Dessert For A Desert Town

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Photo: Vijay Pandey

BABA THAKUR DAS had just made Alwar his home in 1947 after being forced to flee Pakistan. It was a routine day that he set about experimenting with milk — squeezing some lemon into it and leaving it alone for some time — when he is supposed to have uttered the now famous line Yehi to kala hai (This is what art is) at the sight of the grainy residue. The milk cake’s journey to becoming a delicacy (locally known as kalakand) had begun.

Like its most famous dessert, Alwar too is an amalgam of grains picked out from a long history — grains that happen to co-exist, each adding taste and flavour. A quaint little town, with a population of about six lakh, and accessible from both the much larger city of Jaipur and the megapolis, New Delhi, Alwar is a piece of art in itself. The milk cake business has spread, the chunks of brownish white milk now lining some 70 to 80 counters in the town, but Baba Thakur Das & Sons still sell their milk cakes over just one tiny counter at Hope Circus, the business hub of the town. “We tried out workers to help us with the making of the milk cake, but the quality suffered. Soon, we were doing it all by ourselves,” says Abhishek Taneja, Baba Thakur Das’s grandson, who has been handling sales for the past 15 years, while his father oversees the processing of some 300 kilos of milk cake daily.

Not everyone here is content. The first wave of industrialisation in Alwar began in the 1970s with its Matsya Industrial Area (MIA) playing host to a number of factories. However, poor management, strong labour unions and promised subsidies that never came, forced companies to leave. But with industries of repute like Ashok Leyland and Havells establishing plants in the last few years, the town seems to have received a fresh lease of life.

Picking up Mahindra and Chevrolet bring in the car culture
Picking up Mahindra and Chevrolet bring in the car culture

The prosperity has not reached the likes of BS Jaiman, who owns a paan shop near the bus depot. His business used to thrive on workers who boarded buses to MIA every day. The downturn hit him hard, and the double whammy from the closure of the Ashoka Talkies — following a family feud — hit him hard indeed. Daulat Lekhwani, a medic in the middle of the MIA, too cannot see beyond the ruins that surround him. “The Pepsi plant here lasted barely a year,” he says, asking rhetorically, “Without basic facilities, how do you expect industries to come in?’

Rejuvenated industries and the keen eyes of businessmen have raised property prices

But it is not all nostalgia and despair. A rejuvented MIA and the industrially promising Bhiwadi, just an hour’s drive away, back the optimism of a handful. Hari Mohan Meena, Additional District Collector, says the town has seen a rise in buildings and property prices. A shopping mall, the accepted symbol of urban India, is complete; work is going on in two more. Ansal Housing has plans to develop 44 acres on the outskirts of Alwar. Dharmendra Jain, its marketing head, says there is plenty of money in Alwar and there are also those who want to return to their roots. Engineering and nursing colleges too have begun filling in the educational vacuum.

SO FAR, the town has not had a problem finding water to meet its needs, thanks to borewells. But now, it seems that water from the nearby Silliserh Lake, a tourist destination, will be channelled into the town — cutting down on the water for irrigation currently sourced from there.

Roaring again Relocated tigers will bring more tourists to Alwar
Roaring again Relocated tigers will bring more tourists to Alwar

It’s a thought that worries many in the town: Taneja’s milk cake, he says is special because of the town’s water. Some 20,000 litres of milk go into the making of the milk cakes daily; the milk coming from nearby villages.

The 30-kilometre stretch from Alwar to Sariska is also where the cheapest vegetables Rajasthan are grown, the supplies from here reaching Jaipur and Delhi. In Umren, a village home to 600 families, one crop takes over from another but this year, they found that the losses also can be huge (Rs 2 crores) when the Jaisamandh Lake, otherwise the village lifeline, swelled up.

Coveted centre Hope Circus is the business hub of the town
Coveted centre Hope Circus is the business hub of the town

The water, milk and vegetables — elements of the tranquil Alwar existence — are what Taneja fears losing. RS Rathore, GM of the Sariska Palace Hotel, agrees that the much- publicised reintroduction of tigers into the reserve has caused a resurgence in the number of tourists. “The Jaipur of the 1970s resembled the Alwar of today, but even now, the city’s culture and colour are intact inspite of the rapid urbanisation it has undergone,” he responds to Taneja’s concerns. PS Somshekar, the field director at Sariska, is wary of the increasing number of pilgrims to Pandupole temple inside the reserve. The reserve plans to have transport to ferry visitors within its premises. More people, more cars — the caution is apt as businesses have an eye on Alwar, the gateway to three neighbouring districts — Bharatpur, Dholpur and Karoli. Banks have moved in here in strength, so have international shoe and clothing brands. Jaipur resident Rishi Seth’s Chevrolet showroom will open soon on the outskirts.

The expansive Balaqila — that towers over the town — and its tumultuous history bear testament to how much the Mughals, Rajputs, Jats and the British coveted this town. The attractiveness of present-day Alwar has not yet captured the popular imagination, like a lot of middle India, it is also waiting for its moment in the sun.

anil@tehelka.com

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