Northern Exposure – Bhopal

My reading got in the way of my little Trilogy, and I apologize for any of you that might have been waiting for this third and final instalment of my Northern adventures with bated breath 😉 (I can wish can’t I? :P) So without further ado, here goes…

After our busy Sunday in Agra, we take the AP express to Bhopal. Again not the best of timings (given that we leave Agra at 8.30 pm and will reach Bhopal at 3.30 am. Yes! You heard right!), but a very comfortable First Class AC coupe 🙂 Ishaan is thrilled when we show him how the seats become beds and laughs his head off at the sight of Mom grasping at the overhead bunk and heaving herself up awkwardly, trying to avoid butting heads with the rusty ceiling fan 😀 Ishaan & Hubby share a ‘thali’ for dinner, while I read and then it’s lights off, alarms set as we try to catch some shut-eye. The alarms go of at 3 am but Hubby and I are already awake and as we approach Bhopal, Ishaan is awake too. We get to our Hotel, The Residency and sleep comes the instant our heads hit the pillows. Welcome to Bhopal 🙂

The last time I was in Bhopal, it was 1996 and Hubby had been posted for 6 months to Mandideep to gain work-experience at the P & G factory there. I joined him a couple of months later and stayed in the guest-house at Arera Colony for 3 adventurous months! Adventurous because, at the time, I hadn’t ever been north of Mumbai and also because the guest-house hosted rats alongside humans 😉 I even saw a badger pass through the garden once! So this Bhopal visit is steeped in Nostalgia, a trip back in time as it were for me. A simpler time of fond memories 🙂 Hubby has work though (doesn’t he always?), and so Ishaan and I have the days pretty much to ourselves. This is the first city where we have no sight-seeing agenda. The only place that I think Ishaan will be interested in is ‘Van Vihar‘, a sanctuary of sorts along the banks of Bhopal’s famous ‘Bada Talaab‘ or the Big Lake. It has a few animals in large enclosures and dozens of birds on the shores of the Lake. The best part, no crowds and cars are allowed 🙂 So that’s what we do, on our first morning, but first a word about our hotel, The Residency. It’s not our first choice, but The Jehan Numa, a heritage hotel (that we saved for special occasions way back when), recently renovated, is apparently booked to its gills, and so we have to settle. The Residency is very average and not nearly as good as I remember it from all those years ago when we went there for meals. Hotel Nisarg and Hotel Amar Palace, both of which I remember from years ago are still around. Our room will do and the bathroom is clean but old. Morning breakfast is atrocious and service non-existent. I decide instantly to have all meals at the Jehanuman for the rest of the visit and that’s what we do 🙂 Those were some of the best meals we had during our trip!

So back to Van Vihar. Our driver for the duration is the best of the lot so far, quiet, polite and not eager to whisk us off on inane shopping sprees, which is a boon, considering there’s absolutely nothing I need nor want to buy here. The entry fees are Rs. 200 for the car and Rs. 20 for every person. It’s a beautiful place, even better than I remember or perhaps it’s because I’m now so much more into Nature than I was 16 years ago. Again I lament the absence of my zoom lens 🙂 The birds along the lake and in the park are gorgeous, but it’s hard to get a decent picture without the zoom. Still, there’s a cool breeze blowing and Ishaan’s constant excited chatter for company as we alight from the car at every enclosure and try to catch a glimpse of the animal within. There are a couple of hyenas, a trio of restless leopards, some bears that are barely visible, a single male lion and a couple of tigers. Ishaan is thrilled with the tigers as am I and we spend a happy morning before heading off to La Kuchina, an adorable restaurant at the Jehan Numa for a quick lunch and then on to Mandideep to meet Hubby.

The Lake and its denizens.

Hubby’s work involves a visit to a Government office, and boy, are we in for a rude shock! The office (if one can call a dilapidated room full of crumbling files that!) is located on the first floor of a shabby concrete building that stinks to high heaven of urine. As we reach the first floor, there appears to be a minor flood in progress. The muddy floors are in the process of being washed by an old woman who looks quite blind to me, given the size of her glasses. We pick our way gingerly across the mess and step backwards in time. I don’t quite know how to react to the room and the people in it. All I know is I’ve never felt so out of place in my life! I stare at the plastic sheets that hang from a part of the roof, a futile attempt to stop indoor showers in the monsoons; at the mouldy files that are heaped on open shelves all around the room and I wonder how many centuries it will take before progress finally arrives here. Yet the people that work here don’t seem to think much of it, which makes me feel even worse. They’re so used to these awful conditions, they’ve stopped reacting to them 🙂 I can’t wait to leave the place, busy as I am trying to stop Ishaan from touching any surface, wishing he didn’t have to breathe the foul air, wishing my signature weren’t needed so I could have stayed away, wishing I could just wave a magic wand and make everything better, cleaner, healthier. Wishing, wishing…

Isn't he gorgeous?!

The next day, Hubby comes along and we go to Van Vihar again. It’s a relief to be able to breathe again of the pure, clean air here. Ishaan has a ball again and is over the moon that Papa’s around 🙂 The tigers are active and one of them obliges us with a display of territorial gestures, spraying a tree and then standing up to his full height and scratching the bark. An awesome sight 🙂 Then we run into a troop of monkeys that are quite aggressive and at one point it seems like we’re going to have a problem getting back to the car! Scary! Ishaan chooses this moment to walk nonchalantly forward saying “Go Away! Go Away!” with me screaming to Hubby to get him away! A monkey mother bares her fangs at me and I have no clue why, until I see that I’m standing near a tree where her baby is and she thinks I might do him harm. I move away and she runs up the tree to cuddle her little one. How similar mothers are, no matter their species 🙂

The Monkey Troop at Van Vihar

That’s about all we do in Bhopal. It’s a good restful two days as compared to all the running around we’ve done in Delhi and Agra. I’m glad that although much has changed, in essence Bhopal still remains a small town. There’s not much traffic (although we have stayed away from the crowded, narrow lanes of Old Bhopal and New Market), there’s greenery and I can still recognize my old haunts of Arera Colony, the Shalimar Enclave where my friend A used to live. My oldest and first friend in the company and one of my closest friends to this day 🙂 So its been a happy visit. But I can feel Ishaan’s restlessness to get back home and it’s rubbing off on me too. Tuesday night we drive to the new airport, which is large, airy & bright with steel and chrome, for our flight back to Delhi. We have a day and a half in Delhi, before Ishaan and I head back to Goa. On our last night of the trip, we head to Gurgaon, to The Kingdom of Dreams, a theme park (for want of a better phrase), where I am much impressed with their culture displays and cleanliness, and the Bollywood Musical, Zangoora, a must watch for its production values which are comparable to the West and the fine dancing by its lead actor Hussain Kuwajeriwala, who is extremely talented with an endearingly delightful stage presence! Ishaan enjoys it too and by the time we get back to our hotel, it’s midnight.

La Kuchina @ The Jehan Numa

And so ends our 10-day sojourn in the North. During these ten days, I’ve been exposed to a new culture, a different way of life – more aggressive and perhaps more expansive. From the craziness of Delhi to the history of Agra, to the relative quietness of Bhopal, it’s been a study in contrasts, informative, evocative and thankfully for the most part – enjoyable 🙂 The only thing I need to do now is visit all three places again on a photography trip, minus Ishaan so I can take pictures in peace 😛 Wonder when that will be?

Until then…there are happy memories!

5 thoughts on “Northern Exposure – Bhopal

  1. Nostalgia, nostalgia!
    BTW I think the pics above are the best of the trip – esp the big cat and La Kuchina. The restaurant looks amazing – wish I were with you for that meal!

    1. I agree!! I think it’s coz I was most relaxed here 🙂 And the tiger was very obliging 🙂

      Oh La Kuchina is great and the food is as good as the restaurant looks 🙂 Bhopal hasn’t changed much, it was easy to go back in time 🙂

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