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Aap Kare toh Renovation, Hum Kare toh Gentrification

June 17, 2013

It appears that a Delhi bookstore has relocated. This, in itself, isn’t news in a city of relocation,dislocation, demolition, destruction; a city built, looted and sacked at least seven times. Yet, the emotional coverage of Yodakin’s move - from one part of Hauz Khaas village to another – assures us that Delhi has lost a vital cultural hub, a “safe space”, an “indie book store with the ambience of a salon“. In a city of “aggression, pollution and anxiety”, Yodakin apparently offers us “reassurance”.

The problem, familiar to any intellectual in search of reassurance, is skyrocketing rents. As one particularly maudlin tribute explains: (emphasis in original):

I remember sitting with Arpita and Smita (of 11.11 Celldsgn/ The Grey Garden/ Elma’s/ Edward’s & TLR) at Elma’s across the street from Yodakin (the bakery was still only open for tastings) and vociferously advocating a shopkeeper’s union of sorts back in 2011.We were concerned about the escalating rates, discussing the impending gentrification (and doom) of our little alternative urban village. Everything popular gets subsumed into consumer culture eventually, we argued. The alternative is always being wiggled out of the spaces it fosters. The little guys make the place and then the big rich guns swoop in to ruin it, commercialize it.

But, don’t panic just yet, the bookstore is now sharing space with an organic food and art cafe called Tattva, where a  Tattvaamrita “Fruit Yogurt with Honey and Nuts” costs Rs 245, and a “cooling fennel juice” costs Rs. 175.  If the little guys are charging Rs 625 plus tax for a couscous salad, one genuinely fears what the “big rich guns” will charge. This of course brings us to a much needed conversation about all the things that you talk about in when you live in Delhi: Gentrification, alternative publishing, independent bookstores, and the all things that New York has and Delhi shall soon acquire.

This piece isn’t a reflection on Yodakin itself, but the broader process of the Time-Out-ization of Delhi, where an industrial city of mills, paint factories, and metal work, has – in the elite gaze – transformed into a city of experiences to be consumed: in Time Out Delhi, we see the parathewala in Chandini Chowk rather than the plastics wholesaler, we see the cupcake store rather than the flour mill, the gastro-pub rather than the permit room. That, in itself, is not a problem – cities have always been glamourous avenues of escape, hedonism, and yes – consumption, commerce and change. But what do the changes we celebrate, and the changes we mourn, tell us about ourselves?

Here is how Mohammed Ashraf, a man who profoundly influenced how I think of cities, describes Delhi:

There is something Delhi can give you—a sense of azadi, freedom from your past. Everyone knows Delhi. Delhi has Qutub Minar, Red Fort, Old Fort. For every person who makes a bit of money in Delhi, an entire village arrives in search of work. So if you are leaving home, you might as well come to Delhi. Where else would a runaway run away to?

Each month, thousands arrive in Delhi in search of their particular form of freedom: a freedom to live, think and yes – a freedom to read. I have now lived for three years in cities without bookstores – and can testify that a good bookstore can transform an urban experience.

Yodakin is one such store that stocks books that make us think differently: several of my friends have worked there, and the store has a really interesting catalogue of books. Over the years, the space – like so many other spaces in Delhi like SARAI,  Khirkee, and elsewhere – has been the site of many interesting conversations. The store doesn’t carry bestsellers or books by major imprints like Penguin-Random House, but stocks a large selection by niche presses like Navayana. It fills an important niche in Delhi’s intellectual ecosystem by stocking stuff that many other stores dont have. So it is indeed great news that the store isn’t shutting down permanently.

But of course, Yodakin is a book ‘store’ – a shop that participates in the market economy and sells things called books using a medium of exchange called money. Yodakin isn’t an orphanage or hospital shouldered aside by an unscrupulous real-estate developer, it is a store that moved into an upcoming, well connected, neighbourhood; actively promoted the neighbourhood’s gentrification and eventually found itself out-priced in a market where the landlord felt the property could command higher rents.

Yes, it is an independent book-store, and independent publishing is a hard business and so the store may have to move to a less expensive neighbourhood and its patrons shall have to spend a little more time commuting the way that thousands of Delhi residents commute because they can’t afford to live in a well-connected part of town.

Yet, all the narratives around Yodakin’s relocation seem to portray it as a victim of gentrification rather than a willing participant in the process – which is puzzling.

So what was Hauz Khaas village before it became South Delhi’s favourite “little alternative urban village”? It was (in some ways still is) an urban village that apparently had cultivable land. Once the land went, the villagers used a loop-hole in MCD bylaws to build rather lucrative commercial properties:

Here’s a 2006 report from The Hindu:

Strong resentment seems to be brewing in the Capital’s rural belt over the recent Delhi High Court order to raze illegal commercial properties in the “Lal Dora” areas of the city…

The villagers argue that after acquisition of their land for development of residential colonies and other infrastructure, they had no other option but to set up business or rent out their properties for generating income to sustain themselves.

Yodakin was one property that was rented out.In a 2012 article in the Sunday Guardian , Arpita Das Ribeiro, the proprietor of Yodakin describes her arrival to Hauz Khas Village, and draws a distinction between the post-2006 arrivals and the earlier wave of gentrifiers like Bina Ramani.

While the first generation of entrants were classic entrepreneurs, our work was slightly eccentric and we wanted to find an equally eccentric space.” These people tried to engage with the village and the villagers by organising cleanliness drives, helping to streamline traffic and organising dialogues through the now-popular Open Village Nights. “But there was a wide divergence between how much we wanted to do and how much of it was perceived as proprietorial by the villagers,” adds Ribeiro.

Later in the piece, two others describe the influx of a wave of eateries. One bemoans the fact that property-owners realized the value of their plots and began charging market rates:

Talwar feels there is a scramble among landlords to lease their properties to the new restaurant owners, all arriving in a rush and willing to pay through their noses. She says, “This is adversely affecting our businesses and our relationship with the landlords. Earlier, there were no formal agreements as everything was based on mutual trust. Then leases began to be drawn for 2-3 years and now the term of lease has been reduced to 11 months. Even that is no safeguard against being thrown out.”

While a restaurant owner bemoans the fact that his rich clientele appears to have expanded:

“Today, people think of this as a ‘happening’ place but most of them simply don’t appreciate its cultural fabric anymore.” He recalls how, before the invasion of the “yuppies”, this was a peaceful place where one could unwind. “Now rich kids come in with big cars and pots of money and it is not uncommon to hear of people getting into drunken brawls at popular hangouts,” he adds.

Perhaps the only way to sum up this apparent discord is to rework the idiom: Aap Kare Toh Renovation, Hum Karen Toh Gentrification; Aap kare toh cultured cheese cake, Hum kare toh bun gaye fake. [If you do it, its renovation/If we do it, its gentrification; If you do its, its a cultured cheese cake/ if we do it, we are seen as fake.]

Hauz Khaas patrons appear to be struggling with a peculiarly South Delhi version of Hiesenberg’s Uncertainty Principle : A hidden, undiscovered, niche hangout is no longer undiscovered once you discover it.

What if Hauz Khaas village hadn’t become a hub for restaurants, bookstores, and shops selling nostalgic trinkets? What if rents had remained manageable, like in other urban villages like Kotla Mubarakpur? Perhaps Hauz Khaas, which is not far from the massive bus-intersection point at AIIMS, could have become a haven for out-town students hoping to commute to Delhi University and South Campus. Perhaps – like Kotla Mubarakpur – working class men and women could have lived in a well-connected space inside Delhi, rather than commute several hours a day to their work place.

Is Yodakin singularly responsible for this urban transformation? Of course not – but it certainly isn’t divorced from this process.

Since we are talking about books, and reading, and alternative voices and displacement – allow me to suggest the one book that actually engages with these themes and produces a genuine response: Trickster City by the authorial collective that writes as CyberMohalla Ensemble: (You can read my review here).

Here is one way to think about relocation/demolition/urbanism:

“It takes many years for a place to become a settlement,” writes Suraj Rai in Spreading in the Air as he describes the destruction, “but a settlement is barren in merely two days…People are watching houses being pulled down. Each time dust rises when a house falls, they don’t turn away. They seem to be trying to take it all in. They had plastered the walls and roofs of their houses with their memories. Today those memories have turned into dust and are spreading out in the air.”

Here’s another fragment from another text by the same authors:

MONDAY
Interest on Ramsarup’s loan, Rs 220.
Rs 110 to the meat shop. Rs 50 to the sweet seller.
Rs 10 as donation, Rs 20 to DD Drama Company.
Got my wages.
For the first time in my life, I went to Patiala House Courts today – to give Ser Bahadur’s bail.
It’s possible that many hues of our lives are based on stories foretold.

Still, lives battle the ends of stories that do away with danger and risk.

Everything else is ordinary.

So do go to the new Yodakin store, buy their books if you feel like, and en route visit the “alternative” Elma’s Bakery and sip their radically priced “High Tea” for Rs 600 per person. But do not send to know for whom the city gentrifies, it gentrifies for thee.

13 Comments leave one →
  1. June 17, 2013 5:36 PM

    All good things come to an end.

  2. Manjeet Singh permalink
    June 17, 2013 6:49 PM

    Title says it all.
    Though MOST of the so called – established – Delhi’s alternative crowd will enjoy being at this arrangement.
    Menu is for them.
    Yoda knows they will be visit!

  3. hibiscus24 permalink
    June 17, 2013 7:15 PM

    That’s all very well but Delhi is still the place where you are literally risking your life travelling to and from that oh-so-precious ‘space’. Precious is what it is; and a load of bullshit too, about ‘sense of azadi’. Nobody who comes to Delhi is safe unless they are armed or moneyed. Probably both. Delhi is the jungle, and these elitist niches are the way the privileged pretend it isn’t.

  4. Atanu De permalink
    June 17, 2013 8:10 PM

    The office where I worked for some four months is located in HKV.. I like Yodakin, and once when i saw them provide space on their notice board to a poster for the upcoming Cameri event ( http://kafila.org/2012/11/06/friends-of-palestine-respond-to-incacbi-call-to-boycott-the-cameri-in-delhi/ ) I asked the person there if they may reconsider the poster in the light of Cameri’s track record.. The poster stayed, and I really don’t wish to dwell on this subject except perhaps mention that Yodakin bookstore and other enterprises wearing the independent/ethical/fair-trade/organic label can be found struggling to defend their politics if not deliberately erring in their self-serving modus operandi.

    Physical spaces in Delhi for critical reflection and strategising are precious few. Not only the urban poor are being invisibilised, middle class households are found assuming neat files circulating through city’s malls. Public spaces are shrinking. To organise events at the constitution club or ISS, forget about other venues in Lodhi estate, is getting more and more difficult. The freezing of FCRA account of INSAF is a case in point ( http://petitions.halabol.com/2013/05/09/immediate-withdrawl-freezing-fcra-account-insaf ) of how difficult it is for civil society collectives to finance critical mobilization through the privatized and propertied landscape of Delhi.

    The problematics of Yodakin bemoaning displacement has been very well explained in the article.. it makes a point, we mustn’t be fooled into believing that a rented-out retail outlet can equal ‘underground’. This is in spite of this link to an article in the New Yorker ( http://www.newyorker.com/online/blogs/books/2013/05/yodakin-bookstore-letter-from-delhi.html ) where the writer suggests Yodakin as THE ‘alternative’ bookstore in Delhi. Alternative? I am also not very sure, if internet-based networking can fully substitute for the lack of free, organic, nuanced discussions. What we really need is sincerity in/and intention. Indeed, our politics will eventually get us onto the right track. It could involve changing many metro stations, or, challenging the State through judicial channels. There is an easier route, though. Perhaps some propertied Dilliwalahs may want to start low-return slow-growth ethical businesses?

  5. Ram permalink
    June 17, 2013 10:41 PM

    The author makes a good point, but is it really necessary to invoke Sarai, characters from his book, the poor of Delhi etc to critique the hype one measly bookshop? Can’t we call a spade a spade without all these comparisons and disclaimers? Sheesh.

  6. Madhu permalink
    June 18, 2013 12:40 AM

    NYC is NO different. In the eighties, Soho used to wake after 10am, industrial looking….quiet & at nights I would hurry to avoid dark deep doorways. Today, It’s packed, stacked, filled, stashed with nonsense megastores & shoppers from EVERYwhere. Can’t breathe, can’t sight Naomi Campbell crossing the road just herself “has – in the elite gaze – transformed into a city of experiences to be consumed”.

  7. June 18, 2013 6:16 AM

    delhi toh hamesha loteroin kaa hi raaha hai

  8. June 18, 2013 10:57 AM

    Aman, all I can say is, your larger point is so important, but I wish you had picked on something more suitable than my ‘measly’ bookshop (which has now ceased to exist) to see it through.

    • Aman Sethi permalink
      June 18, 2013 4:51 PM

      Dear Arpita,

      I’d just like to clarify that I don’t think Yodakin is a “measly” bookshop, rather – as I say in the piece – I think Yodakin and Yoda Press serve a very important intellectual purpose. So, it is indeed sad that it shall have to move.

      Having said that, I felt that all the writing around the closure/relocation of the store almost deliberately walked around the fact that the gentrification of spaces cuts both ways, and showed almost no self-reflexivity or sense of the store’s space in the processes sweeping through Hauz Khas Village.

      Since Yodakin’s closure has been used by other writers/journalists to illustrate a larger point about Delhi, I thought it fit to try to decode this writing to try to delineate what purpose the writing serves, and what it reveals and hides.

      a.

  9. June 18, 2013 11:37 AM

    Huge industrial spaces and old markets and old walled cities in China have been transformed into art and culture hubs and pedestrian eating plazas by restoring old walled cities and areas of the Ming period. The result is that in just ten years they have twice the number of foreign tourists that we do in India plus whole busloads of Chinese tourists from small qasbas and villages who enthusiastically take in all this “gentrification”.

  10. June 22, 2013 4:04 PM

    Lest anyone think that in Time Out Delhi you saw only the parathewala and never the plastics wholesaler, here’s a link to a story about recycled-plastics wholesalers…
    http://tinyurl.com/kxl6rca (Loads as PDF)

  11. July 9, 2013 3:00 AM

    Its a Darwinian world and stronger forces will prevail over the weaker ones. That’s a point amply made by this article. But people are sentimental, and there is no category of people more sentimental than readers. Hence all those tears.

    But then in an industry which is changing, bookstores are fast becoming unfashionable. Readers have discovered Flipcart, but even that will soon become obsolete with Kindles and Nooks flooding the readers’ market. India is slow to get onto the gravy-train, but it eventually does. Would you have imagined the internet penetration that we have today 10 years ago? Readers need not go to bookstores like Yodakin to browse indie books. They can get ample references online – Goodreads’ ‘Best Indie Books to read’, Inkubate. Of course they may be promoting selectively (the bills to pay phenomena at work), but there is no guarantee that a brick-n-mortar bookstore didn’t.

    As always, all this started from the source – the writers. From its dependence on a small niche of larger-than life-writers, the industry is moving towards a large number of smaller ones. It seems to be more of a numbers game, something which Amazon can do, They can afford a large number of mid-list authors, which established publishing cannot. Established writers too drifted away to the large online markets, assured of better royalties, shrinking established publishing’s take-away further. But that’s another long boring story you’ve all heard.

  12. Pyoli permalink
    July 17, 2013 3:49 PM

    Thanks Aman, for this piece and also for introducing us to Mohammad Ashraf (I had been looking for a way to thank you after reading that brilliant book of yours, “A Free Man).
    Your passing mention of ‘Sarai’ as an alternate space brought an incident to my mind- I came to this city 11 years ago from Banaras and got pulled to Sarai whenever I came across a poster promising an afternoon of filled with an interesting movie (I could seldom wait for the discussion that followed since my hostel had a curfew time of 7:30). It was raining heavily on one such Friday afternoon as I entered the CSDS building soaking wet. I followed the enticing smell of coffee to the basement and thought I will have a cup to keep myself warm. A suave looking man with a gamchha on his shoulders was behind the counter (later on I learnt that he is a DU professor). My spirits dampened a bit when I learnt that the prices were more than double of the coffee in my college canteen but still I ordered a cup. When I took my first sip I realised it didn’t have sugar. I asked the man behind the counter if I could have two spoonfuls of sugar and he gave a little smile and replied, “you want SUGAR in your coffee?!? well, here you go”. Never in my 18 year old life had I ever been made to feel embarassed about my tastes. Back then, of course, I didn’t realise that there was no shame in being different from the ‘different’

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