I went on a 10-day well-earned holiday to visit the eastern Indian State of Odisha. Continuing from the last post, do accompany me on this final ode to Odisha.
Saurav and I returned to Cuttack for what was the final leg of my vacation.
On the way to Cuttack, we stopped at Odianee, a highway eatery, for some authentic Odia lunch.
By now, I had a lot of writing to do. For a travel storyteller, as the writing backlog builds up in the background, it triggers a certain level of anxiety. The risk of putting off the writing activity was that I could miss writing about some interesting snippets. I certainly needed some time off to pursue my travel storytelling.
Cut to Cuttack!
Saurav stayed with his family at Cuttack and he had so generously spent his valuable time with me to enrich my vacation, sometimes at the expense of his home chores. His family cooperated hugely and I am deeply grateful to them. My stay at Cuttack served two ends. I was to get some time for my writing while Saurav could be with his family.
Hotel Bombay Inn
At Cuttack, my stay was arranged at Hotel Bombay Inn, owned by Saurav’s school classmate, Manoj Thacker.
In the above picture, Manoj is flanked by Saurav on the left and me on the right.
Manoj visited me in my room and we got talking for a long time. There was so much history to this hotel. Manoj endeavors to serve his customers – mostly regular businessmen from outside Odisha on business trips – in his own inimitable and personalized way.
During our conversation, Manoj mentioned three things that stayed with me. He spoke about the restaurant’s Khichdi which is in great demand especially when one wants to have something light. The other thing was the full Vegetarian Thali that the restaurant offered. I was advised by Manoj on some customization – while ordering the Thali, ask for Dal Fry instead of the Dal that they regularly offer. The third was a compulsory visit to the temple on the premises. I made a mental note of all these items – to be experienced later.
As travelers, we know the importance of such hotels that add to our experience. A hotel stay serves as a ‘home away from home’. Such hotels provide a stabilizing factor in the new world for a traveler.
Over the next few days, I got to enjoy the ‘homely’ facilities at the hotel.
The 88-room hotel had some unique and interesting features.
For instance, one could summon Room Service by pressing a calling bell in addition to the regular intercom feature. There was a ceiling fan in the bathroom. Audio played in the bathroom at the flick of a switch. When I switched on the audio, I was connected to a Hindi TV movie channel – only audio, of course. A pair of bathroom slippers had been provided at the entrance of the bathroom. Melodious flute music played regularly in the hotel corridor.
Many of the hotel staff had been employed for decades. It showed in the way they treated the guests – like family. For instance, as I stepped out of the room, one of the elder staff members asked me if I needed anything and if I had had my meal. It was coming from genuine interest and concern. I could sense that this customer orientation had come not from any specific training module but from the culture that Manoj had instilled in them over the years. For that matter, Manoj himself cared deeply for his guests and it showed in the way he would go on rounds daily throughout the hotel for a hands-on experience.
As I settled down in my room, my phone beeped. I received a poem from Saurav on our Mangalajodi experience via WhatsApp.
Life is blessed.
The poem deeply resonated with me. We were indeed blessed.
Writing over the years!
As I sat down to begin writing about my travel experiences, I ordered some delicious Pakodas via Room Service.
I have been writing since my school days which continued through my college life. During those days, I always carried a spiral writing pad and a pen in my pocket to jot down ideas for my writing. Later on, as I began working, I pursued this hobby rather seriously to the extent that many of my articles were published in the New Delhi editions of The Hindustan Times and The Pioneer, and much later in the Bangalore edition of The Deccan Herald.
I have a habit of making notes while traveling too. Nowadays I have the phone ready at hand and it is very easy to make notes on the go. As I also use the phone to take pictures and videos, all I need to do when I begin writing is to develop these notes into interesting text for the reader and add the pictures and the videos. Of course, in some specific cases, especially when I am visiting a historical monument, I also carry out research to get my facts right.
Writing is an activity where I can easily lose track of time. At the Hotel Bombay Inn, it was no different. Before I realized it, it was dark and it was time to order dinner.
After devouring the delicious Pakodas, I wanted to order something different. I flipped through the hotel’s Room Service Menu and ordered Chinese Bhel without knowing what to expect.
I thought, given the Chinese ongoing attempt to gobble up territory, it was time for me to pay them back in their own coin – gobbling up one plate at a time. Ordering Chinese Bhel proved to be a trap – not surprising given that it was Chinese by nature. The dish was so delicious that I fell for it as our neighboring countries have fallen for the Chinese Belt & Road Initiative. I ended up ordering Chinese Bhel several times during my stay there.
Attending an Engagement ceremony
The next day, I was to attend an Engagement Ceremony for Saurav’s nephew. It was indeed an honor for me to be invited to a family event. The event was to be held at a temple in Bhubaneswar.
Saurav and his wife, Madhumita, picked me up from the hotel in their car and we headed to the venue of the Engagement.
It was an intimate ceremony. Only the parents of the boy and the girl were present along with a handful of relatives. The boy and the girl were out of town. The ceremony reminded me of such events in our Palakkad Iyer community in the early days. The Engagement or Betrothal ceremony – known as Nichaya Thamboolam – was conducted between the families of both sides and the boy and the girl were not required to be present at the event. Of course, times have changed now.
The event was followed by a simple but delicious meal at the temple. We sat on the floor cross-legged for the meal.
Shopping for women at home
On the way back from the event, we went saree shopping at Mehers’ in Bhubaneswar. The tagline of the shop is: Woman. God’s most beautiful creation.
I agree wholeheartedly.
The idea of choosing this moment to shop for sarees was because Madhumita, Saurav’s wife, was with us. We could not let go of this opportunity of having an expert in our midst.
Whenever I travel, I have a habit of buying sarees and dress materials for the women at home. Specifically, when I travel to another State in India, I certainly make it a point to buy the products of that particular State. India is indeed a land of diversity and this fact is even more evident when it comes to women’s wear.
Odisha is known for its exquisite textiles. Even when we were in New Delhi, we used to go to the Odisha Emporium, Utkalika, at Baba Kharak Singh Marg, occasionally. My wife, Jyothi, recollects that she did possess two Odia Sambalpuri sarees.
I have a habit of choosing sarees in an instant. The middle-aged salesperson took out several Bomkai Cotton Sarees from the well-stocked cabinet. I had three different requirements: two sarees each for my mother and my mother-in-law, two sarees each for Jyothi and my elder sister, Bina, and one dress material for my younger sister, Meera.
I was quick to make my selection. We moved from the Saree Section to the Dress Materials Section where I chose quickly…again. Meanwhile, I thought I spotted Saurav making a quick gesture in Madhumita’s direction. I turned out to be correct. The result of that gesture was a gift for Jyothi – a beautiful blue dress material with Konark Wheels woven on the side.
I was dropped back at Hotel Bombay Inn by Saurav & Madhumita where I resumed my writing activity. By the time I ended, it was late at night.
That night, I ordered Khichdi which Manoj had spoken about the other day. It was so light…and delectable that I floated in the direction of heaven.
The following day, in the morning, I got ready and visited the temple within the hotel premises that Manoj had spoken about. Later, I waited for Saurav to pick me up. Saurav came in his small car that would help weave in and out of Cuttack’s narrow streets.
Netaji Subhas Chandra Bose
We headed to the family home of Netaji Subhas Chandra Bose – now converted into a museum. Before that, we passed by Odisha’s trademark filigree shops displaying their products in the show windows. The roads being narrow, we could not park the car, and also because the traffic police were doing their rounds. However, Saurav drove as close to the shops as he could and I got a good view of the filigree art. I had no plans to buy anything anyway.
As we passed through the old part of the city, Saurav was providing me with a running commentary. There were several places of worship including small temples and mosques. Many of these were very old and historic.
We entered the Janakinath Bhawan or the Netaji Birth Place Museum. The place was being refurbished as Netaji Subhas Chandra Bose’s birth anniversary was coming up in a few days’ time. As photography was not allowed, I have no pictures of the various rooms and artifacts on display there. We spent more than a couple of hours walking through different rooms. With well-preserved pictures and news items, the different rooms depicted a chronological order of Netaji’s life. To imagine what Netaji did for the country and under what circumstances gave me goosebumps all over.
We went to Saurav’s home – in an elite neighborhood – to pick up Madhumita. I got a chance to meet with Saurav’s mother and his brother.
Dosa…reminds me of home
Along with Madhumita, we headed for lunch to Pramod Convention & Club Resort, Cuttack’s most well-appointed hotel. All of us had yummy Dosas with complete accompaniments. My vacation was drawing to a close and the Dosa reminded me of home.
I returned to the hotel and resumed my writing. For dinner, I ordered Chinese Bhel…again.
On the next day – the final day of my Odisha vacation – both Saurav and I had two items to be ticked off.
Saurav wanted me to taste Cuttack’s famous Dahibara Aludum, a street food served by kiosks located all over the town. He specifically wanted me to taste Raghu’s version of this dish, Raghu being a second or third-generation vendor in Raghu’s family.
Then we had to taste the Vegetarian Thali offered by Hotel Bombay Inn with the customization that Manoj, the hotel’s owner, had specifically pointed out to me.
These two items were the final signposts of my Odisha vacation after which I was to leave for Bangalore.
Thali at Hotel Bombay Inn
We first headed for the Vegetarian Thali at lunchtime.
Just as we were about to enter the restaurant, we bought tokens. In addition to the round brass meal token, we also purchased the triangular token for Curd and a plastic token for dessert, which on that day happened to be Kheer.
The system of meal tokens is an old tradition in India. I recall, as a young man, I used to accompany my father to Grand Vaishno Hotel on Bank Street, Karol Bagh, in New Delhi. My father would buy tokens before we settled down for a meal. The last time before this Odisha trip when I purchased a meal token was in Dharwad, Karnataka, at the Basappa Khanavali.
As we handed over the tokens to the waiter at the restaurant of Hotel Bombay Inn, we didn’t forget to mention the Dal Fry customization that Manoj had indicated to us.
While the Thali was placed in front of us, a generous portion of the piping hot Dal Fry followed. That Ghee (clarified butter) was used in the ‘fry’ process of the Dal was amply evident from the aroma that we were enveloped in as soon as the bowl of Dal Fry was placed on our table.
The meal was out of this world. Whether it was the Chana Curry or the Flat Beans Subji or the Aloo Dum, or the Dal Fry, the taste was just perfect. Hot Chapathis were served to us every now and then. The Curd added gravity to the proceedings while the Kheer elevated the overall experience. Highly recommended!
The final item on the To Do list was Raghu’s Dahibara Aludum.
There is nothing permanent about Raghu’s kiosk. Every day he sets up his table from scratch by the wayside and his eats are available to the public only after 5 PM.
To me, a travel experience is never complete without savoring the local food, including street food. The best street food joints in the country cannot claim to be the cleanest but they serve fresh and tasty food. As travelers, we learn to overlook matters of hygiene, of course, at our own peril. However, those street joints that have been existing for a long time in the same place have nothing but quality and taste to offer – there are no other frills on offer. Given that many of their customers are regular and loyal, they have to maintain a certain degree of hygiene and safety despite their surroundings. Also, they are open to customer feedback and do make appropriate changes to their recipe.
I had tasted Alu Dum and Dahi Vada separately but never as a combination which was unique.
When we reached Raghu’s kiosk, we spotted Saurav’s brother there – I got to know that Raghu’s Dahibara Aludum is his favorite. Click to watch the video.
I was blown away by Raghu’s Dahibara Aludum. No wonder then that he is so popular that on many days, some of his customers return empty-handed – rather empty-stomached – and disappointed.
With that final signpost, I was winding up my splendid Odisha vacation.
For this vacation, I had only one person to thank…and thank profusely – Saurav. At a time when he could have directed me to a travel agent to organize my vacation, he had taken pains, endured discomfort, and put off his family responsibilities to support me. Not only that, he had accompanied me on my discoveries every single day. Saurav’s family too had played a key role in all of this. I thank them too.
On the next day, I bid goodbye to Saurav and his family.
I also bid goodbye to Odisha – India’s Best Kept Secret, as their tagline goes.
Ode to Odisha!
However, I vowed to myself that I will unravel this secret to the world…through my writing. That would also be my way of giving back to the State for what it had so generously offered me.
Odisha, thank you! See you again!
Read my earlier posts on Odisha here:
PS: The Talapatra depicting the life of Lord Rama that I had purchased from Raghurajpur (please refer to my Postcard 2 for more details) has been framed and is on our Living Room wall. It reminds me regularly of my Odisha trip now. After my last 3 posts, I have had at least half a dozen friends and contacts expressing their wish to visit Odisha. One of them is already there with his family.