Little remains of the Khan Market I knew
from my school and college days in the ’60s, except that then, as now, it was
South Delhi’s prime promenade—you went there not just to shop but to see and
be seen, to rendezvous with friends, in the happy certitude that you were bound
to run into at least one old friend you hadn’t seen in a while.
It’s an interesting exercise to try and recall what was NOT available in Khan Market in the ’60s—there were no readymade women’s clothes, no bread except sliced white, no sneakers except smelly white or brown canvas keds, no cosmetics except talcum powder, kajal, and what was known as ‘vanishing’ or ‘cold’ cream. You couldn’t buy a cup of coffee there—and you never saw a foreigner either (the diplomats shopped in CP).
There were never more than five or six cars in what is now the chaotic parking area, which is where we college students used to gather every evening, straight off the University Special. First stop would be Sovereign Dairies, at one end of Khan Market’s front row. Presided over by two ill-tempered brothers, it was where you went for Coca Cola and delicious black and white sweets called Bulls’ Eyes. You got a much warmer welcome next door at Empire Stores, which stocked an amazing range of provisions—from ham to boxes of toilet paper (it came in shiny rectangular sheets) to liquor. There’s a bank now where this wonderful shop used to be. At the other end of the front row was another favourite hang-out, Caryhom Ice Cre-am. If its owner was in a good mood, he would say, "Wait 15 minutes and the pista ice cream will be ready." In fact, their pista ice cream was just plain vanilla with drops of green colouring, but in those pre- ‘21-flavours’ days we thought it was a rare treat.
In between these two shops were a couple of other mandatory stops—a pavement lending library for (forbidden) Mills and Boon romances, then on to Bahri’s, where we’d perfected the art of reading whole books in 10-minute daily installments while its owner, Mr Balraj Bahri, looked on indulgently (the other bookshop, Faqir Chand, didn’t encourage student browsers). Mr Bahri wasn’t always indulgent, though. My brother and I once pooled our money to buy James Thurber’s Is Sex Necessary, a classic of quirky (though squeaky-clean) American humour. Later that evening, Mr Bahri rang up my mother and said, "I want to warn you, your children are reading very unsuitable books." And that’s one of the few things about Khan Market that hasn’t changed—Bahri Senior still presides over Bahrisons bookshop, and knows exactly who’s reading what.
This article originally appeared in Delhi City Limits, April 30, 2006