From Biryani to Missal Pav

Pune is a small town at heart that is still getting used to being a big city. It is a place where you have big malls and many international companies but the shops still shut between 1 pm to 4 pm so that shop owners can have a break for their afternoon siesta. A place that not only serves some of the best Thai and Italian cuisine but also serves the best poha and sabudana khichdi. A place with grandiose Marathi plays and also, contrastingly, countless ‘Miss Indias’. Where you have a university that is one of the best in the country for foreign languages but the auto-wallah doesn’t understand you unless you use enough Marathi in your sentences. It is home to spiritual organizations like the Sadhu Vaswani Mission and the Osho ashram but also has some of the swankiest pubs and is a little infamous for ‘rave’ parties.

On Sept 9th, 2007, I landed in Pune to start a new journey in my life. I was going to begin a new career and a new life in a new city. In some ways I felt like a scared little girl on her first day of school but my curiosity about my new job and the experience of living in a different city seemed to balance out my fears.

I came to Pune with all arrangements in place. I was to stay with Chandru Uncle (all Sindhis, I think, have an uncle named Chandru) – one of Dad’s best buddies. I had stayed at his house many times before and I chose to make that my home till I got my own place. Dad has this little posse of friends in Pune, consisting of Chandru Uncle and Ram Uncle and their friendship is quite famous. The three of them together are a delight to be with, with their old-men jokes, general camaraderie and good-natured ribbing. Dad’s friends took it on as their responsibility to make me comfortable. They often took me out to movies and dinners because they thought that’s what young people like to do. I, of course, had no complaints. People often wondered if I got bored with the company of two 60-something men, but the fact is that hanging out with them made me connect with my Dad and I missed him a little less.

After about a month, I found a place of my own. A nice two bedroom apartment at a sprawling apartment complex called Konark Estates. Konark Estates, though smack in the middle of town is a world in itself, as is common in the ‘society’ culture of Pune. At first I thought that I felt at home because most of the name plates in the building had their last names ending with –ani. My friends often joked that I lived in ‘Little Sindh’. But I slowly began to realize that it wasn’t really that. I noticed little things like the neigbours looked out for each other, often enquiring about you if you haven’t wished them good morning in a few days. Every evening, all the kids gathered in the playground to indulge in a game of hide and seek or catch-catch. There were always little inside jokes by the emcee at the Ganesh puja every year when everyone put on a performance a day before the Ganesh idol was to be immersed.

There were also other friends of my Mom and Dad who lived in the apartments adjacent to mine, the Milanis – Reshma Aunty, Moti Uncle, Neha and Sahil. Mom and Dad had told me that I should call them if I needed anything and they would definitely help me. Slowly they became my surrogate family. They were the ones I would go to when I was lonely or when I needed a home-cooked meal. They made me feel completely at ease and more than that they made me feel that I was part of them. I was included in everything! Dinners, movies, family events, parties, satsangs but more importantly, I was included in their love. Amidst the laughing bouts that Neha and I had together over silly things and how Sahil was so sweet to me when I couldn’t be in Hyderabad for Rakhi, I realized that I could fall back on them for anything. And if you didn’t find me at home you’d find me at their house. They not only opened the doors of their home, but also opened the doors of their hearts to me.

But the warmth of the people was not restricted to family friends or people whom I knew. The house maid that I hired did annoy me sometimes with requests for a holiday at each festival, but totally made up for it when she brought me lip-smacking home-made puran poli. When I didn’t have a car, an auto-wallah began waiting for me near my house to take me to office everyday. After I did buy a car, I told the watchman to inform him that I didn’t need the auto any more. I still found him waiting the next morning. He came running up to me as I was pulling out of the apartment and said that he knew I’d bought a car but just wanted to see if I was doing well. Old time Pune-ites often say that Pune has been concretized or that there is too much traffic, but though the buildings might be made of concrete, the people are still genuine and the blaring traffic noises can’t drown out the love.

Pune had always been a place of pilgrimage for me. Like I mentioned, it is the Headquarters of the Sadhu Vaswani Mission – a place sacred to me and my family. I would often visit Pune as a child and as a young adult to attend celebrations at the SVM. Though I liked to listen to the simple yet profound talks by Dada JP Vaswani, I didn’t really consider myself to be very spiritual or religious. When I moved there I continued to attend the satsangs at my convenience because they gave me an opportunity to center myself and the positive thoughts helped me as a way to de-stress after a hard day’s work. I also enjoyed going for the seva activities which mostly consisted of distributing food to orphaned children or physically handicapped adults. It was my little way of giving back to the community that was being kind to me. But Pune wasn’t really happy with that. She saw that I could do better! When I moved to Pune, I had no idea that there was a little sangha there of sorts. It had people who were ‘normal’ as in that they had no title of Guru or Baba attached to their names but were seemingly ordinary people in their 30’s, 40’s or even younger who had made spirituality a practical, everyday affair.

It was through my mom that I heard about Nithya Shanti, a Buddhist monk who had given up the robes to become a spiritual friend (as he calls it) to people. I got to know that he too called Pune home. Out of curiosity I signed up for his workshop which happened to be my first experience with meditation. I was blown away. A whole new world opened up and a spiritual quest began – a search for answers to questions that I always had but never thought that they’d get answered. In my search for these answers, slowly, other people too started coming into my life. It became evident that I wasn’t really doing my best work being an engineer and I had a different calling. There were many new ideas and thoughts that I was introduced to that completely changed my view of life and living. It was as if a new person was being born out of the old confused and slightly scared girl. It’s also ironic that this quest led me to move away from the city that had seen me take the first steps towards a new life. A life based on the belief that following my heart was first priority and all else would fall into place.

Even though I have moved away from Pune, my love affair with the city hasn’t really ended. As a pucca Hyderabadi, who always swore by Gandipet ka Pani and Paradise Biryani, I never thought any other place would have the honour of being called my other home. But without even realizing there was suddenly a soft spot for Missal Pav and Sol Kadhi. Suddenly, shopping for bangles at Charminar became akin to shopping at Laxmi Road, Birla Mandir started being compared to Dagdusheth Halvai Ganpati Mandir and I even guiltily started admitting that the Pani Puri at Jaishankar’s was better than any pani puri place in Hyderabad. Pune had kind of snuck up to share the title and continues to remain there.

Thank you Pune for being so generous – for the great food, the new friends, the learning and for letting me be who I was and also making me a better person. Thank you for teaching me acceptance, love and giving me immense joy. These lessons are going to be cherished for a lifetime.

I honour of the city, a shayari also came to me after I finished writing this piece for a writing workshop.. a flash of inspiration I’d say..

Pune meri jaan,

Yeh tumne kya kar daala,

Ek wafaadar Hyderabadi ko,

bewafa kar daala

Humne kabhi socha na tha,

Ki hum qabil hai —

Ishq farmaane ke liye dubaara,

Lekin jab tumse nazrein mili,

Toh dil khud ko rok nahi paaya.

Tum yeh na samajhna

Ki ab tum humaara ghar nahi kehlati

Tumhari jagah dil mein qayam hai

Aur kya pata,

Agar khuda ne chaha,

Toh yeh darza bhi tumhara kehlayega dubaara!

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