Benu Lal’s home – with its red brick façade, well-kept garden, and cheerful air – seems straight out of a fairy tale. You stand outside taking it all in – the herbs in pots on the wall, the flowering plants, the jingling bells on the gate, the kitten scampering up a tree, the little water-body lined with decorated stones, and the large shells at the doorstep. The welcoming interior too speaks of warmth and good taste; with multiple-headed bronze Ganeshas, subdued paintings, and comfortable sofas. But this row house in DLF City wasn’t always as cosy.
“When my husband and I bought it in 2005, there was a large peepal tree growing through the roof,” says Lal, who has been living in the area since 1987.
“Back then, there were just 30 families here, and only Phase 1 and 2 existed. The rest came up later,” she says. “Everybody knew everybody else, people were very friendly and wanted to meet each other; and they were ready to reach out in times of need.” That, Lal believes, had to do with the difficult living conditions then. “There was no water or electricity,” she says, reminiscing about a man called Amar Singh – who would come around every evening at 7 pm, and switch on the inverter – for an hour’s electric supply to the homes. Lal’s mother, Kamal Mohanlal—who has been compelled by her advancing years to move in with her daughter – fondly remembers the kindly Gulab Singh, who used to drive the DLF minibus – that ferried the families to and from Delhi. “Gulab Singh knew that the old ladies would be very tired after the trip, and he used to drop each one at their doorstep (though he wasn’t supposed to). And Mrs. Vitthal was a good Samaritan who stocked grains and pulses because we had to go a great distance to buy them,” says Lal. In fact, for many years, they had to trek to Adchini to get a gas cylinder!
“Still, one doesn’t think of those days as bad,” she says. Since everybody had a “shared destiny”— regardless of whether they lived in a home measuring 150 sq. yards or a grand kothi—enduring friendships took root.
“DLF City was like Noah’s Ark, and we had to be each other’s saviour,” says Lal. “When my mother had a fracture, Dr. Raina—who is actually an ophthalmologist, but treated everything since he was the only doctor around—fashioned splints out of sticks and rope; someone else put her in their Maruti van and drove her to AIIMS; and still others brought us food, donated blood, or spent the night with us at the hospital.”
Almost inevitably, many of the young people paired off. Lal herself met her husband Sanjay Nanda, a graphic designer and photographer, when he moved to Gurgaon from Delhi. “I got my first job here, I got married here, and had my kids here,” she says. “Even when we moved into this house, we could see the Aravalis,” she says waving towards the concrete towers now rising in the distance. Some of the forest that, even until a few years ago, had stretched up to her door, has been cleared to make way for a school. “But we still get deer and birds. A few months ago, at night, a car ran into a Neelgai nearby. I called Friendicoes and they tried to save it, but it was seriously injured; and just recently, there were peachicks in my garden,” she says matter-of-factly.
Now things have changed considerably in this pocket of Gurgaon. Like neighbouring Sikandarpur— which used to be a little village with men smoking hookahs as they reclined on their charpoys, and watched their tethered cattle—DLF City too has seen itself grow from a far-flung outpost, to one of the most sought after enclaves of the City.
In the process, it seems to have dispensed with courtesies. “It’s now anonymous. On the road, people in a large sedan don’t want to give way to someone in a small car. The dukandaar culture has taken over,” Lal says, a trifle sadly.
And some old problems still persist. “DLF has become such a big name, but it still can’t provide us infrastructure, electricity and water. These were issues then, and are issues even now – especially for independent homes.”
It’s clear, though, that Benu wouldn’t ever want to live anywhere else. “The old friendships that we struck up here are still strong. We might not meet often, but when we do, it’s like a family reunion – because we’ve shared so much,” she says. She plucks a handful of lettuce from her garden, and thrusts it into your hand as a parting gift.
You walk away grateful for having been treated to some near-extinct old style Gurgaon hospitality.