Chandigarh Shop



Gags is a classic example of the new generation of Punjabi professionals; he sports a well-groomed moustache and has Dire Straits' 'Money for Nothing' on his answering machine.

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Chandigarh Shop

The door man has found our names on the guest list and is proffering a stamp, but my friend breezes past him. 'I don't do stamps,' Gags explains, 'all that ink on your hand - pah!' Inside the club, the strobe lights bounce off the wrap-around mirrors as the DJ miraculously pulls off a Beach Boys and Bhangra mix. We cross to the bar and order a round of whiskys on the rocks.

This may sound like a scene from a first-world metropolis, but the city in question is roughly equidistant from Delhi and the Indo-Pak border. Chandigarh, capital of the Indian states Punjab and Haryana, has never been a typical example of urban India. When Pakistan was created in 1947, Chandigarh was established to replace Lahore as the Punjabi capital. Le Corbusier, the visionary Modernist architect behind the new city, built a place of pedestrian plazas dotted with fountains, streets arranged on a grid, flowery parks and concrete buildings that resemble flying saucers.

While this was a bold statement of modernity, Chandigarh today would surprise even Le Corbusier. An IT hotspot with the nation's highest per capita income, Chandigarh is a swaggering boom town where the mobile phone is as revered as the cow and nightspots are springing up to welcome the new money.

Gags is a classic example of the new generation of Punjabi professionals. The marketing manager of a luxurious resort favoured by medical tourists, he sports a well-groomed moustache and has Dire Straits' 'Money for Nothing' on his answering machine. Our evening begins in the 150-room Taj Chandigarh hotel, a glass-and-steel palace where plasma screens, lava lamps and jazzy beats provide a backdrop for the cocktail crowd. Gags calls to one of the barmen, who all wear red shirts and foppish fringes. 'Hey Davinder... I mean Pedro!' My friend sighs and explains that the barmen assume names that are easy for the hotel's foreign clientele to pronounce.

Gags is a classic example of the new generation of Punjabi professionals; he sports a well-groomed moustache and has Dire Straits' 'Money for Nothing' on his answering machine.

Our next stops are equally surreal and shiny, beginning with a long-time favourite - Piccadilly's Blue Ice Bar, where rock music accompanies Hindi pop videos on MTV India. Nightclubs here pass in and out of fashion faster than a speeding autorickshaw, but this month's venue of choice is Antidote, packed with sharply dressed 20-somethings reclining on white sofas. As the laser beams wheel, Rs 1000 notes slide across the bar and the slick staff work the room. The talk is of time spent in Washington and London. Punjab has traditionally exported more expatriates than any other Indian state, but these revellers are part of a flood home to a city that now offers career opportunities and, of course, sophisticated hangouts.

Later I meet a Spanish backpacker, who's a little bemused by it all. 'The people here look down on me for wearing baggy trousers,' she complains. I have to agree that Chandigarh is a long way from the spiritual India that has attracted travellers since the days of the Hippy Trail. But I like the city for the same reasons she dislikes it. Whereas she's spent months acclimatising to the subcontinent and now finds this non-traditionalism disappointing, I'm just a week into my Indian odyssey and Chandigarh is the ideal buffer for my culture shock.

I feel less than ideal when I awake the next morning in my hotel, beneath a beatific portrait of the south Indian guru Sai Baba, which beseeches me to 'Surf the innernet, not the internet'. 'Chandigarh is an extrange place,' the Spaniard has scrawled in my notebook, and the city proves no less extraordinary by day. Le Corbusier's designs are everywhere, but most strikingly at the Capital Complex, dominated by the silo-like Legislative Assembly and the High Court's wavy roof, which is supported by brightly painted slabs. Nearby, the Modernist order disintegrates inside Nek Chand's Fantasy Rock Garden, a 20-hectare sculpture park inhabited by human and animal figures made out of industrial and household waste.

Chandigarh is a swaggering boom town where the mobile phone is as revered as the cow.

Even if you don't have a friend like Gags (or a tolerance for bad Indian whisky), Chandigarh makes a refreshing change from the often fatiguing experience of travelling around the colourful, clamorous subcontinent. Cycling the city's broad avenues and garden paths is a surprisingly safe - even enjoyable - activity, but be warned, the 'real' India rears its head at the chaotic roundabouts.

Article by: James Bainbridge

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