There is a bit of history in almost every morsel, every tree and every wall in this old part of Allahabad – the Chowk
Chowk, as the name suggests, could be a bustling old mohalla anywhere in India. Its crumbling facades, dense roads with vehicles that slalom cheekily close to each other and luring gallis with the constant rattling of bargaining are typical of any traditional bazaar.
But there is a bit of history in almost every morsel, every tree and every wall in this old part of Allahabad. Take the address 77, Mirganj, for example — the rented house of the Nehrus where the country's first Prime Minister Pandit Jawaharlal Nehru was born in 1889. But soon after the Nehru’s shifted to the more luxurious Anand Bhavan, the congested lanes of Mirganj turned into what is now the red light area of Allahabad.
And each evening sex workers light up Mirganj, with the odd mujras still performed for the loyal patrons.
While Allahabad may have always sworn by its illustrious brigade of five Prime Ministers, literary tradition and the holy Sangam, this congested part of the old city is what gives it life. “Bhaiya, aap Chowk mein jao wahan sab kuch milega (You will get everything you will for),” the most important first lines every new settler is likely to hear.
In Arvind Mehrotra’s compilation The Last Bungalow, the two cities within Allahabad city are described thus: “The two halves are as different from each other as the water of the Ganges is from the water of the Yamuna. One is muddy brown, the other is green.” While it is today tricky to draw that line, some things have not changed much.
Hari ke Samose in Loknath Gali, for instance. A large yellow frame printed with “Allahabad ne lagaya thappa aur banaya Hari Ram and Sons ko No 1 samose wala” is what you notice second upon entering the small shop. The first being the large stock of miniature aloo-less masala samosas, which were devised here in the 1890s by one Mutthilal. Shri Ram Purwaha, the only remaining member of the family’s second generation, says: “My grandfather, who came from Agra, started out by selling samosas on a plate. And when my father Hari Ram took over, we started this shop. You can keep our samosas for days and still eat it fresh; that’s our guarantee.”
And that quality dragged prominent figures like Lal Bahadur Shastri, the Bachhans, the Nehrus and the like to devour Hari’s samosas, dalmoth, khatthe chane and much more. More so, from politicians — old and new, High Court Judges, MLAs, actors, authors, poets, and anyone significant or insignificant, Hari Ram’s delicacies have always found a special spot in their culinary desires. No mean feat even for the shop that has catered at the weddings of Indira Gandhi and Vijaya Lakshmi Pandit among others.
A similar tale runs through each spoonful of the aloo tikki ka chaat at Niralas’. Regularly documented on popular television shows, the fine blend of sweet, sour, hot and cold of Niralas’ Chaat gives you what purists would call “the melt in the mouth” feeling.
From currency-changers to cons, pandits to puri-walas, you will find as many breeds of people as you will find sweets. And Chowk has plenty — jalebis, mirtis, anaras ke gole, khajas, puas, ladoos, barfis, ghewars, bhalooshahis and so on.
Not just food, with a rich assortment of traditional idols, wedding sehras (decorated turbans), prayer booklets, Allahabad’s famous red guavas and rare Hindi literature, Chowk offers you the best kept charms of the old Allahabad.
Then there is the infamous Neem ka Pedh — one of seven trees on which roughly 800 freedom fighters were hanged during the Revolt of 1857. Today, under it you will find one of many chai dukaans (stalls), which keep Chowk discussing, debating and gossiping late into the night. One particular stall keeps open 24 hours, running in three shifts due to a feud among three brothers.
The old building of the Kesar Vidyapeeth Inter College stands at the end of Mirganj’s central lane. In the 1980s, Allahabad’s favourite son Amitabh Bachhan addressed a crowd of thousands from here during his election campaign. The memories are still fresh. And so are the still functioning Sanskrit Mahavidyalaya, set up by Pandit Madan Mohan Malviya, the Bharati Bhavan Library — known for its old Hindi manuscripts and the old Chowk Church.
Normal life was temporarily disrupted recently, when curfew was imposed after a protesting crowd turned violent. But Chowk has moved on, like always. This Chowk definitely needs no chandni to shine.