I am trying to get into Hauz Khas Village (HKV), but it is really difficult. Not because there is a huge dustbin to be crossed, or a line of temple-going pilgrims to be made space for. Just because there is no space. Audis, Santros, shining chauffeured cars, and line-breaking autos crowd the one road going up to Delhi's coolest village, each marking their territory with piddles of petrol fumes.
This is not a personal lack of space which becomes intimate, the sort Bombay's Café Mondegar made famous. This is a lack of space on the edge of dystopia, with a pulsating lining of mother-daughter cuss words; the threat of move-or-I-will-knock-you-over meeting some form of I-am-here-in-my-car-I'll-turn-up-the-volume-bro.
Those on foot are no longer ambling gently up to the Village. They are walking with deathly purpose, on a serious mission to have fun. Their faces are grim, many of them set in lines of carefully done makeup. Others, serious because they have to get the table with the "best lakeside view", because that is what the hordes of hoardings lining the entrance tell you.
Each restaurant offers a charming, best-ever, most private lakeside view; the view of a lake full of dead green water, but a lake nonetheless. As I walk into the Village, surrounded by the people who want to seriously have some fun, I realise there is no place to walk, just like at the entrance.
There are - horror of horrors - long chauffer-driven cars inside the Village, and baleful autos tooting high-pitched horns. A small transport auto carrying construction material is part of this special cacophony, with his annoying horn at a crescendo. Stop, you are not to honk, this is a pedestrian-friendly Village, my friend tells the driver, burning in indignant rage.
For a few minutes, the once cool air of HKV melts into the streets of Vikaspuri, where you bolt when you hear a horn, where vehicles go over footpaths, and when you cross a road during a green light, because hell yes, that's what you can do.
We want to go to Yeti, a special place which was one of the first real eating places in HKV. It did have a lakeside view too, but it also had full course meals and a promise of being able to eat without EDM music playing. The ambience was effortless, just the way an urban village is to be, according to our privileged urban mind.
An urban village has to work hard towards being effortless, where the dirty and the sophisticated meld together in a satisfying fashion, where things are quaint, quiet but not wholly predictable, where you go looking for a deliciously inscrutable vodka cocktail and come out wondering if you just had absinthe, or maybe even a tharra.
Getting to Yeti is an obstacle race. There are scrawny men holding up menus of their restaurants, yelling "one plus one madam, ladies night madam, cocktails happy hour madam" in one breath. If you have to try so hard and breathe down this madam's neck to sell your drinks, something is definitely wrong. By the time I reach the end of the lane, I am exhausted by my efforts at saying no to sugary pink cocktails with little umbrellas, and I realise the utter irony of the situation.
Because like the grim-faced, shoving people walking into the Village, I too have come here to have fun. To have an Old Monk punch, a warm cocktail, a coffee liqueur, even a sugary pink Vodka cocktail. But not like this, my mind screams.
I am a tough customer, like many of those who first discovered HKV years ago. My brand is indie. I want to aimlessly walk in the Village, say "no" to a particular restaurant and then walk right in an hour later. I want to look at the lake as a lake and not as a green selfie; and then on other days not look at it at all.
I want to do everything, and do nothing. I want to pick my own poison. I want it all to be easy enough so I can come here in my pajamas, not structured dresses. I want to have fun and to be unseen. I want to find the rabbit hole, because that's what a pedestrian-friendly village is for. The rabbit hole now has people yelling for parking spots, Punjabi pop blaring down the streets, people wearing immaculate clothes and blow-dried hair to chew on an indie momo.
I realise Yeti is closed. Utterly and really non-existent. There isn't even an epitaph for my restaurant.
It takes some time for this to sink in. I take a turn because I no longer want to go to the main lane with its screaming cocktail-lelo men. Ugly lehengas possibly weighing double digit kilos hang in neon light. More construction for tiny boutiques/restaurants is feverishly going on.
Suddenly, there is a power cut. No longer does anything look borderline posh. Now everything just looks dank and ugly, unsanitised, sullen at its edges.
My thoughts go back to a mall in Kolkata, which had rows upon rows of swish stores. The great leveller was a massive power cut, common enough in the city of bandhs.
As I sat in the salon, three hours before my best friend's wedding, my hair still wet and decidedly undone, a man came to the store. He was an electrician, going from store-to-store offering to connect the outlet to the massive mall generator.
This was a competitive service, one you would get if you paid for it. HKV is a bit like this now. The competition in the air is stiff, as more and more come in to set up shop and hashtag their #fun, and HKV becomes more Karol Bagh than rabbit hole. Profit may be the new bottomline, but the fun too is all too manufactured, and it doesn't even have drainage.
Gunpowder is gone, Yeti is gone, tiny cafes running on idiosyncratic menus with unpolished kullads and porcelain teacups alike are gone. Starbucks, Beer Café and a host of other chain-run outlets are here. They clump down on village space, and I know they would offer the very same shining floors and plastic cups in any other part of the world.
Curiously and frustratingly, I am looking for a chink in the floor, a quirk in the menu, and a vegetable dye splotch on a handloom curtain at a door which is more than what a manufactured Delhi experience gives me.
I am looking for adventure and the whiffs of other lands, I am looking for the mist of a village in the smog of Delhi, the crust of a pizza lined with yak cheese, a secret recipe written down under a tree, I am looking for a server who wants to cook food without taking restaurant feedback on a tablet. I know none of these really exist and are urban fictions, but they are convincing fictions, and once upon a time they were told in HKV.
But HKV is now dead. Starbucks, you are welcome.