It was a typical roadside eatery where the bus had halted. The signs hinted at a glory that had faded long into the past. The new expressway had spelt the death knell on these food joints where buses halted in droves and travelers would flock in numbers. The owners would have an arrangement with the bus drivers to halt there; they palmed off a halting fee to the driver while milking his passengers. Yet some of these halts were memorable as the food was invariably top class. With the expressway in place the car owners had shifted their preference to non-stop travel and slowly the buses followed suit. With little custom the eating joints went to seed. They now had to rely on the stray goods transport traffic that would halt. They did use the old highway saving a few bucks of the toll of the expressway. Nobody cribbed of delays in India as long as the goods reached safely. Those who saw it coming had shifted to the highway while the others closed shop. This one was heroically surviving, but barely.
It had been a long non-stop journey; close to 6 hours now. I had missed the luxury buses that traversed the expressway and had to settle for this rattletrap to reach my destination, the driver had come from the old highway. The passengers who had dozed off fuzzily got down and went in search of their gender specific desalinating booths. The driver in a shout announced the halt for half an hour. The sign said “meals ready” and there were straw strung cots laid across about 20 of them and on order the owner would either layout a woodenplank across your lap or a folding wooden table for those who could not sit cross legged on the charpoys. “Ki haal hai pappaji?” was the greeting which the driver threw at the owner a tall well built Sardar of advanced age. Ikjyot Singh, the owner smiled through his long bushy beard. A small dagger hung from a leather belt slung across his shoulder and a turban carelessly wrapped around his knotted hair “ Wahe Guru di kripa hai, sub changaa hai” ( God is kind and he has kept us well).
Kya khilaoge aaj? (What shall u have us eat today?) The boys were kept busy on three open furnaces and the smell of Indian breads ( roti’s) came across,mingling with those of roasting meat on wood coals. Non-Vegetarian me aaj Baidaa (Egg) Curry , Tandoori Murga ( Roasted Chicken) aur Murg (Chicken) Masala hai aur Veg me Dal (Gram) hai, Palak (Spinach), Baingan Bhartha (Mashed Roasted Aubergine) aur Paneer (cottage cheese) hai. It was a sultry night and he asked us whether we would like Butter milk and without waiting for an answer yelled “Beta Chaach lao sub ke liye” and a Boy came stumbling with a tray that had huge tumblers filled with cool frothy butter milk spiced up with cumin powder and rock salt. Wow…taking the huge glass, boy was it heavy, made of shiny brass and beaten steel and holding up to half a liter of the drink, it was truly refreshing. Ordered for a roast chicken leg, baingan bhartha and roti to be followed by a dal rice. I sat sipping my buttermilk gazing into the surrounding.
The buzz around the eatery increased and the man truly loved to serve, was evident in the manner he moved around speaking to everyone. Eat well he said and don’t hurry about it. I relaxed into the string cot placed the almost empty glass on the floor and stretched out with my arms crossed behind my head gazing upwards into the star filled sky. Ikjyotsingh came and smiled at me and sat on the edge of the charpoy. I got up and sat beside him and told him that this place was quaint and lovely. He gazed around and said, when I came here about forty years back from Pathankot even this old highway was not made. I am a mechanic he said and then used to repair cars and two wheelers and trucks. This place began as a garage he told. Then the truck drivers started stopping and the wife Kuljeet would serve them meals from our kitchen. The garage made enough money and we would not charge for meals. A roti shared (breaking bread)with your fellowman is his work, looking upwards. But the people started leaving money and Kuljit said why refuse, hotel hi shuru kartey hai. Eventually the Dhaaba became more popular than the garage and it has stayed so. Kuljit da Dhaaba is the name.
Wholesome food is our watchword and I started assisting Kuljit in her venture. Made the three furnaces you see by hand, he said pointing to his pride and joy. The Chicken comes from our own coop and the vegetables are grown on our own plot of farm behind the house. The grain and pulses and flour we get from the village. we mill it here though again with pride showing off a traditional flour mill. I asked him pappaji why didn’t you go near the expressway and set up a place? He slowly shook his head and told me that this will not work near the Expressway. There, people are in too much of a hurry. Good food to be served and eaten fresh and natural is like a cow giving birth to a healthy calf. It needs that time to make and it needs time for it to be enjoyed. “Har nivaala jub aap sukoon se khaatey ho, poora majey leke, tub aap khudaa se baat kartey ho. Uski mulaakaat me to waqt lagna hi hai aur wohi to nahi hai aaj logon ke paas.”( Each morsel needs to be enjoyed and when eaten peacefully, with pleasure then it’s akin to attaining divinity, and that my son takes time, which is precisely what people today don’t have to spare)
Simple though his words were they, left an impression on me perhaps because they made so much sense. It was so peaceful here that I wondered why people use the highways and expressways at all. In the mad rush of targets and goals the highways and expressways have just become symbolic conduits of life & modern day living itself where people don’t have to or can't stop. Nowhere is one seen taking a pause and savoring the moment. Ikjyotisingh’s boy had started the radio and the middle lines of a zippy song was playing from the film Munnabhai MBBS
har pal main jeena yaar
jeevan ke pal hain char
marna hai ek baar
marne se pahle jeena
Listening to these words after the old man’s it was a double impact of providence. I sat smiling to myself as the waiter brought my order and I started digging in, chewing every morsel enjoying them with all my senses, leisurely.