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8.30 p.m., 26 July 2017, a Wednesday: The road leading up to Hauz Khas Village is empty. Shocking, since Wednesdays are for ladies’ night (like all other days ending in -day turn out to be here). A traffic policeman at the T-junction is stopping biker-boys for not wearing helmets, presumably asking for chai-paani. I don’t know where my loyalties lie in this particular battle. I want both teams to lose.

8.33 p.m.A little ahead of the Jagannath temple, a few hundred metres from the entrance to the village and just after a rare patrol car-spotting, a barricade stands in the centre of the road. Were you wondering, given the National Green Tribunal interventions and other developments, if it’s now easier for fire trucks to enter the village? It’s not, reader; it is most certainly not. 

The barricade is manned by a burly, scowling, moustachio of a man, eight feet tall, armed with all-black attire and a lathi — and a barricade a hundred metres down, followed by another, also staffed by his oversized colleagues. Strategically placed silver-white lamps flood the street with more light than ever before.

Such, it appears, is the improved state of security in this lawless land we call HKV.

12 p.m., July 8 2017, three weeks earlier: A woman is almost abducted by a carful of men on this very street, and is reportedly saved by the intervention of a good Samaritan (who later tweets an account of the whole ordeal). The story shines a spotlight on the elephant in this draughty room. The authorities, woken from night-duty slumber, are compelled to do something about safety concerns in a neighbourhood that’s supposed to be friendly and welcoming to everyone who enters (with enough money for an overly sweet cocktail). Their solution? Ban ladies’ nights.

Freedom is slavery, ignorance is strength, etc. etc. The ban, it is reported, will stand until Independence Day in two weeks’ time.

Just a few weeks earlier, HKV was a hyper-charged portrait of New Delhi. As its copywriters would say, “abandon hope, all ye who enter here.” It looked no better or worse than a busy commercial road at a hill station, but its heart was Delhi Stereotype. Students, interns, yuppies, “artistes”, out-of-towners, white people, that one group of couples refusing to age gracefully — this melting pot was to ensure everyone involved got rowdy drunk, beat the hell out of each other over imagined slights, and generally acquired a reputation for loudness and selfish disdain.

Certain civic liberties were always taken at Hauz Khas Village. How else can a parking lot with only one exit fit in a thousand cars? Why else would a fight break out every single night in that lot (reasons ranging from alcohol bravado, testosterone, territorial wars, ownership of women)? Why else would it be so common to see people being rude to hawkers and homeless kids begging for food; invading strangers’ personal space with little regard; demanding to be fed at one the few fast-food carts open past closing-time?

In this inevitable traffic jam, exacerbated by that one guy who decides to drive in the wrong lane to skip ahead, it’s not hard to imagine the safety of women being an even lower priority than in the rest of the city, which is saying something. In a place where fires break out every few months, any emergency could morph into disaster.

9 p.m., July 26 2017, the present: And so, tonight, there are no visibly underage girls and boys with collars and hems flecked with purple-shot-flavoured vomit (of their own making). The tone of engagement is civil. The Village Deck, which often blasts the cream of contemporary Bollywood music, is playing ‘Move Your Lakk’ at comparatively restrained volumes. From Imperfecto emerges a hint of a live band, a hypothesis confirmed once I hear a cheesy, unimaginative blues-guitar bend shivering way more than necessary. Only the disguised unemployment hasn’t changed: pubs still employ men in their early 20s to linger on the street and hustle civilians into pubs by talking up the tempting discounts on offer.

Issues of safety, security, and environmental impact are now amplified simply because of how all this has led to the rise of HKV’s truly shady establishments, to which more people flock than ever before.

For once, I’m not scared of an unsolicited ass-kicking; the woman accompanying me is not looking over her shoulder in horror every few seconds. Originally unnerved by the presence of the Barricade Men, she is more at ease once we stop at a few bars and learn - oh, irony! - that some establishments have pooled their resources to hire extra muscle for security. (The fact that private security needs to be deployed at all speaks volumes of how dire things are.)

1 p.m., July 28 2017: Ayesha Sood does not leave her house between Thursday and Monday. She is a filmmaker and co-founder of the production house Jamun (and no relation to me). Sood has lived and worked in HKV since 2002, back when it boasted two, maybe three restaurants, and residents had to walk all the way to Aurobindo Marg for anything they needed. All HKV had to offer at the time, give or take a couple of designer boutiques, was massive power cuts.

Around 2009, when the first wave began, many visual arts studios set up shop here, establishing HKV’s boho-aesthetic, which was perhaps typified by the cult TLR. Then, a commercial boom was helped along by the relaxation of guidelines that affected much of the city in the run-up to the Commonwealth Games. And so, after its glory years (2009-11), in which HKV was a cool, artsy space embracing all types of weirdos, it became a heavily corporatised entertainment zone - but one that perhaps retained a promise of freedom and a sense that young people could walk around and be themselves without fear of judgement or threats to personal safety. Cheap rents, of course, are no longer a thing. Sood says that everything depends on your relationship with the landlord.

Issues of safety, security, and environmental impact are now amplified simply because of how all this has led to the rise of HKV’s truly shady establishments, to which more people flock than ever before.

The so-called gentrification has had its share of benefits, Sood says, but she also thinks we’re now at a point where the ideal solution is to redesign the whole place — employ expert town planners, conduct safety audits, fix the water table; start from scratch. Past experience has led her to wonder how long this beefed-up security theatre will last. These knee-jerk, face-saving no-ladies-night exercises: “It has to be looked at from the point of view of state governance,” she says. “Everyone here is just making money.”

1.30 a.m., July 27 2017: Naturally, I have spent the evening irresponsibly drinking Rs 100-shots, dancing suggestively, picking fights with other men, insulting bar staff, and making women uncomfortable. Once all patrons are escorted out of all pubs, I head to a momo stall that's still open, eat a plate of their wares, chuck the wrappers on the street. Many children hawking water bottles (after-party mixer/hangover prevention) surround me. A preteen girl tries to sell me balloons; I burst one for fun.

I crawl next to the frozen yoghurt shop. A policeman enters, either to get his nightly blueberry-crunch fix, or to shut the place down. It’s strange to see time restrictions being followed her. For once, at a spot at the beginning of the village where the crowd usually settles while waiting for cabs or autos, I see three or four stern-looking officers of the law, looking reassuring or menacing, depending on where you’re coming from.

All around us, crowds of people are still stumbling around, limbs flailing, banging into things. But the smack-you-in-the-face flamboyance of previous visits has been replaced, this month, by controlled revelry, as horrifying as ever, but somehow less hard-faced and glossy. Is this what the “fourth wave” of Hauz Khas Village will look like? Ayesha Sood, a couple of days later, remarks philosophically that soon the weather will turn nice, and it will all be back to normal.

As for the eight-foot men with lathis, they’re nowhere to be found. Their shifts, presumably, are over.

This story was contributed by Akhil Sood, an arts and culture writer living in New Delhi.

Image Credit: Room Lion

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