Ramadan Specials: A night in the Old City of Hyderabad.

Pink was the colour of the night.
Red was the colour of the night.

It was 3:30 a.m. on a Ramadan morning in Bangalore when my phone buzzed next to my ear, announcing the arrival of a message. Whatsapp, I assumed, knowing fully well that the cousins would be up talking youngster nonsense till Seher time – the appointed hour when Muslims around the world wake up to eat, pray and fall back into a sleepy stupor. I had forgotten to put my phone on Silent mode when I passed out for the night and reached out blindly to amend my mistake before more buzzing could stir me awake.

It was a message from my mother. Just got back after a night of shopping at Charminar, finished Seher at Shadab, it read. She was in Hyderabad, yes, but Charminar at 3:30 in the morning? Impossible. I thought she was pulling a fast one – I fall for her pranks all the time. When I spoke to her the next day, she couldn’t stop gushing about the night – and all the other nights that she went gallivanting around Old City at bizarre hours. Why would you do that? Is it safe?, I asked. The whole world is out shopping till Seher!, she countered. I didn’t believe her.

Now I do, because I ventured out to the Old City three days before Eid and witnessed the mayhem for myself.

Space was at a premium that night.
Space comes at a premium on Ramadan nights around Charminar – you can see it stand silently in the background.

Let’s just say that I’m a parasite in human form, feeding off of the collective energy of excited, supercharged crowds. The Old City – more specifically, the stretch from Madina building to Charminar and beyond – was a hive, with a sea of black engulfing it, buzzing about haphazardly from one roadside shop to another. Open vendor stalls screamed slogans of encouragement for people to buy from them – “Aaiye, aaiye!” – music blared from the other end of the road and the crowd came in waves and carried one along with it. That frenzy! That madness! That salesmanship! That food! That night! So. Much. Fun.

Not your ordinary stroll in the night, this. The shoppers are in a tearing hurry to get the best bargains out of everything.
Not your ordinary stroll in the night, this. The shoppers are in a tearing hurry to get the best bargains out of everything.

Everything was selling at dirt cheap prices. I bought myself a gorgeously embroidered Georgette saree (against my better judgement) for a measly sum of 1800 bucks. Had I chosen to buy it from a showroom, it would have cost me an arm and half a leg. “The demand for store stuff is a lot lesser now, because everybody buys online these days”, one shopkeeper told my Dad, “So we have to make the most of times like these.” Fair enough, I thought, as I looked around and couldn’t stop smiling at the sales pitches being screamed all around me: “Hello Aunty! Only 120!”, “Hyderabad ki shaan, Paidaan!” (Hyderabad’s pride, a doormat – it sounds much funnier in Hyderabadi, believe me), “Loot lo, chaat lo, ghar jaake baat lo!” (Loot it, savour it, go home and share it! Basically meaning that it’s a steal at the price, so you can buy lots and then distribute it amongst the family.) One man – I’ll call him the Harsha Bhogle of Shopping – even had a microphone and conveyed a running commentary of his shoppers’ activities to the entire market. “Yes, yes, that is an absolutely fantastic piece of cloth you have in your hand! Close your eyes and go for it! Look at that lady eyeing your shopping! Quick, pick it up before it’s too late! Oh no, too late!” It was a sensory overload, but the kind I thoroughly enjoy. My parents couldn’t keep up and left by around 12:30 a.m. The cousins and I continued enthusiastically, but exhaustion washed over us by 2:30 in the morning. It was time to replenish ourselves with some food and water.

Men standing around on elevated platforms, trying out Burqas and screaming, "100 100 100 100 100 100 100 100 100..." is a common sight. To the loudest salesman go the spoils.
Men standing around on elevated platforms, trying out Burqas and screaming, “100 100 100 100 100 100 100 100 100…” is a common sight. To the loudest salesman go the spoils.

Even the eateries were crowded. The stalls that we managed to locate were tucked away in a corner and surrounded – again – by droves of people. My camera bag came pretty handy in making some space for us, so we could belt Mysore Bajjis, Boti Shorba, Sheermal and Gosh ke kabab. Delicious and thoroughly enjoyable, especially if you ignored how the plates were washed or the food was made. (None of us fell sick, so not so bad after all.) As we feasted, an ominous voice blared authoritatively over the loud speakers: ‘Please close your stalls by 3 a.m. The area needs to be washed and cleaned for Friday prayers.” The announcement only served to put the crowd on Charlie Chaplin movie mode. That was our cue to exit.

Boti Shorba - a curry made out of spare parts of goats. And by that, I mean things like intestines and stomach and other disgusting things. Boti is considered to be a delicacy among most non-vegetarians.
Boti Shorba – a curry made out of spare parts of goats. And by that, I mean things like intestines and stomach and other disgusting things. Boti is considered to be a delicacy among most non-vegetarians.

Our next hurdle was finding an auto. There was barely space for people to move – autos didn’t stand an atom of a chance. We had to walk to Qilwath, the clock tower near Charminar. The route took us through Laad Bazaar, the infamous bangle shopping lane. Everywhere my eyes rested, they encountered shimmering surfaces and glazed reflections that were occasionally blocked by a bunch of moving, bargaining Burqas.

Who knew even combs could be made to look attractive?
Who knew even hair combs could be made to look attractive?

It wasn’t all glitter and happiness, though. A keychain maker by the roadside, who made etchings on two inch-long glass bottles and sold them at the base of Charminar, counted his night’s earnings as closing time approached. “So much hard work and only 60 rupees to show for it”, he sighed. There was despair and bone-deep exhaustion in his voice. Maybe he would drink it all up. Maybe he would fast and pray for more. There’s no way of knowing.

Waiting for customers to come along minutes before closing time.
Waiting for customers to come along and help him earn some more money minutes before closing time, just like the keychain maker.

What I did know was this, as an auto finally agreed to whisk us home: the sea of living, breathing eagerness and anticipation and excitement for new clothes and hairclips and shoes and bangles and Sherwanis and kurtas and Chadaavi jootas would eventually snap the keychain maker out of his reality. Tomorrow, he would come back. Tomorrow, he would work the same way and wish for more. Tomorrow, he would feel alive and live to celebrate another day of Ramadan in one of the oldest parts of Hyderabad. The crowd’s joy would be his. Their excitement about Eid would be his own – and hopefully, their money too.

Proof that the Old City was a parallel universe - the roads just outside of the radius of Charminar were deserted while the chaos was all around it.
Proof that the Old City was a parallel universe – the roads just outside of the radius of Charminar were deserted while the chaos was all around it.

Getting there: Old City is easily accessible by road up to Madina Building. Be prepared for a massive traffic jam if you’re going during Ramadan.

Go if: You love crowds, bling, bargains, street food and don’t mind staying up all night to see a phenomenon that comes around once a year.

P.S: Another sporadic break of more than three months in blogging – but all for good reason, I assure you. A fair amount of travelling has happened, so be prepared for a string of posts on the blog. Until then, thank you for sticking around and waiting for Potli Baba’s next adventure.

Ramadan Specials: Iftaar at Charminar.

A view of Charminar from the gates of Osmania Hospital.
A view of Charminar from the gates of Nizamia Hospital.

Eid has come and gone already, and I know this post is way behind time – but it’s less than a week since Ramadan ended, so I can be forgiven. I think.

This year, I had the good fortune of being in Hyderabad during Ramadan. Eager to explore what the city of Nizams had to offer in terms of food and colour, I dragged a friend to Charminar for Iftaar – the opening of fast – one evening. And Boy Oh Boy, the joie de vivre there is entirely different from Bangalore.

Jumma Masjid near Charminar, moments before the siren went off.
Jumma Masjid near Charminar, moments before the siren went off.

For starters, the place is so packed that you can’t move an inch without elbowing someone or stamping the odd toe. The approach to Charminar comes with its usual bustle – people hawking hairbands and miscellaneous accessories, while Hyderabadi bikers and car drivers zig-zag across roads like drunk crabs out of water (there’s a popular saying among seasoned drivers, actually – if you can drive in Hyderabad, you can drive anywhere in the world). Once you get closer to Charminar, though, it’s a different story. The centuries-old structure stands guard to the crazy frenzy of mankind. It’s as if thousands of years ago, Time decided to stroll through the streets, came across Charminar and was so taken by its majesty that it completely forgot to move on.

Jumma Masjid after the dusk prayers.
Jumma Masjid after the dusk prayers.

There are tons of shops and stalls and carts with fruits everywhere, but there’s a certain order in the chaos. The roads were so full of burqa-clad women and men in white skull caps that it appeared as if the traffic was stuck in a black and white maze, trying to find a path that would lead to the finish.

Q: Why did the vendors wait patiently for customers? A: Because they knew that their patience would bear fruit. (Yeah, I know. Bad one.)
Q: Why did the vendors wait patiently for customers?
A: Because they knew that their patience would bear fruit. (Yeah, I know. Bad one.)

My friend and I reached at the right time – the siren went off just as we parked the car. Rather than stopping to open their fast, we saw people fly into an even greater frenzy. There were at least 60 fruit carts lined up on one side of Charminar – it gave me a serious complex as a Bangalorean. During Iftaar, us Bangaloreans leap for the nearest fried goodies we can lay our hands on and stuff it down our throats, followed by copious amounts of meat and rice and juices. In Hyderabad, everyone ran for the fruit carts. The carts outnumbered sellers of samosas and fried meats by 60:2 – I kid you not. (Yeah, we found just two non-fruit selling stalls. And they stuck out like sore thumbs.)

 

Dahi Vadas in all their splendour. Please do not miss the deep-fried chillies sticking upright as a garnish!
Dahi Vadas in all their splendour. Please do not miss the deep-fried chillies sticking upright as a garnish!

 

Sesame-crusted Fried Chicken. Superbly marinated in spices and lip-smackingly delicious.
Sesame-crusted Fried Chicken. Superbly marinated in spices and lip-smackingly delicious.

 

Pickle in their blood: Hyderabadis are crazy about pickles. The old city especially is known for its variety of pickles. The most remarkable is the Tarkari ka Achaar - pickled vegetables in a base of raw tamarind paste and spices.
Hyderabadis are crazy about pickles. The old city especially is known for its variety of pickles. The most remarkable is the Tarkari ka Achaar – pickled vegetables in a base of raw tamarind paste and spices.

Hyderabadis have a wicked sense of humour – at least the ones on the old city side. Most of them are charmingly incorrigible, I would say. The salesmen are especially glib, ready with retorts to any queries or conversations you may have with them. While I tried all sorts of weird squats to capture Charminar from different angles, the fruit vendors around me kept nudging each other and giggling, addressing me as aapa – elder sister. Completely unnecessary, considering 98% of them were ancient compared to me! “Kya aapa, konse newspaper ke vaaste hai ye? Arrey photo lere bhai, aake thairo yaan, thoda pose-an maaro!” (So, elder sister, which newspaper is this for? Hey, she’s taking photographs, come and stand here and give her some poses!”) By the end of the night, their glibness had resulted in clearly visible embarrassment on my cheeks that matched the colour of the pomegranates on sale.

Salesmen in Hyderabad don't have the least qualms in draping sarees and showing them off to customers. This young chap here beckoned me over to his shop and asked me to take a picture. "Maidum", said his companion sitting off-camera, "Don't take his face, you won't be able to see anything in print. Or just do some Photoshop on him, make him fairer." He grinned as I looked at him with bulging eyes, then at the saree-clad man. He just grinned too and posed some more for my camera.
Salesmen in Hyderabad don’t have the least qualms in draping sarees and showing them off to customers. This young chap here beckoned me over to his shop and asked me to take a picture. “Maidum”, said his companion sitting off-camera, “Don’t take his face, you won’t be able to see anything in print. Or just do some Photoshop on him, make him fairer.” He grinned as I looked at him with bulging eyes, then at the saree-clad man. He just grinned too and posed some more for my camera.

Once we were done sampling the food, my friend and I decided to move towards Laad Bazaar – another lane branching off from Charminar, home to endless shops selling bangles of all kinds. Walking into the lane is like stepping onto the red carpet – the hide and seek of sparkles from shiny, glittering bangles emulating a million flashbulbs going off. There’s glitter everywhere, making one feel like one’s entered some sort of fairyland. And the bangles? Oh. My. God. Lac bangles with engravings, traditional sona glass bangles worn by brides, the bridal joda, thick bangles studded with shiny stones – the variety is mind-numbing.

Laad Bazaar at Charminar.
Laad Bazaar at Charminar.

 

Shimmer, sparkle, glitter - the bangles of Laad Bazaar.
Shimmer, sparkle, glitter – the bangles of Laad Bazaar.

 

Traditional Sona - delicate glass bangles worn by women with thick stone-studded bangles. A bridal trousseau is incomplete without them.
Traditional Sona – delicate glass bangles worn by women with thick stone-studded bangles. A bridal trousseau is incomplete without them.

As I saw people walk around the food stalls and women walk into the stores and whip out dresses/sarees to match colours of the bangles to their Eid clothes, I was taken back to my summer holidays many moons ago. Every one of my vacations was spent in Hyderabad – fearlessly exploring the tombs, climbing up to Charminar, shopping for weddings of aunts and cousins at Laad Bazar,  and earnestly hoping that this part of Hyderabad would always stand still despite time and preserve all its magic. That there would always be that energy, that shimmer, that madness that can only be associated with this particular part of the world. Imagine my surprise and joy when I went back this time to the comforting knowledge that the pollution levels may have gone up, inflation may have taken a toll, people may have grown more impatient, but there’s one thing that hasn’t changed still: the magic.

Gateway into present-day living from the old city.
Gateway into present-day living from the old city.

Getting there: Charminar isn’t hard to access, but it’s super-difficult to find parking space around here. I would recommend taking an auto or a cab here and going back home the same way.

Go if: You love experiencing moments of magic. And food. And life.

Ramadan Specials: Iftaar in the old city.

Onion samosas sizzling away.
Onion samosas sizzling away.

It’s hard to believe that it’s been a year since I went feasting along Mosque Road during Ramadan (or Ramzan). This year, I decided to go deeper into the city, to an area most frequented by Muslims: Shivajinagar.

TV/DVD, anyone?
TV/DVD, anyone?

If you ever decide to let go of bigger brands and labels and hunt for bargains, then OPH Road and thereabouts is the place to be. Located behind Russell Market, it’s thriving with shops selling affordable brocades, footwear, ready-mades, utensils, and of course, local flavours of food. During the month of Ramzan, the place really comes to life with people putting their best wares on display.

The interiors of Russell Market, all lit up.
The interiors of Russell Market, all lit up.

I went one evening with the intention of opening my fast in Shivajinagar, and the minute I entered the area, I was hit by the sounds of sizzling griddles and honking vehicles superimposed over the continuous buzz of shuffling, conversing people. The energy of the crowds brought a smile that never left my face till I moved out of the area. One can’t help it – the sense of camaraderie despite the swarms of humans is quite infectious. I was struck by the many people out shopping at a time when they usually stay at home and wait for Iftaar time (the time to open fast). But then I realized that the looming Taj Hotel (fondly referred to as Shivajinagar Taj, and not even a distant cousin of the five star chain of hotels) and the many food stalls would take care of their hunger pangs.

Sweets, savouries and thirst-quenchers - this shop had it all.
Sweets, savouries and thirst-quenchers – this shop had it all.

I started with a tour of the area, sounding out stalls with the most potential for varied eats and sweet meats. Fairly sceptical about being told to buzz off none too politely when I got the camera out, I was quite surprised when people were more than welcoming. “Aao aao ma! Eyy, hatt baa! Ino photu lerin! Konsa newspaper medam? Eyy newspaper mein photo aata re!” (“Come, come! Move out of the way, she’s taking photos! Which newspaper madam? Our picture will come in the newspaper!”), followed by instructions on which angles I should explore to get the best shot. Their eagerness touched me; I had to keep telling them that I wasn’t from any newspaper, but was taking pictures for the Internet. Everywhere I turned, there were people beckoning, asking me to take their photographs.

Sevai on sale already, and people were buying by the truckloads. Sevai is what is used to make Sheer Qurma - the trademark sweet of Eid.
Sevai on sale already, and people were buying by the truckloads. Sevai is what is used to make Sheer Qurma – the trademark sweet of Eid.

The sky was pretty cloudy and looked like it was going to rain. It did soon enough, sending shop owners scrambling for tarpaulins and rexines to cover their stores before covering themselves. It took all of a minute for them to figure out shelters. People immediately resumed shopping in the rain, now even more in a hurry because Iftaar was just minutes away.

Shopping after the rain. This how OPH Road looked with dwindling crowds.
Shopping after the rain. This is how OPH Road looked with dwindling crowds.

As if disappointed by how little the drizzle had affected everyone, the sky unleashed a torrent.

People ran for cover. I ran too, shielding my camera as best I could. So many of us were stranded in pockets around OPH Road, wondering what we would do when the siren for Iftaar went off. Almost on cue, the wail of the siren filled every nook and corner of Shivajinagar.  Shoppers, shop owners, beggars, policemen, Muslims, non-Muslims – everyone dug into their purses, plastic bags or carts simultaneously to open fasts with dates, water, or morsels of food.

The generous date seller who saved me from (nearly) starving.
The generous date seller who saved me from (nearly) starving.

I panicked. I wasn’t carrying anything to eat and would be drenched to the bone if I tried to get to one of the stalls. I couldn’t take that chance while carrying my camera. I looked around in desperation, spotted a cart selling dates and quickly asked them for one to open my fast. He was confused at first – nothing about my attire indicated that I was a Muslim, leave alone a Muslim who was fasting. Comprehension dawned soon enough and he reached out his hand, offering a bunch of dates instead of just one, saying, “Ye lo, jaldi jaldi!” (“Here, take this quick!”) Grateful, I said my prayers and bit into a delectably sweet and juicy date.

The scene was surreal. People stuck together in the rain, sharing food, partaking in the ritual of Iftaar as one. Religion wasn’t what was uniting all of us; it was food.

As I looked around at all the people busy eating and sharing whatever they had, I thought to myself, God must be looking down at all of us, smiling and nodding his head thinking, these are the moments I exist for.

The mosque opposite Russell Market which blared its siren when it was time for Iftaar.
The mosque opposite Russell Market which blared its siren when it was time for Iftaar.

Getting there: Don’t make the mistake of taking your own vehicle, unless you’re feeling masochistic. Take an auto and ask him to go to OPH Road. If that doesn’t work, try Russell Market.

Go if: You love local food, are a meat eater, feel like you want to be surrounded by tons of energy coming from tons of people, want to experience Iftaar in the midst of the Muslim community.

Ramadan Specials: Travelling down Mosque Road in search of the perfect 3-course Muslim meal.

Ramadan (or Ramzan as it is more commonly known) is the time most looked forward to by Muslims around the world. It was during this month that the Quran came into being with Prophet Mohammed’s (peace be upon him) revelations. The month is spent observing fasts from the break of dawn to the beginnings of dusk – over 12 hours usually – without ingesting a morsel of food, drinking a drop of water or even swallowing one’s saliva. After 30 days of fasting, the month of Ramadan culminates in Eid – a celebration of the month gone by.

But this is not the only reason that Ramadan is well-known in India. The biggest reason behind a large population looking forward to this time is because of the food. Obviously when people have been fasting for over 12 hours, they will not tolerate average food during the opening of the fast at dusk. So the spread is a choice of delectable meats, rices, savouries, sweets and soups. You’ll see hundreds of shops and eat streets across India catering to this rush of people.

In Bangalore, there are a handful of places that come alive during Ramadan, and Mosque Road is one of them. The mosque takes permission for letting people put up rows and rows of stalls that stretch a kilometre, with mouth-watering foods from various parts of South India. This phenomenon was hidden from me for the better part of this month till I happened to travel past it one evening and watched agape at the culinary orgy being displayed to attract the passing crowds. And I’ve been wanting to capture it ever since.

As I recuperate from Eid excess, I want to leave you with my epicurean adventures on Mosque Road three nights ago.

First, it is important to soak in the atmosphere and become one with the mass of bodies screaming their orders and belting food like a famine’s about to strike the world in a couple of hours.

Crowds circulate among the roadside stalls lining Mosque Road, leaving enough room for a two wheeler to use the road.

Second, take a look around. See which stalls have interesting names and which ones have interesting food.

Inspired cooking, indeed.

Third, start with an appetiser. Kababs are the perfect beginning to a two hour-long meal. Choose from chicken kabab, mutton kabab, veal kabab, shaamis, boti kabab, chicken stick, chicken shaslik, vegetable patty…

What did the chicken sheekh tell the mutton sheekh when they got caught having an affair? “We’re so skewered!”

Fourth, walk around a little more and see what gets your taste buds going for the main course.

To the left: A milk sherbet with fruits and sabz ke seeds (I have no idea what the English name for those is), matka phirni, beef cutlets, strawberry cheesecake.
To the right: Fresh-baked biscuits, little puris with coconut filling, paper napkins, plastic covers and bottled pickles.
This menu’s been beefed up.
Shahi Tukda: Bread fried and cooked in sugar syrup and khova.
Serves 100: Home to over 6 kilos of Biryani, this is the classic utensil used in preparing one of the most popular rice dishes.
“Aaaaachickensamosamuttonsamosaonionsamosaaaaaaaa!”
The Making of a Chicken Roll: juicy, melt-in-your-mouth chicken meets soft, almost translucent Rumali roti in an explosion of flavour.
Peacockery: Show off your wares, and you’re bound to attract more people.
Patthar Gosht: This is one of the fast-disappearing traditional way of cooking meat. Choose a slab of stone, wash it well and set it on a heap of coal. Let it get really, really, really hot. Marinate the meat of your choice, pour some oil over the stone and follow it up with the meat. Stir and turn until cooked. This meat is especially flavourful because not only does it cook in its own juices, but it also takes on a certain earthy taste from the stone. *Yumm*
Kheema Paratha: Available in both chicken and mutton versions, this paratha is stuffed with cooked meat and cooked again. Apparently, they made 1000 parathas a day.

Fifth, when you know you can eat no more, eat a paan.

Magai paan: Bite-size paans stuffed with Gulkhand and garnished with a cherry. Best eaten chilled.

Sixth, because you can be such a glutton and are constantly greedy when it comes to food, grab a kulfi.

Pista Kulfi and Walnut Kulfi at the Bombay Chowpatti Kulfi shop. Absolutely delicious and a must-try.
Waiting to exhale: These chefs work in the kitchens till dusk and then in the stalls from then on. Can’t be easy.

Getting there: Go by auto, especially if you decide to visit during Ramadan next year. Taking a cab or bike is utter chaos. Almost all autos know where Mosque Road is, so just say that.

Go if: You love food, meat, biryani, pulsating crowds because they make you feel alive.