The unseen life.
[Text and photos by Mayank Austen Soofi]
One might spend a decade in Delhi, glance briefly at the red-and-white apartments rising behind a boundary wall as one drives past central Delhi’s Subramania Bharti Marg, and think no more about it. Everyone knows it’s there, but Sujan Singh Park doesn’t exist as a clear picture in the mind of the average Delhiwalla—unless the talk gets around to the late writer Khushwant Singh. “Oh, Khushwant Singh’s home,” is the mention Sujan Singh Park might elicit. A few might also say, “Wish I lived there.”
The genteel apartments have a history as engaging as their best-known resident. The colonial-era complex is named after Mr Singh’s grandfather. It was built by the man who had a hand in building New Delhi.
This exclusive residential neighbourhood, bisected by Subramania Bharti Marg, consists largely of red-brick apartments, simply called flats by the residents. Within are winding staircases, high ceilings and book-lined rooms. Amaltas trees screen the wide windows. The side windows are claimed by pink bougainvilleas. An outsider would find it difficult to relate this world to the Delhi he knows.
Built in 1945, Sujan Singh Park has seven blocks with 12 apartments each. It is a short walking distance from the expat-favoured Khan Market, considered to be one of India’s most expensive patches of real estate.
The Park is home to people such as Malvika Singh of the iconic Seminar magazine; author Bhaichand Patel, famous for his parties, whether the occasion is Valentine’s Day, a friend turning 50 or leaving town; the beautiful Dilshad Sheikh, sister of actor Sanjay Khan.
The latest arrival at Sujan Singh Park is a publishing house. In September 2015, publisher Chiki Sarkar announced the opening of Juggernaut Books; her small team works from a little building snuggled in one corner of the Park.
A visit to this office reveals a lesser-known aspect of Khushwant Singh’s neighbourhood. For Juggernaut is on the other side of the road, at the entrance of one of the many blocks that do not look posh. The lane is basically a dirt track of potholes and mud. The apartments ahead have peeling paint.
Yet this, too, is Sujan Singh Park.
“It is the servants’ quarters,” says Muhammad Usman, a car mechanic. The servant quarters and garages here comprise 12 blocks.
In his 60s, Mr Usman has lived in these quarters all his life. His father worked as a driver for one of the flat occupants.
I meet him at one end of a block that faces the Khan Market Metro station. Mr Usman talks of the early 1940s, when Khushwant Singh’s father, Sobha Singh, got the British contract to build New Delhi. Waving towards the quarters, he says, “First, these were just dormitories to house the labourers constructing the flats.” After independence, he says, the Park’s inhabitants needed a place to house their domestic staff. So the dormitories were partitioned into one-room units. There were garages on the ground floors, and drivers, cooks, ayahs and bearers were housed on the upper floors.
“We are India,” says Usman. Gesturing towards the red flats, he says, “That is America.”
Sujan Singh Park was raised to house British military and civilian officers during World War II, says Pami Singh, a grandson of Sobha Singh. He is the chairman of Sir Sobha Singh and Sons Pvt. Ltd, the company that manages the complex. Seated in his cabin-like office in Connaught Place’s Regal Cinema building, Pami Singh says his grandfather got the contract from the chief engineer of Delhi, Bahadur Suleman Khan, who himself migrated to Karachi, Pakistan, after Partition. The British, he says, gave the property to Sobha Singh on a 99-year-lease that ends in 2045. The conditions of the transfer were such that the family never had a complete say on rent or tenants. The years following independence saw Sujan Singh Park being occupied by bureaucrats and army officers. In many cases, their descendants continue to live there.
The divide between the flats and the quarters is starker when it comes to population sizes. While the flats have over 400 residents, Pami Singh says the “servant quarters” house over 1,700.
Many of these one-room dwellings house families of six. Most people The Delhi Walla talked to in these quarters requested anonymity, unwilling to invite attention. For the stakes are high.
They live in one of the most exclusive districts of the Capital. The India Gate grounds and Lodhi Gardens are a stroll away. There is uninterrupted power and water supply. The basic rents are a mockery. It’s Rs.47 for the quarters and about Rs.300 for the flats.
Pami Singh rues that they cannot charge the market rate from tenants. This is the reason, he adds, for the dilapidated state of the quarters.
There is another block in the complex that was intended for British officers who were without families and could share a common living room and kitchen. That is now the Ambassador hotel, run by the Taj group’s Vivanta Hotel and Resorts.
While Delhi life flows around this residential complex without any intrusion or clear convergence point, Sujan Singh Park has had its fair share of mentions in various writings. In her 2012 book English Heart, Hindi Heartland: The Political Life Of Literature In India, US-based anthropology professor Rashmi Sadana went to the extent of calling the Park the “epicentre of Delhi’s English-speaking elite”.
The shabby quarters, too, have their charm. A giganticpeepal tree stands between blocks J1 and J2. Clothes dry on the balconies. Wild plants grow out of water pipes. Glass windows are framed in lovely light-blue panels. Black cats are seen lazing between rusting scooters. There is also an open-air eatery, largely patronized by the shop assistants and security guards of Khan Market. One of the cooks there says his parents, living in their village, do not know that he makes rotis for a living.
Sitting idly under the peepal tree is Heera Lal Sharma, a frail octogenarian who is a living repository of Sujan Singh Park memories, including the occasion when Sobha Singh was attacked by robbers while walking down a block.
Though most of those living in the quarters are the second and third generations of the original domestic staff of Sujan Singh Park, many of them pursue other professions. One of Mr Sharma’s sons, for instance, is settled in the US. Another works with a law firm in Delhi. His granddaughter is a commerce student at Delhi University’s Gargi College.
Some of the quarters are occupied by the staff of the Ambassador. Over the years, Pami Singh says, his company has been filing cases to get back some of these flats and allot them to Sobha Singh’s descendants.
Despite being the newest kid on the block, Juggernaut Books is not the loveliest space here. That honour goes to a semi-wild park tucked in between the hotel and the quarters.
On a recent afternoon, it looks deserted. All is quiet except for the steady hum of the hotel’s air-conditioning unit. Just then, a young woman enters. Tanpreet Kaur, a school student, is on her way to a coaching institute. Her father is a mechanic. Her family of six lives in a single room in the quarters. Asked if she would prefer to move somewhere more spacious, she laughs and says, “No way. Sujan Singh Park is the best place in the world.”
The little park is silent again after her departure. Suddenly, there is the sound of a pressure-cooker whistle coming from one of the windows in the quarters. It is that rare instance when Sujan Singh Park can feel like home to an outsider.
The other side of Sujan Singh
1. (The park we know)