When the hordes descend into the heart of Connaught Place, New Delhi’s business district, on a gloomy Sunday evening, it threatens to rain. Near the Starbucks on N block, the cars fuse into a long sheet of metal, harried drivers honking haplessly. Out of the flights of stairs leading from the underground bowels of Rajiv Chowk metro station, the hordes keep pouring. Sometimes, people emerge in pairs; at other times, in great gangs, gallumphing across the pavements with their noses buried in their smartphones.
The hordes come from far and near. A dozen members of a third-year engineering class at a Noida university come to see if they can catch a Snorlax, a rotund, bi-pedal Pokémon that doesn’t make an appearance often; a group of sharply-dressed Vasant Vihar grandmothers who have been obsessed with Pokémon Go for a week shriek in delight when they spot a Pinsir, a horned creature that they say rarely shows up in South Delhi; a young couple married last week says they have come to make their Pokémon Go debut.
Nearly 2,000 people turned up at the Pokéwalk organised by The Education Tree, a youth-led community based in Delhi that organises extracurricular activities for the city’s students. “We focus on whatever’s trending at the moment,” said Smriti Singhal, co-founder of The Education Tree. She’s standing at the corner of N block wearing a Poké Ball badge on her bright red T-shirt and trying to answer questions from dozens of players who mob her. Last year, The Education Tree organised flash mobs in support of net neutrality. And now, it’s Pokémon Go.
On The Education Tree’s Facebook page, over 16,000 people said they were interested in attending Sunday’s Pokéwalk. And And while less than a third of that actually showed up, the organisers claim that this was the country’s largest ever gathering of Pokémon Go players.
“I do think that this [Pokémon] phenomenon is fleeting,” laughs Singhal. “Once the novelty wears off, only the hardcore players are going to continue playing.”
Rashid, who didn’t want to say his last name, has been selling posters in Connaught Place for the last five years. “I’ve never seen anything like this before,” he says. Rashid started preparing for the hordes for a week, ever since he caught wind of the Connaught Place Pokéwalk. His regular stock of Hollywood posters had been replaced with Pokémon posters that he’s selling for 200 bucks a pop. By 6 PM, an hour after the Pokéwalk officially starts, he’s sold out of Team Valor and Team Instinct posters. Another one that’s selling like hot cakes says: “Pokémon Go is my cardio.”
But Rashid isn’t the only one cashing in on the Pokéwalk. Connaught Place is jam-packed with people trying to peddle everything from Pokémon T-shirts (Rs. 250 each) to bike stickers (Rs. 80 each) that say things like “Caution: I am on the Go!” Raj Kumar, who swings his Mother Dairy ice cream cart by Inner Circle every evening, and has never heard of Pokémon Go before, says he is astounded by the scene around him but he isn’t complaining — he’s sold more ice cream in the last 60 minutes than he’s sold all day.
An hour and a half into the Pokéwalk, the sky flashes with lightning, and tiny drops of rain spatter the hordes below — just enough to make them wipe their screens and walk slightly faster, but not enough to bring the hunt to a standstill. Pokémon pop up constantly— the organisers have activated the in-game Lure Modules at each of the areas seven PokéStops to attract more monsters — and you can’t walk more than a few steps before running into a Geodude, a Ponyta, a Staryu, a Diglett, or one of the omnipresent Rattatas that scurry about like wild rats. There’s too many monsters to pass up on for a drizzle.
At some point, the action moves off the streets into Central Park, Connaught’s Place pièce de résistance with a 200-foot tall flagpole at its centre. The hordes storm its grounds, flattening the grass and leaving couples vying for a bit of privacy fuming in their wake.
“It’s totally crazy,” says Swayamdeepta Sanyal, a software engineer at Zomato. Sanyal is at level 21 — something of a feat in the Pokémon Go universe where levelling up gets harder and harder as you progress — which, he says, he achieved by playing the game for three hours everyday for the last three weeks. “The building besides my office has both a PokéStop and a gym,” he says. “So it’s really convenient.”
In Central Park, Sanyal captures his 1008th Pokémon — a rather commonly-found Pidgey — but says that he is a proud owner of a Vaporeon, a rare, water-type Pokémon with a tail shaped like a dragon’s.
“Excuse me,” says a voice. “Have you guys seen an electro type Pokémon around here? Or a ghost type?” Lakshay Varma, a tall, bearded analyst who works at AirBnb looks quizzically at Sanyal. “There may be a Voltorb around,” Sanyal tells him. “But I haven’t seen a ghost type one around.”
The pair starts exchanging tips on the best places in Delhi to go Pokémon hunting. Sanyal recommends the lake in Hauz Khas Village because it has “tons of PokéStops and many rare water-type Pokémon around.” Varma recommends Lodhi Gardens, and Gurgaon’s Leisure Valley Park, both of which are “excellent places to catch powerful ground-type Pokémon”.
In the distance, the hordes cheer. A Charizard, a rare, fire-breathing Pokémon has been spotted near the Central Park fountains, which are a PokéStop, and there’s a mad rush to catch the beast before it flies away. Someone stumbles. There’s an anguished cry, and an iPhone goes hurtling through the air. It falls with a soft thump on a patch of thick grass, and its owner, a thin girl in a polka-dotted top races towards it. She picks it up, puts a hand to her chest, and sighs with relief — the phone is intact. Then, she races back and melts into the crowd.
Photographs: Pranav Dixit