The India Habitat Centre – Delhi’s Peerless Oasis
It looks like a cluster of any aging North American state university concrete constructs, overflowing with greenery, housing within its confines and around its interlinked plazas and courtyards multiple gallery spaces: documentary screening rooms, an All-American diner and a cafeteria named Eatopia that serves everything from aloo gobi to deep-dish pizza. Peopled by English speaking men and women who, if brown is swapped for white, could be mistaken for any group of NYU auditorium dwellers, the India Habitat Centre offers an unlikely atmosphere of serenity and orderliness in the middle of a city that, by most rational standards, is a mess, albeit an agreeable one.
For as interesting and fun a town as Delhi can be, let there be no doubt that there are few places where, or times when, it is not utterly foreign, taxing, stressful, and even a touch dangerous. The durable traveler may be little bothered by the dense smog and dense crowds and the dynamic death threat that is a Delhi-trafficked street, but then these are Delhi’s littlest bothers. There are subtler but still potent taxations at play: having to constantly police your personal space takes its toll, and being always aware and fearful of the preternatural evils lurking in the water, ready and anxious to molest your bowels in ways difficult and uncomfortable to even imagine, let alone live through, should you be so unfortunate as to ingest a drop, is something that may leave even the stalwart tourist pooped.
It is as a respite from the Delhi hubbub, and as a reminder of home, that the India Habitat Centre is ï¿½ to a visitor ï¿½ of most value. And it offers so benign an atmosphere that it puts the whole of Delhi’s busyness into relief, thus making for a good place to reflect upon it.
The Centre’s actual purpose has little to do with that though; in its own words, the Habitat Centre “was conceived to provide a physical environment which would serve as a catalyst for a synergetic relationship between individuals and institutions working in diverse habitat related areas and therefore, maximize their total effectiveness.” What that means in practice is the place houses no less than thirty-seven institutes, agencies, and societies going by names like “The Indo-French Centre for the Promotion of Advanced Research,” and the “Indian Renewable Energy Development Agency.” The Centre holds multiple gallery exhibits (stepping into the biggest of them was like being transported to a SoHo gallery, down to the stylish and bored intern working reception) and has spaces for groups to organize events. When my friend Vimal and I were visiting, one such group, the Council of Handicrafts Development Corporations, was holding a fair where local artists/artisans could sell their products (carved Mughal-esque boxes, tree-bark Ganesh engravings, dyed silks, rugs) directly to visitors in a respectful, haggle-free, almost mall-like environment.
Vimal and I visited the Centre three times, never failing to be surprised by how even the air in the place seemed cooler and cleaner than that of Delhi’s outside (an interesting feat considering the Centre’s lack of insulation from the outdoors ï¿½ the difference must be psychological, but is physically palpable.) We bought the artisans’ trinkets, attempted to find secret paths to any of the Centre’s high roofs, showed up late to and missed the bulk of an ethnic dance festival, and, of course, we watched a documentary on the unionization of sex-workers in Bangladesh. After the film, which featured amongst its stars a hopeful Bangladeshi prostitute-turned-rights activist and a large middle-aged woman who pronounced that she could bring men “the heat”, Vimal and I stayed for a group chat with the professor who directed the film, a roly-poly British Indian who fielded questions with cheeky aplomb, and her able camerawoman, a smoldering media-studies major.
After the screening, Vimal and I bashfully eyed the various people exiting the auditorium, wondering how they would react to us if we approached them and asked them what’s doin’ in Delhi. We posited various reactions to our imagined advances, and supposed that, with a dash of our easy charm and a sprinkling of luck, we could easily be invited to a college party or any other event or place that would not be found categorized and detailed in our Lonely Planets. A nightlong alcohol binge in praise of Kali or Hanuman the monkey god would be an example of what our hopes were leaning to.
Of course we failed to take this initiative. The barrier between native and tourist, physically no more than ten feet, proved in our minds to be nigh infinite.
We proceeded to circumspectly circle the “American” diner on the Centre’s premises. It was a place that seemed to try extra hard to emulate the feel of the movie Grease, or at least the feel of any New Jersey mall’s Johnny Rockets. We discussed the pros-and-cons of getting a malted milkshake, and the likelihood that, once inside, young and attractive locals, piqued by our distinct American airs, would come talk to us, and be charmed by us, and subsequently invite us to substance-suffused late-night group discussions on the film directors of the French New Wave and their influence on late-eighties Indian cinema.
We did step into the diner and had a look-see, but were underwhelmed. In the end we simply loafed about the India Habitat Centre for a couple of hours, then headed back to our hotel, contented enough with the slice of home we managed to enjoy while so far away from it.
Follow this link for a second Habitat Centre site.