New Delhi is chaotic, buzzing, noisy. It’s also a place where opportunity knocks: New bars, fashion labels and clubs open every day for a rapidly growing young middle class. A day in the hip districts of the Indian megacity
The bass booms out onto the street. I’m standing in front of the entrance to the Summer House Cafe with dozens of others, waiting to get in. Hardly anyone is older than 20. The men wear skinny jeans or casual suits, most of the women wear mini skirts – saris are definitely in the minority. The bouncer beckons us, and I’m in! Entering the small room feels like wading into a monsoon, albeit one with a high-energy, DJ-driven soundtrack. Everyone is dancing; there are even couples kissing. Long nights, short skirts, alcohol and public displays of affection – all of this used to be taboo in conservative India. But the subcontinent is changing. In the busy city of New Delhi cultural prohibitions are dwindling or disappearing entirely. A young, cosmopolitan middle class is shrugging off the strict morals of their forefathers and driving change. The fruits of this revolution can be seen and felt in the hip district of Hauz Khas.
Morning: Scarlette New Delhi
Next day, hotel manager Pauline Bijvoet, 28, serves a vegetable omelet with wholemeal bread. The fact that you can get a European hangover breakfast in New Delhi is novel – and it fittingly reflects the new mood in the city.
India’s explosive economic growth in the last few years has spawned a young middle class: Around 300 million people who can afford a certain degree of affluence and are eager to consume. According to a McKinsey survey, this number will grow to 600 million by 2025. Employees and founders, they work in the service industry, for major enterprises and IT companies. Bijvoet is part of the new Indian middle class, but as a French native she also looks at the city through European eyes: “New Delhi was always – quite rightly – mocked as sleepy and boring.” Mumbai, India’s gateway to the world, had pop and Bollywood, whereas New Delhi had politicians and civil servants. “This is changing; the young generation has come out to play.”
The Scarlette is like a stylish living room, with leather sofas, embroidered cushions, Maharajas on the walls and fresh flowers on the tables. It’s a peaceful oasis in the midst of urban chaos. And smog. Nearly eight million vehicles are on the road daily in greater New Delhi, among them roughly 80 000 trucks.
Midday: Hauz Khas Park
“You need patience and stamina in New Delhi,” was another thing Bijvoet said. Sitting in a taxi, stuck in traffic after only a few meters, I appreciate her words. The smell of fuel blankets the streets, exhaust fumes have stifled the crispness of the morning. After half an hour I press a few rupee notes into the taxi driver’s hand and continue on foot. Improvisation is an essential skill in India – particularly in a crowded city like New Delhi.
A flock of green parrots swoops overhead, as if to guide me. I follow them, get lost in a few side streets and finally find a fence and a gate: the entrance to Hauz Khas Park.
At the center of the park is a lake and a ruined madrasa, an Islamic school. Built many centuries ago by a sultan, today it is the haunt of couples, who take selfies amidst the crumbling walls. I meet Rimi, 27, who fled to the park in search of peace. The designer has a sketch pad, and shows me her drawings: high-rise blocks, faces, urban landscapes. Her topic is the booming metropolis. Rimi went to university and found her first job here. She is a typical representative of India’s upwardly mobile classes. Her parents are farmers, they live in the country and still hand-plough their fields. Rimi cannot imagine ever moving back. “New Delhi is like a thrilling festival of opportunities,” she says, “a different world, a place of freedom and the future.”
Every one of my friends has their own start-up
Afternoon: Boutique Lacquer Embassy
Fashion designer Nikhil Sharma, 32, does not belong to the Indian middle classes, but he profits directly from them. After completing his degree in Nottingham, he worked for the British fashion chain Next; back in New Delhi, he founded his own label, Lacquer Embassy, and opened a shop.
Sharma designs classic shirts, pocket squares, ties and bowties for Indian businessmen, and he has these items made by his own tailors. Like him, explains Sharma, many of his customers have lived in Europe for several years, have studied and worked there, and then returned home to seek their fortune. “Every one of my friends has their own start-up,” he says, “they all see their future in India.” There are skilled workers here, and labor costs are low. “Everything is faster than in Europe: if you have an idea you can execute it right away.”
Evening: Barsoom Bistro
I’ve come to the district’s nightlife strip, Hauz Khas Village, HKV for short. There are more than one hundred clubs and bars; the drink flows, revelers flirt and party. HKV is the beating heart of the new New Delhi, watched disapprovingly by the country’s moral guardians. These can be found on the censor board, which recently cut two kisses out of the James Bond film, Spectre. On the internet, the “old-fashioned hardliners” were roundly ridiculed for days; in the clubs of HKV they were simply ignored.
Raavi Chou has watched the area evolve from a sleepy suburb into a circus for hard-partying youngsters. With his curly moustache, the 31-year-old wouldn’t look out of place in the hipster strongholds of East London or Brooklyn. After a few years working in luxury hotels in England, he returned to India and invested his savings in a cafe in Hauz Khas Village. By the second day, the place was swarming with creative folk and digital nomads, their MacBooks under their arms.
Chou soon realized that HKV’s entertainment scene is a tough market. “In this area everything is louder, more dynamic and bombastic than anywhere else,“ he says. The basic pattern is that if a cafe does well, there will be dozens of copycats the next day. If a club gives free drinks for women, soon there isn’t a single disco without a Ladies’ Night. If a landlord puts the rent up, prices shoot up everywhere: HKV is pure turbo-capitalism.
Soon, Chou closed his first cafe, moved a few houses down and opened Barsoom bistro in a building whose multiple stories are exclusively occupied by clubs and bars. He has since become a fully fledged member of the HKV Monopoly set and plans to open a music club soon.
Nightime: Le Bistro du Parc
My next stop is the restaurant Le Bistro du Parc in the neighboring district of Defence. A jazz band is playing on the rooftop tonight. Bistro owner Naïna de Bois-Juzan, 26, brings along a bottle of red wine, imported from her native France. De Bois-Juzan – whose mother is from the Indian state of Punjab and her father from Paris – grew up in France. After finishing school, she moved to New Delhi, worked as a model and organized events for a PR company. Then she decided to bring a little bit of Paris to the Indian metropolis: “I thought, I live in a megacity but there aren’t more than five good restaurants!” So she opened the first French bistro in New Delhi. The response was mixed: “Many Indians said, there’s nothing on the plate; how is that meant to fill me up?”, she recalls. Since then, even locals have been converted to the delights of chicken liver pate or trout with pommes parisienne.
“I wouldn’t have had a chance in Paris,” says de Bois-Juzan, “I had no money or contacts.” She encountered different problems in New Delhi: When she opened her bistro, she was too young to buy wine, as under-25s are prohibited from buying alcohol, and had to ask her older staff to go shopping for her. In New Delhi, what’s even more important than capital or connections is the ability to improvise.
A taste of New Delhi
Delhi Food Walks
Get a tour guide to show you what New Delhi has to offer.
Culture India’s oldest Mughal tomb, a UNESCO Heritage site, is around 450 years old.
The young label makes elegant cases, bags and accessories in leather.
Delhi Art Gallery
Stroll around the DAG Modern and soak up some 20th century Indian art.
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