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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.

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