Walking, waking

When The Family told me I was looking like a couch potato, sprawled across a sofa, remote in hand, binge watching Network, I realized it was true, and I wasn’t really enjoying myself. I’d stopped going out in the wave of omicron infections which swept the neighbourhood. But that had passed in two weeks. It was time for a walk again. So, after finishing my meetings in the afternoon I went out for a walk from Kala Ghoda to VT through the small lanes that thread the old business area of Mumbai. Right at the start I realized that the city was recovering well from the pandemic. The stock exchange and the high court must have just closed for the day, and the streets were filled with brokers and lawyers having a small celebratory snack.

Business was starting up again. The numbness after the horrendous second wave seems to have disappeared after third. The city is almost fully vaccinated, and the lesson that vaccines protect effectively has been learnt. A new shop was being built in this road behind the stock exchange. I looked at the moon gates under construction. They looked incongruous in the four-storeyed Art Deco building called Seksaria Chambers. As soon as you look up you see the clean sweeping lines, the beautiful geometric detailing, the simple but elegant rectangular windows of this 1930s era style. Some changes have accumulated on the upper floors: box grills around windows, ugly air conditioning units, but unlike the street level, the architecture is still visible. Just across the road is a building in which the grand sweep of the Arts Moderne style of Surya Mahal is hidden behind boxy windows tacked on later. Interestingly, the architects in Mumbai often used corrugated metal to protect against rain. That feature is still visible at the top of the buildings.

I went around the stock exchange on a road which is lined with more Art Deco on one side and the old style traditional architecture on the other. Fort Chambers C has a delightful terrace grille just above the street level. Just across from it is a nameless but wonderful old building. I often stop to admire the structure: cast iron beams and pillars bear the load of a superstructure made from wood and sheet metal. The metal has been worked to reproduce the look of traditional wooden fretwork. I wish this modernization of the traditional style had been worked out fully. But, like its contemporary cousin, Art Nouveau in the west, it was arrested by the new construction techniques that were invented in the next decade. Just before the style died, it began to take on the more minimal looks that you see in the balconies just across from it (the last photo in the set above). This T-junction in the road is one of my favourite places to stand and muse about the turns that architecture never took.

This area is deserted enough in the evenings for guerilla artists to constantly try something new. The last months have been quiet, though I did find one piece of street art which I hadn’t seen before.

I stopped to pick up a coffee before walking on. Some months ago I’d photographed a restaurant which I thought had closed forever (photo on the left above). Now it has opened again. The place has a new signboard, and every surface has been repainted. I take it to be a hopeful sign. The city seems to be coming back to life.

Walking on I came to an older part of town, perhaps half a century older. The two parts are separated by a Parsi memorial in the center of a cross road. On Sundays the junction becomes a cricket ground. Now it was a place full of hawkers and scooter repairmen. I threaded between them to take a photo of one of the Parsi sphinxes around it. I’d never noticed before that its flowing moustache and beard hide a receding chin.

This the older part is Bora Bazaar, an area built before the spaces around it were cleared for the new construction during the cotton boom caused by the American civil war. Today I was not interested in the monumental offices and government buildings that came with the boom. Instead I looked at the homes built by the newly rich. In the 1880s, as F. W. Stevens and his ilk were developing the Indo-Saracenic style (you can see a bit of it in a dome of the GPO in a photo below), the native Indian architecture had already started on the upward expansion that Mumbai still retains. Four and five stories became more common as the traditional stone was replaced by lighter brick. These brick walls still carried the lovely ornate wooden box balconies that you see across western India. Notice the beautiful traditional roof line in the photo, raised high above the street. The regular rows of simple rectangular windows on the side face are innovations adopted in the city from the British. This was a lovely new style, which I wish had developed into the 21st century. The wooden window frames migrated for a while into Mumbai’s Art Deco style, but eventually disappeared as pre-fab elements became available.

The roads were beginning to empty out. The pandemic mentality is not completely gone. People still go home early. A last chai, a vada pav before the commute, and then cross the road to CST to catch a train; that’s the to-do list for most people. I could just walk back home. This had been better than binge watching an inane serial.

Khaugarh

A vendor in Amritsar told me to forget about my diet, now that I was in Khaugarh, the city of food. This is good advise, and you probably know it already. Before my trip I did the usual bit of due diligence: did a search for what to eat in Amritsar. The result was a set of web pages which had clearly copied from each other. Take the suggestions as guides, they are quite good. But be prepared to improvise. If street food is your thing then you’ll find amrit, ambrosia, in the maze of lanes around the Golden Temple. This was a walk I’d been looking forward to, and I can do worse than to present it by time of the day.

Breakfast

The featured photo shows a kulcha maker sizing me up as a potential customer. The kulcha is the default breakfast in town. There are whole lanes devoted entirely to kulcha and chhole, teeming with people in the mornings. But the shops run all day, turning out kulchas by the minute, as a big handi of chhole slow cooks constantly. I loved the variety, the doodhi kulchas and the stuffed ones. If you don’t fancy chhole, try it out with a bowl of the wonderful yoghurt that these places have.

A mid-morning snack

Why not a kulcha again? I loved the aggressive lean of the chhole-kulcha guy in the little stall he’d set up in an alley. There’s also lovely stuff like samosas and fried bread. We chickened, and had a chai. This wasn’t for the faint-hearted; it was thick with milk and cream, the tea leaves boiled to extract the last bit of tannin from it, and intensely sweet. A local told us disdainfully that this guy mixes water in the tea. A different stall nearby would have boiled the tea leaves in milk. If you want to eat healthy there are carts which will press juice out of the fruits of your choice. I always long to mix carrot with sugarcane and lime, but I passed it up.

We passed up kulfas (large servings of kulfi) and had the fantastic lassi only once. These would have been very filling, and we did want to try out lunch and dinner in some of the dhabas and restaurants around the city.

Early evenings

A while before sunset on a winter’s day you could begin to feel the need for a little sustenance. There are multiple options. A group of farmers who’d just returned from Delhi were having gol gappa. I have not doubt that the Amritsari version is special, but I gave it a pass. Pakoras were being fried, yams were being roasted, and two carts promised a special bhel puri from Bombay. But we headed to the jalebiwala. I chickened when I saw people buying them by quarter kilos for a roadside snack. But The Family went ahead and asked for one to taste. Noticing the bliss on her face another customer told her “I’m forbidden from having them, but I come here once a week.” Every vendor has their adherent. These fans are not wrong. The cooks who last are very good.

Pre-dinner snack

When you walk through the lanes here, looking for good angles for shots of the famous and less well-known Gurudwaras, it will be time for dinner before you know it. But to keep you going from the time you realize it is time, to when you actually get to your dinner, there are options. One guy was making what he called veg burgers. In Mumbai we would call it vada pav. But the star of the evening was clearly milk with saffron: kesari dodh. People had it in large glasses by itself, and with kulfi, jalebi, gulab jamun, or pinni.

For us it was time to look for an interesting dinner. There are so many options!

Foraging

The Family is a great forager. My shopping trips start with a list, and, sometimes, when some of the things on the list are not available, I replace them with the nearest equivalent. The contents of the bag do not surprise anyone. When The Family leaves home, I have no idea what she will get back. The trip that she took to work also yielded some surprises. A few landed up on our table instantly. The samosas and the hot vadas (without pav, unfortunately) were what I liked best. She put it on the last remaining piece of the first table setting we’d bought together. The usual rule of ceramics seems to be holding up: a chipped plate never breaks.

The fluffy hot dhoklas were another surprise. She’d also managed a peek into the kitchen where they had been prepared. As we demolished a large part of her findings, I listened to her stories of foot operated hand sanitizer dispensers, thin crowds in favourite shops, and clean kitchens. The first wave of infections is not over in Mumbai yet. As long as people remain masked, and spend most of their time distancing from each other, there should be no disastrous second wave.

What can you eat in Lonavala

Lonavala is full of shops which say “Maganlal Chikki” in large friendly letters, usually gold on red. The Family never fails to tell me that these shops are fake and the original Maganlal’s can be found in the market just outside the Lonavala railway station. In fact, it is on the main road, and not hard to find. (The sadhu in front of the shop is not a fixture).

I normally wouldn’t name a brand, but the fact of the matter is that the generic chikki no longer exists in Lonavala. A decade ago you could find several brand names. But the name Maganlal drove out almost everything else. The Family believes that all the other shops make their own chikki and sell it under the name Maganlal, and nothing can be done about it because the name was never protected. I’m not a connoisseur of chikki; they all taste nice but indistinguishable to me. My theory is that Maganlal has a large factory which make chikki in bulk and supplies it to all the other vendors. Every old hand from Mumbai says that there is one shop which is better than all the others. When you ask, each one names a different shop. It just reinforces my belief that all chikki is the same.

Cooper's fudge shop in Lonavala

Instead of being involved in these wars of faith, I’ve found the complete cultural antithesis: walnut fudge. There is exactly one shop in Lonavala which makes and sells fudge, and that is Cooper’s. It also stands next to the railway station, and is hard to miss. When I discovered Cooper’s it was presided over by a cantankerous Parsi gentleman who would dispense the fudge with utter randomness. I’ve never managed to get more than 100 grams of fudge from him. The Family has occasionally been handed a quarter kilo packet. He would open at 11 in the morning and close as soon as the small batch of fudge he’d made got over. I was relieved to see that he has been replaced at the counter by his daughter. But she put me in my place, literally. The counter was surrounded by customers. I waited until one left, and quickly slid into his place. The lady gave me a withering look and said “You will have to wait your turn, you know. Just because there is no queue does not mean that I have lost track of who came first.” She did give me a kilo of walnut fudge, though.

Vada pav with dry galic chutney, chilis and slice onions

The one lovely bit of food which remains gloriously unbranded is the ghat special: vada pav. The lovely sour-dough roll called the pav goes wonderfully with hot batter-fried potato vada. You always get a generous helping of a dry garlic chutney with the combination in the hills. Its just the thing to keep you going on a long walk.