Varun Grover dons many hats—satirist, writer, lyricist, comedian—but through all of it, one thing is assured, his mastery of language. His stories have enthralled in Masaan and Sacred Games, lyrics have resonated in Dum Laga Ke Haisha and Gangs of Wasseypur, and his comedy? It’s a hot knife slicing through butter.
“You can’t be a writer if you don’t observe,” Grover recounts in a telephonic interview. Whether it be his insightful comments as a part of the satirical collective Aisi Taisi Democracy or a poignant scene of two lovers sharing pizza at Assi Ghat in Masaan’s Benaras (a city Grover considers home), his writing reflects a searing intellect. In a conversation that extended well beyond the half an hour I had asked for, I learnt that Grover seeks out good food with a passion that warmed my foodie soul, and is always happy to swap travel tips, as can be seen in these edited excerpts.
How does travelling affect your writing?
Writing is all about observing and living through different experiences. If I observe well and stay open, stories are born in my mind. Ultimately, being a writer is about having a world view and understanding how people tackle both the political and the social.
Which place has always captivated your imagination?
Benaras. I lived there and studied at IIT-BHU for four years. The city’s culture and chaos has stayed with me. Everytime I go back, I discover something new about Benaras—a different place or a new ritual that has been followed for hundreds of years. Three years ago, on my last visit in October, I discovered a centuries-old travelling Ram Leela. It is staged in different parts of the city. For instance, the university gates of BHU are a stand-in for Lanka in this version. The city has many, many layers and the foremost one for me is food. It is also the first thing I explore in any place I visit.
Internationally, Egypt fascinated me. The history in India often dates back 500 or 700 years, in America it might be 200 years, but in Egypt it goes as far back as 4,000 years. Sometimes our guide would say stuff like, “This is really new, it is only 800 years old.” We saw tombs, caves and the Valley of the Kings in Luxor. Egyptians are also interesting storytellers. The country was traditionally a popular stop on several ancient trade routes from Europe and Asia, so everybody seems to be still selling something, even if they are tall tales. Everyone is a kissago or daastango in Egypt, from the tongawaala and the taxiwaala to the shopkeeper.
What Egyptian food did you relish?
I’ve had baklava in Turkey and Dubai, but the best and freshest is in Egypt. There is a shop in Cairo, close to Tahrir Square, called Abdel Rahim Koueider. You enter the shop and are transported 500 years into the past. They make 70 types of baklava, with quirky names such as “bulbul’s nest.” In Luxor, I also dined on fish that was freshly caught from the Nile and that was delicious.
Going back to Benaras, do you think there is an element of fetishisation while writing about that city?
Benaras has always been viewed through the eyes of the white man. You need time to break through the clichés that we have been fed through this gaze. The city is not just about the sun rising on the ghats or a boat ride in the Ganga. It is about small stuff like the old haveli of Bhartendu Harishchandra, the father of Hindi literature, who wrote the first Hindi play. No tourist goes here, even though the haveli has been restored and is in good condition. In the old part of town, there’s another collector of old LP records from the 1930s and 1940s including rare recordings of Begum Akhtar and those from the Benaras classical music gharana. The city has preserved these things. You have to walk around to discover it. And you must also stay at least five days. When I went there six years ago with my wife Raj Kumari, and she was going for the first time, she had only two days. I tried to show her the most non-touristy side of Benaras, but she didn’t like it. She felt it was too dirty; she was hoping for a greater city. We went again three years ago for seven days. Then she also fell in love with the city.
What are your memories of travelling as a child?
We used to live in Dehradun, and my aunt lived in Calcutta. I went to the city for the first time in 1989, when I was nine.We had a 30-hour train journey, which was really epic and we stopped at so many new places. I had never been out of north India. To see the wide, open rice fields of Bengal was something else. I tasted fresh coconut water for the first time in my life. Calcutta seemed like such a huge city. I still feel Bombay is not as big as Calcutta was in my imagination at that time. It remains one of my top three food cities in India.
We used to also take frequent trips around Dehradun. Sahastradhara, which had sulphur water springs, was a wonderful place where we often took many of our visiting family members.
When you’re on tour, do you make time to explore a place?
I always try to either go a day early, or wait an extra day, or as many days as I can manage. I find a local—either a friend, or someone who has come to see the show—and go out with them. No trip is complete without walking through a city.
Is there a city that you discovered while touring?
I didn’t know much about Singapore and its food culture. I didn’t expect the whole city to be one giant khau galli. That was an amazing discovery.
You’ve said in one interview that you found Spain the least racist, and France the most intimidating place.
India operates on so much chaos that order can be intimidating. France is too orderly… there are different ways to greet people in the morning and evening. If you don’t get it right, people take offense or judge you. I’m sure it’s a part of their culture and they find some meaning and joy in it, but Indians are not so formal. I don’t know whether it is racist or my own inferiority complex in a very white country but people judging you for a lack of manners is not a nice experience. When I crossed over from France to Italy, on the other hand, I was delighted to see folks not obeying traffic signals.
Do you go to a special place to write?
I live in Kandivali in Bombay, which is fairly peaceful. Sometimes I go to this place in Uttaranchal called Sonapani. It is a homely resort near Mukteshwar that I love. I also like going to Goa because I love the sea and seafood. Usually, I find a spot in south Goa, away from the bustle.
In Sacred Games, there’s a strong sense of place. Was that a conscious writing decision?
Our writers, both in season 1 and 2, wanted to keep it very authentic. We found that there was an anda bhurji stall near Kyani Bakery that was popular. Bombay has these strange things—five or six anda bhurji places which have a cult following. These spots lend the city its character.
What are some of your favourite travel books?
One is a Hindi book, Volga Se Ganga, by Rahul Sankrityayan. He’s one of the best travel writers India has had. It’s fiction but rooted in travel, history and anthropology. This book has inspired me to see the world.
Another fictional favourite is this novel called Netherland by Joseph O’Neill. It is set in New York, and is about a bunch of Asians and a Trinidadian who play cricket in New York. Recently I was in New York, and I spotted a group of people actually playing cricket and I felt my journey had come full circle. The other book I recommend is Kashi ka Assi by Kashi Nath Singh, a character sketch of Benaras. I was living in Benaras when I read it and the book has unlocked so many secrets about the city for me.
If you had to give people one essential travel tip, what would that be?
Avoid touristy places and you’ll never be at a loss. Even if you say that you went to Paris and didn’t see the Eiffel Tower, that’s fine. Whatever you did instead will definitely be better.
As a songwriter, do you associate popular places with songs?
Let’s see… To Benaras, I would dedicate “Pal Pal Dil Ke Paas,” for Lucknow “Ye Kya Jagah Hai Doston” from Umrao Jaan and for Bombay, this song called “Zeher Hai Ke Pyaar Hai Tera Chumma,” from Sabse Bada Khiladi.
Dine on a breakfast of kachori, sabzi, jalebi at Chachi Ki Dukaan, opposite Ravidas Gate, Lanka (Chachi died at the age of 100 a few years ago, but her sons are still running the shop).
Try the apple pie at Vatika Pizzeria in Assi Ghat. It’s a weird suggestion but you will be pleasantly surprised.
One of the best lanes for sweets is Thatheri Bazaar ahead of Chowk area (close to Godouliya). The bazaar has old sweet shops and sells theatre props too.
Ramnagar Ki Lassi is super-famous and a must-visit. Ask anybody and they will direct you to the place; it’s along the road from Ramnagar Fort main gate towards the Ganga.
The rabri and lassi at Khandu Sardar, a small shop at the end of Thatheri Bazaar, next to Gopal Mandir, is divine (Khandu Sardar, Nangu Sardar and Lussan Sardar were the pioneers of milk-based sweets in Benaras).
Raja Ram Lassi is the best lassi in the old city. The shop opens for only four to five hours a day as they run out of curd quickly.
Pathakji Ki Thandai, also in Thatheri Bazaar, has the best thandai. Ask for the special of the day, which is generally some seasonal fruit-based thandai. Bhang is free.
Taste the murabba at Shreenath Murabba in Thatheri Bazaar. They even have murabba prepared with bamboo shoots.
You must try gulab jamun at this unnamed corner shop right opposite BSNL main gate, Lazarus Road, Varanasi Cantt Railway Station. The place serves hot gulab jamuns with fresh thick cream and an optional spicy masala on top.
Have malpua at Shree Krishna Sweets in Maldahiya and kachoris in Loha Mandi.
For kheer kadam and rasgullas, go to Sudhir Sweets in Bengali Tola.
A typical Benaras snack is a dish made with toasted bread, coated with butter and spicy masala on top, which you can have at Panditji Ka Slice, near the turning off Lolark Kund.
For that quintessentially Benarasi litti, visit Loha Singh Ka Litti-Chokha in Maldahiya. He adds cashew to the litti, though littis are scrumptious even without those add-ons.
Lubna Amir travels in the search for happy places (which invariably involve a beach) and good food. When she’s not planning her next escape, you can find her curled up with a book or researching recipes.