Before I touch base in C block Defence Colony, the home of my brother and sister-in-law, I direct the taxi which has fetched me from the airport to Altitude Stores in Mehr Chand Market.
I think the market is named for Mehr Chand Mahajan, the third Chief Justice of independent India and the first, albeit short-lived, Prime Minister of Kashmir under Maharajah Hari Singh. There is also a family connection through his son, also a lawyer, who married my aunt Mohini. I heard somewhere that the Chief Justice put it to the chairman of the Partition Commission, Cyril Radcliffe, that Gurdaspur, not Lahore, should be inside the Indian border. Gurdaspur was where my grandfather had a flourishing law firm and his clansman, M.C. Mahajan, asked him to verify the demography of the region since Muslim majority areas were going to be apportioned to the new state of Pakistan. Grandfather corrected the general assumption that there was a greater percentage of Muslims, as the majority was caused by seasonal transmigration of Gujjar nomads bringing their livestock down from the mountains of Kangra to winter in the plains.
M.C. Mahajan’s autobiography is an amusing read. He loved his food and would go far for a good meal. Travelling in the hills as a young lawyer he was informed by his clerk that his overnight lodgings were with a pious vegetarian couple. A couple of plump curried chickens were secured in their bistar bund (bedding) and the travellers tucked into them in the privacy of their room. What to do with the chicken bones? The future Chief Justice had a brainwave- he stood on his clerk’s shoulders, loosened a couple of roof tiles and chucked out the offending evidence of their gluttony into the lane below.
Mehr Chand Market is now rather high-end and poncy, but began as a collection of higgledy piggledy stores owned by refugees from the Partition. Then, inevitably, the chancers saw an opportunity and went for the centrality and low rents and now there is a proliferation of unnecessary arty farty outlets.
However, “Altitude” remains unvarnishedly homely and is the only store in Delhi with a comprehensive range of organic food- from eggs, milk, salad, vegetables, bread (from the German baker) and every kind of grain, beans and imaginable spice. And, as I am always reporting, anything consumed in Delhi is likely to poison your system if you ingest it for more than a few days and Altitude is a godsend to squeamish souls like myself. So having stocked up on farm milk, salad leaves- being sorted into plastic bags by two of the girls- organic eggs, millet flour, rye bread I then headed to Defence Colony. This South Delhi suburb always comes with an appellation of “posh”, which means a bit greener and a tiny bit cleaner than other central-ish outposts, but it is still dusty and grubby and chockful (“ram-packed” as Jeremy Corbyn might say) with shiny new cars that race through the narrow lanes at 40 mph. I even saw a huge black Jaguar prowling the neighbourhood this morning driven by a driver who doubtless thinks he has godlike status.
I can imagine that organizing the logistics for an organic store takes a fair bit of skill, energy and passion so I was curious to meet Ayesha who is the owner of “Altitude”.
She was treating her driver to chocolate cake with candles for his birthday when I met her in her new cafe, also named “Altitude.”
“I’m just back from Uttrakhand and I saw a tiger. Yes, I did! And there were pug marks and elephant tracks on the land I’ve just bought so that is a good omen.”
Many years before her father started what would become a 40 acre fruit farm in Alwar, Rajasthan, with which she became involved after returning from the United States with a degree and many years of financial management,
Ayesha’s business began modestly, using the fruit grown on her father’s farm to make juices and jams and delivering them directly to her customers. Then her punters demanded more than juices, so she found a tiny 8×10 emporium and stocked the shelves with 350 basic products. Expansion was rapid until she was offering 1500 items and in 2012 the present shop was launched. “I waited until I knew it would work- I’m totally risk averse.” At this point she eyed her watch. “Talk to Meenakshi, my manager. She has a great story to tell. Sorry but I have to dash.”
Meenakshi is small and wiry and fizzing with energy. “My father is a mali, a gardener, but I finished school with a very good 65% mark which gave me entry to college, even though I never finished my degree.
My first job was to clean Ayesha’s office and make cups of tea but I like to work and thought, one day things will get better…
I worked very hard, like delivering 100 boxes of juice to a second floor address all by myself, going from Gurgaon to Old Delhi in one day.”
She proved her worth by loyalty and unrelenting hard work.
“My mother was a single parent for some years and even worked as a labourer on a building site, but now my parents live in a flat that I have bought them in Dwarka. I earn a really good salary which I hand over to my mother and I also take care of my brother and sister. She is at Delhi University Open College and my brother Ashish is a very talented batsman training at Dhyan Chand Academy. I think he will become a professional cricketer.”
There are thousands of young women in Delhi alone who are going to make it through talent, ambition and hard work. This is the generation whose parents are designated lower-middle class, or working class, but the children are determined to better themselves. One such girl was the young trainee physiotherapist who was brutally attacked four years ago on a bus. Her father was a luggage handler at the airport, but she wanted a much better life for herself and she has now become an unintentional martyr for the cause. She was brave, energetic and determined to have a good life. May all those who follow her be safeguarded by St Michael, his angels and all the gods in the pantheon.