Neelam varma of tala, bandhavgarh

Neelam varma of tala, bandhavgarh

She got an order for a cake at 8.30 pm, quickly walked into the kitchen and baked it in 10 minutes flat, allowed it to cool a tad, decorated it with lots of goodies, packed it and waited for the person to pick it up. Neelam Varma calls herself as a traveller, though she is much more than that. 

And for that you must visit Tala, where the Bandhavgarh National Park 

Is situated. Here she runs her shop Malaya, famous now for several things. It is a one stop shop for artefacts from across the country. 

Tala is in Bandhavgarh in Madhya Pradesh. There are now flights to Jabalpur and then it is three drive to come to this national park. And if you are taking the train route, then the stop would be either Katni or Umaria and then the cab ride to the park. One of the popular national parks in India, Bandhavgarh was declared a national park in 1968. The four main zones of the national park are Tala, Magadhi, Khitauli and Panpatta. Tala is also known for its tigers.

It is surprising to say the least that a city-bred person like Neelam, chose a lonely place like Tala, but she has a simple answer for that. “I could not handle the pollution of Ahmedabad and had to get away from it all and so came to take up a job here, worked for some time and decided to stay back,” she says with a smile. And the rest as they say is history. Now while she is variously quoted in magazines, Lonely Planet too mentions her and in the updated version.

“This welcoming cafe run by an extroverted escapee from the marketing business in Ahmedabad does fabulous pure-veg breakfast/brunches......”And so after the safari, you could always come here to a healthy breakfast or simply a nice cup of coffee. 

Restless by nature, Neelam is a person to contend with in this tiny place. She drives around in a Tata Sumo, the mop of white hair announcing her presence, even as she honks and people rush to do her bidding. She started Malaya in 2008 and has brought a marked change in the culture of this tourist village. Now people have another place to go to and have a chat when they have had an exciting day at the park. 

She makes new friends everyday, even as she has a lot to talk about considering all her travels across the length and breadth of the country. 

"Basically, I love to drive,” she says and realised soon that she had to stock up for the shop. The park remains closed during the monsoon and so she has close to three months to travel, shop and experience the other regions  of the country. She travels alone and sometimes with friends and family and of course her reference book `Handmade in India: Crafts of India, an encyclopaedia on Indian handicrafts.’ And to her credit, thanks to Neelam, there have been some products which were in their last throes and she has managed to convince the person to make a few more. Sometimes she is not able to meet the artisan or find the address, but it is always a trip full of new experiences. 

She took a hint from a photographer whom she met while he was at a tiger shoot, who told her that the need of the day was a place where people could get together over a cup of coffee and thus the cafe at Malaya was started. And she’s mentioned in Lonely Planet because of this. And as mentioned earlier she also bakes cakes. 

And so Malaya is that shop where you can browse, buy something unique, chat a while with the owner Neelam Varma and also grab a bite. You can have a real nice day. 

The shop Malaya is not your usual touristy little place. Neelam travels far and wide and buys some very good stuff and some of it is quite expensive and she does it with aplomb, not worried about if she will find a buyer or not. She is just happy that she has bought something beautiful for her shop. 

And don’t worry about the provenance of any of the objects bought at the shop, for you will get details from Neelam, along with history and geography of how she managed to get it. Interesting to say the least. There have been people who have bought objects only because of Neelam’s narratives.

While the tourist season is a heart warming time, once that is done with, it can be quite lonesome, with just a few tiger roars, elephant trumps and a straggler visitor or so. But Neelam does not mind that and runs her errands, which in this place means travelling a minimum of 60 kms. And then she has her other activities like solving a crossword or watching TV and she probably thinks of it as `her’ time. 

Having lived in Tala for ten years and more, she has also become familiar with the people around this village, getting involved in their lives and extending help. Like helping three persons to get plastic surgeries done at Amarkantak-based Kalyan Ashram where plastic and rehabilitative surgeries are done once every year.

While she only raves about most of her trips, there is one trip which makes her shudder a little. She wanted to go to Chattisgarh and had to stop at Etturnagaram for a night. Though once a naxal-infested area, this place is still not ready for the main stream, which means there was practically no place to stay for her. Luckily she carries her own bed sheet and pillow and managed to spend four hours of sheer agony. While she came out of this little village unscathed, she had a puncture soon and no one around to help her. While she was not scared, it shook her a little and she recalls this trip as one of the `worst’. 

But she is safe in Tala and makes people feel welcome into her home and shop, where the cow bell announces your arrival.


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