Past forward

Swaroopa Unni, (27), who now lives in Central Otago, a small town in New Zealand, exemplifies them. A journalist by profession, Swaroopa has spent her childhood cradled by the lakes, canals and wetlands in Kozhikode. Calling herself a true Kozhikodan, she says “Though my city is  now called Calicut, there is definitely more charm in the  old name, Kozhikode. The crowded and disorganised traffic, the green buses (also known as the line bus),  Mananchira Square, the beach with the  milling crowd that throngs it night and day, the roadside stalls selling all kinds of delicacies, old cinema screens, the gusto with which Kozhikodans bring in every festival, are unforgettable.”

She adds, “I have shopped all over India but there is nothing that beats the satisfaction of bargaining with a shopkeeper on SM Street. All those memories just come rushing back.”

Kozhikode is a foodie’s paradise too. Starting with the distinct Kozhikodan Halwa in a variety of shapes, tastes and colours to the the wafer-thin, hot banana chips, the famous ice pickle, cakes and bakes, Biriyani Chai, fruit juices and milk shakes.

“And where else would an autorickshaw driver hand over the remaining change? I am yet to experience that kind of courtesy in any other city in India,” adds a homesick Swaroopa.

Kozhikode has long been home to a mixed race of residents with evidence of British footprints alongside the Arabs and the Portuguese.

The ancient temples, mosques and churches stand testimony to that and to the city’s grand history. The district has boasted diverse strands of ethnicity and religions since the early medieval period.

“Growing up there has been a wonderful experience for me. My father would regale me with stories of Ottamthullal, Theyyam festival and the Velichappadu. Kozhikode is filled with Muslims who orchestrated the Oppana dance. I grew up amidst intense waves of culture, music, dance and theatre. I wouldn’t be me if it weren’t for Kozhikode,”  says Swaroopa.

Known for its rooftile and textile industry, Kozhikode continues to be a burgeoning commercial town. Few willingly acknowledge the sea change the city has undergone over the years, though due credit must be given to those who have taken the drastic changes in their stride.

Though I may not be able to vouch for most of the savouries and retreats in Calicut, there are a few things that are true to the old town that I hold very close to me.
Having made only a few visits to drop in on old relatives, I must admit that I was initially a reluctant guest.

Visit to the town always began with piling into an old, beat-up Maruti Van in Cochin and patiently waiting for hours to visit old aunts and uncles in Kozhikode. But the backseat allowed me the pleasure of the many wondrous sights and sounds of this town. But what I looked forward to most was a visit to Valiyangadi.

 Let me tell you a little about this place. Neither will you find it listed under the “must see” category nor will the locals boast about it while you ask for directions. Valiyangadi is the kind of place you stumble upon, unless you are a shrewd businessman looking to make a killing in the Copra ( dry coconut) market.

The noise, rush and heat of this narrow lane would test any visitor’s mettle. But before you lose confidence, keep in mind that this street boasts  a 600-year-old history and continues to function as one of the main commercial centres of the city.

This commercial hub is, for the thousands of outsiders who frequent Calicut,  the best place to assimilate the city’s energy. People of all races and origins arrive well before the crack of dawn to set up stalls and begin the market day. Spices, rice, fish and textile are all sold with an enthusiasm that  merchants and money-lenders, have been demonstrating  for centuries. It is also the right place to be if you wish to catch a glimpse of local bookies yelling in their unique Malabari dialect, hovering over each other, making deals. An absolute treat for the eyes and ears.

This soon turned into a ritual during every visit to Kozhikode. Though we gave the sightseeing and shopping a miss, we never forgot to eat! My palate has been lucky enough to savour some of the best, homemade halwas and biriyani. The food is a unique mix of Muslim and Hindu preparations. There is a distinct style to bringing in the Kozhikodan cuisine to the table. The aroma of ghee rice and mutton gravy envelopes most parts of the city in the afternoon, the patented Pathiris, with a spicy accompaniment are twisted and rolled out with much flair. And on the side is another true Kozhikodan delight — the banana chips. And I am told that these delicacies are served during Onam, Christmas and Ramzan with equal pomp. These dishes are also significant contributions of the Arabs before they left for more promising beachlines. Mighty thanks, I say. Gordon Ramsay agrees.

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