The Local Sabzi Waala

I hate shopping at the sabzi mandi. Take me to a conditioned supermarket with trolleys in tow and fancily arranged vegetables any day; even if it means struggling for parking space and standing in endless queues while looking at the candy bars perked pretty on the confectionary stand that seduce me to pick them and cheat on dear diet. I will go to the supermarket and pay above average prices for below average stuff wrapped in shiny cling wrap so that I can help XYZ Retail Inc. justify their costs of occupying real estate in my expensive city. But God forbid if I have to pay the sabzi waala even one extra paisa! I am going to make sure the trip justifies every dime by extracting that ‘thoda extra kaddipatta aur mirchi’ (some extra curry leaves and chillies) from him even if he is giving me fresh veggies.

The ‘I’ in the above paragraph depicts not just me but several urban Indians whose buying patterns have altered as supermarkets scrupulously take over from the sabzi waala bhaiyyas.

This is not an ‘organized retail hai-hai’ blog. It is just that I find the quality in the markets/hawker carts far better than the refrigerated sorts and yet we subject our gastric journeys to mediocrity.

The inspiration to write about this comes from a recent visit to the Matunga Vegetable Market, Mumbai. I have been there several times with my parents who, when in India, come to buy some exotic or South Indian produce that is not available in our area. It is one of the popular markets and also one of the first few places in the days of yore where one could find baby corn, iceberg lettuce, fresh Italian herbs, kiwis, etc. Several women frequent the place, fervently making purchases from the hawkers while lugging around several bags loaded with fruits and veggies.

As a child, I always sat in the car and waited for my folks while flipping through the heaps of comics that dad bought me from the kiosk outside Matunga station. This time however, my mother forced me to accompany her into the market – sheer horror I imagined. I do not like moist, narrow spaces and particularly avoid such scenarios. I reluctantly followed her and was surprised that it wasn’t all that bad. The array of shops actually made an appealing picture with the colourful and green sabziyan such that I couldn’t resist a few clicks. Glossy purple brinjals, bright peppers, slender winter carrots, crunchy beans, Cinderella carriage-like pumpkins – I wish eating them was as delightful as looking at them!

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I have always looked at buying vegetables as a boring chore. Turns out going inside the market gave me a glimpse to a side of me I totally wasn’t aware of – enjoying veggie shopping!

Travel needn’t just be about trips to far away locales. There are also those pit stops on our everyday routes that provide invaluable experiences – like the Matunga Market was for me. As my fellow blogger Wandering iPhone recently mentioned on an FB note, ‘You never know where inspiration and light is gonna come from and you don’t have to travel to find it. It’s right here, every day.’ I have believed in that for the longest time now and at times recall the smaller delights in the form of these jauntlets (mini jaunts =>;;;; jauntlets :)).

So, next time do try and make a little trip to the local mandi or an organic fair. You may not get loyalty reward points but you will definitely get a fresher platter of greens.

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Glossary (for the Hindi words)

Sabzi (pl. sabziyan) = Vegetable(s)

Sabzi Waala = Vegetable Vendor

Mandi = Market

Bhaiyya = literally means Brother. In this context – a term used to address vendors, hawkers, drivers, etc.

Hai-Hai = Booing

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A simple Prayer, a dozen Phulkaris and ghee clad Paranthas

Been a bunch of months since my last..cough (first and only) blog piece. This time the fingers itch to write about someplace in India. Time travel takes me to the recent family holiday we had when I got back to India – Amritsar.

So, it was just a one day trip but my third visit to the golden land of Amritsar. We were planning a trip up north since a while and did a Chandigarh-Amritsar-Mussorie (Microsoft Office insists it is Missouri) gig. The spotlight here is on Amritsar and anywhere I go, if Amritsar is on the itinerary, the spotlight will remain on this dusty, divine city.

We as a family hate doing the ‘3N 4D trip with XYZ Tours and Travels’. It has to be our time, our way and no over cramming of all the ‘places to see’ that Google throws up. Added advantage on this trip was that since Dad had a work stint in Himachal Pradesh a few years back, we knew our way around and had a reliable taxi guy to take us around even if it meant he had to come all the way from the Himachal border to pick us up from Chandigarh. Even though it seems impractical, sometimes it’s just the comfort level and camaraderie that matter.  So off we were with Ganeshji – the taxi guy on this short but sublime holiday.

We reached Amritsar on the second night of our journey. It was intended as a day trip but we reached earlier than anticipated which meant we didn’t have hotel bookings. Endless Google searches (I somehow seem to be giving too much coverage to Google. It is a parallel lifeline no doubt). Here let me tell you, the hotels are sorted not just on tariff or grade but also on their proximity to the Golden Temple. We are talking early July and yet we had to struggle to find a decent place. Finally we found one which came in the category of ‘2 kms. from Golden Temple’.

After checking in, we quickly freshened up and got ready to go the Temple. For those unfamiliar with what I am referring to – Harmandir Sahib, popularly known as the Golden Temple, is a prominent religious Shrine of the Sikh community. It garners the name ‘Golden Temple’ as the shrine is covered in real Gold. For me though the temple is golden not just due to the yellow metal but because of the golden glow it brings upon you.

So this wasn’t my first trip to Amritsar or Harmandir Sahib. But everytime I set foot into the Gurudwara, I feel this sudden calm set upon me. Like steam settling on a lid, like clouds shuttering away the scorching sunrays.

Harmandir Sahib is beautiful by the night as much as it is by the day. The shrine sits amidst calm waters, chants are recited in a soothing tone and the shrine is surrounded by white structures wrapping it like cloudy foam. The ambience dips down my stress levels which even a 5-digit de-stress spa package has failed to instil.

Spiritual journeys are subjective. Moving on to a realistic level, what will hit you as soon as you enter the premises of the Gurudwara is that no one is posted at the entrance to frisk you or confiscate your gadgets. I don’t know if this translates to having a superior system that surpasses these routine checks but the fact that you don’t have to go through this process strikes as surprising. The waters are pristine and the Halwa Prasad is hot and yumm. It is nice to see people at every corner serving water to every piligrim like a guest in God’s abode. I hear the langar is also delicious but haven’t had the chance to experience it.

As soon as you step out of the temple, at a walking distance there is the historic ‘Jallianwala Baug’ which housed the brutal killings of innocent lives in the pre-independence era. During my very first visit to Amritsar, I was frankly more excited about visiting this landmark. But when I entered the place it resembled a picnic garden with people lazing around plastic littered all over the place. The only reminiscence of that fateful day is a wall with bullet marks and a small museum. In my personaI opinion, the place should have been maintained in the state it was to remind people of the lives lost instead of making it a merry park. I vowed never to visit the baug again.

There are many other places to visit in the city of holy nectar – temples, museums. Try experiencing the city on a cycle rickshaw. It’s fun and inducts you into the local way of life. Ladies looking to shop for ethnic wear can resort to the local cloth markets. If you want to pick up something very Punjabi go for the Phulkari suits/saris. These are typical of the region. Try to have a local accompany you as many merchants pass of machine embroidered Phulkari as hand-made and charge you a bomb. Don’t be surprised if the shop keeper says, ‘Madamji aap Bombay ke ho? Hum to vahaan customers ko dus-bees hazaar ke suit bhej te hain. Aap payment idhar kar do, hum suit silwake courier kar denge.’ (Madam, you hail from Bombay? We send suits worth Rs.10,000-20,000 to customers there. Make the payment now we will tailor the suit and courier it to you.). Do not fall for this trap. I know people who have been duped. It can be a problem especially if you don’t intend to visit the city again which means claiming a refund can be difficult. Having said that, Amritsar is also filled with sweet and large hearted people. Visit any dry fruit shop and you will be stuffed with an assortment of sorts. The quality of almonds, pistachios, saffron, papads is extremely good and it’s a good idea to pick some to stock at home. Also do visit the chuda bazaar (bangle market). It’s no great shakes but gives you feel of Punjab. All these are in close vicinity of the Golden Temple and you can cover them on foot.

Try and make time for a trip to the Wagah Border which is a 30 minute drive from the main city. On the way, you see beautiful fields of wheat/paddy crops on either sides of the road which makes for a fantastic view for an urban dweller used to seeing just concrete buildings. Try and time your visit to witness the daily drill of guards changing shifts on both sides of the border. It is an event by itself – pumped with energy and patriotism, each side trying to outdo the other. It is done with jest and a sporting spirit with no trace of jingoism.

How can I miss out mentioning food? Food is synonymous to Punjabi Oye! When in Amritsar, eat at the dhabas. Try asking a local and he will immediately whip up the name ‘Bharwan da dhaba’. I found this place to be overhyped. The food is okay and the hygiene levels go to a new level of bad. Instead, I prefer ‘Kesar da dhaba’. It is one of the oldest dhabas in Amritsar and serves some amazing khaana-shaana. It is located in the narrowest street I have ever been on. The place is crammy but when the food arrives all else will seem trivial. The kaddi, the parantha, the phirni – my eyes are rolling backwards in gastronomic nirvaana as I remember what my palate experienced. Caution and Suggestion: Weight Watchers keep the calorie count aside and enjoy the ghee-laden delicacies.

A day or two is sufficient to see the place. I do however wish I could visit the place at leisure, go to the Gurudwara late at night and sit there until the sun rises.

The Warm Heart of Africa

The other day as we were travelling to the outskirts of Mumbai for a lovely monsoon drive, my mother changed the tempo of the ambience in the car from the soft music playing on the radio to her excited exclamation of delight at seeing a write-up about Malawi in a popular tabloid. Indians by origin, my parents have been living in the city of Blantyre in Malawi for the last couple and little more years. I have also had the privilege of living in this tucked away country for a year and a half while fulfilling my stint as a retailer. So seeing Malawi in print here in India translated to utter joy. The delight didn’t take long to turn into disappointment as my eyes scrolled the article. Not only was it out of focus, it was heavily misinforming.

That’s is when I decided to open that heavy trunk which is loaded with ideas and experiences but has been locked away. My love for travel writing has to be dusted out of that attic and journaled.

For starters I will play lazy and post a travelogue I wrote for http://www.pinkpangea.com (women travellers must browse through this one). You don’t need a crystal-ball gazer to tell you that this one is about Malawi.

More pieces about other countries and different regions in India to follow.

Here’s the link:

http://www.pinkpangea.com/post/shop-til-you-drop-in-malawiImage