To know Bengaluru through Noorain Ahmed’s eyes is to know the invisible cities within. It is to see the people who’ve been there all their lives but don’t get to take up space; itinerants “who have no thikana.” She’s the woman you’d stumble upon if you went to the kitchen of S. R. Bakery in Fraser Town, helping the cook chop onions because she dropped by to chat before picking up her favourite butter cookies. Or the person you’ll see at a cycle repair shop wedged between two buildings in Cox Town, sketching its immigrant owner for two days straight, sharing chai shots between sessions.
When someone visits Ahmed in the city she was born in 33 years ago, she skips icons like Koshy’s (“I’ve never been!”), and takes them straight to S.P. Road, a long stretch of pure chaos. Scooters moving faster than light, wizened hands pulling hand-rickshaws to the score of hollers, rabbit holes of computer shops and recycling spaces—to Ahmed, an architect who works on low-cost housing projects, the place smells of invention. “People here have so many stories, and I always try to buy something from them when they spare the time. Now I have a little library of movable pivot joints, nuts, and bolts,” she laughs.
During her illustration workshops, Noorain Ahmed encourages participants to doodle scenes from Bengaluru’s daily life. Photo courtesy: Noorain Ahmed
Ahmed’s illustration workshops around Bengaluru tap into her desire to know the people and spaces that shape her city. “For instance, if we went to K.R. Flower Market—a fragrant, underground world which works on its own rhythm — I’d ask my participants to draw not what they see, but their memory of it. For someone, it could be the flowers and their sellers, for others it could be the market’s floor plan or the types of shops.” Everyone who visits Bengaluru visits Cubbon Park, but Ahmed urges people to show up at six a.m. sharp. “The thelawaalas are just setting up shop, the birdwatchers are stirring, the laughter club members emerge; on some days there is a live music performance at the Band Stand, or a photoshoot with the decked-up bride hoping to catch the golden light. Later you might spot a women’s march—evenings are pretty dull compared to all that,” she smiles.
As a child, Sunday trips to Cubbon Park with her parents always ended with hot-hot dosas at the Airlines Hotel. Then Ahmed’s father would put on a cassette of ABBA or Yanni in their car, and they’d drive through M.G. Road or St. Marks Road. “We still love the kebabs at Kabab Korner on St. Marks Road, and their chocolate mousse. Nearby is Truffles (formerly Ice & Spice) where we’d go for the French fries, but really it was so we could meet its long-time waiter Swami. Other 20-something waiters come and go, but Swami has been the one constant and the soul of that place; he must be at least 80 now,” reminisces Ahmed. Her childhood haunts were modest and have proved timeless—Anand Sweets at Fraser Town for jalebi and chaat, Bhagatram at Commercial Street for “the best gulab jamun,” a tiny paan shop outside Harsha Hotel in Shivaji Nagar (“always magai saada for the elders and magai meetha for the kids”), London Fish & Chips at Only Place in Ashok Nagar, and a chaat shop called Shankar’s Bhel House in Sindhi Colony.
Noorain Ahmed’s dream project for the near future is to illustrate Bengaluru’s invisible inhabitants, such as her neighbourhood knife-sharpener and the fish seller who is promptly up before 5.30 a.m. Photo courtesy: Sagar Srihari
Bengaluru continues to inspire Ahmed in endless ways in adulthood too. She walks everywhere, and has favourite haunts for every mood. “I love dropping by Bamboo (pronounced ‘Bumboo’) Bazaar if I want to be creatively tickled, to check out its lovely old, second-hand furniture. For music and cultural events, I head to Bangalore International Centre (BIC)—they’re all free!—or Ranga Shankara for the plays and Manju’s crisp hot sabudana wada. For a chakkar, or to meet friends, I love the Chitrakala Parishath college in Seshadripuram, because their canteen serves simple, great fare and I also get to pick up supplies from Bhaskar Art Center. There’s also some mela or exhibition going on pretty much throughout the year.”
Most travellers to the city end up at the NGMA, says Ahmed, but few check out the free library upstairs, or know that true Bangloreans order its café’s herb toast and passionfruit juice. Lightroom Bookstore is where she goes to be inspired. “The quaint children’s bookstore is magical even for adults, and its owner Aashti never fails to find you the perfect book alongside a soulful conversation.” On days Ahmed craves good coffee, she heads to Urban Solace which overlooks Ulsoor Lake, and serves cheese-stuffed mushrooms. “And when I want to eat fish that tastes like a cloud, I go to China Pearl in Koramangala: their Fung Cheow Fish is crispy fish tossed in chilli, garlic, and basil. For Mexican, I love Chinita’s tacos, nachos and churros. Any time I miss good ol’ kheema samosa, I look no further than Albert Bakery in Fraser Town.”
To know her home better, she has a dream project in mind: to illustrate its invisible inhabitants. “The man who sharpens our knives has been around for decades with his bulky cycle; he’s grown old here and I have no idea how he gets by. There’s the paperwaala who inserts leaflets every morning, the fish seller who is up before 5.30 a.m.—those are the Bangloreans I want to document next.”
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is Commissioning Editor at National Geographic Traveller India. She loves stumbling upon hole-in-the-wall bookshops, old towns and collecting owl souvenirs in all shapes and sizes.
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