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Of Interruptions and Distinctions – Hotel Alka Classic

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Written by Riya S, 21st August 2020

There is a recurring error in my use of grammar. To differentiate between two things, I often say that Thing A is different than Thing B, as opposed to, Thing A is different from Thing B. ‘Than,’ is a conjunction or preposition that introduces the second element in a comparison. ‘From,’ on the other hand, is a jack-of-all-trades linguistic trick that governs the relationship between two words. It indicates the point at which a journey, action, or motion begins.

Hotel Alka Classic is different from everything and everywhere. And in writing about this singular anomaly, I have put myself in the unpleasant position of describing and distinguishing its timelessness. From not-Alka to Alka, there is a distance that needs to be covered by both the mind and body—you have to leave everything you know and trust behind, and step into what you are going to find and accept. 

I was introduced to Alka last year in the evening of the annual Pride Parade in Connaught Place with the words, “God, you’re so late just find me at the Lesbian Bar,” and click. I stared at my phone somewhat confused, remorseful at having failed to locate my friend in the crowd and so angering him. But back to the ‘lesbian bar’ bit—I had heard these words used to describe this place in C.P. before, but anything more precise evaded me. It seemed that it could either be a speakeasy or an urban legend—synonyms in the capital. 

I called him again, this time with a humility only a Bihari in Delhi could muster, “Uh, does this place have a name or…?” The virtues of tracking a location on Google Maps were explained to me in tones only a couple of eye rolls short of patronising. The pin mentioned two words that befit luxury: hotel and classic, but another that signaled a leak: Alka. Not a Taj, or an Oberoi, or a Leela—illustrious Indian names that betrayed their Indianness to meet the rest of the world. ‘Alka’, on the other hand, sounded like a saloon. 

This ageing building situated in Block-P stands in a rather unassuming way, the manner in which all Indian family hotels present their offerings: you come with your family, you order soup because you can, you pop way too much saunf while waiting for your card and then you leave. Nothing untoward happens here in this perfectly respectable setting of an outing. Feeling quite the opposite of aroused, I walked past the glass doors, and the properly uniformed doorman in my highly improper costume. Was this really the place where I was going to celebrate sexuality or subversion? It’d be quite the scene if it were.

Right across the reception desk, the neon words “Pure Veg Restaurant” were looking at me the way words in neon usually do. I would be more in place situated in a morgue. “She knew how to party,” they’d say, looking at the rhinestones on my face. Except here I was, on the wrong side of the 70s dressed like a woman up to no good and with nowhere else to go. Thankfully for everyone in the gallery, a waiter pointed me to the staircase saying, “party upar chal rahi hai.”

As I ascended, I could hear Delhi laugh– a chorus of voices was singing Jumma Chumma De De. At once weightless, I joined in. The hallway to the bar had a fleshy, epidermal texture and flavour. Gaudy red and white wallpaper plastered the arches, concealing whatever time could have tampered with. The bar itself was populated by people who came out to see and be seen. I had barely been there a minute and a server had made a beeline towards me to ask if I would like a drink. Halfway through my order, my friend screeched from across the room to add his dirty order of vodka to mine. 

He justified his interruption by informing me that here, women are served first, regardless of how much time men (straight or not) have spent waiting. “Historically,” he tells me, “Alka has been hosting these dimly lit, vivid parties every year, after Pride.” I learned that at least on a day like this, Alka is a cruising spot, and so I forgave his clunky sidecar of caustic alcohol to my order. 

For me, thinking about spaces often begins with thinking about the people who have made them so. At the time of writing this essay, I’m still unsure if hosting a gathering such as this was a conscious managerial decision on Alka’s part sometime in the last twelve years of the Delhi Queer Pride Parade or if it developed organically as a place that just lets one be. There are no formal invites or flyers, or obnoxious commercial recommendations. Suggestions and proposals seem to have solely been advocated by word of mouth. A woman I had the pleasure of meeting there told me that her mother and her friends used to visit the bar when they were in university as well. She asked me if I knew about the twenty-year trend cycle that fashion goes through—you have to wait twenty years before a thing is in again—like fanny packs and Cuban shirts. She said that Alka has defied the proclivities of capital, biding its time through successive generations.  It had been waiting for us all this while, and we had finally caught up to it. 

While writing this piece, I could only hear Stefon, the drug-addled, club-hopping, queer City Correspondent on Weekend Update by SNL in my head. Watch this sketch to find out why. 

When you distinguish two things with a little help from the word, ‘than,’ you create an imagined level playing field where the act of measuring resemblances and incongruities becomes possible. You can almost weigh the existence of two independent entities on the balance scale of comparison. Such an estimation implies sameness to a degree where comparison enables a uniformity of sorts. This is why ‘than’ fails as a conjunction: it attempts to connect the grammatical units of a clause when Alka eludes grammar and relatability altogether. It is strikingly singular—separate from regular conceptions of what it means to be on a night out. 

On other days when I’ve visited the place, I’ve laboured over theories on what leads people here, and what makes them stay. I had been asking others how they had met Alka, and how long they had been acquainted. “During the first stay, the staff were at least cordial. The second stay was a different story. The staff who helped me with the luggage must have been gangsters prior to working at the hotel—rude, threatening, intimidating; no respect, uncivilised,” explained Joe Prasad, as part of his honest review on Cleartrip. When was the last time you called the staff at a hotel former ‘gangsters’? Were bell boys capable of criminal behaviour, general tardiness and petty thievery aside? Some rooms here witness money change hands several times, and nights lustily slip by. This hotel accrues its repute from different kinds of people and situations, offering in return an intermission from the everyday. It made me think about how we have been trained to expect a certain kind of sanitation from hotels; everything is so clean and so white that even a speck of drama could turn critical their pristinely peaceful condition. In all of the testimonials that I have sought, people seem to be fondly in agreement on one thing- Alka repels the tranquil. 

On its sightless balcony, I’ve chanced upon numerous conversations and moments of unbridled amusement. However, it is the quiet and the sheer sense of wonder which sweeps over me that I long for the most. Something about this place is unreal. People tend to say that a thing attains character to the extent that something is off about it. There is something only slightly off about Hotel Alka Classic. Once you’ve entered its ambiance, you are incorporated into its atmosphere, forgetting that in the past you were a part of someplace known as the ‘outside’. You are now one with the sealed-in nineteenth-century air, like the dust that rises up from the colonial furniture in a country club. 

Struggling with the illness and unsettlement caused by curiosity, I now question myself repeatedly: what is it about this bar that has allowed it to take permanent residence in my head and heart? I think the answer lies within the synonymic range of the word and feeling—time. With some help from its playlist, Jagjit Singh for When You are Intoxicated and Sad, and its oval mirrors and bulbous sofas that host entire ecosystems, Alka achieves an irregular pause in the motion of a machine. It does not speak of nostalgia, but articulates it, so that its every rush is muted. To confuse the hotel’s seduction with commodified romanticism of the past would be brutal violence not only to Alka but to all other crevices of Delhi that remain unmoved by the call of the present. They are unbothered by value—perhaps because there is value in their inexorability.

In a changing world where we constantly manufacture what we desire, the past, the comfort of knowing it, and the ability to reproduce it is in huge demand and in supply. So, we gravitate towards wilfully selling and buying nostalgia. This is a simulated reality. Hotel Alka Classic interrupts this urgency—this wanton you-want-it-you-got-it attitude—to always tease its visitors with a take-it-or-leave-it one instead. Its passivity in the face of the constantly active makes it a rare find that does not play hard to get—it doesn’t play at all. 

The pandemic has demanded an outrageous overhaul of the normal in the name of survival. Our continued existence begets change; Hotel Alka Classic and other such ageless fever dreams of places default on the movement of time and reinvention. And now I fear they will have to pay a high price.

Featured Image Credits: @bysiddarth

Experience Further: I was very lucky to watch Lari Warshong perform this track live once while I was at university, and I’ve subsequently played it to myself whenever I’ve been en route to Alka. It occupies a justifiably permanent spot on my Delhi Metro playlist as well. 

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Anant Shah (just as his Instagram bio says) has always been interested in connecting people though their different cultures. He is drawn to this goal, given his background of a family of artists, as well as his work at several different organisations such as the People Tree with Orijit Sen, The Conflictorium in Ahmedabad and The UN (AIDS) Communications and Global Advocacy Team in Geneva. As a graduate of History and International relations at Ashoka University, he co-founded and set up the Ashoka Literature festival in 2019. Longing to increase this critical discourse on contemporary and traditional Indian Cultures he finally decided to start InCulture.

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