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Triangle River Tango

The aloo-less samosa of Hari Ki Namkeen is one of Loknath Gali's many splendours

Triangle River Tango
Bishwadeep Moitra
Triangle River Tango
You take the aloo out of the samosa, you take the heart out of the body. But you put the heart back in with a special mix of spices, and you have 'samosa for the soul'. That's what Mitthulal, a financier-broker gone bust, did about a century ago in Allahabad. And thus was born a mouth-watering marvel—the masala samosa. The great and good of the Indian National Congress, stalwarts of Hindi literature, professors and students, high court judges and local goondas—all had a special place in their hearts and mouths for this triangular treat. And visiting dignitaries, having savoured Mitthulal's speciality, would pack some to take away in the shop's distinctive woven-leaf containers.

Winding up his failing finance business in Agra and cashing in on his acquaintance with Motilal Nehru—a flourishing lawyer in Allahabad then—Mitthulal shifted base to set up his namkeen shop in Loknath Gali, a stone's throw from the senior Nehru's house in the city's Meerganj locality. Jawaharlal was born in this Meerganj house and the Nehrus continued to live here until they moved to the sprawling Anand Bhawan (much later, Meerganj would become Allahabad's red-light district). But to come back to Mitthulal and his aloo-less samosa story—he named the shop after his son Hari, and Hari Ki Namkeen in Loknath Gali soon became a local legend, catering at grand parties and weddings, including those of Vijayalakshmi Pandit and Indira Gandhi.

Towards the end of nineteenth century, the British had begun to develop Allahabad as a modern city on western lines. Until then it had been a sleepy, largely agrarian settlement that only came to life during the Kumbh Mela. Now, grand colonial structures began to come up—Allahabad University, Muir Hall, Public Library, Stone Church (aka paththar girja) and Alfred Park. The high court and the university attracted the upper-class gentry and educated professionals to the city, from whose ranks emerged literary luminaries, high court judges, celebrated lawyers, intellectuals and administrators. And since the Nehrus lived here, Allahabad also became the nerve-centre of the freedom movement.

The new Allahabad of the early 1900s was lined with wide avenues, sprawling bungalows and smart shops—this was the Civil Lines. But Chowk remained the traditional bazaar, with its crowded, lively and narrow lanes, and Loknath Gali was its heart as well as its stomach—it served as what would today be called a food court, for traders and shoppers. Here, the chatterati of Allahabad would congregate, to gossip and eat. A typical Loknath Gali evening would follow this course: you started from the northern end of the street—the city side—and sauntered to the end of the gali at the Baba Loknath Temple (the area was called Sarai Meer Khan before the temple was built), sampling the fare on offer along the way. The first course would be an assortment of chaat, followed by dahi jalebi or kulfi faluda. If you were counted among the shaukeens, you would stop by for bhang kulfi or bhang thandai. And as you waited for the kimam-khushbu paan at the end of the stroll, you ordered Hari namkeen's masala samosa to be packed for home.

The time one spent at Loknath Gali depended on one's tale-telling skills. If your masala-of-the-day was gossip involving a city celebrity, you not only had a captive audience, you ensured brisk sales at the eateries around your durbar. Loknath Gali still resounds with echoes of old scandals. One goes like this: one day Firaq Gorakpuri, the famous Urdu poet, pronounced that only two and a half people knew proper English in India. The first of course was Firaq himself. The second was Dr S. Radhakrishnan. And a certain Jawaharlal Nehru was the half in the august list. But Firaq's detractors—and they were many—sneered at him for including Nehru at all. Dismissing Nehru's Harrow-and-Oxford education, they said that what got him onto Firaq's list was simply that the poet had a great weakness for pretty boys.

The other tale you hear is about a certain Sikh damsel who studied at the Allahabad University's English department in the late 30s. The beautiful young woman's name hadn't got suffixed with a Bachchan yet. At the campus, she was known as something of a rebel. Allahabad University prided itself as a place for the liberal-minded and welcomed people with radical ideas and lifestyles. Yet custodians of liberty at the university had to stretch their moral fabric a wee bit more to accommodate our lady's rights of expression. By wearing lipstick and a sleeveless blouse in the classroom, she set the moral police on her hunt. Her English professor—a venerable university stalwart—objected to this attire, and even threatened to resign. But the lady refused to budge and stood her ground. Such was her charm and aura, or so the legends of Loknath Gali maintain, that the vice-chancellor of the university intervened on her behalf and the poor professor had to back down.

Loknath Gali has not changed much since those days. You still hear the tallest tales there. If it was drizzling when you entered the gali, by the time you reach the Baba Loknath temple you would hear people talking about the hailstorm that has just lashed the town. The past exists in easy harmony with the present. In one of the many narrow lanes someone will point out a building that is falling apart—the Sanskrit Mahavidyalaya, set up by Pandit Madan Mohan Malviya, and still functioning.

This neighbourhood doesn't look like it will succumb to Allahabad's new builders, who are tearing down the fabulous bungalows to make group housing flats. A local wag avers the lanes here are too narrow for the builder to move in his bulldozers, so they are safe for now. And safe too is the statue of Pandit Kalyan Chand Mohiley, which stands stately at the Loknath Gali entrance. Mohiley who? you would ask. And why him in a city that has given India four PMs and a refusing-to-retire superstar? Well, Mohiley was four-time MLA from the area. That's attitude, Loknath Gali-style, for you. That deep-rooted self-assurance and unabashed local pride ensure that a Big Mac or even a dosa will never threaten the supremacy of Hari's samosas.


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