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Monday, 01 May 2017

Pune, India: Exploring the 'University Town'

Written by Richard Taylor
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Frosh week, pompoms and marching bands notwithstanding, the phrase ‘university town’ conjures up visions of mom‘n pop bookstores, the distant lilt of campus ditties and students composing under the Old Oak Tree. In Pune, one must factor in the host nation. As our bus skirted the city’s outer ring, we encountered three sights common to India; opulent wedding processions, impoverished tent cities and traffic jams to eternity. Pune was an Indian city to its core, with all the color and mania and crowds I’d come to expect, a university town as described by The Simpsons’ Apu, graduating first in his class of seven million.

I’d checked in at the Centurion Hotel and rashly paid for the first two nights in cash, to show them I was a big man. This left me skint but near the bus station, an ATM coughed up the requisite rupees and I drifted through a lively street vendor scene, gulping down savory fried veggie delights, then took a seat at the greasiest of spoons, where a young Chinese fellow with a long pony-tail was flipping noodle dishes in his wok. The metal tables and benches were stained and dirty, the beverages were half-full water bottles but the food was terrific. As I finished one dish, the young man quickly brought another, a huge pile of noodles with an egg on it.

“Did I order that too?” I asked astonished, as a growl of laughter rose from the other patrons. I finished what I could plus a little more. Great bang for the buck certainly, or at least roar for the rupee.

The next morning, chucking all sense of restraint, I piled my plate with the Centurion’s excellent breakfast buffet of fruit and yogurt and naan, ‘choco’ flakes with milk that was cold for a change (warm milk is a sub-continental staple). There were superb Indian salads. There were succulent chicken sausages. Wrapped in naan they made lovely little rolls.

Pune (pronounced Poona) with its promise of decent lodging, had been a stopover on my way south, so I hadn’t made tour plans as such. Sitting at the mouth of the Mutha and Mula rivers in Maharashtra State, the city had been the capital of the Maratha kingdoms ages ago, which were subsequently conquered by the Peshwas, who were deposed by the British in 1817. Dubbed the Monsoon Capital because of its drier climate, the British would shift their offices to Pune from Bombay during the rains.

Modern Pune seemed fairly typical initially. My morning walk had me flitting about hectic avenues and overpasses – crossing Indian streets is always an adventure – but the city parks seemed unnaturally empty and quiet; most had restricted signs, or there was no apparent way in and when there were, nobody was using them except the odd gardener trimming or woman raking. Perhaps they were private parks, or university property. But where was the university?

Off the main drag of Ganeshkhind Road was the first sign of academe – the College of Agricultural Banking, which sounded intriguing but I decided to hang with the trendy crowd at Pune Central, the local department store opposite the college, where I was thoroughly searched by the store guard after checking my bags in the outside cupboards. I’d come to expect this. Security in India is not a half-hearted affair and the store was stuffed with young, hip booty.

There’s an ashram in Pune but it’s not a place with a Gandhi-like commitment to the aesthetic. The Osho International Meditation Resort achieved notoriety years back when its guru, Bhagwan Shree Ranneesh began preaching sexual fulfillment as a path to enlightenment. Eventually he left for America, setting up a commune along similar lines in Oregon, until he was charged with immigration fraud and deported. The Pune ashram remains, evidently still popular with locals and foreigners, the latter often relaxing at the nearby German bakery (called the German Bakery) but the controversy has obviously lingered – the bakery was attacked by terrorists in 2010.

The next day, sans map or brochure, I approached the Centurion’s front desk.

“What’s to see?” I asked the head clerk.

He wrote down a to-do list and handed it to me. The first stop was along Shivaji Road and its showpiece, Dagadu Sheth, or more formally, Shreemant Dagdusheth Halwai Ganapati, completed in 1893, dedicated to Ganesh. Pilgrims were flooding into the temple, offering gold, money, even coconuts. Gold may have been gilding the lily – the statue of Ganesh was sporting eight kilos of it but the temple walls were a starkly brilliant white, finely engraved and complemented by latticed wooden spires. Among the engravings, inevitably, was the svastika – despite predating the Nazi rip-off, still a jarring sight.

Beyond the temple though, was a kind of joyful chaos; when the subcontinent is described as “an assault on the senses,” Shivaji Road is the kind of swarming thoroughfare its acolytes have in mind – bursting with kiosks selling vibrant saris, spices, icons, and flowers, as well as the smoke, scent and sizzle of first rate street cuisine. I recalled my breakfast buffet and the pony-tailed master chef. Whatever secret herbs and spices they were using in the state of Maharashtra, it was producing some of the tastiest food in India…..and they served the milk cold to boot.

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The flower stalls dominated, as they did around most Hindu temples, the vendors knotting the blooms into garlands for the faithful. Among the jam of carts and motorbikes, one woman stopped her scooter to exchange palm fronds with another lady. She wasn’t alone. Palms were waving up and down Shivaji. I was mystified. It wasn’t Sunday and it wasn’t Easter and this wasn’t an Easter-type country, at least not here.

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Next on the list was the Shaniwarwada Palace. This had been the chief residence of the Peshwas but had been severely gutted by fire in 1828. The outer walls remained, lofty in dark brown brick but after a cursory inspection it seemed the interest here was more historic than architectural.

A three wheel cabbie dropped me by the last stop, the twenty-five acre park called Sarag Baug, a former lake, now graced with shade trees, benches, ponds, lily pads and an eighteenth century temple called Talyatia Ganpati, again dedicated to Ganesh. Given my Pune park observations, the place was unique – people were actually using it and I surmised that it was the temple that drew them in, although the students were here too in droves – stretched out on the grass with their books and iphones and gossip with nary an oak tree in sight.

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That evening I returned to my wok whiz-kid and his down market haunt. He smiled a near imperceptible smile, asked me where I was from, snatched up a menu card and suggested the hot and sour soup and the chicken hakka noodles. They were excellent. I thought of franchising the place, or at least offering my services, treating those metal tables to some spit and polish. It was my last night so we shook hands and returning to the hotel, I stopped at a tidy little bakery for some sweets and chatted with the proprietor, a charming little man who was missing several teeth.

“Great food in this city,” I told him.

“I don’t like Indian food,” he said.

A future customer, thought I, with pony-tailed visions swirling in my cranium as India’s Noodle King, the next trendy hangout for the university town’s young scholars.

All seven million of them.

©Richard Taylor


Last modified on Monday, 01 May 2017