Home food away from home

We travel often to out of the way forests, where we have a choice between staying an hour’s drive away in a hotel, or living close to the forest in a homestay. Often take the latter option often enough. But more frequently than not, we find that the homestay was rather less than something to write home about. By contrast, in Tal Chhapar we found a wonderful place: basic rooms, but very clean and with great thought put into the guests’ convenience. We later found that the lady of the house took care of the rooms and the kitchen. A starring role was played by the courtyard with its large dining table across from the kitchen. The first breakfast seemed good, but entirely as expected- a stack of delicious hot aloo parathas, pickles and yoghurt, fruits and poha: very traditional, but significantly more calorie dense than our typical breakfast. We loved it, and had to make a very determined effort not to overeat. But more interesting things were in store.

When we returned after a morning’s visit to the sanctuary, our host invited me into the kitchen to meet his mother. The lady had come to visit her son (she lives in a different house in the same village) and had insisted on cooking something for the guests. I got a full explanation of the subtleties of the methi she was busy making, how she adds gur to balance the bitterness of the methi, and how the acidity of tomatoes is her own addition to the traditional dish. It wasn’t something I’d tasted before, but I could recognize the tradition, the sweet and spicy curries that are typical of the kitchens of the western desert region: right from Saurashtra up to the Punjab. A nice family business, we thought, with the special touch that the family was clearly eating the same meals as the guests.

The mother was the first in the family to run a homestay. Her son had left for Delhi to study hotel management, and spent a few years working in regular hotels around the country before tiring of city life and coming back home. She’d then decided to retire (but not entirely, since she came to cook local specialties for guests every now and then), and the son had taken over the business. We’d already discovered the important role played by his wife. His job was the business management, and added services. He ran two jeeps for the safaris and had taught himself about the local wildlife. He spend time with us teaching and learning more. He was also hosting a lady who was spending a semester in Tal Chhapar doing research on the local ecology of raptors, He seemed to be picking up little tidbits of knowledge from her. In addition he was trying to monetize the pickles and bakes of the village, by selling them from his hotel. Since we ate them every day and liked them, we didn’t have to debate much about whether to pick up a couple of packets for home.

Kausani bazaar

“Why don’t we have lunch in Kausani?” The question came up at breakfast. We would check out soon, and the drive was a short one. We’d got in late the previous evening. It seemed like the right thing to do. I remembered Kausani as a busy little town, and it had been a long time since we had seen a town, little or big. We set off towards the center of Kausani late in the morning.

It was a ghost town. A large plaster statue of a blue Shiva dressed in skins looked down at the empty bazaar in the middle of town. Lots of empty cars were parked around the junction of roads. Very few people passed by. A general store was open, a couple of ATMs, many restaurants were open and empty of customers. I walked up to the man lounging at the base of the streetlight at the very center of the town.

I’d not seen a single customer come to him, but he was very cheerful when I asked him what he was selling. Local herbs for your home garden, he said. “I’m not buying anything now,” I explained, “I just want to look.” He didn’t mind. I recognized coriander. He held up a couple of other seedlings which I hadn’t seen before. “Used in cooking,” he explained, helpfully un-enlightening. He had a plot of land just outside of town, and managed to sell a few of these every day, I gathered.

Across the street a sweet shop was just going through the motions. The owner was looking out at the empty road hopelessly. His listless eyes met mine for a moment and then drifted away. He realized the futility of waiting for customers, and hadn’t even bothered to make enough sweets to display a full counter. The many open but empty restaurants around the bazaar was a reminder of the complete collapse of Kausani’s tourism dominated economy.

In spite of the hardships, construction work had clearly not halted in the neighbourhood. The one shop which was definitely open and doing business was a hardware shop, with a shed full of sacks of cement outside. The situation reminded me something I’d read long ago. Talking of export oriented economies, Raghuram Rajan wrote in his book Fault Lines, “Unfortunately, even as exporters like Germany and Japan have become large and rich, the habits and institutions they acquired which growing have left them unable to generate strong sustainable domestic demand and become more balanced in their growth.” Excessive reliance on tourism is similar.

One place had bucked the trend: a small bakery which I’ve written about before. Ramesh had to leave a job in a hotel somewhere abroad and come home for the pandemic. He opened this bakery, catering to a daily demand for bread, biscuits, and a continuous trickle of orders for birthday cakes. He and the baker were cheerful. Why do cakes sell but not sweets? There was a clue in the prices; cakes are more expensive. The pandemic had not been even-handed. The poor suffered more, many lost jobs and livelihood. Those who can eat cake have also lost, but haven’t been wiped out. We had coffee and biscuits as we chatted with Ramesh, and decided to come back for lunch later.

Mandu Village

The village of Mandu was barely noticeable when we first visited eight years ago. We saw children swimming in the tank inside Baz Bahadur’s palace. We listened to a singer inside the halls of the same palace. We saw people working in the gardens and in the ruins. We saw a few bicycles, but locals mostly walked around the citadel. We could only get food in proper sit-down restaurants, and I remember feeling impatient at the amount of time it took them to get us a tea. The largest employer seemed to be the Archaelogical Survey, which was in charge of maintenance of the citadel. We saw many tourists, but most were from nearby, and had arrived by bus.

Things have changed a little. Outside the Jami Masjid we saw a line of food stalls. As we had chai standing in front of one, I took the photo which you see above. Motorbikes are now everywhere. We saw lots of tourists who had driven up there. The village now announces itself in rows of shops: we walked into one to look at Bagh printed cloth. The Archeological Survey continues to provide employment to many, but the tourist trade has opened up to accommodate the swelling ranks of the middle class. As a result, there is more money in the village now.