Coming Full CirCle
WERE YOU alive when Trincas rocked, Usha Uthup and Pam Crain crooned and it seemed like Park Street was the centre of the universe? I was. But sadly, I didn’t get to Calcutta till I was 29 and so, missed the heyday of that glorious street. But I do remember Churchgate Street in Bombay, where the restaurants were laid out side by side, the sound of the waves of the Arabian Sea rang in our ears and the crowds came to roam (and eat!). You could split open your Chicken Kiev at Gaylord, while Sweet Lorraine sang. You could go all vegetarian at Purohit. There was frothing cappuccino at Napoli (which was called Expresso, alas, contributing to a familiar confusion that persists to this day). And deep inside what seemed like a cave full of sculpture there was more music at Talk of the Town: Ajit Singh strumming his guitar or Usha Iyer – the days before she went off to Calcutta and married Mr Uthup – gently crooning Hurry Sundown.
The restaurant boom reviving Connaug ht Place is redefining t he city centre and m ay ju st be t he boost otherIndian cities need
United Coffee House (some of my parents’ friends would go there every single day!) and even of a place that had cabarets and to which I was never taken. (Could this have been true? W ere there cabarets at Connaught Place restaurants in Delhi in the Sixties? Or is this a false memory?)
By the time I moved to Delhi in the mid-90s, Connaught Place – like Park Street and Churchgate Street – had begun to lose its lustre. It was still the centre of the city, but one that you needed to visit less and less. The colony markets had developed to a level where each colony was largely selfcontained with its own shops and restaurants.
Nothing prepared me however, for the decline of Connaught Place in this new century. Its character changed, large sections of it were dug up, the streets were filthy, beggars hung out at every corner – and after dark they were sometimes replaced by streetwalkers.
All this took place when Delhi was booming. There was more money pouring into the city than ever before. But with each surge in its prosperity, the centre of gravity moved further and further away from Connaught Place. The Gurgaon boom seemed to sound the death knell of the old New Delhi and eventually, places that had been considered far away, even in the Nineties when I moved to the city, such as Vasant Kunj, suddenly began to seem not just central but also upmarket.
But over the last couple of years, something strange has happened in Delhi. W hile Park Street and Churchgate Street still seem like relics of a vanishing Calcutta and Bombay, Connaught Place has suddenly revived. I went, a couple of months ago, to the new Mamagoto, and was startled to see how packed the area was with people having fun. The streets were cleaner too. The construction debris had been removed and Connaught Place was rocking.
I marvelled at the resurrection of Connaught Place when I went for lunch last week to Junkyard Café, down the road from the Hindustan Times building, on the site of an old gymnasium. That block is packed out with restaurants. There were the old ones like Blues and Taste of China, which was once an unofficial HT canteen and went by the name W aste of China. (W hen I once gave it a bad review I was berated by angry colleagues who feared that vengeful cooks would now spit in their soups. I’m sure they never did – Taste of China was more hurt than angry and the chef wrote me an emotional letter.)