their own, and some things they all hold in common: roads are narrow and dark, newly constructed buildings now teeter head and shoulders over the rest so the residents can get some light, and there’s everything you want: from groceries to opticians to pharmacies, right on your front door. Because many of the residents are now richer than they were, invariable turf wars break out about parking—the streets have not yet caught up with what the residents want. But, ultimately, they are more village than city, all the doors are open and people wander in and out and talk to each other in courtyards and drink tea together at the chai stall as they watch cars honk their way through the narrow roads (a great shortcut between two neighbourhoods) where once there were only cows. Imagine this: claustrophic warrens of roads and now imagine adding ten or fifteen or thirty of Delhi’s trendiest restaurants in the middle of all this, and imagine the electric wires, always a little touch and go, snarling into large rat king nests above your head and buildings which were only meant to hold one family now seeing patrons streaming up and down the stairs, and imagine all the families who used to live there leaving because it was just more money to let out their houses instead of staying in them. It was still called a village, but there were no residents any more.
Experts—and by “experts” I mean anyone not dazzled by the European feel of the whole thing, the street partyness of all of it—began to talk gloomily about how bad a fire would be in 2012, the height of its trendiness, but in 2009, there was only TLR, which the owners had cleverly done up like a living room, so cozy mismatched armchairs sat around scuffed coffee tables, the bartender was a woman (rare) and a friend of yours (even rarer). A little while after TLR there was Gunpowder, trendy Malayali food in a city that had, up until then, only seen North Indian food at stuffy restaurants that had a live sitar player and offered you saunf as a mouth freshener. Gunpowder was edgy, a small restaurant up several floors, I forget whether they had beer or if you could bring your own? It was cool, was what it was. It was traditional Malayali food but it was cool. (The owner of that as well as the owner of TLR have since relocated to Goa where they continue to do cool things.)
By the time I returned to Delhi from Bombay at the end of 2010 (wow, I’ve been here eleven years on this go-round, better leave before I wind up a Lifer) it was acknowledged that HKV was where it was at. By the time 2012 and my new job came round, it was the only place in Delhi to meet. I’m not even being hyperbolic here—there was literally nowhere else you’d meet your friends.
In many ways this was a class thing. The Delhi metro, introduced just a few short years ago, had made wide swathes of the city suddenly accessible to everyone. And if you’re posh or posh-adjacent, you don’t want to hang out with everyone. You want to be in a bubble of just your own kind of people. Bombay is much more eclectic than this, it’s a grittier city, more of an elbows-out philosophy, so if you can get in somewhere, everyone else assumes you deserve it. Delhi, now, has been build on a foundation of snobbery, of political royalty and diplomats and editors meeting sources for coffee, and so it’s a city of clubs: Gymkhana, Golf, IIC, Press, Foreign Correspondent’s, etc etc. If everyone can get in and the Delhiite doesn’t even get to “use their contacts” then it’s not worth it. Everything about this city must be built on contacts—the more you have, the more powerful you are. It’s that kind of flex. You must also have a “really good” service person for everything and bonus if you can recommend this person to other people. “My electrician is brilliant,” one person will say, and “Have you tried my bootlegger?” We must have bootleggers and cigar guys and all that sort of thing (if you get my drift) because this is a city of house parties, thanks to all that aforementioned snobbery. I used to date exclusively through house parties (I’m very old, K and I found each other pre-dating apps) because all the men were sort of pre-vetted, so they [the parties] were an important part of my social structure. People don’t have that many house parties any more because as we age our ideas of what is acceptable host behaviour has changed from “leave a bag of chips out” to “let’s have this shindig catered” and that just winds up being too much work for you to host more than twice a year. [That being said, we had a wonderful party at our house last weekend and it was a mix of old school—BYOB—and adulthood (catered food).]
So HKV was kind of like a large house party at its peak. You could expect mostly everyone there to be like you, so it felt safe for Delhi, and this showed in the fashion: shorts and tank tops and bustiers and low cut dresses and men in bow ties and fedoras. Parking was a mess, on Saturday evening you could expect to spend 40 minutes in your car just waiting in bumper to bumper traffic for an open spot, but it was incredible once you got in.
By 2012, every week there’d be a new restaurant or cool hipster shop open at HKV. As someone who wrote about the city, I began to feel slightly perturbed that all our week’s listings were being swallowed up by this one bit of real estate, so I proposed we start Village Wednesdays, which is exactly what it sounds like. Wednesday morning you could expect to have everything HKV related in your inbox. This is how I found a shoe store with a Pixies lyric painted on their back wall, a really nice egg salad sandwich on a little balcony that lasted exactly one month, and… you know, I can’t remember. How ephemeral those restaurants, those businesses. They folded quickly, new ones popped into their place, none leaving more than a five minute impression.
HKV is, like everything else, cleaned out by COVID. (A Delhiite’s COVID flex by the way was having a “testing guy” who’d come to your house within 24 hours even on the busiest days, your own GP on WhatsApp, and later, darker, “an oxygen guy.”) K wanted to do a pub crawl, we asked our friends Mansha and Nikhit to join us. They looked at us slightly askance “no one goes to HKV any more” and I shrugged, I didn’t want to go either, HKV had gotten, I said to Mansha “damn shady.” But K wanted to go, and one of his talents is persuading people to see that his plan is just more fun than everyone else’s. I don’t know how he does it, it’s a rare skill, but it almost always works (unless I’m very sleepy) and it’s usually a good time. So with many “He’ll see” looks exchanged between me and Mansha, both native to this city, we went off, into the parking lot that looked like a true crime story waiting to happen with all the street lights not working and drunk men in small cars like evil clowns.
But you know, it was a fun time, despite it all. First we climbed a zillion floors to get to a rooftop bar, where a man sang Hindi songs from the 90s with a guitar, and the whole place was full, and then another man persuaded us to climb another flight of stairs to check out his “very decent” bar. There are barkers on the road now in HKV, where there used to be crowds of bored glamorous people, there are eager and sweaty young men calling, “come to my bar, ladies night” and another going “come to my bar, live music” and the one we chose kept saying “it’s decent, it’s decent” and as we ascended the stairs, faced with a light fixture that had silhouettes of naked women against red light, he said, “where are my decent guests?” led us past the Punjabi disco vibe on the first floor to a terrace garden, which was so decent, we were insulted, especially when a baby began to wail at the table next to us.
The hostess and the barker kept trying to dissuade us from going downstairs where the music roared, but finally they shrugged. If we—their Decent Guests—were going to ignore their advice, what could they do? We went downstairs, it was loud, gritty and possibly had a line of sex workers at the back, Mansha said, though I missed them. I think this bar was where I once ate cream of asparagus soup, across from a date, on a bare wood table under fairy lights. I think it might’ve been where we met a bunch of friends once, I think we used to haunt this particular staircase, though it could’ve been the one next door, who can tell any more, the years and bars blur into one.
Later still we went to Summer House, that last bastion of People Like Us, and sure enough, all the People Like Us were there, it was absolutely heaving, but the crowd was comforted knowing that everyone there was the same.
OKAY! My essays are getting longer as the days—and my time in Delhi—are getting shorter. Please buy me a coffee if you liked this and/or my other letters to you! It means a lot. Thank you to everyone who has, you make my heart sing!
Links I Loved On The Internet!
I wrote about my new favourite Facebook group Free Your Stuff Berlin for Dirt (which you should all subscribe to.)
This series on the best restaurant in New York.
A little old now we know the winner, but still this piece on who will win the Nobel Prize in Literature made me laugh.
Greatly enjoyed this piece on why the name “Sanjana” became popular in India.
Why Tehran was like Hogwarts for this writer. Beautiful essay.
I hate my dogs, I love my dogs sums up how I feel about my cattos also.
Have a great week! Go do something fun—but only if you’re vaccinated.
Where am I? The Internet Personified! A mostly weekly collection of things I did/thought/read/saw that week.
Who are you? Meenakshi Reddy Madhavan, writer of internet words (and other things) author of seven books (support me by buying a book!) and general city-potter-er.
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