My Blog

My blog is like my private diary. Just that I have made it public.

Here, you will find original pieces of mine, that have not been published anywhere else.  I made a beginning just recently and am feeling very happy about it. There are hundreds of stories buzzing around in my head. In the coming days, I will be translating them into blog posts and putting them up here.

My blog is devoted to subjects and themes I am most passionate about: travel, food, parenting and entrepreneurship.

I hope you thoroughly enjoy these pieces. Do leave your comments and reactions to them in the comment boxes provided under each blog post. Happy reading. 🙂

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Travel and Places

A veggie’s guide to Lucknow’s signature dishes

Lucknow. Even if you are not part of the regular travelling set, chances are that you would have heard of this city. After all, it is one of the most feted cities on the historical and cultural map of India. There are hundreds of accounts out there that extol the glory of this city. Lucknow was founded by Kanishk Gupta. Though it came under the heel of several dynasties over the centuries, it most popularly known as the ‘Nawabon ka shahar’ – the city of Nawabs, erstwhile rulers of the kingdom of Awadh (the Brits pronounced it ‘Oudh’). The Nawabs lorded over Awadh during the 18th and 19th centuries. Most of the heritage structures (palaces, tombs, mosques, mansions, clock tower, city gates and mourning houses) you see in the city today date back to that period.

The Nawabs were hedonists. It is well known that they had a large appetite for wine, women and song. I like to call this ‘sharab, shabab and rabab’ in Hindustani, the local language of Lucknow. To this, I’d add another word ‘kabab’ (a mutton-based delicacy, but also a larger metaphor for food itself) to complete the description. It would be spot on to say that ‘sharab, shabab, rabab and kabab’ captures the long-held worldview of many of the city’s denizens.

Most articles on the food in Lucknow make it out to be a city for the carnivores. Ask someone what food this Nawabi city is famous for and pat comes the reply ‘Kababs and biryani.’ A few others will perhaps add ‘sheermal and korma’. Except sheermal, all these are meat preparations.

What is not mentioned with equal fervor though, is the lesser-known fact that the city is a haven for vegetarians also. Over a few visits to the city in the last decade, I have sampled the best vegetarian fare that this city has to offer. Which is why I thought a guide like this will help others who visit the city.

When you are in Lucknow next, don’t forget to dig into these. Please note that you do get other vegetarian dishes too in Lucknow – including regular North Indian staples. The list here only mentions my favourites from among the signature dishes of this wonderful city. Also, the list of eateries I have recommended is by no means exhaustive.

So, here goes.

 

Tokri Chaat: Tokri means ‘basket’ in Hindi. So, this is literally chaat that is placed inside a basket. But, wait. It’s not what you think – not a wicker basket. It is an edible basket that is stuffed with chaat. So, you gorge on the chaat and finally, gobble up the basket too. This dish is more of a packaging innovation, to put it in Marketing parlance, because the ingredients are those you’d find in a regular chaat all over North India – diced potatoes, imli (tamarind) chutney, dhaniya/pudina ki chutney (chutney made of coriander or mint leaves), dahi (curd), etc. Still, there is some novelty here and it does taste good. What’s more, it is quite filling, too.

Where? Royal Café, Hazratganj; Madhur Milan near Hanuman Mandir in Aminabad.

 

Tokri chaat

 

The messier, the better. Curd and pudina chutney overflowing the edible ‘tokri’.

 

Tokris awaiting their turn. They are kept on a large griddle to keep them warm until their time comes.

 

Matar ki tikki 

Tikki (flattened patties) is a common enough dish all over North India. But in most places, they are made out of aloo (mashed potato). Lucknow though, offers up an interesting variant of this streetside dish – the mattar tikki. This is a spicy patty made from a mixture of mashed green peas, potatoes, green chillies and spices. The patty is shallow fried in a pool of oil on a large tawa (griddle) until the edge and both sides turn crisp and golden-brown. The inside however, remains soft. The crisp and soft contrast works wonders on your tastebuds. Best eaten with pudina (mint) or dhaniya (coriander) chutney and a sweet-and-sour chutney made from jaggery and tamarind.

Where? Shukla Chaat House, Hazratganj; Ram Narayan Tiwari & Sons, Aminabad.

 

Yeh tikki hain yaa tower? (Are these tikkis or towers?)

Mattar ki tikkis on the griddle at Shukla Chaat House.

 

Sharing space with tokris, aloo tikkis and other snacks.

 

Tahiri – this is a wondrously flavourful rice dish made with seasonal vegetables and masalas. For want of a better description, you can think of it as a vegetarian counter to the biryani. Try peeping into the history of this dish and you might lose your bearings in no time. Legends abound. One of them goes that the Nawabs of Awadh wanted a meatless equivalent of the biryani (Nawabs and meatless? Go figure.), which is why they had their cooks create Tahiri. Another tale says that it actually originated from Hyderabad (though these days, one can find hardly any trace of this dish in the city of the Charminar ). According to yet another, Tahiri is a descendent of the pulao.

In any case, one whiff of fragrance from this dish will dismiss all thoughts about its genesis and history and make you drool.

The Tahiri I have had in Lucknow came with perfectly cooked long-grained Basmati, with a mix of cauliflower, sliced carrots, green peas and chunks of potato, all of which were first shallow-fried in butter. The secret to its flavor and taste though is the fine blend of hand-ground spices made afresh every day. Cardamom, turmeric, ginger, bay leaf, black pepper corns, cumin seeds, garlic and ginger come together to unleash magic on your palate.

No wonder then, that on each trip to this city, I must the Tahiri at least once.

Where? Heritage Hotel, Charbagh. There definitely will be other outlets in town serving this dish, even though I have tasted it only at Hotel Heritage. Ask the locals and they will guide you.

 

Tahiri, served with thick onion raita and mango pickle. Just before I waded into it.

 

Poori-aloo Without question, this is one of the most popular breakfast dishes in the eateries of Lucknow. Why, some of the joints start serving it from as early as six am and keep it up till about eleven. Some others serve it through the day.

A paste of green chillies, ginger, asafoetida, cumin seeds and curd is mixed with wheat flour to prepare the dough for these pooris. The dough is rolled into small balls, which are flattened and fried in a deep pan. And out come crisp, mildly spicy, mildly tangy pooris. These are eaten with a gravy-based potato curry, a spicy chickpea curry and sometimes, pickle too.

Pooris are slightly high on oil, but don’t let that stop you. After all, you will not find this particular taste in many other places.

Where? Ratti Lal’s in Lalbagh.

 

Pooris, aloo ki subzi, chholey and mixed vegetable pickle.

Paan

In most parts of North India, this is the dessert to end all desserts, though it is officially not classified as ‘dessert’. It is made by wrapping a few leaves of the betel vine around areca nuts and slaked lime. You can ask the paanwaala to add tobacco to this mixture for an added bite. You’ll find locals idling in the shade, chewing paan after a hearty meal. One theory goes that the juice of the areca nuts that are wrapped inside the paan leaves has digestive properties. Though this claim is contested by some people, what is not contested by anybody is the fact that paan gives you a mild high.

If you have a sweet tooth, the meetha paan (sweet paan) may be just the thing for you.

 Where? Tiny paan shops all over the city. Just look around from anywhere and chances are, you will spot one.

 

The famed paan. Pop it into your mouth and get ready for a pungent taste and a burst of flavours.

Thandai

The food you get in Lucknow is – let’s face it – as oily and spicy as it is delicious. Add to it, the hot and humid weather of the city. And so, you are going to need a refreshing liquid every now and then. A liquid that keeps you cool and helps you continue eating and exploring. And that liquid answers to the name of ‘thandai’. Eat, drink, explore, eat, drink, explore….that’s the mantra. ‘Thandai’ is a good name for this drink, given that the word means ‘cold’

‘Thandai’ translates to ‘coolness’ in Hindi. And the drink delivers on that promise, straight and simple. It is an off-white, frothy concoction made from an intriguing mixture of ingredients: almonds, fennel seeds, watermelon kernel, rose petals, pepper, white poppy seeds, cardamom, saffron, milk and sugar. There is no fixed recipe for this drink, each joint feeling free to add its own twist to the concoction. Which makes it all the more intriguing.
Where? Raja ki Thandai, a small shop in the Chowk market. It has been around for several decades. It comes in two sizes: regular (chota) and large (bada).

Psst – for a dose of intoxication, ask him for the bhaang thandai, infused with cannabis.

 

Sweet, frothy thandai waiting to be downed.

_________________________________________________________________________

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The thing about love
People

The thing about love

 

Love wrings your heart like it is a wet towel. It is the soup that warms your insides.

It is midsummer night’s rain. It is the winter sunshine.

Love makes you go weak in the knees. It steels your resolve.

Love is in the kisses and the cusses.

Love is the giving and in the taking.

Love is in the batter and the banter.

Love makes you itchy and restless. It is the thing that lets her be.

Love is in the dance and in the fight.

Love is in the silence and in the laughter.

Love is in the support and the respect.

Love is young. Love is ageless.

Love is in knowing that she is different from you, yet equal to you.

Love is on your lips. It is in your eyes.

Love is in coming home.

Love is what you serve even when you are hungry.

Love is what brings you closer. It is what makes you go the distance.

Love is the thing that keeps you alive. For love, you are ready to die.

That’s the thing about love. It might seem bloody complicated, but it isn’t. It is the truest, straightest, simplest thing ever.

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THE THING ABOUT LOVE
People

THE THING ABOUT LOVE

 

 

 

Love wrings your heart like it is a wet towel. It also warms your insides.

It is midsummer night’s rain. It is the winter sunshine.

Love makes you go weak in the knees. It steels your resolve.

Love is in the kisses and the cusses.

Love is the giving and in the taking.

Love is in the batter and the banter.

Love makes you itchy and restless. It is the thing that lets her be.

Love is in the dance and in the fight.

Love is in the silence and in the laughter.

Love is in the support and the respect.

Love is young. Love is ageless.

Love is in knowing that she is different from you, yet equal to you.

Love is on your lips. It is in your eyes.

Love is in coming home.

Love is what you serve even when you are hungry.

Love is what brings you closer. It is what makes you go the distance.

Love is the thing that keeps you alive. For love, you are ready to die.

 

That’s the thing about love. It might seem bloody complicated, but it isn’t. It is the truest, straightest, simplest thing ever.

Happy Valentine’s Day to you.

 

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Chasing the ruins.
Travel and Places

Chasing the ruins.

 

It was a Sunday like any other. But a run like no other.

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It is 6:30 am on a cool Sunday morning. I take a deep breath and look around. I see a hundred other souls like me, most of them kitted out in T-Shirts, track pants or shorts and shoes. Some of them look bleary-eyed, but the rest are on their toes already, limbering up for the run that is about to start. The place is mostly dark, but the area where we have assembled is awash with light.

The MC is on stage, talking about the run – how this run route is different from conventional routes, what to do after the run is over, etc. She then takes the assembled crowd through a basic warm-up exercises. Most people seem to be in their twenties, thirties or forties. But, I spot a few senior citizens too. One lady in particular catches my eye. She seems to be in her seventies, a little frail and slightly bent with age. She is wearing a saree, but her feet are shod in running shoes. She is accompanied by a couple of much younger people – her grandchildren, perhaps? I salute her spirit inwardly as I do my stretches.

And then, it is time. All of us move to the starting point, where a chorus of girls starts an enthusiastic (and screechy) countdown. …4,3,2,1….and GO.

Slowly, like vehicles responding to the changing traffic signal in a city, we start moving. One foot in front of the other, nudging, weaving, avoiding other feet. The crowd, which initially moved as a single block of humanity, starts breaking up a little distance ahead, as the runners start hitting their stride. The first flush of pink dusts the horizon.

 

 

The more serious runners take off at a reasonably high speed, leaving the rest of us behind. Many others (the in-betweens) are running more leisurely. And bringing up the rear are the laggards, including yours truly. Honestly, I am not here to run a timed race, eager to better my previous best and put my fitness to the test. I am treating this more like a pyjama party. And I have dressed the part too – in blue-and-white checked pyjamas, a regular T-shirt and a pair of very frayed walking shoes. What’s more, I am going to run with my camera in hand; probably the only person here who will do so!

My main agenda in coming on this run is to catch this beautiful place at a very early hour in the morning, see some of the parts that I did not see in my previous visit here and take some photos in the soft daylight. This is something I have always wanted to do, but I am hoping that the tag of a ‘run’ and the presence of a few hundred other people will motivate me to get off the starting blocks so early in the morning.

After all, it is not often that you get a chance to run through the UNESCO World Heritage Site of Hampi, taking in the beauty of its medieval ruins in the first light of the day.

I shuffle my feet and trot slowly round the first bend in the route, saluting Lord Virupaksha who is on my right. Even at this early hour, the temple is thronged by several devotees and tourists. By the time I climb the incline next to Kadalekallu Ganesha, I am huffing mildly. I stop and take a couple of photos of this small shrine, as the first rays of the sun fall on it. I marvel that it is so well preserved, inspite of being 500 years old. The slim stone pillars contain carvings that depict day-to-day life from those times.

 

From here, the run route hangs a left and then a right, taking you past the Krishna Temple (also built in the 16th century).  The rising sun lights up the temple’s finely-carved entrance. It seems to be in fine fettle, considering its vintage, though some restoration work is going on. Historians believe that an idol of Balakrishna was brought from Orissa and enshrined here. Across the road from the temple, the long, multi-pillared pavilion of Krishna Bazaar makes for a dramatic vista. I simply have to stop again to take in the beautiful scene. Those days, Krishna Bazaar was the groceries market. I am to learn later that Hampi had many such bazaars – including, unbelievably, a paan supari bazaar. As other runners breeze past me, I shoot a few frames of the temple and bazaar. I don’t know how long I stand there, thinking back to the time when this place must have been teeming with people. I wonder if they too haggled with sellers, like their modern-day argumentative descendants.

 

 

 

Next, I come upon the small, yet beautiful Chandikeshwara Temple. The animals (they seem to be lions) carved into the pillars of this temple look splendid in the soft light of the morning. The inner parts of the temple are in deep shade, but I can make out long cracks in the structure at various places. This temple is unusual, because it is one of the few in India that is dedicated to a form of Vishnu called Tiruvengalanatha. I take a few snaps and move on.

 

 

 

 

At the next bend lies another small temple with whitewashed walls – the Uddana Virabhadra temple. The whitewash is uncharacteristic of Hampi (where almost all the old structures are made of granite) and so, gives the temple a distinctive appearance.

 

A short distance ahead, the road passes under a stone gateway. Running under it, I emerge on the side and almost stop in my tracks when I spot several lush, green plantain trees. In fact, a whole grove of them. I am pleasantly surprised. I had never imagined finding even a patch of greenery here, in this ancient capital of the Vijayanagara empire. I wonder why all the photographs of this place show only large boulders and ruins of stone structures.

 

 

As I run, I keep sighting boulders and the ruins of centuries-old structures on both sides of the road. Many of these fabulous structures were ravaged by Muslim marauders of the time (such as the Bijapur Sultans); the rest have been eaten away by time and the elements. I wonder how beautiful these monuments would have looked in their full glory. I feel sad as I think of the destruction wrought on such beautiful works of art. As things stand, we are left to gaze at their ruins and find beauty in their decay.

I rememeber thinking at this point that Hampi perhaps has the distinction of having the maximum density of ruins and boulders per square kilometer in the world.  ‘More history per square inch’ will make a good tagline for this place.

 

 

By now, my run has turned into a full-blown quest for ruins. Though I have been here once before (a few years ago), I did not visit some of these parts back then. And so, I am full with a sense of discovery.

Unlike the other runners who are focused on the road, I keep looking to my left and right. I don’t want to miss the beauty of the route, you see? My mind is like a sponge, soaking in the sights and sounds I encounter along the way. Running with the camera does slow me down a little, but I don’t mind. I see a few other runners raise an eyebrow on spotting my camera and then smile broadly, as understanding dawns.

A short distance ahead lies another shrine – this one dedicated to Lord Anjaneya. Finding an ascetic at this shrine of the monkey god, I stop to have a few words with him. He tells me that this particular Anjaneya is believed to be all-powerful. ‘Pray here and your wish will definitely be granted.’ he tells me in Kannada. He graciously allows me to take his photograph before going his way.

 

 

This stretch of the run route is flanked by paddy fields, with the rice paddies growing to more than six feet. I am huffing again, and so, stop at a culvert to catch my breath. A small stream rushes by at the culvert. I take in the fresh air and marvel at the lushness and serenity of the place.

Soon after I resume running, I come upon a fork in the road. The right turn leads to Hospet (and seeing how desolate it is, it seems to be the road less taken), while the road ahead is the run route, going towards Kamalapur. Bang at the fork, a motorcycle is parked with a policeman sitting astride it. I wave at him and say ‘Namaskara, sir’ and he waves back. As I continue running, I spot a woman, a man and a boy walking together ahead of me. The lady is goading the little man to keep running. I catch up with them and say ‘hi’. The boy, all of six years old, is wearing a T-shirt that proclaims him to be ‘Adi’. Along with him are his mom and uncle. Apparently, his dad and aunt are running the 12 km stretch. I do my bit to motivate Adi to resume running – ‘Look, you have been ahead of even me so far. And if you keep running, you can beat me to the finish!’ After some nudging and cajoling, he resumes jogging. I mentally doff my hat at the child, who is sportingly running 5 kms over undulating and unfamiliar terrain. Talk of getting out of one’s comfort zone.

 

I want to run along with Adi, but I can’t. I have just spotted something intriguing and must know what it is. I see a cluster of stone slabs to my left. A closer look reveals that they are a set of roofs in the middle of a patch of green. I walk around the fenced area and find a small gate. Entering, I find steps going down to a temple. A board proclaims the site as that of a Shiva temple, lying totally underground. It is easy to miss this temple from the road, if you don’t look carefully or didn’t know about it already. This temple is sunk about 15 feet below ground level. Inscriptions found in the temple refer to it as the ‘Prasanna Virupaksha temple’, seven hundred years old. King Krishnadevaraya is said to have donated a lot of money to this temple at the time of his coronration. Today though, many pillars have fallen and stones dislodged. The walls are cracked and the corners, chipped. And yet, the temple is strangely beautiful. I can see that the halls, pavilions and sanctum sanctorum have been crafted with great love and skill.

 

 

I spend about 10 minutes taking in the place, before I run on. I am now on an upward incline on the road. To my right is what the locals refer as the ‘akka thangi gudda’ (‘Sisters boulders’ in English), a couple of mammoth boulders that seem to be conjoined at the head. Across the road from me, I spot two runners on the return leg of the run. Thinking that I am losing steam, they dole out some pep talk. ‘Don’t lose heart, buddy. Keep going. You are nearly there.’ says one of them.  ‘You don’t know the half of it’, I mumble, but smile back at the well-meaning gesture.

 

 

 

Cresting the incline and turning a sharp bend on the road, I see that I have reached the turn-back point. The half-way mark on the run. A few other runners are clustered here, helping themselves to the bananas and biscuits that have been laid out on tables. A volunteer is serving water. I can see smiles of relief and relaxed faces. They must all be happy that at least half the distance has been covered.

 

 

I suddenly realize that I am famished, and wolf down a couple of bananas and a few biscuits. As I am making small talk with the volunteers, Adi, his mom and his uncle also join us. A few minutes later, it is time to start my return journey. This leg of the run is quicker, because I don’t stop to click photos. Curiously however, it also seems easier than the first half. Almost before I realize it, I spot the Virupaksha Temple and a few minutes later, I am at Hampi Bazaar, the starting and finishing point.

 

 

 

 

Rajesh, my friend, has finished ahead of me and is waiting for me here. The place is teeming with people again, many of them clicking the mandatory selfies. I move to a quieter place, take several deep breaths and look back on the run – the sunrise, the beautiful ruins, the greenery, the ascetic, the underground temple. I have seen some parts of Hampi that I missed on my earlier trip to this place.

Physically, I am a little tired, but mentally I am fully refreshed. It feels like I have done myself a favour by participating in this run.

 

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