Why Defence Colony?
Well, what had originally been farmland was acquistioned by government, divided into building plots and sold to members of the Armed Forces in the 50s at heavily subsidized prices. An old lady in swinging long skirt, man’s overshirt with breast pockets, scratched spectacles, heavy silver anklets and bracelets told me she had farmed wheat and grazed her buffalos on those very acres. Over the years outlying villages with good transport links have similarly fed the insatiable hunger for development in the metropolis.
After much hoo-haa my father bought a corner plot (he had served in Iraq and Persia with the rank of Lieutenant-Colonel during WW 11, but never fired a shot). Buying land, speculating in building houses were risky, if not racy, enterprises but he bravely took the plunge.
One of his pals- a jolly bon vivant staff photographer at the staid British-owned newspaper, The Statesman- urged him to build his first non-rented property in D beelokk number 364. “You’ll be boating, just like Venice” declared his pal, gigantically over-egging the cake. The Venetian canal never changed its guise of fetid open sewer, originally created for rainwater harvesting by the urbanly civilized Mughuls of the 16th century, since adapted for baser use.
Our beautiful new house, isolated in a dusty forlorn field was designed by an architect, which was considered advanced. He created three bedrooms, three baths, dining, sitting room and study for my father, fireplaces, a little lawn where my mother grew dahlias and nasturtiums, sweetpeas trained up split bamboo and brown twine and a shady verandah with cane chairs. “What a faraway, desolate place,” exclaimed people used to the tamarind and jamun lined avenues of Lutyens’ capital and comfortable proximity to the Delhi Gymkhana Club which provided lawn tennis, squash, the Lady Willingdon Swimming Baths, bridge, dinner dances and a library.
That was the fifties, when each new built dwelling housed one family and a tiny garden was a must. D-364 had a modest modernity, with doors that folded on themselves for social gatherings and an unfussy discreet facade. Around us sprang up Swiss chalets, colonial ranches, Californian duplexes, Rajasthani palaces, faint echoes of Le Corbusier’s Chandigarh. Some of the Mediterranean villas had rococco swirls of plaster, like Royal icing on a cake. It was an endearingly hideous urbanscape.
Real estate in Def Col has now reached such dizzy everests of speculation that most people have fallen over themselves in their haste to sell up to builders who raze the structure to rubble, dig cavernous foundations for basements and construct upwards to four floors accomodating six flats. The Colony reeks of building dust and throbs to the cacophony of drilling and hammering all day long. Gone are the tiny gardens planted with kumquat and Persian lilac, replaced by featureless wall to wall plate glass uniformity. Each household owns an average of 4 cars and the narrow lanes teem with idling chauffeurs playing cards and smoking cigarettes.
Activity of a desultory kind continues on Sunday, so here is what I observed last weekend.
Chandralekh was from Uttar Pradesh, where the Italian turned Indian matron of the nation, Sonia Gandhi, is being a Dragon Mother- pushing her offspring into the operatic election scene of Uttar Pradesh. Chandralekh is definitely going to vote for Sonia’s son and daughter because the Congress Party just “wiped out” debts of £65m from “the people”. If you believe that you will believe that cows can fly as fast as jumbo jets- especially the cows in U.P.
Then I stood in the verandah of crowded St Luke’s Roman Catholic Church, alongside extremely polite families mostly from Kerala and heard an uplifting sermon.
Sacred rituals were evident everywhere. The delightful Mrs Dhingra arranges a free lunch in memory of her late husband, who owned Defence Bakery. She supervises the cooks as they make 40 kg of potato curry, livened with tomatoes, coriander and green chillies, Chappatis from 50 kg wholewheat flour and a halwa pudding with 30kg of semolina and 20 kg of sugar along with raisins. 500 people queue in line and bless her husband in the little temple next door, where Radha and Krishna smile on everyone.