As its name suggests, the Defence Colony district of Delhi has military connections. It was built in the 1960s as a residential area for retired senior officers in the Indian services. Today, it has shed that military exclusivity and become a well-heeled neighbourhood where all sorts of big-shots in the Indian business and entertainment worlds have their homes. These include, for example, the former swimming champion, former Miss India, former Bollywood actress and current Congress Party politician, the versatile Nafisa Ali; and a business dynasty whom the district’s Wikipedia entry describes as ‘the Kool Brew / Coca Cola-Campa Cola family’. Well, if the Kool Brew / Coca Cola-Campa Cola family live there, it’s got to be posh.
Much too posh for the likes of me, of course, but during my recent sojourn in Delhi, my employers saw fit to put me up in a hotel called the Colonel’s Retreat, situated in the Colony’s south-eastern corner. So on a couple of occasions I went out and explored the locality, armed with my trusty notebook and trusty camera. Here’s a report on what I found.
Because of the era in which it was founded, many Colony buildings have a 1960s aesthetic that now looks pleasantly retro. You see an airy but simultaneously hulking geometry about the place, as if it had been designed by a cubist painter; with lots of blocks, squares, boxes, slots, grills, grooves and straight-edged, right-angled terraces, tiers and crenellations. The buildings are often enclosed by thick garden walls, latticed railings and heavy gates with fancy ironwork and brick-or-concrete gateposts topped with decorative lamps. Outside those gates in the evenings, uniformed guards slump back in plastic chairs while electric fans whirr and crank to and fro beside them. It all looks pleasant but it feels subtly fortified.
The district has a fortified feeling as a whole. It seems to be bounded by unrelenting perimeter walls, railings and fences and has a limited number of entrances through which the outside world can gain access. These entrances are equipped with gates or, in the case of the Varun Marg road that slices through the middle of it, with mobile police barriers. I suppose this is unsurprising given that its original occupants were former bigwigs in the Indian military, though now it simply feels like a particularly big, gated community inhabited by rich folk. (The military association lingers on, mind you. You don’t have to wander far before you notice names on the brass gate-plaques like ‘Colonel This’, ‘Brigadier That’ or ‘Admiral The Other’.)
Most of the gates seem to be closed and padlocked at around 11.00 each evening by the local neighbourhood watches. I was told that these roads are normal city thoroughfares and the neighbourhood-watch guys actually don’t have any right to seal them off at night, but they do so anyway. At least I didn’t have any difficulty getting past the gates nearest to my hotel if I stayed out of the district after 11.00 – the section of wall next to them had collapsed and I just clambered over the top of it.
Delhi is a more spacious and greener city than its reputation suggests, but it feels especially spacious and green here. The streets are tree-lined and the leaves cast a cool, healthy shade. No wonder small, striped-back squirrels are constantly scooting up and down the street-side tree-trunks and squadrons of bats flap around at dusk, their shadows crossing the ground in black, squirming V-shapes. However, not every street is so verdant. Between the ‘proper’ streets, at the backs of the residences, there runs a parallel system of service alleyways. In comparison with the official street-system, these alleyways are narrow, bare, functional-looking and sometimes scruffy.
The Defence Colony is easy to walk around but not-so-easy to locate an address in. It’s divided into blocks, each with its own grid of streets, but the blocks have been assigned letters and the streets are identified only by their building numbers. Twice, lost auto-rickshaws drew up beside me so that their passengers could ask me – someone who hardly looked like a native – for directions.
In the middle of the district is the Defence Colony Market, which isn’t really a market but a collection of shops, boutiques, restaurants, fast-food joints and even the odd bar. It was handily located for my hotel, but I found the market a bit gaudy and soulless. The bars I tried were expensive and it was cheaper to eat in one of the family restaurants and order some alcohol there. Though the downside of that policy was that I occasionally had to endure the caterwauling of some badly behaved little kid.
However, perhaps the Colony’s most striking feature is a long, narrow ribbon of parkland that bisects it from north to south, hemmed in on either side by the Chetna Marg and Divya Marg roads. The park is actually an artificial construct of soil and grass sitting on top of a concrete lid, which covers a giant drain – the nallah. The locals seem to appreciate this strip of park / concrete-and-grass-sewer-roof, for I often saw folk walking, jogging and playing cricket on it. But I have to say that the giant drain doesn’t seem to have been that successfully capped. There are places along it where the smell of corruption from underneath is still faintly discernible.
In fact, the capping of the nallah took place only recently. Historically, its filth and stench were the source of countless complaints from the Defence Colony’s well-to-do residents. I find it amazing that such a posh and desirable district of the city could have had a thing like that, a Stygian channel of rottenness, oozing through the middle of it. And if you walk to the southern edge of the Colony, there’s a spot where the concrete / parkland covering terminates and for a few yards the sewer is exposed to the sky (before disappearing again under a busy expressway that runs past there). The smell is horrific, evoking my worst memories of stinky things: diarrhoea, rotten eggs, slurry pits, decomposing carcasses and un-cleaned animal-sheds at the height of summer.