Sunday, December 13, 2009

Notes from the Land of five rivers

The Punjab means the Land of the five rivers, as any schoolboy who knows his geography instead of fiddling with his I-phone could tell you in the passing. But what he may not be able to tell is that the Indus still flows in the region of Punjab; only that it happens to be in the neighbouring country of Pakistan. The fiddler would have googled it. One fine day, one of my friend's: SK decided to get married. In April. This year. In the Punjab. So the three of us, me, Akshay and Shveta [1]; who had the mind and the presence of it to get our hols at the same time decided to attend the wedding armed with The Lonely Planet. I was pitch-forked from the rice and rasam eaters to the very rarely rice and not quite heard of rasam eaters.

Gathering my hastily packed rather stuffed luggage, I lumbered to the Hazrat Nizamuddin station to board the train to Jalandhar at the unearthly hour of six or thereabouts in the morning bleary eyed and moving torpidly (attributed to negative traces of caffeine in my veins) to find the two of them cheerful with wide smiles even at this hour. A consensus revealed that scalding hot beverages of choice in Styrofoam cups was the need of the hour more than anything else. Leaving the lady armed with a handbag nee black hole to stand, guard the luggage, the two hunks; one with a razor sharp crew cut and the other with his inseparable aviators ambled along the platform to get the needful. It was indeed a pity that the aviator drew stares only from Punju matrons and the devout bound for Amritsar. The other guy fluttered many a kudi's heart, and in general felt was completely responsible for a lot of commotion and increased decibel levels in the station. It was later discovered that the fluttering, the commotion and everything else that followed was attributed to some crazed Punjabi superstar bhang-ra(p) singer. The train rolled its way up; we shuffled in along with elbowing daily commuters clutching their office bags and faces stuck to mobile phones; the same matrons with their flow of overburdened bags, suitcases; the devout with their pious footfalls and the aged. We settled down to a piping hot breakfast and more rocket fuel courtesy the IRCTC (Indian Railways Catering and Tourism Corporation or some such expansion) as the train hurtled around the lush green countryside.

We reached Jalandhar at about two past noon. Soon we found ourselves bundled into a cab and rocketing at speeds which a Tata Indica might achieve towards the famed Rang la Punjab (Colours of Punjab), a theme based restaurant serving exquisite vegetarian Punjabi fare. We nonchalantly placed ourselves at the allotted table and waited to be served for we were famished to say the least. The wait was not for long as the army of oversized waiters efficiently piled the thick brass plates with the day's fare. They looked benignly on the three under nourished hungry waifs and it was their heartfelt dream and ambition that they would inflate the three of us to their size; for they knew deep in their hearts that on stepping out we would be back to the insipid world of phulkas, idli-vadas, pijjas and many other un-mentionables. Seizing their only chance and led by this unshakeable belief they served with more vigour and generosity. The dal makhni was delightful and delicious, the salads and chutneys fresh and tender, the monstrous brass tumbler always full with freshly churned lassi as the rotis, parathas and kulchas dripping with butter rained incessantly, confusing the three souls already stupefied by the quantity of food served and consumed. After what seemed a meal-hill of a mountain, we were served with absolutely delectable melt-in-the-mouth kheer which could not be savoured to its true worth. Taking pity on me, the oversized waiter served another oversized helping of kheer, cocksure this would be the one that would inflate me to their size. It didn't and I was lucky to get away unnoticed. We looked around the neat and well maintained place, managed to buy no souvenir and eventually came out of the place unsteadily in induced stupor resembling stuffed kukkads ready for the evening's shahi tandoor [2] [3].

We reached the other side of town to the Nandas' home where we rested our weary selves. At tea time, Nanda's mom and sis Samiksha served us another feast of cakes, samosas and other knick knacks that filled up the table with some amazing tea. Considering the gargantuan lunch, we managed to nibble something with Akshay taking more than just the lead and tea. We departed for Hoshiarpur where SK–the groom, slack as usual was not even in wedding finery; whereas we were dressed to kill anyone within a ten mile radius. The baraat left for Gurdaspur waylaid by the photographer every ten steps, who was hell bent on exposing the reams of film on SK within the hour, hoping to track every possible angle of the groom. The wedding formalities were in full swing accompanied by a delayed dinner for which we were extremely thankful. The ceremonies started late in the night and went on for what seemed hours. I promptly fell asleep not at all indebted to my jhootis [4] , camera in hand not to be woken by my partners in crime who sat through the ceremonies at their respective places; the bride and groom next to the pundit cozy by the fire; T&J beside me. I awoke to the smell of freshly brewed tea wafting through the air and in time to see the newly married couple taking their seventh and most important of the pheras [5]. We left for Amritsar soon after @ about four in the morning with the two of them sleeping the journey out and me, awake.

We crashed into our beds at the dormitory by the Golden Temple premises. I woke up close to eight just in time to get a call from SK, who sounded tired, sleepless and was just about to start his way back home. Thank God for South Indian weddings, at least they don’t torture the newlyweds the whole night!! After what seemed an eternity, Lord Akshay chose to open his eyes and grace the day with his presence. The bells at the golden temple rang, the bells at the nearby temples also rang; the muezzin at the mosque called; the church choir sang; the birds chirped happily, they couldn’t ring or sing; the cows mooed, they too couldn’t sing, for their bells rang to announce this momentous occasion. We left sometime later to the Golden Temple. Aptly named; mystic, deeply religious; serenely beautiful yet tranquil; not all temples or shrines can create such an impression. The kada prashad [6], was divinity itself. We walked across to the Jallianwala Bagh [7] where the garden and the memorial still bore testimony to the bullet marks on the walls and the well to the muted screams of the many who jumped in to escape the gun fire. The decrepit red brick wall near the narrow entrance with precariously mounted letters announcing the place bore evidence of sixty two years of apathy and indifference.

We came out hungry in time for our brunch and one of Amritsar's favourite pursuits; feed the people. We found the Seven Brothers Dhaba without much delay or help. It's hard to miss a famed eatery across the street, especially if in Amritsar or Punjab or anywhere in India for that matter. Their speciality: Amritsari Kulchas [8] and Lassi. They arrived piping hot as usual and dripping with more butter (not usual at all) than could be imagined or written about. Three brazenly monstrous brass vessels rising six inches above the serving tray, covering the bottom portion of the bust of the waiter holding at the least a half litre of something arrived. That something turned out to be freshly churned frothy thick Lassi of choice. Mind you, this was breakfast as the menu proclaimed, as the staffer asserted proudly; and here I had been cursing the Gujjus for their insane combination of Fafdas, Ganthias and Jalebis [9] for breakfast. We feasted on the parathas, proposed a lassi toast to the city, the people in general and managed to wobble out even though someone amongst us left more than half a kulcha. We left sometime later for the Atari – Wagah border.

Attari is famous as the border town where the flag hoisting and lowering ceremonies assume unheard and unseen of proportions. The Lonely Planet sums up this town in four precise lines which I don’t remember. In all probability, it is the only operational business road route between the two neighbours. We reached and managed to get some seats that were in close proximity to the gates. The arena thronged with people from all corners of the country eager to see their soldiers in action. The Border Security Force (am quite sure the Rangers across the gates also) played to the gallery and revved them up to a frenzy of fleeting nationalism. Bollywood songs stirring the fervor upped the ante and ignited the arena. A huge section of the crowd; its fire within roused by the high decibel music; danced in the hot sun kicking up dust, angst, slogans and choice catch phrases against the unknown faces across the other side (despite the MC's prior requests). The crowd was held in check and sent back to their seats before the guard of honour marched in. The songs stopped blaring but not the frenzy of the crowd. Chants, slogans and ear piercing screams still rented the air. The only person to beat the crowd at their game was the guard commander and his long drawn out commands. To the untrained eye, the limbered-up soldiers gigantic in stature moved crisply, precisely to the sounds of the commands and the bugler. To the trained, it seemed like outrageous or even outright comical marching; its foundations built solidly on ambient testosterone levels and the whipped up frenzy, feeding it at the same time for an event fitting grand finale as the soldiers faced off each other with grim postures and grimmer stares at the gates. The flags of both the nations were lowered synchronized. As the Indian flag came down, so did whatever it represented. The crowd roared orgasmically in approval as the gates clanged shut for the day. We left carefully not to tread on the strewn plastic tri-colours.

We reached Amritsar with a resolve that there would be no more Punjabi for dinner. A resolve which led us to have a stab at Chinese cuisine in the heart of Punjab. A quixotic resolve which bore fruit in the form of Schezwan noodles, a welcome change indeed. The next day saw us roam Amritsar with Shveta's parents and reach the steps of the Seven Brothers for another brunch. That night we boarded the train out of Punjab with butter in our bloods, lassi in our guts and what can be best described as elation coupled with mixed feelings.


[1] Akshay and Shveta - A great couple who are thick friends of mine. Till date I haven’t been able to ascertain as to which of them corresponds to their nickname (am quite sure they can't either). I once tried to do so, that happened to be the last time, but tell u what one couldn’t have asked for better friends.

[2] Kukkads and Shahi Tandoor – The state bird of Punjab and the unofficial national bird – the chicken; feted in ovens, dining tables; feted by chefs with qualifications; celebrated by roadside dhaba owners across the country. The tandoor happens to be an earthen pit converted into an oven over which the above said kukkads, paneer, rotis, naans can be cooked to perfection or burnt to cinders depending on the cook's whims and capabilities. The shahi refers to a particular dish where the chicken is stuffed with choice cashews, pistachios, almonds, onions and other condiments unknown to all but the cook and the chicken itself.

[3] Para 3 – If you can't understand the elaborate description of the Punjabi thaali, there are only two ways out. Reach for the nearest dhaba that serves a proper thaali or the nearest luxury restaurant that has a Punjabi Banquet. Easy way out: get yourself to Jalandhar and ask for the Rang la Punjab.

[4] Jhootis – Flat soled embroidered hard soled cushion less footwear designed to kill the feet, maim the ankles, send shock waves to the knees and engineered to give a feeling of walking on a crown of thorns, but preferred by many an Indian for reasons exactly contrary to the above.

[5] Pheras – A circumventing of a pan of log/twig fire aided by ghee (or such fuel that can fuel the fire) which spews out acrid smoke by the bleary, teary eyed bride and groom. This happens seven times over, just so that the relatives are septet-ly sure that the couple got it right the first time.

[6] Kada Prashad- A mildly flavoured simple mixture of broken wheat, gur (jaggery) and ghee served as prashad @ the Golden Temple. Though dripping with ghee for which I seem to have created an aversion; it tasted heavenly.

[7] Jallianwala Bagh - A public garden converted to a monument revered by all and remembered for a massacre on 13 April 1919 wherein unarmed people who had gathered to celebrate Baisakhi (a harvest festival) were killed by the hundreds and injured by the thousands by the British Indian Army picket commanded by Col Reginald Dyer (later Brig.) under the pretext of a possible mutiny. This atrocity triggered off many a fervent struggle against the Brits including the assassination of the then governor of Punjab, Lt Governor Michael O Dwyer in London.

[8] Amritsari Kulcha – A kulcha is a roti that consists of a lot of concentric layers of atta (wheat). The Amritsari is unique coz a fat layer of maida (refined flour) encases the concentric layers of wheat which in turn enclose a stuffing of assorted veggies. This combination is baked in the tandoor at temperatures as determined by the availability of wood and its freshness. The cooked bread is then dunked into a pot of butter, doused with more butter and served with even more butter.

[9] Fafdas, Ganthias and Jalebis – Fafda (plural-fafdae) are flat 2 inch wide pieces of besan (chick pea flour aka channe ke atta) deep fried in oil of unknown origin and served (early in the morning as breakfast or as a snack at any other point of time in the day) with fried green chillies which are actually tasteless. Ganthia is the same thing in cylindrical or star shaped or amoebic form. Expected to be consumed by the kilo and not by numbers. Jalebis are again sweetened flour in the form of fractal shapes with irregular criss crossing loops which are deep fried to a crisp in ghee, dunked in thick flavoured sugar syrup and served. The North Indian variant is to serve the same with richly flavoured and sweetened condensed milk (rabri). Recommended by their makers as the healthiest breakfast in the whole wide India. Unfortunately they haven’t established contact with the Dhaba owners and Kulcha makers.

1 comment:

akshay said...

amazin details and memories..thot ul describe the dip and the fishes...btw its tom(sp) and nobody!!