Some of Delhi’s upscale areas were born soon after Independence as neighbourhoods sprung up to rehabilitate refugees. Namrata Kohli interviews entrepreneurs who started up soon after independence.
“My family originally comes from a place called Kaderabad (in Pakistan). When we came to India after the partition, my father, a teacher of mathematics, peddled railway berths to earn money. Later, he opened a store called Bahrisons at Khan market,” says Anuj Bahri, who runs one of India’s best-known book stores.
When they reached Delhi, his parents, grandparents and three siblings were put up at the Kingsway camp barracks, where they stayed for a little over a year. He talks about the desperate struggle to merely survive in those times.
“My dad and his brother would go to the shed where trains would get washed. They would go and lie down on a berth, and when the train would come to the platform, sell that berth to a passenger. There was no reservation in those days. This was pure survival instinct – and entrepreneurship.”
They shifted to Haqiqat Nagar, near Kingsway camp. His mother, along with her six sisters and mother, started work as a volunteer at the camp.
Because of his mother’s job with the ministry of refugee rehabilitation, they were provided with accommodation at Netaji Nagar. The monthly rent would be deducted from his mothers’ salary. Now that shelter was taken care of, it became easier for his father to focus on work. They went on to stay in that two-room apartment till 1970.
Delhi’s Khan Market was being set up in the 1950s to rehabilitate refugees. In 1953, Bahri Sr. bought a small shop at Khan Market (11 ft. by 18 ft.) for Rs 300. Later, the family bought the units on either side. Today’s Bahrisons is a combination of three stores.
It was not originally a book store, Bahri says, but a school stationery store with pens, pencils, comics, etc. “A very basic shop as we didn’t have the sensibility at that time. But my dad was a very enterprising person. It didn’t take him long to innovate – and he introduced books.”
Was Khan market so posh even then? “Yes, it always had diplomats, bureaucrats and senior government employees in its neighbourhood, in erstwhile colonies like Maan Nagar, Shaan Nagar (now Rabindra Nagar), and Kaka Nagar, that had just come up,’’ adds Bahri.
The extended family had got scattered across three cities — Patna, Srinagar, and Delhi.
“We had 28 villages in Kadarabad, and in lieu of that, we were given land at a village just after Karnal, called Kot Kachua. My grandfather was from Mandi Bahauddin in Pakistan, which was the junction for agricultural products — he was the manager of the bank there,” Bahri says.
Bent but not broken, many partition survivors who got accommodation and shops from the government at reasonable rates, went on to build successful businesses in newly-Independent India.
Take the case of the Sandoz chain of restaurants with 22 outlets pan-India, and plans to go global. What started as Calcutta Dhaba in Delhi’s Karol Bagh, where Sardar Jagir Singh migrated with his family after Partition, was renamed Sandoz by his son. Today, grandson Raunaq Ahluwalia manages the brand. The story behind their success, he says, is the struggle of his grandparents who turned crisis into opportunity.
Ditto with Raunaq Singh, whose journey from Lahore to Delhi’s Gole Market was fraught with a million challenges. A refugee-turned-business magnate, he founded the successful Apollo Tyres and Raunaq group.
People who fled their homes overnight with only the clothes on their back were moulded by the hardships they faced, and went on to achieve extraordinary success. Take the case of Sanjeev Mehra, President, Khan Market Traders’ Association, and owner of Allied Toy Store.
His family came from Lahore with just Rs 643 in his father’s pocket. The first job his father landed paid him a salary of Rs 20. Today, the family owns seven stores in Khan market.
Says Mehra: “My father saw the toughest of times, but his future generations are reaping the fruits of his struggle. My father left behind five shops. My brother and I have added two more.”
Talking about his father’s journey post-partition, Mehra says that they ran a wine shop and grocery store at Jodhpur mess. By that time, they had moved from the west Delhi camp to rented accommodation at Rajinder Nagar.
“My father used to cycle down from Rajinder Nagar to Jodhpur mess at 6 a.m. daily. At that time, excise rules were such that we had to square off the accounts the same day. So he would start his journey back home only at 11 p.m,” says Mehra.
They finally got a home at Nizamuddin, a rehabilitation colony, a house of over 200 sq. yards. Then, in 1950, a shop was allotted to them in Khan Market.
“We got a shop at Khan Market on rent for Rs 50 a month. Later we were told that if we wanted, we could buy it at cost. We bought it for Rs 6,566 in 1952.
“My maternal uncle had also come with my father. They started a shop called Elite Departmental Store, then another called Dairyland, and in 1969 they added a third, Elite Fruits and Florist. Thereafter my father separated from his brother-in-law and started on his own,” adds Mehra.
At that time, it was neeche dukan, upar makaan (shop below, house above),’’ says Mehra.
“It was initially a 998-sq.-ft. shop, but when the government saw that more refugees had to be accommodated, the authorities erected a small wall and divided one shop into two. However, they did not touch the flat above. All the shops were divided thus, barring restaurants and doctors’ clinics, which needed more space.
“The shops were usually sold for around Rs 13,000, and the homes — with 2-bedrooms, kitchen, bathroom, across 700 sq. ft. — for Rs 4,000 in the early ‘50s. In 1983, NDMC revised the plan for some redevelopment. Today, no residential unit exists in Khan Market except for ten disputed properties, which are locked due to infighting between the families,” adds Mehra.
The first minister of rehabilitation, K C Neogy, zeroed in on a stretch of land in central Delhi — with upcoming neighbourhoods such as Nizamuddin, Jangpura, and Lodhi Colony around it.
Mehra shares that earlier, Khan Market catered to soldiers stationed at Sujan Singh Park. There were 14-15 shops, which were taken down, and a U-shaped market was built. It was named after Jabbar Khan, brother of Abdul Ghaffar Khan, who helped a large number of refugees escape.
“Mehr Chand Khanna, the rehabilitation minister, named this market in his honour. The market had a Midas touch. Not only is there great footfall, but also excellent sales. This was particularly so after 1987-‘88. It has good security, no encroachment and was never congested and claustrophobic,” says Mehra.
Mehr Chand Market and Khanna Market at Lodhi road were also set up for refugees who had migrated from the North West Frontier Province (NWFP). These two markets were named after Mehr Chand Khanna, who was the union minister for rehabilitation from 1954 to 1962.
Urban planner Dr. P. S. N. Rao shares how some resourceful refugees took possession of vacant shops. “After partition, there were some shops which were either vacant or locked, and the owners had gone away. Some enterprising fellows broke the locks and took over the shops. Today they are sitting on plum property,” says Dr. Rao.
The glory of Independence will always be marred by the grief of Partition, which was perhaps the largest human displacement in history. But with the help of the government, as well as their own grit, resilience, and determination, some emerged through the flames stronger than before.
Their lives are inspiring stories of success for generations to emulate.