Friday, March 03, 2006

Butter Chicken in Firozpur - part 1

In Aug 2005... me and Bharath went on a trip around Punjab... some excerpts from the trip

We reached Beas station on schedule and then headed out from the west exit towards the GT Road (NH1) to catch a bus to Amritsar, as there were no train connections at that hour. The road leading to the highway is lined with shops and stalls but my favorite was ‘Pappu Burger Bhandar’ (Pappu Burger Store) which actually was a cart selling fried buns stuffed with a potato patty and a thick wedge of onion and passing them off as Bombay’s famous ‘veg hamburgers’!!

A bus to Amritsar was found easily, but it was a difficult task to get it moving. Private operators who dominate the route fight for each passenger as a result of which buses spend more time at bus stops than actually running on the highway. The 40km run to Amritsar was real pain, which was worsened by the unintelligible music blaring from a speaker stationed right over our head!! Nevertheless we found other interesting sights like this Maruti 800 with a sticker which read ‘Overtaker – Beware of the Undertaker’ and a poultry store marked ‘ GT Egg Center & Chick - Chick Shop’ !! Brightly colored trucks sped past with graffiti like ‘Buri Nazar Wale Tere Bachhe Jiyen, Bade Ho Kar Sharab Me Mila Ke Tera Khoon Piyen’ (You with the evil eye – may your children prosper & mix your blood with wine and drink when they grow up) !!

We reached Amritsar around 1630 and got off near the bus stand. A few policemen were manning a picket and we enquired with them about means to get to the Wagah border with Pakistan – our objective being to watch the famous change of guard ceremony at the border gate. We were looking for a cab, but the cops told us that it would be stupid and highly expensive to take the cab, instead they caught hold of an auto driver and told him to take us to the border and back. Not only that, they bargained with him for the price (250 Rs.) and also noted his registration number to ensure our safety!! I was zapped at the hospitality extended to us by them, for this was the same Punjab Police which was dreaded only a few years back for its shoot first and ask later policy.

The auto ride however was a real pain the back and the backside. The seat was narrow, barely 4-5 inches and padded with perhaps 5 mm of jute. The backrest was also very low and curved inwards and hit us on the spine at every bump, which were present in plenty. The rudimentary suspension of the auto ensured that each pothole, bump and rut was amplified and transmitted up our spine; causing misery at each corner. Nevertheless we made it one piece to the border and were petrified for a second to see the crowd! Hordes upon hordes of fellow tourists had descended to watch the spectacle. After much jostling and pushing, we finally managed to get some seats in the arena, which was filled with nearly 8000 people who had not only come from all parts from India but many foreigners as well. We got chatting with a Finnish bunch while the ceremony started and tried to explain the whole thing to them.

The atmosphere was lively with some famous patriotic tunes from Manoj Kumar movies blaring over the loudspeaker. A portly, most likely hired by the BSF was dressed in national colors and held aloft a huge Indian flag while dancing Bollywood styles to the tunes. The assembled janta clapped along and some even joined him for a dance. One over enthusiastic fellow almost broke his neck trying to go in for the Bhangra version of the head spin!! Moments later, the music stopped and a moustachioed BSF jawan started screaming patriotic slogans on the PA system and the crowd followed suit. Each slogan was matched in volume by the other side where a similar sized crowd was cheering on a man in dressed in white and green holding the Pakistani standard high.

Soon, a hush fell over the crowd as a bunch of 6-foot tall BSF soldiers lined up and started the elaborate ceremony. Clicking heels in unison, the soldiers strutted around like promiscuous cockatoos. The way their moves matched those on the other side, the whole ceremony seemed to be carefully coordinated and rehearsed and more for the gallery than for any historical significance. Frankly, the whole thing was a big disappointment and looking at the roaring business the BSF canteen was doing, and the number of kids selling of ‘professionally shot’ VCDs and DVDs on the cover, we wondered if it was patriotism or jingoism??

Tired and feeling empty, we found our auto and headed back towards Amritsar in another bone jarring ride. The autowala left us outside some swank colonial style hotel and upon enquiring from the reception, we were told that only 2 rooms were empty, we wished to have a look at them before we checked in and to our amazement we were shown rooms in what would have been the bloody servant quarters !! Looking at the guests around us it seemed as if Indians were relegated to one corner of the hotel while foreigners were getting the best seats in the house. Shocked at this near racist treatment in our country, we simply walked out. We found a brand new hotel (Sundew) right next to the Amritsar station entrance. For 700 rupees we got a modern room with all the amenities and none of the attitude. Along with that came a fridge full of soda and coke bottles and quick showers later, we were digging into hot tandoori chicken legs with the old monk for company and another hour or so later, the snores of two tired but happy men would have kept the rest of the hotel awake for remainder of the night.

our plan the next day was to head to Bathinda. After much deliberation we decided to take the DMU from Amritsar to Khem Karan near the Pakistan border. From there we were to travel by road to Ferozepur (about 40 km as the crow flies) and then on to Bathinda. But before we did any of that, there remained the task of finding breakfast. We headed out on to the street to find it deserted!! At 0845 in the morning, outside one of the busiest stations in the country one would expect a fair crowd but none of that here. For a scene on the street brought back grainy images from TV of Punjab in the late 80s, when terrorism was at its peak and firings, bomb blasts and curfews ensured that people kept indoors. However, none of that happens anymore and the only reason we could think off was - what else but ‘Sunday Morning’.

After some hunting we did manage to find a hole in the wall which was selling some kulchas (a kind of bread found in north India) and paneer curry. The paneer curry was about the worst I have ever had in my life with the paneer could have been better described as rubber!! Not wanting to embarrass the owner by throwing up in his shop, we scooted as fast as our queasy stomachs allowed and crossed the road into the station.

To ease our slightly sickened stomachs, we grabbed ourselves some hot but sickly sweet tea and bought tickets to Khem Karan from a counter manned entirely by pigtailed girls barely out of school!! One of them was pretty cute and I tried my best ‘Pindu’ Punjabi (village dialect) on her. For a second she looked at me with amazement and then probably dismissed me as another one of those NRI types trying to impress her :o( Heartbroken, I turned around to see Bharath looking as if I had probably conversed in Klingon with the lady. So I had to explain the difference between the various dialects of Punjabi spoken around the various districts including the nuances of some, which when spoken sound more like a Gatling gun in full chat.

Soon our train snaked out of the city leaving behind the ubiquitous factories making the air a wee bit less fit to breathe and into the fields that are the real deal. The line passed through miles and miles of fields. It being paddy season, you could spot the occasional lady bent over with her sickle transferring the saplings bringing to mind those famous lines, “Behold her, single in the field, Yon solitary Highland Lass! Reaping and singing by herself Stop here or gently pass! Alone she cuts and binds the grain, and sings a melancholy strain…” Every now and then we rumbled over a canal where naked kids could be seen splashing around with the buffaloes, while tiny little stations cropped out of nowhere with romantic names like ‘Dukhnawaran’, ‘Gohlwar Varpal’, ‘Jandoke’ etc.

We made friends with the granthi (priest) of a gurudwara (sikh temple) who was traveling to Rattoke Gurdwara just before Khem Karan. While chatting with him, we told him of our plans to head to Ferozepur via Khem Karan. But our plans were grounded when he told us that there was no road connection from Khem Karan to Ferozepur. Khem Karan station is barely a few kms from the Pakistan border and on the other side the town is hemmed in the by the mighty Sutlej river. The only road crossing which would allow us to head to Ferozepur was at the Harike Barrage. The nearest railhead to Harike would be Patti from where we could get a bus to Ferozepur...........

contd in part 2

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