Cities: Hubli, known for its heat and dusty roads, is a city that was built around a marketplace. But here, the rules of the market hardly interfere with the rules of the heart

Similar, yet different – perhaps this is the best way to sum up the twin cities of Hubli and Dharwad. The Hubli and Dharwad railway stations are separated by a mere 20 kilometres, and their names are taken together, as Hubli-Dharwad. The cities have grown, the skylines have merged, making it impossible to tell where Hubli ends and Dharwad begins.

Despite the proximity – geographical and notional – a true blue North Karnataka person will vouch there is a marked difference between the two cities. Hubli is a restlessly bustling market place, Dharwad is the tranquil university town. Hubli is hot and dry, Dharwad, because of its higher altitude, is cool and humid. The dialect spoken in Dharwad is distinct from that in Hubli. There are differences in demography and cuisine too, and a outsider can hardly tell all this. What is common to them is a culture of rustic innocence, warmth and hospitality.

Like most towns of this country, Hubli also has a romantic side to it. Some feel the city got its name from the Kannada words Hoovu-Balli (flower and creeper), though there is no etymological research supporting this. “In the days that I worked in Goa, I used to get weekly letters from my father, with a flower bearing creeper drawn at a corner, to indicate his town of Hoovu-Balli,” recalls Manohar Kulkarni from Hubli.

Few people in Bangalore know that the railway headquarters of Karnataka is Hubli and not the state capital. The South-West railway zone here supervises the operations of the divisions in Bangalore and Mysore. It has one of the oldest railway workshops in the country, established by the British in 1880. The railway settlement on Gadag road, is almost a mini India – people from different parts of India, speaking different languages live here. Like Delhi and Hyderabad, Hubli lives in two halves — old and new city. Culturally, they are two different worlds. Natives and long-time settlers like traders populate the old city, while the flashy new city has mostly government employees, students and entrepreneurs.

For most Kannadigas, anything heard beyond the river Tungabhadra is Hubli Kannada. The local dialect that seems arrogant for the uninitiated, is both loved and hated in old Mysore areas. Actors like Syed Satyajit, made a living in Kannada cinema in the 1980s just by mouthing dialogues in Hubli Kannada. Dheerendra Gopal added a magic touch to it by using it for his political satires. The Hubli dialect is a confluence of Persian, Marathi and Kannada words, and the accent comes from Urdu and Marathi.

Old timers say other cities have markets within them, but this is a city built around a market. The city that can cite no major event as a milestone in its history, is supposed to have developed only due to the presence of markets here. The several wholesale and retail markets provide an identity to Hubli. “When we go to Mumbai or Surat for business meetings, we are seen as representatives of a big market,” says Sohan Jain, a businessman. Sohan Jain and his family that deals in auto parts, migrated to Hubli during British regime.

Hubli is home to the biggest markets for two farm products — cotton and groundnut. Cotton is said to have been traded since East India Company days here. This city that loves its flowers has named its APMC yard the Cotton Market, after the cotton blossoms. Interestingly, the mystic poet Shishunala Shariff also sang of the first cotton mill of Hubli set up by the Queen of England – “Hatti giraniya nodiro, England rani Hubbaliyolaga haakida girani nodiro.” This is perhaps Shariff’s only song that is non metaphysical in its content.

The groundnut is not only the most important cash crop for the farmers in districts surrounding Hubli, it is presence is felt almost every dish that is made in this region. The most exotic dish, the holige also gets a shenga (groundnut) touch in these parts. This oil seed is grown on vast areas in Hebballi, Byahatti Kusugal, Tadkod, Govankoppa around Hubli, and villages in districts like Bijapur, Bagalkot, Haveri and Gadag.

A typical day in Hubli begins with fragrant flowers, as if to prove the connection with its name, Hoovu Balli. It almost seems like an irony to its dusty roads and its people, who are far from gentle. The earliest rays of light fall on the mountain of freshly picked flowers that arrive in the flower market, coming from all over north Karnataka. Hubli not only consumes a large share of these flowers, but also serves as the logistics hub between flower producing districts and the markets in Bangalore and Mumbai.

Work of unloading huge gunny bags containing flowers, sorting them out, cleaning, pruning, packing and loading them on to vehicles or selling huge heaps to retail bidders starts early, when dawn is still hours away. Walking through the market in that darkness that slowly brightens up with warm rays of the sun, is a mesmerising experience. The smell of various flowers filling the air make an aromatic cocktail. It’s only when you visit the flower market that you realise Hubli is a city that never sleeps; literally and metaphorically. As the marketplace is abuzz with tireless activity, around the clock, you see the typical “Hubbaliyanva” -- rugged and hardworking.

Come evening, and you are witness to the unfolding of another world – food carts start dishing out hot tava rotis and do not stop till the following morning. This city loves its food and you can see it in the way it has named its localities. There’s Akki Honda, Jolada Oni, Rangrez Galli, Ullagaddi Sandi, Bhus Pet, Mensinkayi Galli and even a Benne Market! The cuisine of North Karnataka is simple, yet richly imaginative. Before Unification North Karnataka belonged to Bombay Presidency and many of its dishes have a Maharashtrian influence. The food here has influences ranging from Persia and Maharashtra to the local principalities like the Nawab of Savanur. The combination of jhunkha, a gram flour curry, and bhakri or sorghum roti is staple food. No meal is complete without the spicy badanekaayi palya, and generous helpings of coriander and raw onion. The weather mandates the presence of chillies from Byadagi or Dyamanoor that are said to help people cope with the heat. Srikhand, which is a typical Maharashtrian preparation has come to be North Karnataka’s own.

Girmit, mirchi, Shetty’s avalakki, Swarna Mandir usuli, Double Ka Meetha – all these are staples of a typical Hubli resident.

The Khanavali of North Karnataka is the most egalitarian space – it provides a sumptuous and simple meal for people of all pocket sizes. It’s a non-fussy space, generous and warm. It surely must be an offshoot of the progressive vision of most Lingayat maths and the 12th century social revolution -- the Khanavali occupies a unique place in the cultural history of Karnataka.

What makes me write about the market places and the food of this city after my own heart? I wonder. As I stand in a world completely driven by the market, I realise that Hubli never allowed the market truths to influence its culture. It seems ironical for our times; it has been an important trade centre, business communities throng the place, but the warmth, heartiness and robust simplicity of this place has remained untouched.