We were excited as we approached that tiny lane where this place was located. My friend was looking down into his phone for directions while riding at the same time. We stopped near the place Google Maps pointed. On my left, there was a construction site and I looked around for a purple door. That was the only identification we had for this place. I looked towards my right and found a bluish door instead purple above which there was a rectangular signboard which read ‘ Shivajinagar Gardi Ustad Pehelwan Kale Bhai’. Written a little below that was a year, 1936.
This place is one of the few kushti akharas that have survived in the city. What’s special about this particular gardi is the lunch that is served six days a week between 1PM to 3PM. The place is well above a hundred years old as is evident from the infrastructure it has.
Once inside, the air smelled of kebabs and deep fried food items. It was lunch time and the place was filled with people, most of them concentrating on their food except for a few who took a lazy glance at us while munching khushka rice.
All of them seemed to be regular office-goers. Right in front of us was a kitchen, its walls blackened by oil, the room filled with a choking smoke. There was a lot of cooking and clanging of vessels going on inside even as numerous orders poured out without any halting. It was a Wednesday and we weren’t going to get the special Biryani that this place is famous for. For some reason they only served Biryani and Shammi kebabs on Fridays. Apparently this was decided almost 20 years ago when the place first started serving lunch.
Right beside the kitchen lay a soil-filled pit. The soil had an unusual red colour. In the pit lay wooden dumbbells, a barbell with two weights and some other weight instruments which the pahelwans use for training. Four black and white photos of flexing gentlemen adorned the wall behind and it was pretty evident that these four gentlemen were regarded as the heroes this gardi produced.
A man constantly asked us for our orders as we stood there looking around the place. A sumptuous meal awaited us as we ordered almost everything the place had to offer. That included mutton chops, khushka rice, chicken kebabs, mutton koftas, mutton cutlets and fried seer fish. Three varieties of gravy were given complimentary. A square well near the kitchen captured our attention as the position where it was seemed odd. Peering down we saw that it wasn’t particularly deep. Later, we come to know that the well was as old as the gardi.
“This place is more than 100 years old. It was founded by my nanaji (maternal grandfather), Ustaad Kale Bhai Pahalwaan,” said Muhammad Malik, who is the man in charge of the place. Sitting behind his small cash-table, he was curious about us and asked where we were from and what we were studying.
“I used to do kushti as well.” When we ask if he still does, he laughs it off by saying “No no. That was some 40 years back.” The place is run by Malik and his family while Ustaad Basheer is the guru of all the wrestlers that currently train here.”
We must have seemed shamelessly curious because the man who served us food approached us. “The Discovery Channel came here a few years ago to shoot a documentary. They shot a lot of photos of the place” he said, his eyes gleaming.
The place hasn’t been renovated in any way. The walls have been scraped off the paint which it had, revealing the cement structure beneath it. “We see this place as a dewal (a sacred place), this whole compound” said Malik pointing his finger around the area. “That’s how we try to preserve the integrity of this place.” An order came for a plate of kebabs and he went off to the kitchen to help carry things out.
What is surprising is that the place doesn’t have a roof; the tables are placed under a blue tarpaulin attached to four nails. What happens when it rains? “The pahelwans need to be under open air. It’s crucial for their training. When it rains, we just close the business. The tarpaulin helps to a certain extent,” says the guy who served us food as we cautiously noticed the few holes on the tin roof above us.
Malik at first disagreed to the fact that the door was purple at some point of time. But then he remembers, “It was given a paint job a couple of years back!” Finally, our doubts were laid to rest. Just above the place where we sat is a railway rafter that has been attached to the roof. Hanging from the rafter is a pulley and a rod. “That’s used by the pahelwans while training.” Malik informs us.
Alim, one of the many devoted customers of this place said, “I have been coming here for the last two years. I come here all the way from Indiranagar. This place is probably one of the best places to have Biryani in Bangalore.” Commenting on the changes that he has witnessed in the last two years, he smirks and says, “There haven’t been any. I doubt if anything has changed in this place at all. Have you tried the mutton chops though?”