I am on a morning walk, hunting for a strong cup of chai, when I come across a 300-year-old haveli—Bhartendu Bhawan—tucked away in the old by lanes of Varanasi’s Thatheri Bazar. The house belongs to Bhartendu Harishchandra—author, poet, playwright, and the father of the modern Hindi literature. From the outside, it doesn’t look much. I take notice of its historical and literary value, but walk past it to find a suitable spot to indulge in some breakfast of kachori-sabzi and jalebi. It’s only when I walk through the entrance of Bhartendu Bhawan the following evening, do I understand the beauty of this haveli that stands still in time.
The alleys leading to the house are generally busy in the evening; people walking towards Dashashwamedh Ghat to catch the evening Ganga aarti, devotees making their way towards Vishawanath Temple and the general cacophony of the market. But, step through the door of Bhartendu Bhawan and you will be transported to a different time. A gazebo, lit with vintage lamps, stands in the middle of the courtyard, surrounded by numerous fountains—all functional.
There are rooms on all sides of the courtyard, some of them still occupied by the poet’s family. The 18th century house was home to Bhartendu Harishchandra around 150 years ago. In his relatively small lifespan (born in 1850, he died at the age of 34), Rasa (his pen name) contributed vastly in shaping modern Hindi literature as we know it today. He was a socially-conscious pioneer of arts who successfully exploited the medium of reports, journals, essays, and letters to the editor to mould public opinion.
My host and companion for the day is Saurabh, journalist and member of city-based Roobaroo Walks. Together we discuss Harishchandra’s legacy, his works and the good old days of Varanasi’s literary and cultural past. As a native Hindi speaker, I am fairly familiar with Harishchandra’s life and work, which include watershed plays such as Andher Nagari, Mudra Rakshash and Prem Yogini and poems such as Varsha Vinod and Geet Govindanand. But here in this haven of old-timey Anglo-Indian architecture,I reminisce about how his writings extended unprecedented prestige to khariboli, the dialect of Hindi spoken around present-day Uttar Pradesh and Delhi. This, I am told, resulted in the polymath becoming a tacit catalyst for impending nationalism of native literature, even as his own grand connections included officials of the British Raj, among others. I am reminded that Harishchandra’s essays, many of them critiques of the society and crusades for the dispossessed, were published in a collection called Bhartendu Granthavali in 1885. A sense of the immense fills me, to be in physical proximity of the legacy of the man who edited one of the country’s first women’s journals, Balabodhini, and wrote ghazals and rubais in Urdu.
But I suspect the evening would be quite an experience even for those that aren’t familiar with his genius. Saurabh reads out a section from the political satire Andher Nagari (a translated version is read out for the non-Hindi speakers), a rather poetic experience in the middle of the old, historic structure. The conversation trickles down to the general vibe of the city, the cultural importance of chai shops (the hub of all political and intellectual debates), and why the Banarasis love their paan.
While we get our creative juices flowing, going the caretaker of the haveli is busy rustling up a meal of baati, chokha, daal and choorma. Contrary to the popular belief that baati/litti chokha is a Bihari meal, the food is a staple of poorvanchal (eastern Uttar Pradesh) too. In Varanasi, especially, you’ll find carts selling baati-chokha. For the uninitiated, baati is a round ball of dough, which has a filling of sattu (roasted Bengal gram flour) and is typically roasted on dried cow dung cakes. Baati is accompanied with chokha—roasted and mashed brinjal mixed with sliced raw onions, roasted tomatoes, green chillies, fresh coriander, lime juice and mustard oil; chane ki daal (Bengal gram); yogurt with jaggery; followed by choorma, made of plain, roasted dough balls broken up and mixed with ghee and sugar. Cooking on cow dung cakes is key to the meal because it adds a beautiful aroma to the baati and even to the brinjal, cooked on the same fire. It’s this minimal cooking style which makes the meal a favourite with those who spend a considerable part of the day labouring physically,as well as nomads.
At the haveli, we step out into the courtyard to take in the fresh aroma of the baatis being roasted. The table is set under the gazebo; all the fountains turned on once we step in. The food is served on plates made with dried leaves. I break the baati, pour a spoonful of ghee and lose myself into the absolute rustic beauty of the meal. The evening wraps up in typically Banarasi style, with a paan.
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Shirin Mehrotra is a freelance writer in love with everything food. She travels to look for stories and will try everything at least once. She is currently studying Anthropology of Food in London, and learning to shed biases around food.