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Care for some dhokla and antakshari on the Swiss Alps?

Malini Nair | Updated on June 25, 2021

Bracing the familiar: There are entire generations of travellers who will not stir out of home without the comfort of being able to communicate in their mother tongue and eat homely food   -  ISTOCK.COM

Local tour operators go the distance to offer the comfort and cuisine of home for Indian travellers who seek familiarity in distant lands

* But she will travel, she says, only if she feels “at home” wherever she goes. And for her, like legions of Bengalis since the 1930s, “at home” away from home, is Kundu Special

* In 1968, Panicker organised a 20-seater bus and put out a notice at the cafe asking those interested to sign up for ₹15

* A customer testimonial on the Kesari website raves about their tour guide’s promise of “garma garam pavbhaji, gajar halwa and khamang dhokla at Mt Titlis”

***

Writer-translator Srinath Perur’s delightful book If It’s Monday It Must Be Madurai has some priceless insights into the Indian passion for conducted tours. Of course, they are cheaper and allow single travellers to find company but our affinity for group tours also arises from the safety we find in numbers, in staying with the familiar in unfamiliar lands. As he and his group whiz through a 15-day bus tour across Europe, they create what he calls a “mobile little India”.

“We ate Indian food throughout, watched Hindi films on the bus, played antakshari, and in between only fleetingly ventured into Europe,” he says.

It is a need Indrani Dutta*, 60, totally understands. She loves to travel, explore the many small, exciting corners of India such as Kalpa or Omkareshwar. But she will travel, she says, only if she feels “at home” wherever she goes. And for her, like legions of Bengalis since the 1930s, “at home” away from home, is Kundu Special.

“I am emotionally attached to them — I only go where they go. No matter how much I want to travel to a place if it is not on the Kundu itinerary, I simply won’t go,” she says.

In this digital age when all you need is a mobile phone to book a room in Cusco or sign up for walk in Da Nang, Dutta’s fierce loyalty to an old package tour operator may seem odd. But she is hardly the only one. Young Indians now are adventurous enough to criss-cross continents, wild terrains and cuisines with nothing more than roaming data to guide them, but there are entire generations of travellers who will not stir out of home without familiar faces around them, the comfort of being able to communicate in their mother tongue, and of course, homely food.

Dutta swears by the Kundu deal — Bengali-speaking tour managers, dal-bhaat-chicken-mutton meals and singara-cutlet teatime, and the assurance that even in the middle of a perilous 12-hour bus ride through the higher Himalayas you will not be left in a lurch.

There are other old stories like Kundu’s that dot the history of low to middle-class travel in India. In the 1960s, the Indian Coffee House in Delhi’s Connaught Place, with its much-loved burger-vada-coffee, was a buzzy hangout. Among its workers was ERC Panicker, a Malayali from Alappuzha, who had left home at age 12 in search of employment and after an assortment of jobs landed in Delhi.

Panicker often heard from a friend, a booking clerk with the railways, that tickets on the newly-launched Taj Express were selling out every day leaving tourists, especially those who made the three-day train journey from the south, disappointed. In 1968, Panicker organised a 20-seater bus and put out a notice at the cafe asking those interested to sign up for ₹15. He would himself lead the group to Agra. That was the birth of Panicker’s Travel, now based in Gurudwara Road in Karol Bagh after the coffee house environs were demolished to make way for Palika Bazaar.

“Today tourists refuse to even look at a bus that does not have air-conditioning, air suspension and reclining seats. But those days people jumped at the opportunity to travel to Agra in a rickety bus because it came with the promise of camaraderie, safety and fun,” says Babu, Panicker’s son who now runs the Panicker’s Travel empire. The family business began picking up and more destinations were added to the options.

“It was the absolute sense of security: They took anxiety out of travel. No worries about schedules going haywire in an unknown place, and of course, getting the food we are used to — they only stopped at places we could get southern food,” says Kochi-based Lakshmi Menon, who took the Panicker Dilli Darshan tour some 20 years ago.

Over the decades, many new travel companies came up on the promise of homey comforts at the most exotic of locations.

Paris ma patra, Rome ma raspuri’ — Mumbai-based Raj Travels had famously claimed while selling travel to vegetarian Gujarati groups. Why bother with quiche or spaghetti in Paris or Rome when you can have patra and aamras puri like mother makes it? Ahmedabad-based Kunjubhai Talati is adventurous enough to plan his own travel but decided to join a Gujarati group tour to South Africa. What that did, he says, was save him the trouble of finding vegetarian food in unknown cities.

“Getting vegetarian food, especially Jain type that excludes onions and garlic, becomes a huge issue when Gujaratis travel,” says Talati. “With groups like these you were sure of your supply of farsan and dal-roti.”

Over the years, Indian tour operators found that with the guarantee of fresh-cooked vegetarian fare more and more folks were willing to sign up for destinations that they otherwise avoided. They would either carry provisions and maharajs (traditional cooks) or park their cooks during peak months at destination hotels.

A Bengali tour operator would put down his bus loads in Agra in front of small eatery that had signs that said ‘maacher jhol, bhat aar pash balish (fish curry, rice and cotton bolsters that are the beloved of Bengalis)’. And there is Kesari Travels with its Maharashtrian appeal. A customer testimonial on the Kesari website raves about their tour guide’s promise of “garma garam pavbhaji, gajar halwa and khamang dhokla at Mt Titlis”, guaranteeing local comfort even on the Swiss Alps.

The industry has lost its buzz over the last one year of the pandemic. The onslaught of online companies and apps had anyway broken its stronghold. At the Gurudwara Road office of Panicker’s Travel, where there were once a fleet of 30 buses awaiting tourists, now there are just 10. And where 2000 tourists would have clambered aboard coaches every day in the season, barely 50 have turned up over 25 days.

(*Name changed to protect identity)

Malini Nair is a journalist based in Delhi

Published on June 25, 2021

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