Lately, Bhopal is in the news for all the wrong reasons. From the ban on nursery rhymes in schools, to the hullabaloo over a self-claimed artist being allowed to exhibit at the hallowed halls of Bharat Bhawan, and the media frenzy involving a small-time model chasing Dhoni! Whenever the 24x7 media starts to report some crazy antics, my heart begins to pound with apprehension as several eyes turn to me mockingly, silently accusing, ‘this must be your Bhopal’!
There was a time when people visiting Bhopal talked about its salubrious aab-o-hawa; the spectacular lakes – glass-faced on a calm day and whisking up massive, frothy waves on a windy one; the super cool autorickshaws; the great roads; the picturesque views from Shyamala Hills – a glorious sunset over the lake in the West and turning around, the mystical view of the town nestled in the valley, evening lights twinkling at its feet.
Big-town cousins could barely hold back their envy. Everyone loved going to New Market. In the late 1970’s, it was for Brijwasi’s malai lassi and later for its favorite hotspot – Top ‘n Town. TnT used to be one super cool place to hang out even twenty years back. Many ‘quickies’ and ‘doodies’ later, it retains its top slot as the original hangout.
Madhu Ice Cream turned Top ‘n Town seamlessly eons ago. The men at the counter didn't It’s amazing how year after year one is handed the chocolate encrusted cone, the pista-badam sundae, the chikoo milkshake by the same faces. Must’ve something to do with being surrounded by ice cream all day. Or is it the Bhopal-ki-hawa? Because none of the others seem to have changed too. The threesome right next to TnT – the cosmetics' stores - Asha, Lakme and Kashmir Emporium - have the same faces smiling and beckoning if you so much as turn your face in their direction. I think each family in Bhopal has a favorite among these three. So if we went shopping with a neighbor – she might walk into Lakme and we into our Asha. It was perfectly understandable.
Go a little past these and the bylanes open up to wondrous specialty streets – vibrant dupattas and sarees festoon one ; churi stores packed to capacity with the most amazing hues of glass bangles line another; and hundreds of minuscule shops tip out tempting trinkets for curious buyers. Bhopal ki mashoor Ameena mehndi vies for attention among silverware and subziwalas. Some of these shops seem to be propped up on supports so fragile that an over enthusiastic shopper could just topple it – but it never happens. If it does, the shopkeeper in chaste Bhopli istyle will only say, ‘koi baat nahi, aap dekhiye jo dekhna hai’. Ditto with the autowalas who will not mind sharing a bit from their lives and if you so much as take an auto from a particular place twice, the third time, he’ll come to pick you as if you were his responsibility.
Back to New Market, it’s in one of those food lanes that one can savor the morning breakfast of poha sprinkled with fresh coriander and sev; and the golden yellow spirals of succulent jalaibees. And in the evenings, the spaceship-sized bhaturas, its choley spiked with chopped onions and green chilies, the samosas and kachoris of one called Gwaliorwala that is so camouflaged by its neighbors that one never knows if you're at the one or the other. It hardly matters.
In the early '80s, closest to Fabmall/Foodworld/ Woolsworth was Anil Proteins (now, Ahuja Proteins). The long narrow shop was lined with tempting eats thus far unknown to the Bhopali palette. Birthday cakes that were baked by well-meaning aunts and neighbors till then were quickly outsourced to them. You just had to ask Ahuja Uncle for some treat you had last seen in the Dilli and he would present it from his squeezed in perch behind jars of roasted almonds and stringed apricot.
When you are in New Market, can the ‘nadewala’ be far behind? Does it embarrass you when I use that word? Okay, the drawstring wala! (sounds like you’re holding up your drapes with it, though). I haven't seen any other city/market where so many nadewalas abound!
How much nada does a Bhopali need? Does he buy nada daily? Is it mandatory like say, the bunch of fresh coriander thrown in free every time he buys vegetables? Does the lady of the house sulk if she opens the shopping bought in on the way back from office and not find a bundle of nada? If you're in New Market for about 10 minutes, the omnipresent nadewala will be all over you – touching you, nudging you – ‘Didi, please buy some nada.’ Once I got so exasperated that I told a nadewala boy that I’d buy more nada only if I needed to hang myself with it!