I confess that left to myself, I would not have planned a trip to Indore “just like that”. I neither have extended family nor close friends living there. But thanks to invitations I receive as a professional speaker, I get to travel to destinations across India, and end up making new friends plus startling discoveries about similar interesting but not-on-my-radar places. Those of us who live in India’s insular and arrogant “big” cities, hardly ever pause to think about the thousands of “other” Indias that exist — some of these “Indias” being just a short 50-minute flight away from home — as Indore is from Mumbai. But the irony, is this: 50 minutes later, an unknown world dramatically unfolds and ones own indifference/ignorance kicks in. Less than 600 km separates Mumbai from Indore. Imagine. Despite that, Indore is as far away from Mumbai’s tinsel magnetism as, say, exotic Istefan! The city, which traces its roots to the 16th century, is dominated by the legacy of the founder of the Holkar dynasty — Malhar Rao Holkar, appointed governor of the province by Peshwa Baji Rao.
It is as much of a cultural mix as its yummy “namkeens”. Indore is justly famous for a range of sinful, crunchy snacks that are sold at every street corner, with over 500 varieties of what Mumbaikars would call “chivda” and “sev”. Indore’s fluffy dahi vadas are so popular, one particular seller in a crowded open-air food stalls area runs out of dahi vada in just three hours after setting up shop. The local language too reflects this hybrid inheritance — Marathi meets Hindi to create Malwi, a lilting combination of both, that makes the other languages sound softer! People converse in low decibels and respond politely at all times. This is a welcome change from the loud, crass rudeness one is accustomed to in Delhi and Mumbai. My articulate and well-spoken escorts in Indore are two well-groomed, dynamic ladies who run a successful NGO (Abhudaya) that supports local causes, such as sponsoring the education of the girl child, and helping other NGOs in joint tree plantation drives. Both the ladies are married into families from Indore, and are more than happy to live in a city that fosters close-knit relationships and community activities. They were Delhi-Mumbai girls originally, who opted for arranged marriages and have integrated totally in their marital homes. In fact, I couldn’t have asked for more committed and knowledgeable tourist guides, as they drove me around the city, proudly pointing out landmarks and important institutions like the Daly College — which claims to be the oldest co-ed boarding school in the world! Founded in 1870, the gorgeous campus is spread over 120 acres, with a shooting range, tennis courts, swimming pool, and an artificial lake with hundreds of graceful swans.
The main building is architecturally stunning and I’m told visitors come to gaze on its splendour on moonlit nights! There are rare botanical trees and dozens of bird species to admire, along with a temple and mosque near the principal’s majestic colonial-style bungalow. The ladies told me with visible pride, “Indore is the only city in India with an IIM and an IIT. Our students are toppers in academics and sports.” Indore, a Tier-2 city, is likely to get its “smart city” status pretty soon. Out of the 100 cities identified for the Smart City Mission, Indore features in the top 20. Talking to locals, it’s good to sense the immense sense of ownership they feel when they point out the development projects that are transforming lives rapidly. Indore has successfully hosted the Global Investors’ Summit. And has also positioned itself as an attractive wedding destination, with huge, well-equipped lawns and infrastructure. The economy is fuelled by palm oil, soya and booze! Large breweries on the outskirts of the city supply beer and whisky to big brands while creating smaller brands of their own.
The big worry is the rumour that Narendra Modi’s administration may push Madhya Pradesh to become a dry state. If that happens, it is going to lead to massive revenue losses. Besides, as someone pointed out, “show me one state where going dry has worked and ‘reformed’ people. If they are denied alcohol, they turn to drugs. Even in Gujarat, prohibition is a joke! You can get as much booze as you want!” Since I spent most of my time with the young ladies from Abhudaya, I was keen to know about their leisure hours. Did they miss the buzz and glamour of Delhi-Mumbai? They told me candidly about the frequent shopping trips they made to both cities, “especially during Fashion Weeks”. This was obvious from their very chic, couture outfits and fancy bags. But unlike their counterparts in both the other cities, the ladies from Indore are not fashion-obsessed, and wear their gossamer Maheshwaris with as much panache as their well-structured designer anarkalis. I was determined to acquire a Maheshwari sari for myself, and off we went to Rehwa, the beautiful outlet that showcases the skills of handloom weavers from the town of Maheshwar, 90 km away. It’s a weaving tradition that goes back five centuries and has been painstakingly kept alive by Sally Holkar and her ex-husband, Richard Holkar, the direct descendant of the Holkar dynasty. It was Devi Ahilyabai Holkar (the futuristic, spanking new Indore airport is named after this iconic lady, daughter-in-law of the founder), who shifted the capital of what was then Madhya Bharat to Maheshwar in 1767.
I would have loved to see the looms and visit the meticulously restored palace there. But I have to save something for the next visit, too! Like a trip to Ujjain, for example. Mandu in the rains is supposed to be romantic and beautiful as well. Or perhaps, a pilgrimage to the famous Shivling? For, the one aspect of Indore that impressed me the most was the peaceful co-existence of all communities and religions — from the historic and well-preserved White Church, which had provided a safe haven to the last of the British living in Indore at the time of Independence, to the many mosques, temples and gurdwaras dotting the old city. Massive redevelopment is underway in parts of the dilapidated inner town, but people say the chief minister is doing a great job since he took over in 2005, and want him to continue for another term. They fear Narendra Modi has other plans for Shivraj Singh Chouhan... Oh well... what Mr Modi proposes... you know the rest!