On Sundays, Nehru Place is closed, with the shops shuttered and the plaza empty except for what appears to be two groups of beggars involved in a turf battle. While you see a few women slapping each other at the periphery of the plaza, your attention is drawn to the center, where two stick-thin men in rags writhe and flail and pin each other to the ground, oblivious to the police officer in his khaki uniform who, with the patience and deliberation of a man who has beat beggars a hundred times before and will beat them a hundred times after, pulls a nice long stick off a nearby tree and saunters up to the two men and whacks them and whacks them and you decide that maybe it’s better if you come back to Nehru Place some other day.
On every other day, Nehru Place is Delhi’s main computer market.
From the flyover, Nehru Place is a collection of concrete eighties skyscrapers clustered around a few central plazas. In the buildings themselves, a number of very legitimate businesses (including Microsoft) have very nice offices where they conduct very legitimate business. But on the ground level is India’s IT boom in action: an explosion of brand names, a cacophony of vendors, waves of young men in fashionable shirts, and ancient diesel generators that roar to life every time the power goes down.
The Indian retail economy is structured around clusters, with the best bargains and widest variety to be found in hubs where everyone is selling the same thing. There’s a spice market, an auto parts market, and a wedding invitation market, all of which house vendors resigned to papadum-thin margins in a competitive environment defined by shoppers who know that if one guy doesn’t offer his absolute lowest price, the guy in the next stall selling the exact same thing will.
Nehru Place is Delhi’s retail cluster for computers. Laptop repair specialists next to laptop repair specialists, hardware shops next to hardware shops, and printer cartridge vendors as far as the eye can see.
Everything at Nehru Place seems slightly illegitimate, probably because of the brazenness with which definitively illegitimate business is conducted. The grinning guy in the yellow shirt waves a printed catalog of pirated software at me, promising Microsoft products for the price of a Big Mac. I find him indistinguishable from the other vendors, which makes me suspect everything: are the boxes of printer paper from the back of some truck? Are the ten-dollar computer speakers built using five-dollar parts? Are the HP ink cartridges filled with genuine HP ink, or indeed any ink at all?
All levels of retail sophistication have a presence at Nehru Place, from mom-and-pop-run closets stuffed with 1990’s VGA monitors to gleaming showrooms featuring shiny new brands. I got my Apple power adapter repaired in a shadowy twelve-by-twelve explosion of wires and motherboards and empty cases; the guy who actually did the work was perched in a wooden loft, surrounded by tools, his head mere inches from the ceiling. His effort set me back three dollars, and extended the life of my power adapter exactly one week before it failed for good.
You can’t imagine that this place once didn’t exist. The ancient old man screwdriving logic boards must have learned the trade from his father; the overstuffed cubicles must contain computers dating back to the Raj. Nehru Place is the new subsumed by the old: the greatest advances of humankind brought into a market that feels centuries unchanged.