It’s a Saturday afternoon, and it's time to head out the door. Not to anywhere as declasse as a mall or predictable as the run-of-the-mill overpriced Dilli restaurant. That wouldn't do for someone who thinks green, eats organic and is single-mindedly dedicated to the pursuit of cool. It's time instead to throw on that Anokhi summer dress, Aldo chappals, Amrapali silver jhumkas, ask the driver to pull out the Audi and head for Hauz Khas Village.
Over the past 3 years, Hauz Khas Village, with its mushrooming restaurants – 62 at last count – and niche bookstores, has blossomed into the lifestyle mecca for the Delhi culturati with hearts and wallets of gold. You can’t throw your Aldo sandal two feet without hitting a career socialite. This is Delhi’s answer to Soho and Greenwich Village all rolled into one. Sadly, it looks more Southhall, but in Delhi, that is just fine.
The HKV mystique
HKV is the jewel in the crown of this alternative universe which caters to the we-have-money-but-hate-it crowd. It offers its clientele the unbeatable and delectable combination of feeling morally virtuous while spending vast amounts of money. But woe betide the local landlord who wants to charge more rent from a favourite establishment — perhaps because it is located on premium real estate in a high-end shopping area. Facebook groups are launched, hashtags of #savethealternative trend on Twitter and all of Delhi’s chatterati is at the ready to start a candle march against this grave injustice against the entrepreneur with a heart. Screw the landlord who simply wants more buck for his property. The crass bugger should just be happy that the gods of alternative things chose to set up shop on his premises.
If you haven’t had the good fortune to visit HKV — as true-blue Dilliwalas call it — here's a quick tour. Let's start with the giant car park where everyone parks their fancy cars, trundle down the maze of dirty, potholed lanes lined with decrepit three-storeyed buildings, each brimming with restaurants, reading rooms, and bookshops, many illegally occupying residential properties. They're all tiny, some cosy and cute, some dingy and dodgy. And a few are excellent and truly unpretentious restaurants like a Yeti or Naivedyam, though these rarely receive the same level of haute attention.
To be truly trendy, you need to partake of British tea and cakes at Elma’s Bakery, or a sit-down 12 person bespoke dinner at Grey Garden, or Andhra food at Gunpowder — which is three flights up a building situated right next to a garbage dump. Or you could have a Rs 350 Affogatto while flipping through a Rs 5000 coffee table book at a niche book store. And each comes with the smug reassurance of having escaped the crass commercialisation of upper class Delhi fare. The tacky indignity of, say, shopping for Cartier or Canali at the Italian marbled confines of DLF Emporio.
"Organic”, “handmade" and “niche” are now staple words in the alternative lexicon of cool. Except in Delhi — unlike San Francisco or Barcelona — going green or organic requires pots of money. Thumbing your nose at the mainstream requires shopping at the much-written about Farmer’s Market in Jor Bagh and Shanti Niketan (two of Delhi’s most tony neighbourhoods) for peanut cookies (known to lesser souls as chikkis) for Rs 50 or artisanal brown bread from the Brown Bread Bakery, Varanasi. After all, what good is a slice of bread if it hasn’t travelled 700 kms to reach you?
But all this alternative eating and shopping is only worth it if Delhi’s socialites (which comprise everyone from models to art gallery owners to fashion designers and ex-wives of famous businessmen) are hanging out at the same destination as you. God forbid, anyone were to truly embrace the cheap or easily accessible — in a city where status is measured by the size of a diamond ring or car.
Sure, there’re innumerable home bakeries and sabzi mandis spread across Delhi which can cater to your organic needs. And you’d actually be helping people who need the money. Delhi has always offered a range of “alternative” options, be it a Dilli Haat, a Fact and Fiction, or a Down To Earth. But these are infra dig and low visibility. And their humble offerings can't compete with the joy of spending thousands of rupees on must-have items like rosemary sugar, porcini salt, basil oil, or “organic” fennel. It’s way cooler to advertise your green cred with pics of you at Dastkar Mela than tweeting about a visit to Dilli Haat or the wholesale sabzi mandi.
As with its alterna-cousins, HKV provides Delhi’s socialites and chatterati with what they need most: Obnoxious status display masked as anti-establishment virtue. The tacky chain restaurant chain or bookstore in a big mall is less hypocritical than the so-called alternative options. I keep hoping that HKV and its “alternative” ilk might become an idea whose time has past. Till such time, put on your Jimmy Choos and meet me at the Overflowing Tureen in the third lane after the dumpster. I hear they have the most divine carrot cake and acai berry juice freshly squeezed by blind mountain monkeys. It’s all for a good cause darling.