[Did this column for Time Out Delhi’s “I love such-and-such colony” section. Warned them that I'm indifferent to many things about the colony I've lived in for 20 years, and so the piece would be too lukewarm for the “I love Saket” headline that the column format would bestow on it. But it was a nice nostalgia piece to write. Have a longer version of it somewhere on my laptop, will put that up soon.]
We moved to Saket in September 1987. Still years away from acquiring road sense, I had little idea then of where this quiet colony placed on the map in relation to the rest of South Delhi, but I'd heard the area was once a forestland where people went fox-hunting, and it seemed a very adventurous thing to live in such a place. To reach the first-floor flat we made our home, we had to drive along a narrow, horseshoe-shaped lane off the main road and it felt like the opening scene of Rebecca, trees parting to reveal Manderley in the distance. The block we lived in bordered a small park, cut off from the main road, and perfect for cycling in and for playing cricket.
A couple of hundred metres down the road was a commercial complex that wasn't exactly the picture of activity: six or seven small shops (including the shacks with the dusty photocopier machines) scattered haphazardly about, a line of office doors and a single, downbeat cinema hall called Anupam. We never saw a film at this hall in the first decade of our stay; we were videocassette junkies and the complex wasn't a "happening" place, this being years before the Baristas, Subways and McDonalds' moved in to what is now PVR Saket.
Neighborhoods change gradually, through a slow accumulation of events, but in my mind's eye Saket's transformation can be condensed into a few cuts or dissolves, like in films where Master Raju jumps onto a train and becomes Amitabh Bachchan. One moment we are playing cricket in our small ground, a ball hits one of the few cars parked around the circumference and an uncle bellows that we should take our game elsewhere; the next second the park has lost its greenery and turned into an overcrowded car space where we have to find increasingly innovative ways to manoeuvre our vehicles in the evenings. One day we hear the Anupam hall is shutting down and the next thing we know we are gaping at the exteriors of India's first multiplex, plusher than any movie-hall we have seen before. (The interim period, many months of scaffolds and workers and tarpaulins, seems now to have occurred in fast-forward.)
Happily, some things haven't changed. I've gone to the same barbershop for 20 years (it used to be called "He-Man and She" or something such, now it's "A Cut Above"). Familiar faces, links to a more innocent time, still sit behind the counters of the chemist shops and the Mother Dairy en route to PVR. And though the name for our block of flats has changed to the duplicitous "Golf View Apartments" (the Lado Sarai golf course is nearby but nary a glimpse can be had), we still refer to them as DDA flats.
It would be dishonest to claim that I think Saket is a great neighborhood in some overriding sense. It's a pleasant, self-sufficient little place at its best, and crowded and traffic-spoilt at its worst, like dozens of other colonies. If it has a distinct character, I can't claim to know what that is. My love for it comes from intangibles, from the fact that the most important personal spaces of my life were situated here. The house I've lived in for two decades. The mini-market where we played Mario Bros video games outside a tiny grocery shop. The tree where a beloved kitten learnt how to climb for the first time. The large, invigorating F-Block park (a real park, not like the one outside our house) where I've gone for thousands of evening walks over the years, and where I sat on a bench with my girlfriend, now wife, in the early days of our courtship while a cop eyed us suspiciously from a distance. The Sports Complex with its giant swimming pool, clay-courts and cove-like entrance.
There are other advantages to living here. The growth of the NCR has turned Saket into a very convenient location, more or less equidistant from Connaught Place, Gurgaon and Noida (approx. 15 km each way). The Qutab Minar and the Mehrauli ruins are a ten-minute drive away. Except on Friday and Saturday evenings, when the road leading to PVR gets clogged, there isn't a major traffic problem. Let's see if that changes when the new malls near Pushpa Vihar open; I’m feeling ambivalent about those, but there’s going to be a huge new Landmark bookstore, and that’s something to look forward to.
What all this adds up to is that many of my best memories are connected with Saket, and I can't think of much that's wrong with the place. When you're living in a loud, messy city, not out of choice but circumstance, that's near the best you can hope for.
[A related post: PVR memories/Madhuban “Fine Dining”]