Aap Kare toh Renovation, Hum Kare toh Gentrification
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:
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.