Summer has just left April in favour of May. In her suitcase were also packed a thunder shower or two, some streaks of lightning, a bag of hailstones and a daily dose of drizzles to wash the city clean. Everything looks fresh, damp and green. I love this particular green. It is the colour of young leaves. Peas in a pod. Baby grass. Paddy fields. This is not a staid olive, corporate bottle or stern military green. No. This is what I call a happy`Banana Green’. It falls somewhere between pea and lemon green and is a balm for tired eyes.
There is a lot of this `happy banana green’ in Gandhi Bazaar this Sunday morning. I am not surprised. We have a serious relationship with the Banana here in South India. Bananas are consumed at night to make the morning more comfortable ( if you know what I mean). They are eaten after lunch to hasten digestion. Eating on Banana leaves say the experts, makes food taste better. Full Banana trees stand in welcome at the door to weddings and other auspicious occasions. Banana curry tastes divine, the flowers are cooked like vegetables and the Nendran banana is chopped into crisp, golden yellow chips. Bananas are offered to the Gods and Banana leaves are plaited into delicate Torans for festivals. So if, as the rumour goes, the Banana was brought to India by the Portugese, I really want to know how we managed here before this !
But there’s more to Gandhi Bazaar than just the banana. For any die hard South Bangalorean lady worth the `uppu‘ in her kitchen, Gandhi Bazaar is where the serious action is. At any given point in time parking space is at a minimum and human interaction is high as the pavements are taken over by flower, fruit and vegetable stalls. Sounds of frantic shopping are everywhere – selection, evaluation, negotiating, discussing, agreeing and finally the rustling of notes being brought out of a plastic purse, albeit reluctantly. All this is done against a background score of car horns, noisy autorickshaws and hawkers peddling their wares while a lifelike statue of the well loved Dr.Rajkumar looks on kindly.
But the ambient sounds pale in comparison to the colours in the flower filled baskets from where blushing rosebuds and glowing marigolds set the pavements on fire. “Yellow in Hinduism is the colour of Lord Vishnu, the colour of purity, victory, chastity and surprisingly, sensuality, since in spring in India, young unmarried girls wear yellow. In South India, a yellow thread is tied around the neck of the bride’ by the groom symbolising mariage and its sanctity.”- The Sacred Yellow’, Bina Rao
The Marigold spans two worlds-that of the flesh -it is an essential for decorating wedding Mantapas and canopies that sit above bashful brides and that of the spirit- orange is the colour of renunciation so the Gods are offered orange marigolds during prayer as a symbol of surrender. The flower has been used in food, medicine and in magic Goddess rituals all over the world while the tuberoses, jasmine and roses feature prominently in Muslim weddings and rituals. But one cannot think of the rose without remembering Noorjehan, the beautiful, enterprising Mughal Queen who is credited with the discovery of distilling these fragrant flowers to make aromatic oils and `Ittr ‘ .
As I lean into a basket and inhale…my mind wanders to a summer evening in another age and time. I can almost see her, supervising the plucking of thousands of rose petals just before dawn, distilling the vapours in the royal palace, blending it with sandalwood oil and capturing it in a crystal bottle before dabbing it seductively behind her ears and on her wrists, as she waits for the Emperor Jehangir to arrive.
Out of the corner of my eye, I see a crowd gather to my right. My attention shifts to food. This little outlet sells popular `items’ from North Karnataka and I can vouch for the `Holige’ which is divine ! I also love `Obattu’ and the Maharastrian version `Puran Poli’ and wait eagerly for festive days when I get to eat them. Gandhi Bazaar is a foodies paradise, there’s food to eat, food ingredients to look at, and food stuff to take home. Right next to this shop is another one that crooks a finger at me and beckons enticingly. I manage to resist only because I have set my sights on something else.
It is not possible to leave this part of town without stopping at Vidyarthi Bhavan, so do get here before breakfast and plan for a hearty meal. Though you’ll be lucky if you get seating space! This is where its soft white Idlis, crisp Vadas and legendary ghee Dosas fly off the stove and head straight to my table like homing pigeons with unerring focus and accuracy. The word `self-restraint’ finally loses all meaning here.
Meals usually end with an intense discussion of how `Bangalore has gone to the dogs”, and comments about traffic problems, accompanied by a cup of steaming hot, filter coffee, ( or maybe one more). Finally, stroll down the pavement and take in a changing streetscape- American coffee franchises now sit side by side conservative eateries. Pooja thalis are sold alongside imported Krishna and Ganesh idols from China. Then walk across the road.
Across the road from VB is where Tulsi saplings sit in a little cluster under a tree. Crush one between your fingers and let the healing Tulsi ( Holy Basil ) plant leave behind a lingering fragrance to take home with you. The Tulsi plant is grown and worshipped across India as a symbol of Mahalakshmi, while for some it is also a manifestation of Sita. During the month of Kartika, the auspicious lighting of oil lamps in the evening is often accompanied by a Tulsi Pooje while the Tulsi Habba is usually celebrated a few days after Deepavali .
Gandhi Bazaar at festival time -Sankranti, Pongal, Ugadi… is a flurry of Mysore silk clad middle aged ladies negotiating shrewdly over plantain leaves, flowers, auspicious fruits and vegetables for the festive meal – Kosambiri, Palya, Kootu, Saaru. My favourite Chitranna will also be made and also something sweet to end the meal with – Holige, Obattu or Payasa. Planning a meal is often as exciting as cooking it and that delightful process can begin right now. There is plenty of inspiration around. Baskets brim with raw mangoes – the famous `Poly Mangoes’ of my childhood, eaten with salt and red chilli powder, the semi-green `Raspuri’s’ and the small, sharp `Mavinakayi’ which finds its way into Thokkus, Gojju, and Saaru.
From one end to the other, Gandhi Bazaar is a sensory experience that reminds me of festivals and happy occasions in our lives.It reminds me of a slower era when we had time- to decorate, to celebrate with open hearts and doors.When guests dropped in sans invitation to share elaborate meals cooked with care. It reminds me that marketing was once a special, planned event looked forward to by everyone in the family. Unlike our visits to a supermarket that are largely driven by necessity.