A place I enjoy going to when I’m in Delhi is Khan Market. It has great restaurants, cafés and patisseries. (Well, one patisserie at least, with chocolate éclairs that almost, but not quite, remind me of the ones I used to get from Flury’s when I was little. And a very cute young man behind the counter who, when once I wondered if I should try the coffee éclair intead of my usual chocolate, said with such horror, ‘Noooooo. CHOColate!’ that I know I’ll never be able to try a coffee éclair unless I happen to go there when he’s off duty or break his heart.) It has Anokhi, which by now is almost the sole source of my clothing. And it has bookshops. (Enough said.)
But I don’t like the Khan Market of now even half as much as I loved it when I worked in Delhi in 2003-04. For one thing, it’s become a lifestyle haven – a place of big and mostly expensive brands, more of a small open air mall than a market. And I don’t like big expensive brands and malls.
In 2003-04 however, Khan Market was most definitely a market. An upmarket market, but a good old Indian market nonetheless, where you could do everything from have keys cut and shoes mended, to get your detergent and chilli powder, to buy fancy foreign foods and cuts of meat.
It wasn’t such a foodie place either. Big Chill was about the height of its gourmet pretensions if I recall correctly, the terrace at Café Turtle at the Full Circle Bookshop was where my one of my best friends and I would meet for what we called a UN Session (as in, Kofi Anon?) and Chona was where I went for a plate of simple crumb fried fish and chips that didn’t seem to be available anywhere else in Delhi at a price that I could afford.
It was a good place to hang out and to potter around, but what I loved best about Khan Market was the way the shopkeepers took care of the local stray animals.
I’d often noticed well-fed dogs and one stout cat when I went to Khan Market, but it was only midway through 2004 when I learned that they weren’t really strays. They were Khan Market dogs (and stout cat) – fed, clothed and housed in comfortable baskets.
I found this out when I was at the meat shop, and noticed one of the shop assistants dishing up keema in thermacol bowls. What’s that for, I asked, and was enchanted when I was told it was the animals’ dinners – that the Khan Market shopkeepers’ association (or whatever it was called) took care of all the local strays.
I helped the assistant take out the bowls of food, and was therefore introduced to the stout cat – named, inevitably, Sher Khan – and the oldest dog, named, delightfully, Banwarilal.
I was THRILLED to be introduced to Banwarilal. I’d often seen him wandering around, though mostly parked by the side of the kebabwalla’s stall (which is now a proper restaurant at Khan Market, called Khan Chacha), and he had always struck me as a dignified and sensible dog. A dog who’d seen life and seen it whole, a dog who had experienced much and knew the ways of the world, and therefore a dog who’d deal with anything with patience and wisdom. In other words, a dog who’d be a village elder if dogs had villages. And because I didn’t know his name (I didn’t even know he had a name), I’d always thought of him as The Venerable Dawg.
And it was The Venerable Dawg who’d taught me one of life’s greatest lessons: You’ll never lose an argument if you refuse to get into a discussion.***
So I was delighted that The Venerable Dawg was Banwarilal and ADORED the shopkeepers of Khan Market for taking care of him. But since I started going to Delhi every few months just about a year ago, I noticed two things. Banwarilal seems to have gone to the great kennel in the sky, and the local strays look… like strays. Unkempt. Unfed. Unclothed. Unhoused (no sign of dog baskets anywhere).
If the Khan Market shopkeepers have stopped looking after the animals (I don’t know this for sure), that’s one more reason for me to dislike big expensive brands and malls (very few of the shops from 2003-04 are still there).
And if it’s true that the animals are now on their own, then I hope Banwarilal aka The Venerable Dawg got to heaven before the change of regime.
****The Venerable Dawg’s lesson
The Venerable Dawg taught every evening, parked by the side of the kebabwalla’s stall, stretched out on his stomach, his chin on his paws.
I’d go to the kebabwalla and order a roll. The Venerable Dawg would say nothing, do nothing, just give me a patient look.
The kebabwalla would put a couple of skewers on the grill and roll out a couple of roomali rotis. The Venerable Dawg would say nothing, do nothing, just look at me patiently.
The kebabwalla would turn the skewers on the grill and put the rotis on to cook. The Venerable Dawg would say nothing, do nothing, just continue to look at me with patience.
Unnerved by this unblinking gaze, I’d try and start an argument. “Look here, Dawg,” I’d say. “I bought you a roll last time. Now it’s someone else’s turn.”
The Venerable Dawg would say nothing, do nothing, just look at me patiently.
I’d bluster. I’d turn to him, look him straight in the eye, shake a finger at him and say: “Dawg, I’m wise to you. You’re not suckering me THIS time. You are NOT getting a roll.”
The Venerable Dawg would say nothing, do nothing, just look at me patiently. Not even his ears would twitch.
“LISTEN TO ME, DAWG,” I’d bellow. “YOU ARE NOT GETTING A ROLL.”
The Venerable Dawg would slowly raise his head and look at me with patience. “I know this is a sordid and selfish world,” The Venerable Dawg’s eyes would convey patiently. And The Venerable Dawg’s head would sink back on his paws and he’d look at me with patience. And helplessly, I’d turn to the kebabwalla and say, “One more roll, please.”