DELHI IS A CITY full of surprises, where a touch of the unexpected might be lurking behind a seemingly predictable façade. Yashwant Place is just such an oddity. This seemingly nondescript market, surrounded on all sides by posh Chanakyapuri — with its wide, well laid out roads, and a smattering of embassies and foreign diplomats — appears at first to be nothing more than a collection of cheap fast food joints. However, the eagle-eyed visitor will soon spot the cave-like entrances to a dingy basement with long, sparsely-lit corridors leading into the underbelly of a shopping complex, as if left over from some long-forgotten urban socialist experiment. Once down there, you discover a world within a world; here everything is not as it seems, and you might just forget that you are in Delhi at all...
For the last 50 years, the Yashwant Place Market (also known as the Russian Market), has been catering to the shopping needs of a mainly Russian-speaking clientele. So much so, that almost all of the Indian shopkeepers here have learned to speak Russian, in many cases rather well.
Down here you will find many signs in Russian: not just shop signs, but also general signage for food and drink — and even a pharmacy. Russian tourists don’t tend to be able to speak English, and this inability to communicate is a clear Achilles’ heel when it comes to shopping, bartering, ordering and negotiating. But here at Yashwant Place, the volume of Russian buyers has historically been so consistently high (and for so long), that the shopkeepers have realised that learning the language of their buyers has a definite positive impact on their profits. And this, in turn, has become part of the draw for yet more Russian-speaking tourists in India to flock to the only place in Delhi where they can communicate their shopping needs with ease. The fact that Russian is linguistically based on Sanskrit is attributed to making it easier for the local shop owners to learn the tongue; even so, it’s no mean feat, as anyone who has ever tried to learn Russian will tell you.
The products for sale here are mainly fur coats, leather jackets and jewellery, with a few miscellaneous gifts and crafts shops thrown in for good measure. Often manufactured in other parts of India and transported to Delhi to sell, most of the shop owners here trade only in Yashwant Place, so their fate, economically speaking, is directly linked to the trading dynamics of this niche world, which in turn is directly influenced by the political fates of those Russian-speaking countries that their customers hail from.
Faisal Husain, the proprietor of jewellery shop numbers 51 and 52, has had his empire here for over 30 years. Husain has witnessed firsthand the upward and downward trends of this unique shopping environment. The trading timeline of Yashwant Place, according to him, goes hand-in-hand with the socio-political climate of Russia (and the former USSR), and looks something like this:
1. The shopping complex opens in 1969, not far from the Russian embassy. At this point in Russia, communism is still deeply entrenched in the political system, the iron curtain still firmly in place, so the only visitors to Yashwant Place are Russian diplomats, Russian embassy employees and Russian students studying mostly at JNU. The whiff of communism from these frequent Russian visitors and KGB whispers adds a degree of fear and keeps the rest of the regular buyers away, thus leading to this place starting to become ‘the Russian Market’.
2. Tourist groups start to be brought over from Russia by the state travel agency Intourist in 1983, and by 1986 ‘Perestroika’ has taken place, the iron curtain has fallen, allowing a freer flow of people across the border and freeing up the Russian economic markets.
3. After the dissolution of the USSR in 1991, hired charter planes begin to bring increasing numbers of Russian-speaking business owners from all over the former USSR, looking to buy fur coats and leather products in bulk in India in order to sell them on the black market back in their countries. This import/export business tourism was a time of plenty for the Indian shop owners, remembered fondly and missed in the leaner trading times of today.
4. Russia devalues its currency in 1998, stricter customs procedures are put into place, spelling the end of the high volume business trade of the 1980s. However, personal tourism continues to increase, as more and more Russian speaking people finally get the chance to travel aboard, so at this stage, the bulk of the buyers are coming to buy fur coats or jewels for themselves, rather than to sell.
5. By the early 2000s, Yashwant Place becomes so well known in Russia that Vladimir Putin’s wife makes a visit to the market, as part of an official international delegation, stopping off at Faisal Husain’s jewellery store, on a recommendation by the Russian ambassador to India.
6. From 2010, a new form of customer influx begins — medical tourism to India takes off, bringing with it yet more Russian speaking tourists, mainly from the ex-republics of the USSR such as Tajikistan, Kirgizstan, Uzbekistan, Turkmenistan and so on. Nowadays hospitals in Delhi even provide local guides who speak Russian to their clients, who take them to Yashwant Place on organised shopping trips.
So while the type of Russian speaking customer has changed, from the early diplomats of the Soviet times, through the bulk business buyers of the 1980s, to the present day free market tourism, Yashwant Place appears to have remained consistently at the top of the shopping list for Russian-speaking people travelling to Delhi.
Of course, it isn’t only the socio-political changes in the customers’ countries that affect the success of this unique place. India has gone through many changes of her own, and these too have a direct effect on the profitability of all of these businesses. Ahmed M, of the fur store number 41, speaks of the difficulties faced by the proprietors of Yashwant Place in the current trading climate. Not only has demonetisation had a huge effect on the supply chain, which is still being felt to this day, but the introduction of GST (with its 18 percent levy that now has to be added onto each and every transaction) has also meant that prices have had to rise.
This tax-driven price increase, combined with the increased transportation costs — these are the costs involved in bringing the fur coats from Kashmir to Delhi, which form part of the final price of each garment — brought about by the increased price of fuel in India, mean that the customers are not able to get as much of a bargain as they could in earlier years. Ahmed believes that a mix of all these factors has led to a drop in Russian-speaking tourists of late. Add to this the fluctuating exchange rates of the US dollar (the currency most Russian-speaking clients deal in), and you get a very uncertain picture of the future of this niche market.
But, having lasted 50 years, and survived all kinds of political upheavals in both the source and the host countries, one has to hope that this uniquely placed market adapts, survives and prospers into its next phase. According to Faiez Husain, Faisal’s son, the signs of transition are clear, as the nature of the customers in Yashwant Place is noticeably changing. Nowadays, 10 percent of the buyers are Indian, 60 percent are still Russian-speaking and 30 percent come from the rest of the world. Perhaps this broadening of its clientele will offer the way forward for Yashwant Place?
In photos (from top):
Two beautiful sample garments are shown to potential buyers in shop number 39.
The entry to Yashwant Place market, has become a landmark in the Chanakyapuri area.
Rustam, a tourist from Uzbekistan, browsing the wares in M. Ahmed’s shop number 41.
Leather goods shop number 48 displays its shop sign in Russian, complete with a Russian style nickname for its owner (Shurik).
Gulya (a medical tourist to India from Tashkent in Uzbekistan) holds little Sofia while shopping for leather goods in shop number 56 with their Russian-speaking local guide from the hospital.
Faisal Husain and his son Faiez, proprietors of jewelry shops 51 and 52, proudly showing off a photograph of Putin’s wife visiting their store in the early 2000s (the child in the photo is now the strapping young man holding the photo).
Most transactions here are cash based, but with the advent of GST, each transaction must now be carefully recorded.
A selection of jewellery for sale in Faisal’s shop number 51.
One of the long corridors of Yashwant Place’s basement market.
Fateh Singh, owner of leather goods shops number 48, 55 and 56, with one of his sons Urmeet Singh.
Fateh (seen in the mirror reflection) stocks a wide-range of leather coats in different colours and styles in his shop number 48, to satisfy every taste.
A stack of Russian style fur hats for sale to customers from countries where temperatures regularly drop below minus 20 degrees Celsius, in shop number 41.
Polina Schapova is a Delhi-based Russian-British photographer. Follow her work on Instagram or on her website