What is Nehru Place?

By Abhijit Menon-Sen <ams@toroid.org>

2009-08-20

A few people have asked me about Nehru Place, which always features prominently in my adventures with hardware. There's a Wikipedia entry, but—although it makes a feeble effort—it's much too dry to communicate the flavour of a place where you can find, next to an "authorised HP distributor", a chap with syringes full of coloured ink who will refill your printer cartridges for a small fee.

Nehru Place is a large commercial area in South Delhi. The core of the marketplace is spread across a number of four-storeyed buildings about thirty years old, but businesses have expanded outwards into newer and taller buildings. A number of companies have offices here, but the area is best known for being India's largest (or so I hear) marketplace for computer hardware.

There is a tremendous variety of shops. Swanky laptop showrooms with mood lighting rub shoulders with stores selling second-hand hardware, stationery shops, food stalls, people selling cheap T-shirts off the pavement, high-quality printing shops, and shops of varying size that sell all kinds of components, optionally assembling them into computers on the spot. Space is at a premium, so hardware is stacked ceiling-high everywhere. The larger stores usually keep the bulk of their inventory in some basement or somewhere on the seventh floor of a building you didn't know existed, and will order it for you on demand.

If they don't have something you want, they'll find someone who does, because everyone is connected through an internal telephone network, and shops have gophers who are regularly dispatched to pick up or deliver some item to each other. Everyone has a pocket calculator to quickly add their cut to the price they get on the phone without your seeing the numbers… and the prices for a component can vary widely, depending on where you ask, and how much effort you're willing to put into surveying the options. Visiting the market without a clear idea of what you want (and a checklist to keep track of all the prices) is just asking for trouble.

Nehru Place has also changed a lot in the past ten years. I remember a time when there was someone offering to sell me porn at every corner, but these days it's only pirated CDs ("software! games! movies!"). There are many more women buying hardware than there used to be even a few years ago, and more foreign tourists looking for cheap hardware. The older buildings are still fire-safety nightmares with exposed cabling and dilapidated elevators, but the newer ones are all shiny glass and steel with central airconditioning and CCTV surveillance.

There was once even a token effort towards access for disabled people, but it was restricted to building ramps beside the stairs in the central courtyard. (While this was happening, Rai and I almost stumbled into the first attempt: a sixty-degree slope with a deep open pit at its foot; we can't find the photographs we took, but that pit just about sums up the whole effort.)

Nehru Place also features an Udipi restaurant (among many other shops that sell a variety of fast foods) that serves the most excellent kachoris I have ever eaten.