Monday, March 06, 2006

Butter Chicken in Firozpur - part 2

Contd from part 1.............

Patti was also one of the few crossing stations on this line with a few sidings that allowed the loading of grain. Getting off at Patti we walked through the town towards the Bus stand which was about a mile away. Walking through the bustling bylanes and the busy bazaar, we got the usual stares, which a backpacker often gets in rural India. We were certainly a novelty for the town, which we noticed, had a large number of shoemakers crafting exquisite examples of the Punjabi Jutti (chappal / slip on). Reaching the bus stand, we had another brainwave and instead of taking a bus, we decided to hire a car and travel to Ferozpur by a long winded route that took us off the highway and through a lot of back country roads.

After much haggling we managed to hire a Hyundai Santro for 700 rupees and off we were to the beat of the deadliest music Punjab could throw at us. The first few kilometers were on the state highway, which led to the famous Harike Barrage over the Sutlej, which is the start point of the famous Indira Gandhi Canal project. A project, which has turned parts of the Thar desert to the south into a verdant patch of green bringing hope and joy to the rain-starved farmers. As we approached the barrage, we spotted pickets manned by CISF to protect the barrage after all Pakistan is but a few miles to the west. Busy clicking pictures of the barrage I almost missed the phat board screaming the usual “Photography Strictly Prohibited”!

Quickly, I hid my camera as our car pulled into the hallowed compound of the famous Ishardham Nanaksar Gurudwara, which is built on the banks of the Sutlej. The Gurudwara is part of the Nanaksar branch of Sikhism and does not fly the traditional Khalsa flag that one normally associates with any Gurudwara, which is a symbol of its apolitical stance. We parked the car and covered our head as is mandatory before entering any Gurudwara. There were hardly any devotees present at that time and we paid are respects in front of the holy Guru Granth Sahib, the holy book of the Sikhs which contains the teachings of Guru Nanak. Apart from the Prasad, which consisted of ‘Mishri’ (crystallized sugar) we were also treated to a sumptuous ‘halwa’ prepared in pure Ghee was offered to us by a devotee. The taste of Ghee in rural Punjab tells you how fake is the Pure Ghee that we get in the cities.

Despite the fact that we make our own Ghee at home from milk that comes from my relative’s own dairy farm fresh from the buffalo’s udders, the taste and richness of the milk in Punjab has to be tasted to be believed. A week’s stay here could give you all the calcium you need for the rest of your lives!! After roaming for a while in the peaceful environs of the Gurudwara we set off again and left the highway and onto a bumpy back country road which cut across a lush paddy field.

The next 15 mins was a stomach churning ride buffalo stables and brick kilns while and as if that was not enough, we had to contend with buses teetering at Newton defying angles and hurtling towards us at 60kmph and covering us in a cloud of dust as they passed. Then there were the ‘Marutas’ also called as ‘Jugaad’ in certain parts, which for the uninitiated are locally made contraptions fashioned out of an old Willy’s Jeep chassis fitted with a Greaves diesel engine normally found in tube wells. These are mated to a rudimentary steering & suspension setup and depending on the kind of body you want (designed by the Pininfarinas, Gandinis & Giugiaros of Punjab) you can choose between a passenger only model, a load only model or a mixed body. It is another matter thought that all 3 body styles can are used for all 3 duties. If nothing else, the Maruta is a living example of Punjabi ingenuity. At a cost of just 12-15 paise per kilometer, the Maruta can carry 15-20 passengers or nearly 1.5 tonnes of cargo. What else can a farmer want?

Another thing we noticed, or rather did not notice was the presence of oxen for tilling the fields. The image of a pair of bullocks yoked together to a plough is perhaps the most common scene in rural India and yet, we didn’t see any such thing in Punjab. Perplexed, we asked our driver who told us that almost all of the cultivation in Punjab is now mechanized with tractors and harvesters ruling supreme. “But not everyone would be rich enough to buy a tractor?” we countered, to which he replied that farming equipment is mostly rented and that it is really hard to come by bullock ploughed fields these days. Just then, we came across a Tata Sumo running dangerously parallel to a maroon Maruti Esteem bedecked with flowers. As we drew close, we saw a video camera sticking out of the Sumo trying to capture the first journey of a newly wedded bride to her husband’s place.

The driver of the Sumo was literally drawing circles around the Esteem while both the vehicles were in motion with the cameraman leaning precariously out of the vehicle trying to capture this epic journey from every angle possible! It took a liberal dose of honking and some choicest Punjabi abuses to get the cavorting pair of vehicles out of the way and we cruised along merrily to the tunes of Surjeet Bindrakhiya and his ilk. Word here about Punjabi expletives; while cuss words in other languages are direct and to the point, Punjabis don’t believe in any such thing. Try pissing off any true blue Punjabi and be prepared for a deluge of invective directed at you, grandpa, the village dog and a whole bunch of relations you never knew existed.

On the other hand Punjab is also full of idyllic scenes for the railfan. Lush green fields lined by eucalyptus trees provide a perfect backdrop to the railway lines. Smoky Alcos bring back memories of the ‘Ghar Aaja Pardesi’ song from Dilwale Dulhaniya Le Jayenge. One lovely Alco from Bhagat Ki Kothi greeted us as we neared Ferozepur where the line coming from Jalandhar joined us.

Entering the city, we took a flyover that crossed the line and dropped us in front of Ferozpur Cantt. Station. Getting off, we thanked the driver for such a wonderful ride and began our search for suitable place to eat as our tummies had begun growling. The sultry weather however necessitated the intake of a cold beer before lunch and we hailed an auto and asked him to take us to a place where we could get some food and drink.

Our auto, an ancient Lambretta chassis powered by a hand cranked diesel engine topping out at 600rpm shook violently with every turn of the cranky and 500 meters into the ride we were wondering if we’d be Parkinson’s patients by the end of the ride. A few minutes later, the auto halted in front of ‘Dharma Hotel’, which in fact was the traditional north Indian Halwai (Sweet Shop) with a backroom housing a clump of rickety chairs and benches. A shiny steel counter showcased typical north Indian sweets such as Burfis, Gulab Jumans, Jalebis and some radioactive looking Yellow laddoos !! The shop owner, an enormous man with moustaches as wide as his shoulders sat in a dirty white singlet and dhoti boiling milk on a huge tawa. Punjabis love drinking milk, which is slowly boiled for hours over a slightly concave tawa, rather than in a bowl.

Unfortunately that wasn’t what we were looking for. We explained to the driver that we wanted to go to a place where we could get some alcohol along with some decent food rather than munch on a burfi !! Instead he pointed to a local liquor shop (country brew) and a shady looking hole in the wall joint serving some weird chicken dishes !! Exasperated; we told him to take us to some BIG hotel and after much coaxing we were shuttled to Ferozepur city’s past Shaheed Udham Singh Chowk and dropped outside ‘Hotel International Beer Bar & Restaurant’. Not having the energy to consider and further options, we paid the autowallah and staggered inside to find ourselves in a dimly lit dining area, which had certainly seen better days. The place was almost empty and even before we had taken our rucksacks off, a couple of Thunderbolts had been ordered for.

For those who have had one, there is nothing quite like Thunderbolt, stronger than most lagers with a near 12% alcohol content, it is surprisingly smooth and a first timer may commit the mistake of having one too many. After a bottle or two, we ordered that famous Punjabi dish, Butter Chicken. Having eaten nearly 24 million varieties of this dish across the country, I hoped that at least an eatery in Punjab would live up to expectation and produce an example that was true to the original recipe. In a couple a minutes a huge bowl filled to the brim was plonked on the table along with hot tandoori rotis and fresh onions. The already dead chicken didn’t stand a chance; it was devoured within minutes along with heaps of delectable curry. The Butter Chicken was by far the best ever I have had in my entire life and you can take my word for it.

The after effects of the lunch soon made their presence felt and even moving an inch required considerable amount of effort and willpower. However, the clock was ticking and our connection to Bathinda was just about to arrive. Slowly we tumbled out into the harsh sunlight after thanking the cook profusely for what was perhaps one of the best meals we had ever had and hailed another Parkinson’s inducing auto down which dropped us at the cantonment station a few minutes later.............................