Aparna Challu forwards me two video clips on WhatsApp. These are impromptu music sessions at her restaurant-cum-heritage-centre Habba Kadal in Whitefield, Bengaluru, which opened in June. In one, guests at a table are singing the Kashmiri folk song Aaz haa aam panay baalyaar (today my childhood sweetheart has come himself). A woman is beating a tumbakhnaer (a drum-like instrument); other guests join in, clapping their hands. A similar scene plays out in the other video.
The name Habba Kadal will strike a chord with a certain generation of Kashmiris. Named for the bridge spanning the Jhelum there, pre-1990, it was a predominantly Kashmiri Pandit locality in Srinagar—a hub which people thronged for everyday essentials, and one which lead to other neighbourhoods in the downtown.
Challu and her husband Upinder Zutshi, former MD and CEO of Infinite Computer Solutions, have envisioned Habba Kadal—Kashmiri Heritage Hub as a place to experience Kashmiri Pandit culture and heritage, food being one part of it. The Kashmiri Pandit community, she says, was rendered homeless overnight in 1990 but overcome that adversity. “We made it through those dark times. And there is every reason to celebrate. And that’s what this place is for.” She mentions that on weekends, the place typically see three generations of a Kashmiri family come in.
On 28 August, the couple opened a heritage boutique hotel in Coonoor in the Nilgiris, based on the same concept. “It’s a place we have come closest to Kashmir anywhere,” says Challu, who is the founder of IT company PrimaSource. She quit corporate life in September 2019 and also runs a social enterprise called Respect Origins, an online marketplace for rural artisans. Edited excerpts from a phone interview with Challu:
How did the idea of a “Habba Kadal” in Bengaluru come about?
I booked the domain Habbakadal.com in 2001 when things started to really become quite disappointingly traumatic for us as a community. I saw my grandparents pass away, all of them left yearning to die back in their homes. I was consumed by this sense of being rootless, a little bit of the premonition that one is never going to be able to go to one’s ancestral home, walk those streets, go to those temples, and all of that. So, I started to write about the stories of the families that I knew from Habba Kadal. Then in 2004, 2005, 2006, one felt hope, that perhaps terrorism is going to decline. I discontinued the idea of a book, not wanting to put anything negative on paper, but continued blogging—most of which remains private. The blog is called Kashmiri from Karnataka, and that’s how I started to address myself. My husband said if we can’t go to Habba Kadal, we will bring it to Bengaluru—that we are now going to root ourselves wherever we are, with respect, with celebration and joy and keep the identity intact, and leave a legacy for our children and grandchildren.
What’s your association with the locality in Srinagar?
I carry Habba Kadal like a sacred space in my heart. Upinder was born there, everybody in my family—my grandparents, parents—is from there, all the lineage. It was a place which was a microcosm of everything that I associated with being a Kashmiri. It was the place of shrines, temples, cobbled streets, wooden shops on either side, selling nadur monje (lotus stem fritters), spices—everything that you needed in your daily life. It was a place where every face looking out of every window in those rows of homes was familiar and known. Everybody knew everybody for generations. People knew whose daughter, granddaughter, grandniece I was, and all of that affection, that was Habba Kadal.
How does Habba Kadal—Kashmiri Heritage Hub replicate that experience?
The area is 35,000 sq. ft—the restaurant space is 16,000 sq. ft. I have done the whole place, ground up, reminiscent of the way our homes were in Kashmir. The music, hymns (like the Panchastavi and Shiv Stotrams) that play are the ones I used to hear in my maternal grandmother’s house. There are tumbakhnaers all over the place. We have an outdoor country kitchen, which is a replica of the wood-fired daan (earthen stove) of Kashmiri homes. When people come here, they are not meant to come to a restaurant. The point is to get a feeling of Kashmir or coming to a Kashmiri home. All the antiques and collectibles are from my own home—I took anything that had meaning and put it all here. When guests come in, they see the stories pretty much on the walls. It helps them understand who we are as a people. Habba Kadal was the hub of everything spiritual and poetic, and literary. But it was also the place which has the worst, horrific emotions that we carry with regard to what happened to the community. That story is there, it’s articulated clearly.
Explain the heritage hub aspect of it?
Food is an important part of our culture and it has been set up in an environment that is a microcosm of our way of life. There are some aspects though that are now nearly lost. For instance, the Sharda script. Now some dedicated people are trying to revive it. On the weekends, we hold workshops on the Sharda language and its philosophy, Vedic learning, and the Gita. Couple of days in the week we give free Kashmiri cooking classes in the outdoor kitchen. Guests are welcome to come and be inside the kitchen and participate in the process. We also have a crafts store, with products sourced directly from artisans in Kashmir.
Where do you source your vegetables and spices from?
When I started out, I used to get everything from Jammu and Kashmir. Now I only get spices, dried vegetables, rice and rajma (kidney beans) from there. The rest of the food, grown organically, is sourced from farms within a 100-150-mile radius, including lotus stem and haakh (collard greens). The meat we use is organic, and the fish is not farmed.
What are some of your memories connected with food?
My grandfather would say feed people abundantly because a person who is satiated will always have goodwill. Abundance doesn’t mean feeding the person till he can eat no more. Abundance means if you have a banana, for example, and you share half or all of it, you are giving abundantly, aren’t you? The other memory is one steeped in affection. It is of my maternal grandfather Babusaab sending us seasonal fruits and vegetables like pears, bamchoonth (quince), and paechin (pintail duck) from Srinagar to wherever my dad—who was in the air force—was posted.
Do guests understand that the Kashmiri cuisine of the various communities is very distinct?
From the Kashmiri Muslim cuisine, we only have the goshtaba and rista, served the traditional way in a wazwan trami (a copper platter). The Kashmiri Pandit cuisine is served in (brass) thalis (thal in Kashmiri). I have tried to stay true even to the authenticity of the dishes so when you are eating, what you are eating, you are eating it the way we did. We explain to guests the different streams of food, and the difference in technique.
You are not very active on social media.
We will come to that gradually. Right now, we don’t advertise, we don’t market, it’s all word of mouth. On our launch on 15 June, we had Aabha Hanjura and her band performing. It was a completely Kashmiri evening with typical Kashmiri music and food. It was an open launch, basically WhatsApp messages that went out through groups. There was a 99-year-old Kashmiri gentleman who said, “Mujh ko toh jana hi jana hai (I have to go)." At least 30% of the crowd that day was octogenarian, including my mother.
You have not gone back to Kashmir in 34 years, though you are connected to it on a daily basis.
We are an ancient people, an ancient civilisation. Those mountains, rivers, that’s our ancestry, our roots. They are not physical or geographical locations. We are never going to be separated. We smell a brinjal and say it’s not the same. And we don’t make it up. Close our eyes and give us four kinds of brinjals and we will tell you which one is from Kashmir. That’s how closely and deeply connected we are with the land. It’s only a brinjal, a baingan...you know. How can you have that association with a baingan, but we do.