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The Dhabas of Amritsar
By GUNVANTHI BALARAM
India Harmony Volume - 1 : Issue - 2, 2013
After a kulcha, crunchy with oodles of butter on the outside, attack the gulab jamun instead. Then, try a kebab. In the holy city of Amritsar, nobody can go hungry. For pilgrims and the poor, there's the divine langar at the Golden Temple. For tourists and the locals, as well, there's the ubiquitous dhaba - that hole-in-the-wall eatery that dishes up the most flavoursome and fragrant of food at the humblest of prices. They are Amritsar's USP - "unique selling proposition" - they have a wide-ranging clientele, from ministers to rickshaw-wallahs. Let not its dingy climes lead you astray: the dhaba is the best place to eat at in Amritsar. The food is not just hot and tasty, it's invariably also fresh and clean. Now we know why the Amritsaris quite often prefer to send out for food rather than cook in their own kitchens. The "Amritsari kulcha" is worth devouring, certainly - it's this plump, yet just that flaky maida roti, soft with potato and onion spiced with pepper, chilly, jeera and anardana on the inside and crunchy with oodles of butter on the outside. Eaten only at breakfast or brunch, it is served with gravied chole (the small chana) and a chutney of tamarind, jaggery and onion, or of tamarind, mint, onion and green chilly.
It's a kulcha that cannot be found anywhere else in the Punjab, not even some miles down the road in Ludhiana. I didn't know any better, but Kiranjot Kaur, the young ex-secretary of the Shiromani Gurdwara Prabhandak Committee (who, along with conservationist Gurmeet Kaur Rai, has initiated measures to have the Golden Temple listed as a World Heritage Site), informed me that the best breakfast places are "All India Fames" (lately corrected to Famous, alas) "Kulcha-Chola Dhaba" on Maqbool Road, "Kanha's" on Lawrence Road and "Kanahya's" at Phullonwala Chowk. "Don't go away without trying the poori-alu and gur-halwa, it's our traditional Sunday brunch", Kiranjot said emphatically, after I had interviewed her about more material matters at the Golden Temple. I wasn't about to disobey her. At Kanahya's, the pooris (of wheat) were light and fluffy; the potatoes, in a sauce of jaggery and tamarind, tangy. The famous kulcha-chole, dished up by the brothers Dalbir and Samarjit Singh for ten rupees, also lived up to its reputation.
Nitasha had also instructed me to eat everything I possibly could in the pilgrim town. "Not just Amritsari kulcha and Amritsari fish, but also pakoris, kachauris, jalebis, phirni, kulfi,ma-ki-dal, the prasad at the Harmandir Sahib, the works". Playing glutton was easy.
I munched on kachauris on the thirty-minute ride to the Wagah border. Crisp and spicy. The patriotic slogans were still ringing in my ears when I returned for the stuffed parathasand the ma-ki-dal at the "1917 Bharawan da Dhaba" near the Town Hall.
The mooli paratha is guaranteed to satisfy, but the dal is too buttery. I sampled more of the same at a pokey little shop in Jalianwala Bagh. That was better: more spicy, less buttery. And cheap, at Rs. 5 a bowl. Skipping its famous thali, I sampled the mithai at the "1916 Kesar da Dhaba", tucked away in the intestine of an old bazaar. The rasmala - marble-sized golis in mellow malai - andgajjar da halwa were divine. So was the phirni - silvery and feather light on the tongue. I saw a Sardar from the diaspora (accent loud and clear) cheerfully having helpings of all three. In Amritsar, there's manna from the halwaii. The town, like Calcutta, has a mithai shop every hundred meters. And ajalebiwala inbetween. The Amritsaris' lust for jalebis has to be seen to be believed. They munch on them from dawn to midnight - at the 90-year-old "Gurudas Ram Jalebiwala" in the Katra Ahluwalia area, for sure. If they feel like a change, they attack the gulab jamuns instead. I was high enough on the rasmalai and phirni, so I opted to save the jalebi-and-jamun trip for another time.
All too soon, it was time to take the train back to Delhi. On the way to the station, I stopped to buy papads and Amritsar di Pinni for my friends. Laden with parcels, I sat back in the cycle-rickshaw, a tad wistful that it was all over. But as the old rickshaw-wala struggled up a hillslope, I saw this little kulfishop, the name of which I cannot recollect.
I asked him to stop, went in and grabbed two plates of - what else - malai kulfi. We ate it sitting out in the creaky rickshaw. Creamy yet textured, quite like the land, it was wonderful!
Memoirs: Guru di nagri, Ambarsar
An undated picture from an old postcard shows the Golden Temple, Amritsar – Photo by the author.
I was in born in 1926 in Amritsar (Ambarsar in Punjabi), but my father who was an engineer in the M.E.S. was posted in Bareilly (U.P.) and I spent the first nine years of my life there. In 1935, my father, who had risen from the ranks to be given the title of Khan Bahadur by the British for meritorious services, retired with a handsome pension. He immediately shifted to his home town, Amritsar.
Dad was an affluent man and purchased a large sized bungalow on Maqbool Road in the Civil Lines area. I was proud of the fact that we had a car — at that time I estimate there were probably no more than 50 cars in Amritsar. Many rich people preferred to maintain horse-driven vehicles like a phaeton, buggy or raeesi tonga rather than a car, even though the cost of feeding a horse would have been higher than the cost of petrol, which was dirt cheap then. Actually, everything was dirt cheap, but then salaries were pretty low too.
We used to pay five rupees a month to a man servant and three to a maid, plus food, of course. My father was really rich, even his pension was about Rs350 a month, but other relatives in our clan were just so so, and some were very poor.
I remember one cousin of my Dad’s who was considered to be doing relatively well. He was a clerk in a government office with a salary of Rs35 per month and his lifestyle seemed devoid of any discomfort. If you were earning between Rs30 and Rs50 per month in those days you were considered to be in the comfort zone.
I, a privileged child, was living in this big house in the Civil Lines, which had lights and ceiling fans in all the rooms (of course nobody had even heard of air-conditioning at the time). But when I used to go downtown to the congested areas to play with my various cousins I used to feel very depressed to see that in most of their houses there was no electricity at all and they were using lanterns or oil wick lamps (diya) at night.
During the long summer days the sun would heat up the rooms so much in these usually double (or at the most triple) storeyed houses that the extended families living in them had to sleep on the open roof tops (kotha in Punjabi). I can now well imagine the problems of privacy this must have entailed, especially for young married couples, but at that time I was just a kid and did not comprehend this aspect of the sleeping arrangements of multiple families living in the same house without electricity! At a rough guess I would say that nearly three-fourths of the city folk were living without electric lights or fans in Amritsar at that time.
But Amritsar was cosmopolitan. Muslims, Hindus, Sikhs, Christians, even some Parsees, lived in this city. I recollect that one of the most attractive bungalows on Mall Road belonged to a certain Parsee gentleman, Dr Maneckshaw. His daughter, Celia used to teach English in the school where I studied. Dr. Maneckshaw’s son, Sam Maneckshaw, had joined the Army. Many decades later he planned the conquest of East Pakistan (1971) and was rewarded by the Indian government by promotion to the rank of Field Marshal, the first and the only Field Marshal to command the Indian Army since Independence.
While in Amritsar city itself Muslims were in a majority, in the Amritsar district as a whole they were a minority. The reason being that most of the villages in the district were populated by Sikhs and Hindus, though there were Muslims also living in these villages and there were even some villages which were overwhelmingly Muslim. But at the time of partition the Boundary Commission decided on the basis of the district as a whole, and so Amritsar was allocated to India because the non-Muslims were slightly greater in numbers.
By and large the various communities lived quite peacefully, even though there were Muslim areas and non-Muslim areas of residence, and there was the Muslim Anglo Oriental (MAO) College (where Professor M.D. Taseer and Faiz Ahmed Faiz taught), a Hindu Sabha College and a Khalsa College in Amritsar. During inter-college hockey and cricket matches tension would sometimes arise when the students cheered their respective teams and sometimes there were minor clashes; usually fisticuffs and at the most hockey sticks were used as weapons.
Unlike today’s bloody happenings there were never any fatalities, and before the vicious partition riots broke out, I seldom heard of any clashes where firearms or even knives and swords were used. Prior to 1947, the British administration was effective and firm, impartial as between the ‘natives’, and there was definitely rule of law, something which has been almost totally annihilated by our ruling class over the years. Compared to the present day, frequency of crime was far lower. My younger sister used to ride a bicycle alone to her school and there was never any incident or mishap to discourage her.
Except for a very, very few emancipated families like mine where the girls did not observe purdah, almost all Muslim females in Amritsar wore the burqa — either the white shuttlecock burqa or the two piece ‘fashionable’ black burqa. The non-Muslim women were a bit more open, but even among them some would cover their faces with their head covering (ghunghat) when venturing into the street. There were very few cases of molesting, harassment or rape compared to our present horrendous and disgraceful state of affairs.
Of course, except for a few Anglo Indian and Christian nurses, there were hardly any working women in those days. Almost every woman was a housewife and cooking and serving the males was her primary duty. These ladies certainly believed that the way to a man’s heart was through his stomach!
In my community (Kashmiris) tea drinking was common, but in other communities the morning breakfast usually included Lassi. The Indian Tea Board in the 1930s was making a concerted effort to popularise the tea habit by putting up big framed posters at the railway stations which announced that “Garm chai garmion mein thandak pohnchati hai”. (Hot tea cools you down in summer). This campaign proved highly successful and one could see how in a few years more and more families switched over from lassi to tea, all over Punjab. It certainly happened before my eyes in Amritsar.
In February this year I got the chance to revisit Amritsar after more than 60 years. The city has grown many times larger, like Lahore or Karachi. The wide open spaces, plots and orchards in the Civil Lines have disappeared… a concrete jungle has encroached upon them. The big bungalow on Maqbool Road where I used to live was intact, a Sikh family was living in it. The pleasant thing was that the government had not changed the road’s name… it is still called Maqbool Road. This made me very happy.
I visited the old landmarks, the Golden Temple, the Jalianwala Bagh, the Hall Bazaar. An intense nostalgia overwhelmed me just for a while, but then I remembered the old saying: “The past is gone, never to return. The future is uncertain. The present moment is every thing”. And then another witty phrase assailed me: ‘Even nostalgia is not what it used to be’.