Just six months ago, a battery of breathless headlines bestowed the title of India's most expensive retail space upon Delhi's storied Khan Market. Today, the exclusive U-shaped, double-storey complex set amid the bungalows and apartments reserved for lawmakers and senior government officials, is gasping for breath because of a crisis that no one saw coming.
Despite its uneven paving stones, mass of overhead cables, and narrow staircases and entrances, global property consultant Cushman & Wakefield had ranked Khan Market 20th in the list of the most expensive retail locations in the world with an annual rent of $243 or 18,500 per sq ft just last November.
A tatty shopping centre originally built to house refugees in the heart of New Delhi and named in honour of Abdul Jabbar Khan, the brother of "Frontier Gandhi" Abdul Ghaffar Khan, Khan Market in recent years has faced a fair amount of derision as the den of India's English-speaking elite painted as opponents to Prime Minister Narendra Modi and BJP.
Mostly frequented by New Delhi's politicians, lawyers, top civil servants and journalists, its restaurants served mainly foreign food, even everyday products in the grocery stores were much more expensive than other parts of the city, and the big luxury brand names had been increasingly moving in.
But no amount of influence proved enough to insulate it from the abrasive realities of a global pandemic and the sudden nationwide lockdown, imposed literally overnight, two months after the coronavirus reached Indian shores.
In recent days, at least three of its well-known establishments have gone public with announcements that they would be shuttering down permanently even as the government finally allowed plans gradual exit from a 10-week lockdown.
The popular bookstore and cafe Full Circle and Cafe Turtle, which opened its doors 20 years ago, announced that after several rounds of negotiations with the Khan Market Traders' Association and the National Restaurant Association of India (NRAI), the business has decided to shut operations.
Priyanka Malhotra, the owner of the three-storey cafe and bookstore, said it would have been a difficult task to going forward. After grappling in the dark since the pandemic broke, it was difficult to come to a clear solution that was fair to all, she said.
How does one maintain social distancing in a bookstore with a cafe? How do tenants and landlords arrive at fair agreements in times when there is hardly any revenue generation due to the lockdowns? These are among the many difficult questions, Priyanka said, that many restaurateurs or small-cafe owners are also struggling with, as the government move forward with a phased "unlock".
Full Circle and Cafe Turtle have been followed by restaurants Smoke House Deli and Side Wok. According to owners of several stores in the market, the current times are the toughest the food and hospitality industry has ever faced.
The Khan Market Traders' Association has said that they are trying to mediate between the landlords and tenants to work out mutually agreeable terms. Mall-owners and other landlords across the country have been waiving rent or discounting it substantially so that tenants don't move out. Many know that they won't get new tenants at this time.
"We have tried to mediate between landlords and tenants. We asked landlords to give a rebate during lockdown but now tenants must also come forward as the livelihood of landlords depend on the rent received," the traders' association president Sanjiv Mehra said.
Shop-owners have also voiced resentment about the fact that while they have to face an additional financial burden to keep up with the official guidelines and safety norms, they have been offered little to no support by the government.
The closure of stores at Khan Market has left several of the regular customers nostalgic. "I used to visit stores like Smoke House Deli, Café Turtle on a regular basis. These places were like a second home. Watching them close is heart-wrenching," Ankit Bharti said.
(With inputs from Reuters)