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Close to My Heart

From time to time, I love to have a fulfilling meal in a bhojanalaya, one of those very local eat-all-you-can restaurants where they serve you piping hot meals of daal, bhaat, tarkari, either chicken or mutton curry, and a tomato pickle laced generously with chili powder that will set your tongue on fire. The reason I visit such bhojanalayas is because I don’t think I’ll ever be rid of the feeling of homely satisfaction that I have almost always experienced when eating in a roadside bhojanalaya ever since the day I was a teenager traveling to the capital from my hometown of Birgunj. 

After college I took on a job that required me to travel at least fifteen days a month, and you can imagine the number of meals I must have had in one bhojanalaya or the other during my fifteen years on the job. Oh yes, bhojanalayas will always have a special place in my heart. Traveling on a bus for hours on end, and the expectancy that gets built up of a bellyful of nutritious wholesome food when the bus makes its regular stop for either lunch or dinner (depending on whether you are traveling in a day or night bus), and you, along with the other equally hungry co-passengers, make a beeline for the bhojanalaya closest to where the bus has parked.

Being a frequent traveler, I sometimes ate with the driver and his khalansi (conductor), and I tell you, the privileged treatment they got from the bhojanalaya madam! Obviously so, since business of the many bhojanalayas at such stops depended much on the driver’s fancy, where he parked, and this depended on his fondness for the food and service he got at a particular bhojanalaya. He and his khalansi had a private table, and ate for free. They were served the choicest meat pieces, and what’s more, a generous ladling of pure liquid ghee (clarified butter) over their steaming rice. The passengers did not get any ghee, however, the meals were always hot and delicious, one could rest assured about that!

Apart from my travels, I also had my meals in bhojanalayas when in Kathmandu. Those days, when the Sundhara tower had a clear backdrop of the surrounding mountains, with not many concrete structures around, and the number of taxis could be counted on the fingers of one hand, the capital city had a definitively cooler climate throughout the year. For people like me coming from the sweltering Terai (plains), the sharp coolness in the air had quite an effect in whetting up the appetite. And, it was the bhojanalayas that were our godsend; no better way to get warm than by having a filling hot meal. 

A lot of people from the Terai had perforce no alternative than to make frequent visits to the capital, some for work, some on official business, some for business, and many for studies. There were also quite a few political activists come to meet their leaders; many of them working underground, since the party-less Panchayat system was in place then, and they invariably gathered in the morning, afternoon, and evening at Pipal Bot, that famous landmark in New Road set around a gigantic pipal tree. 

There was one particular bhojanalaya close by that was immensely popular. I think it was called Kamal Bhojanalya, and it was frequented especially by the underground political activists. I, too, had many a meal there, which was natural, because most of the lodges and hotels of Kathmandu were in and around that area. The service was super-fast, the tables always packed to capacity. First, a thaali (steel plate with separate partitions for keeping daal, tarkari, and achar) and a steel glassful of water were placed before us on the table. Then, the owner came around with a large bata (deep bowl) full of steaming white rice that he heaped on to our plates, next, a helper carrying a four-bowled vessel ladled somewhat weak-looking daal into the central partition, equally runny seasonal vegetable curry in another, a small quantity of dark green spinach besides the rice, and thin tomato pickle in the third partition. Those who wanted, also ordered a meat curry, which was served in a separate steel bowl. 

We ate with gusto, literally digging into our food. Not much later, the owner and his helper came around for seconds, sometimes also thirds, and we filled our bellies to the fullest. Once, I witnessed a funny incident. One table had two rough looking peasants who were apparently from the hills. Before the service began, I heard the owner informing them about the rate for a meal. I was surprised to hear him quote double the usual rate that we paid. Later, while paying my bill, I asked him why those people had to pay double, and this is what he replied, “Oh, you don’t know how much they eat!”

Talking about payment and such, some years later, when I visited the same bhojanalaya again, I saw a big blackboard behind the counter. There were a score or so names listed, and besides each was mentioned a certain amount. It was a blacklist, put on public display to shame those who had run up substantial credit, and hadn’t yet paid. Most of those blacklisted were political activists (no surprises there!), and the funny thing is that, some of them went on to even become ministers in later years! Anyway, bhojnalayas hold a special place not only in my heart, but I am sure, in many Nepalis’ hearts, too, for they were, and still are, an integral part of our tradition and lifestyle.

And, before concluding, I must mention my earliest experience of eating in one, for that, as they say, began my love story with bhojanalayas. I was a gawky 14-year-old the first time I traveled to Kathmandu from Birgunj. The bus I rode in was a fume-spouting brute (as were all buses then) that labored in high gear up the steep and winding roads of Tribhuvan Highway, the only road in and out of Kathmandu at the time. Plenty of passengers became sick and nauseous by the time we had traveled two hours, and it wasn’t safe to crane your head out the window, since someone upfront was more likely than not to stick his or her head out, not to view the scenery, but to gag out the last remaining food in their stomach.   

Eventually, we reached a small place called Tistung, where the air was chilly, and where our bus stopped for lunch. There were a couple of bhojanalayas beside the road, from where an appetizing aroma wafted out invitingly. I entered one and sat down with some others at a table. Moments later, we had thaalis full of daal, bhaat, tarkari, and achar in front of us, the steam rising in wonderful waves from the hot rice. I also asked for a mutton curry. Having gone through the harrowing journey on the narrow road, up and around hairpin bends, and with all senses on high alert, I had worked up quite an appetite. I was, as they say, hungrier than a horse. So I tell you, without exaggeration, it was the most delicious meal of my entire life till then. And I guess this is one memory that I am always trying to invoke every time I visit a bhojanalaya today!