During my week in Allahabad, I visit the Sangam for holy boating and the bazaar area’s deepest gullies for savouries and sweetmeats, but the place I find myself gyrating back to is the Civil Lines. More specifically, its main street, MG Marg. Wandering about here gives me the odd feeling of having a walk-on part in an EM Forster television adaptation.
Though local residents will aver that very little of the past remains, Civil Lines can, to an outsider, still look like a set waiting for the costume drama to begin. A paan stall is, for example, named Sophiya Laurence Beetal Shop after the bosomy Italian cine star of the 1950s Sophia Loren, who must have been all the rage in the grand cinemas.
Unlike so many other towns that are busy turning themselves into replicas of Singapore, Allahabad’s main street still helps tourists imagine the past. Indian Coffee House (founded in 1957) exudes a time-warpish charm and I start my days there with keema omelettes (₹62.50) washed down with rooh afza , that 1906 creation of pre-Coca-Colanised India. The café has efficient waiters in ancient tunics, and uncles crowd around tables over cheap coffees, debating in Hindi.
After coffee, it’s time to hit the old-world bookshops. It was in Allahabad that the Wheeler’s chain of railway bookstalls was started in 1877. The company introduced paperback publishing to India with their cheap editions of Rudyard Kipling — who, incidentally, lived in Allahabad early in his career. The main Wheeler’s Bookshop (of 1966 vintage) can be found on 19 MG Marg. The tourist guidebooks are delightfully whimsical. One booklet says that Allahabad’s airport is well connected, only to add in the next paragraph that there are no civilian flights to or from what is essentially a military airfield.
More mofussil charm reveals itself as I stroll down the street. Splendid art deco structures, odd hangover-y-looking bungalows, and upper-class uncles and aunties dressed in dated fashion eat in fine-diners that haven’t changed since the mid-1900s. The classiest, El Chico from 1964, has a menu of forgotten delicacies: Russian salad drenched in rich mayo dressing, sublime paneer cutlets (never has paneer melted in my mouth like this), topped off with a hill of mutton roast plated with butter-sautéed French beans and cauliflower. Including tea (served, reassuringly, in a pewter pot set) and dessert, I’m billed ₹1,103. Other guests include a geriatric Anglo-Indian taking his greying daughter out for their habitual lunch, a bunch of paunchy men in white kurtas — politicians or contractors closing a shady deal — and two families out-bragging each other about their European holidays.
“Was Paris in Spain or Switzerland?”
“No sweaty, you’re mixing it up with Berlin, where they had the tulips and Eiffel Tower.”
To experience prehistoric grocery shopping, I drop in at Beni Prasad Laxmi Narayan, a congested store in a graceful mercantile arcade from 1934. From there I visit Kwality, which advertises itself as 60 years old, and gasp at stuccoed ceilings, plaster-of-Paris medallions on all-white walls, and wooden furnishings with red upholstery. However, I am disabused of my expectant notions as it turns out hardly nothing on the menu is available. I end up having greasy, oversalted butter chicken, mixed-veg curry made with rotten veggies, and undercooked doughy chapatis, a meal that is overpriced at ₹700. I digest just about anything, but feel suicidal after this misadventure.
But apart from that flop, my weeklong eating adventure is a hit parade. Another evening, I splurge at Tepso’s Jade Garden, where music wails softly and the waiters are better dressed than guests. The ladies at the adjacent table order chicken tikka masala, that most British of Indian dishes created from ketchup and leftover tandoori chicken, but I ask for cheese-baked fish in white sauce (₹325). It is not made with frozen basa but north Indian river sole, assures the waiter, and the cheesy crust is honest-to-goodness Amul.
MG Marg is largely sober, but when I crave a sunset peg with snacks, I head for the Tourist Bungalow next to the noisy bus station. The pub grub is decent, as evidenced by retired uncles sipping beer and nibbling at chicken cutlets. If I’m still peckish late at night, there are gourmet chefs with pushcarts everywhere, attracting customers for litti-chokha , wholewheat balls stuffed with roasted chickpea flour, slow-cooked over burning cowdung cakes and rinsed in a cup of melted butter before eaten with charred eggplant-cum-potato purée — at ₹20 a plate.
It is perhaps adequate that Civil Lines has retained its nomenclature because civil is what it is, and if you read between the lines you’ll get food of the sort that’s hardly believable any more in this age of global sameness. Here I happily sample once-popular flavours of pre-liberalised India, being reminded of a young country that had just gained independence under a cosmopolitan Prime Minister who — naturally — came from Allahabad. Sure, looking around there’s McDonald’s and KFC too, but the main street remains a living museum of food sophistication from a time when global junk food had not yet ravaged palates.
Zac O’Yeah is a part-time travel writer and part-time detective novelist. His recent books include the novel Tropical Detective and the travelogue A Walk Through Barygaza; Email: email@example.com
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