Getting high in Delhi: Terrace culture takes off

by Reshil Charles

What is it about having a drink on the 63rd floor at the Sky Bar in Bangkok that makes drinkers feel their livers will forgive them? What I’ve gathered from the fortunate is that “it’s the spectacular all round view that makes it different from just having a drink.”

I feel then that I’ve achieved as much without having to go that far or up so high. From just three floors off the ground I’ve had a drink in the midst of greenery, had fantastic views of old and new infrastructure and relished conversations split over bites of lemon-sprinkled roast. All on a Delhi rooftop.

For those who live below the barsati (half terrace/half flat), a Delhi rooftop can be a mixed blessing. The thumping of a basketball about to make its way into a rooftop ring, or the shuffling of feet while smashing a shuttlecock over a terrace net are a given if one of the residents is a sport-loving teenager with high metabolism. But these days the rooftops of Delhi are being put to more use than the stomping grounds for teenagers burning up calories.

In most colonies of Delhi, a residential house can have a maximum of four floors. Since most of the houses still haven’t build beyond the third, the moment you are on the top floor a medieval looking city opens up below with a surprisingly pleasant clutter of countless houses and rooftop Sintex water tanks amidst spaced out greenery and distant views of the handful  of twenty-floor plus high rises.

A group of enthusiasts who know the tucked away treasures of Delhi’s roof top living well, organized a barsati walk recently that took people to a few such residences where the abstract use of partial outdoor and indoor spaces gave some sense of their charm.  According to them not many of the old school barsatis are left given the new styles of construction that are becoming the choice of the day for new houses as well as those up for reconstruction.

In the winters, some of these roof top eateries organise bands to bring in the sunset. Boheme, Hauz Khas Village.

Sometimes, even the surroundings come alive best when perched high [by Delhi standards].  Raul Amaar Abbas, a young filmmaker, who’s been living on a Mehrauli roof top for the last seven years feels the Sufi influences of the city around him more  deeply thanks to his bird’s eye view. Various elements of the three-hundred year-old Mughal city open up to the eye at different times of the day and night.

Each of his guests is first taken out to the roof to ‘open up’ by looking out onto the small lanes right below, the dargah, the Qutab Minar and the century old ruins amidst a patch of green and the far out Aravali hills. The only complaint is of radiation from a few recently erected mobile connectivity towers and the nearby Metro.

High rise cities like Mumbai offer a mix of the skyline and ocean as views to look onto while ‘balancing’ the clutter and professional demands of the city with morning yoga. Delhi’s views overlook colonial architecture in Central Delhi, become spectacularly green in the south and north [with city forests and the ridge spaced out in between colonies] and bring alive the expanse of long wide motorways when viewed from the east and west.

However, it was only when the indoor smoking ban was passed a few years back that the 24 year old eatery—Chonas in Khan Market— decided that a roof top venue with an open space to smoke in will do it good.  Yes,  it actually took a smoking ban to make business sense of the rooftop that had always been there!

What opened up as a result was a commercial roof top café culture that’s spread across cuisine and ambience and has now popped up in various corners of the city, catering to smoker and non-smoker alike. Most of these commercial venues are also no more than three to four floors high. Yet they bring in customers who want a table there as first choice even in peak summer.

A breezy over view of the lake works for the many breakfast-to-dinner top floor venues in Hauz Khas village. Qutab Minar and the mind opening views that Raul Amaar Abbas pays monthly rent for, give the Mehrauli roof top restaurants  the confidence to charge revelers a premium. The six free drinks that the ‘Urban’ Cafe offers on their Friday models night, brings together much of Delhi’s eastern European population on a dome-like roof top in Greater Kailash.

Even some malls in Saket and Vasant Kunj have ‘break out’ spaces where you can disconnect from the hustle of thousands below and have your own experience under a passing airplane.  It’s not just food and drinks.  Shankar Market is hosting a ten day terrace theatre festival till September end.

The icing comes in the winter. October to February  opens up brunch sessions, live band performances, sunset DJ sets and brings in amusingly lucrative business for venues that decide to shed their fine dining image by a few tables and make space for any form of entertainment to go along side them.

It is true that standing around a Delhi tandoor in the winter awaiting its kebabs  warms you up better than what central heating or even a hot Jaccuzzi can do , just given the dual effect of fire and aroma. So even residents with top floor access invest in a barbecue grill. The Delhi Golf Club’s outdoor terrace pub [surrounded by the greens and even the odd sight of a blue bull] is just a single storey off the ground, but getting a place to even stand in the winter is tough!.

There is a voyeuristic reality to roof top life of this measure as well that can be tapped into. But that will open a blurred debate on what age limit is permissible for an understanding smile when caught peeping into the sexy neighbour’s private space. Well, it can surely make for some great vacation stories to share at prestigious all boy boarding schools in the foothills six hours away.

Updated Date: Sep 21, 2012 16:45 PM

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