Travel, Food & Living

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Monday, 8 October 2007

Ponmudi: Kerala's Golden Crown

I sat happily humming to myself on my way to work in the morning as the pleasant breeze hit my face and rain splattered the roads all around.

For a change, I didn't even mind the pollution and traffic around me. It was this weather which reminded me of something and prompted me to get over my laziness and finally write after this long break.

The overcast sky, the soft drizzle and the rain kissed trees drifted my thoughts back to a few months when I was standing overlooking an expanse of mountains covered with a green blanket with the sky playing pranks on me.

On the one side of the sky was a full misty stretch overshadowing the plants and making the early morning look like late evening. On the other side was a brightly lit up sky generously sun bathing the plants.

61 kms away from Trivandrum, I was in this quaint little hill station called Ponmudi. Literally meaning a golden crown, Ponmudi was quite a breathtaking sight to behold.

Though just about a 1000 meter above sea level, it had all the ingredients of a typical tourist hub.

We planned this family gathering during our last visit to Trivandrum. Our group reached there after a pleasant one and a half hour drive from Trivandrum.

The signboard at the outset did say 21 hairpin bends but the drive was surprisingly comfortable.

I didn't even need to pop in my usual dose of Avomine to stop me throwing up!
The beautiful Kerala countryside hardly gave me time to think of anything else.

The abundance of trees and flowers along with the lovely breeze kept me gazing out of the window of my car.

In between we also crossed the Kallar river which seemed very calm to me but I was warned that the same water gets quite wild at times.

As our destination grew nearer, my spirits were also perking up. And finally when we reached the government guest house where we were supposed to spend the next two days, I was elated.

Apart from the fact that the place looked cosy, I instantly fell in love with the area it overlooked.

To me, Ponmudi only meant the beautiful tea gardens, mountains, trees and flowers all seen from the guest house.

As the mist played hide and seek with the mountains, we kept standing there just gazing at the beauty around us.

Who could believe that we were just about 1000 meters above sea level and could still feast our eyes to something as incredible as this?

The weather-ah, the weather. It was the perfect weather to enjoy a holiday. Neither too cold to be confined to your quilts and nor too hot to flaunt your summer clothes collection.

While the Trivandrum people did start feeling cold in the evening, I and my husband were pleasantly reminded of the Delhi winter onset.

My first impressions of the guest house turned up to be perfect and the place was indeed very homely and comfortable.

The rooms, though not luxurious had all the required amenities.
But the real surprise came when we went and peeped out from the huge balconies of each room.

With swift cool breeze blowing across, the balconies overlooked to a postcard kind of scenery. The mountains, blanketed by a deep emerald cover looked almost black as the mist started falling.

Just then slight drizzle started washing all the plants, trees and flowers with its pure water. Nature's bounty had completely me engulfed when I suddenly realised that I'm being called for lunch.

Running towards the lunch room, I saw my husband and his nephew busy taking a thousand snaps of God knows what. I went near thinking it must be a beautiful flower but to my horror discovered that it was actually a garden lizard!

Both the men were completely fascinated by how 'friendly' the lizard was.
Well, being right in the nature's lap, the one day in Ponmudi did give the two many other opportunities to go on a photography spree.

My sea fish starved husband just couldn't stop raving about the fried fish served at the meal.

The fried chicken was also an instant hit with the non-veggies in our group as the ladies kept trying to find out the secret behind the perfectly fried chicken and fish.

As far as I was concerned, well I was busy gobbling down the sambhar rice with papad.
After the stomach bloating lunch, it was siesta time but none seemed to be in a mood for it.

The gossip session carried on till evening when we finally decided to get out for a walk. The kids were excited to find a small garden with some swings and instantly freed themselves of their mother's grip and ran.

It was now that when it finally struck me that my mobile had not rang since I had arrived in Ponmudi. I took it out only to realise that though the screen flashed Airtel, the connection was actually not good enough to make or receive calls.

Wow, this was a complete holiday, away from the constantly ringing mobiles and the buzzing city!
But people back in Delhi had to be informed so we marched to the only shop we could spot within the guest house.

A small provision cum stationary shop which had an STD booth but that was also shut! But the owner kindly offered to give us his mobile to make a call and we did so paying only a small amount.

As I was busy chatting away on the phone, my husband noticed packets of tea displayed. Merchiston tea powder, made from the tea leaves of the Ponmudi hills was available as black tea as well as normal tea.

We bought packets to sample of both and I must say that we thoroughly enjoyed having the lovely tea back in Delhi.

As the coastal people in our group started feeling quite cold, we decided it was time to retreat. Just as we settled back with blankets in our rooms, the menfolk silently slipped away.

They came back armed with a bottle of wine and informed us that they had chilled beer in the beer parlour of the guest house. It had started raining by then and I almost shivered to think of the chilled beer!

With the rain dropping the temperature further, we thoroughly enjoyed the sips of wine we got.
Since we had our evening tea quite early, everyone was ravenous by dinner time.

I almost pounced on the fried rice. And the fried rice was probably the tastiest one I have ever eaten. The perfect blend of vegetables and rice, I thoroughly enjoyed having it with lots of papad and raita. The non-veggies were not disappointed at dinner time also.

Sleeping in a blanket in July almost sounded like a dream. But the thin yet warm blanket provided to us was perfect for the weather. When I think of the room now, I can still smell the dampness in the walls and the air.

The night was by no means silent. We could hear rain pouring throughout the night and the wind shaking our windows violently.

Even amidst all this, we had a lovely sleep and woke up late next morning only to be told that we had to rush and pack.

After a memorable day and night in the Golden Crown, we headed back home with a heart full of memories and a camera overflowing with pictures...

Sunday, 22 July 2007

FOOD GUIDE - Oh! Calcutta

For years, I have harboured a myth - there can be nothing more in Bengali food than fish and rice.

And even though I knew I was being stupid, I somehow believed that there's nothing much about that cuisine which the vegetarians can relish.

Well, unfortunately I myself had to shatter all my myths into pieces when I devoured an amazing amount of food at Delhi's latest Bong heaven Oh! Calcutta.

I really would be the last person to know how would an authentic Bengali luchi or dhokar dholna taste, but the only thing I knew for sure was that the food there was simply delicious.

When the opening of this restaurant was announced some months back, it had stirred quite an interest in the Bengali population of my previous office, many of whom made frequent trips to the place.

Frankly, I had never thought of going there. But recently, for my mallu, fish loving husband's sake, I thought of giving that place a shot. After all, the birthday boy had to be pleased.

And only later I realised what I would have missed had I not ventured. From the moment I set my feet into the warm and pleasing restaurant right next to Hotel Park Royal InterContinental I knew I had fallen for it.

The lighting was just perfect, neither too dark nor too bright. The sitting arrangement comfortable.

So if you wanted a cosy romantic dinner, you could opt for a corner sofa or your noisy group of friends could occupy the long centre table. Basically, there is room for everyone.

But the one thing that really stole my heart at Oh! Calcutta was their staff. In a city where warmth and smiles have become rare commodities, this restaurant seemed to have stocked up these two things very well.

The waiters came, stood patiently and took time to explain each and every dish to us who were very obvious first timers to a Bengali joint.

And when the food was served, we almost forgot that we were sitting in a restaurant and paying for the meal. Every item was lovingly served to us till we said stop.

An extra care was taken to ensure that the non-veg food was kept away from the veggies. And the waiters amazingly seemed to hover around and would pop up when any of our plates had some empty space.

I'm sure I ate a trifle more than my appetite thanks to the way the food was served.

So, there was begun bhaja (yes, I love brinjal so much that I honestly didn't care about the others' taste!), aam de bhindi, dhokar dhalna and luchis.

My husband wanted to taste the famous Hilsa so there was smoked the hilsa and mutton curry for him and my father.

The plain deep fried begun bhaja was amazing and so was the slightly sour bhindi overflowing with friend onions.

But the luchis stole the show. Swollen to perfection, and so soft that they would literally break with three fingers.

And the oil. No, the luchis didn't taste as if they were fried in a can full of oil. Believe me, they tasted surprisingly oil free!

Though many might not agree with him but my husband was of the view that the vegetarian fare was much tastier than the non-veg.

But then I really can't comment much on a Keralaite's taste for Bengali fish, even if it is Hilsa. The railway mutton was tasty was what I was told.

Of course, how can a good Bengali meal be over without a good sweet. So we sampled the rusgulla, sandesh and mishti doi.

I was hesitant at the thought of shelling out extra bucks just for a mithi doi which can be picked up for Rs 8 from Mother Dairy.

But I almost hit myself when I licked a small quantity of it from my mother's kulhar (clay glass). Thick, sweet and divine.

With stomach just about to burst, chewing paan, I finally roved my eyes around to observe the crowd.

There were the obviously Bengali couples sitting and relishing smoked hilsa and luchis amongst loud discussions on everything ranging from politics to painting.

And then there was the typical Dilliwala population who would have suddenly decided to become adventurous and move over their butter chicken.

And then there was me, whose myth about Bengali food was finally broken here today. Oh! Calcutta.

Friday, 20 July 2007

Rafting the white water spectacles of Ganges

It was pure magic. We were floating right in the middle of the holy Ganges, with the white water gushing from all sides. Is it the real me?

I wondered. Considering I am not the dare devil type, it was hard to believe that I could convince myself to jump right in the middle of the busy river.

I guess it was all about the experience. After all, we were cruising through the rapids of the river with life jackets as our only protection.

And then, the sheer magic of the virgin nature around me probably made everything seem possible, even jumping into a river without knowing the S of swimming.

For me, the river rafting trip meant a lot more than just the exciting sport.

Love at first sight

None of us were prepared for what was going to meet our eye after the six hour drive from Delhi. We had spent the 27 kms drive from Rishikesh, (which seemed more like a chase to a no man's land) in excitement and anxiety.

After all, we had not seen any brochures and had done no web search. So, when we set our feet in Camp River Wild, we were taken aback.

Awestruck, we stood overlooking the silvery sand and white water cradled between mountains and wondered where have we landed. It wasn't like standing on the Goa beach along with a host of tourists running, playing, sun tanning or just sitting. This beach was no tourist hub.

In fact, when we arrived, we couldn't even see another human face for at least ten minutes. The silence was overwhelming and just looking at the sheer beauty of the place made us forget everything else ... rafting, rock climbing, rappelling - all was forgotten.

We were only trying to soak into the surroundings, just to adjust our eyes to the beauty and our ears to the humming of mother nature.

And then I knew that this trip is going to give me a lot more than I expected. Yes, it was love at first sight.

Our camp

It was my maiden experience of staying in a tent and so for the other four friends of mine. An exciting experience it surely was to enter into the flimsy looking tent which transforms into a typical luxurious room the moment you open it up.

A comfortable double bed, dressing table and a separate bath area. We really didn't mind the little congested space. Well who needs a hotel when you are comfortably staying literally in the lap of nature?

And as if to remind us where we are, our feet would dig into the sand of the beach whenever we would set our bare feet on the ground.

Back to basics

Guess what was the substitute for tube light and bulbs in the camp? Well, the good old lantern. Yes, it was a trip back in time, a time which none of us have ever known or will ever know.

Okay, I do admit that initially we did miss an air conditioner or even a fan because the afternoon temperature even in the month of March seemed pretty high. But eventually as we freshened up and the day progressed, we didn't seem to mind the absence of any electric instrument.

Strangely, there was nothing more that I was demanding from our life at that time.

Dusk brought with it more moments to cherish. The breathtaking sight which greeted when we stepped into the open air out of our tents is still etched into our memory.

The soft, yellow light emanating from the row of lanterns made the silvery sand look almost golden. And stretching endlessly in front of us was the crystal clear white water of the river which compelled us to just sit, stare and marvel.

We joined the guests staying in all the tents of the camp who were having a cosy singing and dancing session.

Far across the distance, I could hear the sounds of only our voices, our musical instruments. And sometime in between, the cry of a wild animal would interrupt our melodious meet and we all would jump up.

It was amazing and yet a little scary. We were so near and yet so far from civilisation.

The sport

Finally, I'm back to talking about the purpose behind our trip. Our river rafting experience began early morning of the day two. We were already given a brief training session on what all to be careful about while rafting.

So, wearing life jacket, helmet and armed with oars, we were running towards our raft, a bright blue plastic inflated tube like thing. The five of us were supposed to sit on the edges of the raft with our trainer sitting right at the front edge.

For about 15 kms further, our journey was smooth. There were hardly any rapids to interrupt our smooth flow into the river. And we, like obedient kids were following each and every instruction of our trainer.

With the cold, white water splashing all over our faces now and then, our rafting experience was turning out to be good fun. I couldn't believe we were sailing through a huge patch of Ganga river with oars, life jackets and a raft.

And when the rapid came, we were caught off guard. Our steady flow of conversation was suddenly interrupted by our trainer's shout saying whole team get down.

Thanks to the training, we knew what it meant and we all ducked down into the raft. The raft tossed and turned and finally became stable. We got up as per the instruction of the trainer and stared jubilantly at the now calm water. "It is safe to jump into the river now," our trainer told us.

The adventurous ones with me immediately did as told but I hesitated for a long time before venturing. Finally, very slowly, I put one foot into the icy cold water and then the other and then praying hard, I jumped.

For a second I thought I was drowning but suddenly, I felt myself being afloat in the middle of the river. I made the river my bed and opened my eyes wide staring into the horizon.

Lying afloat on the sparkling clean river felt so peaceful. Amidst the gushing of water, I could faintly hear the chirping of the birds and the buzzing of the insects.

Our journey after that was quite a roller coaster ride. The rapids were getting rougher and the trainer kept on saying 'forward all' which meant keep on rowing. By the time we braved four rapids, I was exhausted and felt I couldn't row for anymore.

I was firmly clutching the thick rope lining along the corners of the raft. Despite everybody's protests, I had given up the oar by now was no more rafting.

And then even before I realised, I felt myself slipping into the water. I knew nothing can happen, thanks to the life jackets but still I panicked but almost immediately I was pulled up.

The adrenaline rush kept us going throughout the 30 kms stretch of the river, negotiating rapids, the raft overturning and a lot more.

Our trainer kept telling us tales of the expert rafters and kayakers who regularly negotiate many a rapid to win competitions. Being first timers, we were of course made to raft in some of the lower grades of the rapids.

We did hear sad stories of adventurous people who could never be seen again after being sucked in by the swirling water of the Ganga.

By the time we reached back to our camp, our stomachs were growling for food. After all, rarely do we city bred people exercise our bodies so much.

Halfway through the sumptuous dinner and our eyes could barely remain open and we hit the bed almost immediately.

Though our legs and hands were paining badly the next morning, we didn't skip a game of beach volleyball, a session of rock climbing and rappelling. Well, we did have to pop in pain killers the next day.

With no cell phones catching network there, our holiday was interrupted by nothing which reminded us of our life back in the city. The continuous body exercise left not much room for any thought, worry or conversations.


But when we were bidding farewell to the camp, it wasn't rafting that I was thinking about. For me, it was hard saying goodbye to the paradise I had discovered.

Today, it's been three long years, but the sight of the silvery sand and white water is still fresh in my memory.

Yes, the trip meant a lot more than negotiating the rapids or climbing the rocks. It was indeed pure magic.

Saturday, 30 June 2007

FOOD/SHOP GUIDE - Paan - oh! -Tales

Fancy owning an MF Husain painting and that too free of cost! Shiv Narayan Pandey proudly flaunts his photograph with the famous painter's work gifted to him by Husain himself. Well, who is SN Pandey?

The 85-year-old man is a paanwala, the owner of SN Pandey & Sons, one of the oldest paan shops in Connaught Place. Bang opposite the Shivaji Stadium MCDonald's, this little paan shop tucked away in a corner overflows with anecdotes.

Peer in the shop and you will find yourself staring into an array of black and white photographs lining the wall.

There are photos of all the political stalwarts of the country from the old timers like Dr Rajendra Prasad, Indira Gandhi to president APJ Abdul Kalam.

While some are posing with a young SN Pandey, the others are busy taking paan from him.

So, how does MF Husain's painting come here? "Husain always comes here for paan whenever he is in Delhi. I had once asked him for a painting of his and many years later he brought it and gave me saying I haven't forgotten my promise," says Pandey.

The young boy sitting along with the old man then offers me the speciality of the shop, a saada paan. "We have lots of variety like the banarasi paan, Madhuri and many more. There is no gutka in any of our paan, everything is pure," the enthusiastic chap tells me.

The paan legacy

Prod him a little and out come the old tales from the aging man's mouth. I feel as though i'm turning the chapters of an old book.

"In 1943, I bought six readymade paan for six paisa from Chawri Bazaar and sold them in this corner for double the cost. I continued this everyday till I collected Rs five. With this money, I slowly set up this shop.

I was very poor at that time and I started this business with the minimum money my father had given me," recounts Pandey.

Today, apart from the shop at CP's outer circle, SN Pandey has another paan shop in North Avenue which his elder son runs.

While the main shop is also run by his younger son, SN Pandey insists on coming to the shop for two to three hours a day.

"I come to the shop every day in the evening after eight. I feel happy to check if everything is going fine. I always teach my people to keep good original stuff."

SN Pandey's paan shop has its own share of historical moments. "Dr Rajendra Prasad was from Bihar so he used to like my paan very much.

Dr Zakir Hussain invited me for a Holi sammelan at Rashtrapati Bhavan where people were invited from all over the world.

Even foreigners got to taste our paan. Pandit Nehru always used to take paan from us when he would go to visit Liaquat Ali Khan in Pakistan," the old man recounts.

Just then another grey haired man pops up suddenly from somewhere and says, "I used to come to this shop as a little boy with my father when the paan used to cost 20 paisa. I am the third generation customer of this shop," Pavan Chadha told me gleefully chewing the paan.

"My office is nearby and even today I come here everyday for at least half an hour just to relax," says Chadha wiping his paan stained lips.

While all the first citizens have digged into Pandey's paan in Raisina Hills, our Bollywood stars too have some paan-oh!-tales with this shop.

"Our paan was served at Vyjayanthimala's wedding. Madhuri Dixit has been coming to our shop since she was a little girl. In fact Syed Jaffri has also sat here and made paan himself," Pandey tells me ecstatically showing off all the photographs.

Wednesday, 27 June 2007

TEENS COLUMN - A Corbettian Encounter

By Eesha Kunduri

It was around seven on a pleasant Sunday morning, the sky was bright and clear, and the sun sparkled through the woods of the Jim Corbett National Park, an ideal setting for a jeep safari through the wild.

As we got into the jeep, everyone said this was going to be an exciting experience, more so if we happen to sight a tiger.

Someone said, “Tiger? Forget it. We stand absolutely no chance.” “Maybe the person is right”, I told myself for tiger sightings had certainly become rare these days.

We drove through the woodlands, spotting a herd of deer’s graze close by, and a beautiful partridge flap its wings and take to the air. Everything seemed just so admirable and mesmerizing.

The multifarious trees, with their vibrant shades of green and brown completely enchanted me. I suddenly felt so close to nature.

We stopped near a place from where our tour guide felt we could possibly sight the unsightable - the tiger.

We waited for nearly half an hour or so, reminding ourselves time and again that patience is a virtue which has its own reward.

And indeed, sweet were the fruits of patience, for there it was in front of our eyes- reddish brown and ochre, with striations of black - the hitherto invisible, the Panthera tigris.

As I adjusted the lens and position of my camera, the charismatic tiger seemed to tell me, “Look, even your camera cannot do it. Catch me if you can.” I shot the tiger with my hands trembling out of awe and excitement. I then realized what a challenging job wildlife photography is.

We all stood in silence, beholding the unmistakable beauty, grace and majesty of the tiger, in its territory, its own natural habitat. Simply an out of the world experience - mere words can’t describe it!

We were lucky to have sighted one of the most evocative species on earth, in the wild. And this surely added that extra something to a trip. To feel closer to the bounty of nature surrounding us, we went for a walk along the Kosi river, which was a little away from our resort.

As the warm sunshine gilded the watercourse, the latter seemed to “make the netted sunbeam dance, against its sandy shallows” (excerpt from “the Brook” by Alfred Lord Tennyson).

The flowing river seemed to recite aloud,

“I chatter over stony ways,

In little sharps and trebles,

I bubble into eddying bays,

I babble on the pebbles.”

After our brief tryst with the Kosi, we were back again to our resort, the sublime ambiance of which completely enamored our senses.

Located in the Kumeria Reserve Forest, the Corbett Quality Inn Resort had cottages made of wood panel and stones, nestled in a mango orchard. The cottages looked out to a picturesque view of the Kosi River, the orchards and the lush green grass.

The interiors were splendid with fireplaces, wooden ceilings, stone facade, and lightwood furniture. Everything was just so befitting into this ‘conservationists’ heritage’, and ‘bird watchers’ paradise’.

(The writer is a class XII student of Ryan International School, Trans Yamuna)

Wednesday, 20 June 2007

Ramgarh: The Valley of Joy

We heard excitedly as the waiter said, "this is today's fresh juice and is made with the apricots plucked from the orchards of the village below." Saying this, he poured the thick, yellow liquid in our glasses.

Fascinated we were as we tasted the lovely juice sitting in the dining hall of the Neemrana Ramgarh Bungalows.

But then, everything about Ramgarh seemed fascinating. Be it the intoxicating silence of the hills, the chilly breeze, the red cheeked pahari children or the beautiful view, just about everything was so out of this world.

The road less travelled

Why Ramgarh? That seemed to be the question on everyone's mind as we were about to depart to the place. After all, we were travelling to Uttaranchal, a state which boasts of being home to some of the most popular hill stations like Nainital, Mussoorie, Almora, Ranikhet.

Well, the only thing that prompted us to make our trip to Ramgarh was the place where we chose to stay. In the photographs we got to see on the Neemrana website, the Ramgarh Bungalows looked like a fairyland. With the seemingly decades old bungalows atop the hills, the place really drew us.

Our journey was surely no fantasy drive. After waiting for one and a half hours on the Anand Vihar bus stand and sitting sweating in the bus for another half an hour, we finally dozed off with a resolve never to step into a Hina Travels bus.

However, when the bus finally started moving, the cool breeze from the window dried the sweat off our face.

Reaching Nainital on a hot June morning was no consolation. After walking almost half a kilometer with our luggage, we finally managed to get a taxi to go to Ramgarh for a price which didn't sound outrageous.

Even in the short 45 minute drive, I couldn't keep myself awake as the Avomine tablet kept lulling me back to sleep. My husband however thoroughly enjoyed the beauty of the unwinding roads up to Ramgarh.

Our retreat

6000 feet above sea level. This is what the little board stuck in front of our room said. A cosy den called English Bungalow was where we were supposed to spend our next two days.

We were already refreshed by now just by inhaling the fresh, unpolluted air of the mountains. And by the time our luggage was settled at the English Bungalow, we were engulfed by a magical feeling.

After all, we were few thousand feet above the scorching Delhi heat and away from the ever-honking cars ... magic it surely was. For us, landing in Ramgarh was like putting an emergency break on an accelerating vehicle.

Just to think that all we had to do at this place was enjoy the fresh breeze, eat and sleep seemed to drive away the all our blues. Supposed to be one of the oldest possessions of the Neemrana Ramgarh property, our room had a heritage feel about it.

The high wooden bed, the fire place and the high ceiling- everything seemingly belonged to another century.

After digging into a heavy breakfast of mouth watering poories subji, milk, cornflakes, eggs and fresh juice, we made ourselves comfortable in the two easy chairs kept right outside our rooms. As the chilly breeze caressed our faces, our mind and body felt miraculously at ease.

Sleeping at such a place felt like a crime. Considering the ambiance and weather, it felt as though we just had no right to waste a single second on sleeping.

So we decided to to look around the place and see the other bungalows. As the place slowly unveiled itself, we kept falling deeper and deeper in love. With British style bungalows built overlooking the hills, the place was truly a paradise.

Fortunately for us, all the rooms weren't occupied so we felt as though the whole place belonged to us. We made ourselves comfortable in two of the rocking chairs kept outside a suite. Red, green, violet, white ... our eyes were being feasted on the flowers of countless varieties.

The wall in the veranda was adorned with an array of butterflies and insects as we continued to cradle in the lap of nature. We found ourselves wondering how would life be living in a place like this?

At least as of now, the concrete structures didn't seem to have invaded the green blanket on the hills. Of course we knew that it wouldn't be the same a few years from now. Already, things are changing ... the beautiful land is being coveted by people from cities like Delhi who probably see a great future in this place.

"Yeh to dev bhoomi hai madam," was what one of the hotel workers told us when we told him that Ramgarh is one of the most beautiful places we had ever seen. Elated, he went on, insisting that this place is so good that's why in these hills are written so many of our ancient mythologies.

Room after room was examined by us, the curious couple from Delhi who seemed so awestruck by everything here.

My husband discovered a huge tree, overlooking a beautiful view of the valley, under which he said would be perfect to sit and meditate. And surprisingly, we did sit, closed our eyes and soaked ourselves in the glory of our surroundings.

The location was perfect and at the same time, we found ourselves marveling at the intelligence of the hoteliers. With the tagline 'Non-hotel Hotels', they somehow know exactly where this concept would work.

The supposedly 'British era' rooms were no luxurious suites. Taking cue from the antique structures of the rooms, the hotelier has customised the furniture accordingly.

So we found ourselves staring at a high wooden bed, antique chandeliers and a full wooden furniture at Ashok Vatika, one of the latest Neemrana Ramgarh Bungalow under construction.

The workers informed us that all this furniture and raw material is being especially purchased from Chandni Chowk in Delhi and some procured foreign countries.

That there is no cell phone network connectivity here except BSNL doesn't seem odd at this place and the absence of a computer at the reception didn't even strike us.

At Ramgarh, being close to nature almost came naturally without any extra effort. So when my husband suggested that we should take a small walk on the hills, I winced at the thought. How can we walk in the middle of the day? But miraculously we did and I found myself enjoying it, forgetting the the strain of the journey.

We returned, fresh and ready to gobble down the entire lunch spread out which included mutton, cabbage, paneer, dal, chapati, rice and the pahari raita made specially after my request ... bliss.

Blessed land

As we spent more and more hours at Ramgarh, we realised that the place is truly blessed, not just by the bounty of nature but also by the good hearted citizens. It was a pleasure talking to each and every person there, whether a part of the hotel or not.

Everyone seemed to have so much time to be polite, to stop and listen, to explain. Life was moving at its own pace here and the people there were in no hurry to speed it up.

So it was hardly surprising when we talked at length to an old lady here without realising that she is the mother of the person who owns this and the 10 other Neemrana properties.

Aman Nath's mother, addressed as mataji by the hotel staff came across as an unassuming, dignified old lady. Managing her 6-year-old granddaughter, the lady chatted away to glory with two people almost quarter of her age.

Never even for a minute was the conversation boring as mataji told us about the Neemrana hotels, the time when she, along with a friend of hers stayed at Ramgarh and stitched curtains for the rooms with their own hands.

And yet, even though she said she was 80 or more than that, there seemed to be no sign of fatigue. Yes, the body looked fragile but the enthusiastic spirit seemed ever active.

We were taken aback when standing in her small two room set in the hotel, she told us that she wishes to embark on a journey to the hills, to discover more about the interiors. Well, probably that's what keeps them going.

Nature's bounty

It was exciting to know that the jam and juice-making unit was located in this Neemrana property. Using the fresh fruits plucked from the Ramgarh village, the jams and juices, apparently were made without any preservatives.

A heady smell of apricots was tingling our noses as we were being guided to the jam making unit. Our guide stopped in front of a small room as we shot a questioning glance to him ... Surely, this room can't be where all the jams and juices of Neemrana are made? Well, apparently it was.

Astound, we looked around. The so called jam making unit consisted of a small area of total three rooms. One compact space, full of shelves was where all the jams and juices were kept lined up for storage. This room led to the main room, where all the preparation was done and finally a wash cum waste room.

We made ourselves comfortable on small stools looking at the jam making procedure. They finely cut the fruits, boiled its pulp with sugar to a certain temperature then poured them into the jam bottles, which were then covered with a layer of wax and let to cool.

It seemed unbelievably too simple to be true. Sensing our surprise, one of the jam makers scooped up some hot jam to a small plate and gave us to taste. Fancy eating a hot jam! But that hot jam indeed was yummy. Equally exciting was to taste the sweet, juicy apricots, fresh from the Ramgarh village orchards.

But days later, sitting in Delhi, as we munched on to those apricots we carried all the way from Ramgarh, the taste somehow seemed to have faded.

After travelling seven hours to Delhi amidst an air full of pollution, honking cars and the ever running city people, the apricots had lost its feel ... Well, we have to go back there again, to taste the fresh fruits, to inhale the fresh air, to taste the lovely fruits, and ... to meet the people.

It reminds me of our last moments in Ramgarh when our car prepared to move out of the hotel, we saw the whole staff, queued up with hands folded to see us off. We had left a family behind and we had to go back to visit them again. Our fairyland is calling us back.

Saturday, 16 June 2007

SHOP GUIDE - India's Oldest Toy Shop

Nothing about Connaught Place is unfamiliar to me. And yet, this amazing place called CP never ceases to spring surprises. But as I had said in my earlier post, even in these 25 long years, I always chance upon something new in this market.

Our latest find in CP was also thanks to my non-Delhiite husband who loves walking around the inner circle. When he told me that CP has the oldest toy shop in the country, I was sure that it must be one tiny shop, tucked away in some corner of the market. Well, not really.

The toy legacy

With a bright red board saying India's Oldest Toy Shop, Ram Chander & Sons stands proudly next to the Odeon theatre. It was impossible to miss the board but still I had managed not to see it for so many years.

And when I finally saw it, I was little curious as I walked in. One look around the shop took me down memory lane, back to the good old days when birthdays always meant how many new toys were added to my cupboard!

Dolls, doll houses, kitchen sets, cars, aeroplanes ... just about every imaginable toy was stacked here. I guided myself to a small stool kept next to a dignified looking, grey-haired man who was busy working on his computer.

I only had to ask, so this is the oldest toy shop in the country? There was no stopping him after that.

The man turned back chapters and chapters of Ram Chander & Sons and his very own life. "Just like people are given injections to prevent TB etc, I was given an injection of toys, " Satish Sundra, the fourth generation owner of Ram Chander & Sons thus begins his conversation.

I was informed that the shop was first set up in 1890 in Ambala Cant, at Kasauli in 1928 and finally in Delhi in 1935. For Sundra, it has always been a question of maintaining a heritage.

"When they started renovating Odeon recently, I was worried because the shop is hidden by the barricades surrounding Odeon. But with God's grace, our loyal customers still make it a point to come to our shop," he said.

"When I took over the shop after my father, people used to come and tell me, arre tu kya janta hai, hum tere dada se mal khareedte the. I used to feel little angry but soon realise how much those words meant. Even now I have customers whose famiies have been coming here for generations."

This shop too had its brush with celebrities. "Begum Pataudi used to come here to buy toys for her children." They also claim the Modi's and the Birlas used to at one time shop for toys here.

With this, I glanced around the shop. Somehow, even after all those years, the shop seemed to have an old world charm. Nothing seemed modern and in sync with the contemporary world here.

There were no glass showcases with toys decoratively displayed or sign saying 'Good to see, nice to hold. Once broken, its considered sold.' I could see children just walking in, digging into piles, taking out their favourite toys and just examining them.

It was a carefree world which would seem fascinating for any child. As if reading my thoughts, the old man started talking again. "I have never got this shop renovated from my father's time. Everything here is as it was all those years back. I feel my shop should be like a child's messy room. Children should not feel scared after entering my shop. So here, nobody is ever stopped from opening anything. A child should always go home smiling."

Testing times

Life was not always easy for Satish Sundra and his family. "My father came to Delhi after he had a split with his brother. So when we came to here, we were not rich. For a long time, this shop was our home since we didn't have money to buy a house." I was engrossed hearing the tales of survival.

"My father died when I was sixteen. The onus of running the shop came on my uneducated mother. But even in these circumstances, she didn't compromise on our education. I studied, graduated from St Stephen's College. But I was never keen on joining the shop. I wanted to get into foreign services. God of course had different plans for me," said Sundra.

The business has had various phases. "Since 1969, we used to import some toys but the government imposed a ban. Things being produced were sub-standard. In 1982, we were producing nothing but garbage. But slowly, because of competition, duties have come down. So a water pool which used to cost Rs 1495 some years back is now available for Rs 495," said Sundra.

Times change, people change

Sundra gets philosophical and calls himself a sentimental old fool. "My regret is that the people's involvement with their children is not high as it was 30 years ago. Today, I see them buying expensive toys but somehow they don't have the time to teach their children how to play. We're going to pay a very heavy price for all this," says Sundra with disappointment.

After these words, I wasn't surprised to see that Ram Chander & Sons has a different way of functioning. The customers here seemed more like family as they chatted away to glory with the shop owners.

The fifth generation, Sundra's son now works along side his father. He might not have renovated the shop, but the seventy-year-old man is adapting with the changing times. "See at the age of seventy, I am now learning how to use a computer," is what he tells me as he sees me off with a grin.

Tuesday, 12 June 2007

FOOD GUIDE - Mosaic of Choice

Sometimes I wonder what Delhi would be without Connaught Place. Hard to imagine right? I've been in Delhi since I was born and I still haven't been able to discover this market which has seen the city evolve from a scratch.

Walking across the countless shops and restaurants lining the white walls of the inner and outer circle somehow always pumps up my spirits.

And just because we are so used to dining at the restaurants which have been there forever, there is hardly any attempt to try out new places.

But my husband decided to break the pattern and we headed to a two-month-old restaurant Mosaic.

The food court

I must say, the restaurateur knew what he was doing when he named the restaurant Mosaic. The mosaic of dishes served here are enough to make anyone's taste buds dance.

This place is a must visit for a first timer to India who wants to familiarize oneself with some of the most famous ethnic cuisines.

And for apna desis, well read on … Our Bengalis can dig into the Doi Maach, the Madrasi (sorry, couldn't help talking like a Dilliwalla) can relive the flavour of their Chettinad Chicken, the spice loving Andhraiites can treat themselves to Andhra fish curry … The list is endless.

And before I disappoint our Punjabis, Chicken Butter Masala is very much there on the menu. Dining here is a real culinary trip around the country.

For us, the menu was a breather from the typical shahi paneer and dal makhani stuff (though I must confess that I don't mind being served these two dishes anytime of the day!).

We were slightly disappointed when told that not every dish on the extensive menu can be prepared so it will be better to go for the buffet. We were little angry and not too excited at the prospect.

The waiters seemed to gauge our mood and immediately reassured us that we can order whatever we want. And here is where the problem began — it was a mammoth task to decide what we want to eat from the five, six pager menu.

For me, it was almost like reading a menu in a foreign language since I couldn't make out the difference between a Mochar Ghonto and a Dhokar Dalna.

Thankfully my husband was more enlightened than me and he settled for a Goshtaba, minced mutton balls cooked tender in gravy, served with a mushroom curry and rice.

The waiter came to my rescue and helped me zero down on Mirch Baigan Ka Salan. Yes, I am a brinjal fan and can experiment with any kind of baigan preparation.

Confusion over, it was our time to sit back and scan the place. Mosaic is a cosy restaurant built bang opposite Super Bazar just above a cloth shop.

It is the kind of place where you would want to come for a comfortable, sumptuous and a peaceful meal without any frills and fancy.

The staff is quite warm and helpful (at least till now). We sat comfortably near a window overlooking the bustling life of CP where people just seemed to be running not even walking.

I was quite happy, sitting aimlessly in a restaurant just getting pampered (of course it came at a price).

We didn't have to make our growling stomachs wait for long. I was soon digging into the spicy baingan and chana dal with butter naan.

My husband didn't even look at the vegetarian side as he happily devoured his Goshtaba. He informed me that the mutton was finely cooked and was blending very well with the gravy.

As far as I was concerned, despite the fact that my tongue was facing several spice burns, I was thoroughly enjoying my meal. The chana dal was delicious and the baingan was one of the best i've had in ages.

It was such a lovely desi meal that we were soon craving to hit our beds for an afternoon siesta.

By the time the desserts were served, my stomach was burning and I was yearning to soothe it. I am generally not very experimental when it comes to food but this time I decided to.

So I was keeping my fingers crossed as I put the first spoon into my chikoo mousse. But my apprehensions were sweetly put to rest as the fresh taste of creamy chikoo hit my tongue. My husband' s caramel custard didn't disappoint either.

In no time were our bowls emptied and we sat back and stretched ourselves. What a meal it was.
I was sure that looking at food again that day would be an impossible thought. Thankfully, the digits in our bill weren't shocking either.

As we walked down from Mosaic looking at the countless newspaper clippings stuck on the wall, I also felt like scribbling saying - Forget pizzas and burgers for a day and come here to taste the magic of real Indian cuisine.

Wednesday, 30 May 2007

SHOP GUIDE - Little Tibet in Delhi

There are many things that catch your eye while walking down the Tibetan market of Janpath. Red, blue, green yellow, black, white - colours just stare out as you as one look at any of the shops.

Earrings, wall hangings, decorative and collector's items, clothes, footwear … you name it and you have it. Life just seems so vibrant here and it becomes better still if you are feeling rich that day.

With the NDMC renovating the market, and giving it a wonderful facelift, shopping here seems even a more attractive experience. But somehow, this side of the market, which runs along the Imperial Hotel road, seems so aloof from the other, more popular side of Janpath.

With clothes, jewellery, decorative items, bed sheets stacked up everywhere, this one is a haven for the college goers who stop by at any time of the day, bargain fiercely and walk away triumphantly with a skirt, t-shirt or jeans at dirt cheap rates.

But the Tibetan market is different. Here, the prices are more or less fixed and the products on sale like handicraft items, junk jewellery and all seem much more sophisticated.

I had never really explored this side of the Janpath market. And the fact that they have a name Tibetan Market, which separates them from the other side made me wonder.

I was curious. I decided to do something more than merely feasting my eyes on the stuff in the shops.

Suddenly, looking at the bustling market, I somehow wanted a little peek into the lives of these Tibetans who have made this country their home. Little did I know that I had just opened up a chapter full of memories.

Memories galore

I happily walked past noticing the 26 brand new looking showrooms, which were just a few months' back small shops. The little shack like shops were now chic A/C showrooms.

Amongst this row of shops, I chanced on Shop No 12, a small shop which was not closed with any glass doors and just seemed little out of place.

I peered in and somewhere saw a frail, white haired lady busy working on some beads. In the open shelves of the shop were lined up countless brass items.

The little shop was home to plenty utensils, bowls, cups, saucers and decorative items. And in a small glass table were kept tons of different beads. Some were made into earnings, necklaces or were just kept like that.

The lady kept doubtfully looking at me while I was inspecting the shop. I asked her if she would tell me a little bit about the shop and the market. "Lets see how much I can tell, you anyway sit," was the response.

81-year-old Doma was all of 18 when she had first come to India from Tibet. "Along with others, I also used to sit on the footpath with all the stuff I had to sell.

Gradually, Britishers started noticing our stuff and our sale increased. Finally we were provided small shafts in the shops where we could keep everything. But still there were no pucca shops.

I am so happy that they have renovated the market. I would have been happier if they had done it two years back," says the dear old lady. It was only later I discovered that Doma is right now the only member in the market who is still running the shop after all those years.

In all the other shops, the new generations have taken over. This probably explains why Doma's shop still looks distinctive in its own way. It is clear that change is what she is not willing to accept. And considering her age and life, I wouldn't blame her.

"I don't do very good business because I don't get into bargaining and stuff like that. I have fixed a price and sell my stuff at that only," is what the lady tells me. Probably that explains why the shop is not air conditioned.

But the charm of Shop No 12 lies in the antique look it still wears. Somehow modernization has not crept into its walls, products and most importantly the owner. Doma has clearly not changed with the changing needs of people but that seems to be her success mantra.

Home away from home

The skin is different, the eyes speak a distinct language, the accent is quite characteristic. 'Woh toh chinki hain,' - that's probably how any one of us would react looking at these Tibetan shop owners.

But despite these differences, these people insist that they are now proper Indians and more specifically Delhiites. Doma is perhaps the most expressive of all.

"Our faces might resemble Chinese but our hearts are very much Indian. I feel somewhere we have a similarity in mythology and all. It's now so many years that I have been in Delhi and this is home to me."

And for the younger ones who have grown up in Delhi seeing the Tibetan market flourish, Delhi is where they belong to. With perfect Hindi and English and bits and pieces of the foreign languages, these people are linguists in their own rights and have adapted very well to the situation.

They inform me that they built a small community of their own in Laxmi Nagar. Here, they have 26 houses together where they live with their families. To give a homely feel they have also built a Buddhist temple.

Back to business

Originally these shopkeepers might belong to a different country but they are also a part of the rich Indian heritage which so proudly makes its presence felt across the globe.

So while Janpath is a must-visit on the travelogue of a foreign tourist, the goods from these markets are exported worldwide.

"Our clients come to India once in a while, take designs from here, show it in their own countries at fashion shows, shops etc and then do business there. Now, a lot of business is done over the internet too," says D.R. Lama of Shop No 18, which exports specially designed jewellery.

The survival instinct in an alien country has led these shopkeepers to such a thriving business which India can now be proud of. Their products are sourced from all throughout the country and some of them have also set up their factories where they manufacture their own stuff.

'Survival of the fittest,' is that what strikes you now?

Monday, 28 May 2007

GUEST COLUMN - The homely Spring fields of Shimla

By Swarup Kar Purkayastha

February 2002. As the cab drives through the narrow, winding roads of Shimla, to Springfields Hotel, it removes us from the hustle-bustle of the city and drifts one into a relatively peaceful realm. It is so easy to get lost as the place opens up and takes one in the warmth of its embrace.

Imposing hills climbing high to kiss the sky, even as blankets of dense, white clouds swim in its vast emptiness. The sun is trying to break through the grey, morning mist from behind the hills.

And yet it's not easy to get lost. The world, its smell, touches seep into the atmosphere as the city gets ready to wake up to the call of the day. The cold breeze brushes one's heart, birds chirp and kids queue in for schools.

The cab screeches to a halt at the threshold of the hotel, situated at the outskirt of the city.

I looked out of the window of my car confused as the hotel looks more like a residence. There is no sign of a hotel. No one at the gate. On the other side, there is a cemented path, either side of which is green pastures, leading to a two-storeyed house.

Even before the apprehensions could sink in, a gentleman miraculously surfaces at the gate and greets us, ending all our anxieties. After I was through with the formalities, he escorts us to our room.

My mother and I breathe relief after an overnight journey and confine ourselves to comfort of the room. We stand awe-struck, wondering at the aesthetics of the interiors.

The decors, mainly inherited from the Raja, who used to own the property, and quite a few of them are purchased from various art galleries and antique dealers across the country, bring in traditional and royal touch yet not forgetting the modern aspect.

The paintings, again picked up from various imperial sources, hanging on the wall, create an ambiance of a home.

Not just the interiors, even the exteriors manifest everything that connects to a home. Leave aside the treatment and services of the host, and it's difficult to know that one is actually in a hotel, even as one visits one room after the other.

As we look out of one after another window of different rooms, we sink into the rare treasure of nature, abound by green hills and snow-clad mountain ranges.

To add to the entire experience, the fireplace was lit up. We had a panoramic view of the mountain ranges with our feet firmly resting on the wooden floor. However, all the rooms don't give the same, intoxicating spectacle.

Lahore Connection

The whole retreat takes us down memory lane to a bygone era but not without modern amenities of luxury that any other would provide.

The history of the property can be traced back to the nineteenth century. It used to be a residence of a Muslim aristocrat Mohammad Yahya Khan, who built it as his summer refuge. During the time of the partition, he left for Pakistan.

Raja Dhyan Singh of Sheikhupura, a large erstwhile estate near Lahore, bought it from Yahya Khan for his Himachali queen Chandragupta, his second wife, who needed an escape from the sweltering heat of Lahore.

Later in the year 1987, the prince converted the palace into a heritage hotel. He ran it for five years and then Usha Lexus Hotels and Resorts brought the property in 1992 on a 40-year lease. And since then it is under its care.

As per an official of the hotel three million rupees was spent for the renovation of the hotel.

The tin-roofed, double-storied hotel, has 11 rooms, six on the first floor and five on the ground floor. It has only one family suite which is on the first floor with a common balcony, shared with the adjacent room.

The balcony offers a breathtaking view of the mountain ranges. We were informed that one could also see the Choor Chandani Range which remains covered with ice even during summers. The tariff starts from Rs 3,000 and goes up to Rs 4,600, which is for the family suite.

Light, camera, action

The hotel takes pride in the fact that some of the famous movies are being shot here. In 1997, Kareeb team stayed in the hotel for over a month. In Chori Chori, the hotel was shown as the house of the film's protagonist Ajay Devgan.

The hotel has one restaurant exclusively for its occupants. And according to the need of the client, the restaurant can be converted into a discotheque. It also has a lounge and offers various indoor games.

And to please our taste buds, the menu boasts of a variety. It offers something as simple as khichdi and munghi ka dal, to a wide array of continental dishes. And to top it, tandoori barbeque and non-vegetarian Indian stuff.

And to wind up our trip, we choose the Toy Train. As the train whizzes on the century-old track, through hill after hill, through tunnels at times, the magnificence of nature freezes in front of the eyes.

Today, years later, as I sit back to write about it, Springfields may have been converted into a boutique hotel, giving a distinct theme and character to each room, memories of the trip come rushing back. Something lives on.

(The writer is journalist based in Ahmedabad)

FOOD GUIDE - Oh! My Chicken Biriyani

The news of Andhra Bhavan soon making way for a five star hotel was little hard to digest. What would happen to my favourite Chicken biriyani?

Only made on Sundays it really is worth a week's wait. Will the canteen which is a beehive of activity during lunch and dinner also face the axe or be relocated to some funny place which would be hard to spell, leave alone reach?

Hope the planners have a place for one of the most-sought after canteen in the capital in the idea of things to follow.

The news however pulled me and my wife to pay a visit to the AP Bhavan this Sunday. I usually get the biriyani packed to be relished either at home or office but this time we decided to sample it here.

My veggie wife ordered her meal and started her gleeful swim in the pool of ghee as I digged into my chicken biriyani which seemed a bit less than my usual packed version.

I was soon through with my first plate and was feeling greedy to have another. My wife seeing my dilemma allowed me to go for one more which i did and finished with little effort. Tripti. That can only be the right word to describe my feeling.

More so due to the disappointing chicken biriyani I had last week at the Swagath in Defence Colony which often serves some lovely non vegetarian food. I did complain.

It seemed more like a chicken fry eaten along with a fried rice. When it comes to biriyani the rice should blend well with the properly cooked meat.

My expectation was very high after the last visit to Swagath when I had the chettinad chicken curry laced with pepper along with the malabar porotta, quite an amazing combo. Bikku was quite impressed with egg appam and vegetable stew.

I had to eat the first egg appam as it came sprinkled with chilly powder. I did sample a fish fry suggested by the staff but found it lacking a tinge of masala and spice which I have grown up eating. Those were the good old day's of Akkamma's (mother's sister) fish curry and fry.

So put your Sundays to good use and hop into AP Bhavan as this value for money deal might soon be a thing of the past.

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