I’ve spent a week writing about all that I’m beginning to like about the anthropause. But there’s a part of our lives which is on hold. The Family and I talked about it yesterday after we got a call from one of our friends: a travel professional. What I miss are the long road trips. You may be crammed into uncomfortable cars for long hours, but there is a romance in these trips to corners of India which are never in the news.
When you take photos of roads, they look entirely charmless: trucks and buses edging out smaller vehicles in the race to reach their end, while you travel endlessly. But there are the charming stops: the little dhabas and chai stalls, which make up for all the discomfort. Even if the stall makes nothing but chai, sometimes you are surprised by its taste, and sometimes by the conversation you find there. Each stop is a little more added to your life, a little more of India.
This sense of unending miles, a world left to see, that’s what I miss in the anthropause.
While we discussed the practicalities of traveling to Jalori Pass from the hotel, Dilsher told us, “For lunch there is a dhaba which serves rajma and rice.” Nothing else needed to be said on this matter. Since Dilsher had a wonderful cook, I took him on trust.
There were a few dhabas on top of Jalori pass, but when we said the magic words “rajma chawal”, it was clear where we would eat. From outside it looked like the hut was actually a general store in a village. The (slightly broken) windows were packed with the usual quick eats which cause elevated levels of blood pressure and sugar for those who would like to pay for the privilege. Only a few stickers distinguished it from any number of such little shop windows: the Tripadvisor sticker was a standout, another said something about Himalayan Motorbikers.
Inside, on the counter, in plastic jars were the reminders of my youth. In the days before junk food came out of factories, it was made by hand, and stored in glass jars in just such gloomy shops. The glass jars have turned into plastic jars, but suddenly I had the feeling that I had come home after a long time. How did we avoid the lifestyle diseases which plague our children? It cannot just be that factory-made junk food has chemicals which we never got (the words trans-fats and high-fructose cornstarch roll so easily off our tongues now), for some jars had toffees. These are the goodies that I and my friends would hoard in ones and twos when, as schoolchildren, we had money to buy them. No, it is not just the new foods, it is also the increased prosperity that has brought these disorders with them.
The Young Niece knew better than to look longingly at the bottles of poison displayed so colourfully in another window. During the trip her indulgences were largely restricted to the hours between sundown and dinner, at the same time as ours. The minivan which you see outside the door disgorged a very large family who sat here and had little bits to eat. The children, mostly younger than The Young Niece, had plates of maggi noodles, while the adults ate rajma-chawal. That was a pattern we were happy to replicate. When we ordered rajma-chawal, The Young Niece ordered a maggi instead. After polishing off the rajma, we could mop up the remaining rice with a pakoda kadhi.
The food was wonderful, as I’d suspected it would be. I had to take a portrait of the cook in the little corner of the hut which served as his kitchen. You can see the pots of rajma and kadhi simmering away on the chulha. The man lives in a village a little way down the road and comes up here every morning to open up his shop. He made us a chai as we chatted about high seasons and the closing of the pass in winters. He says the traffic has been increasing over the years, and if it were not for the new dhabas which opened up here, he would not find the time to serve food to everyone who stops here.
The Family had noticed him making something else in the morning when we had a chai before leaving for our walk. After taking his photo, I noticed a big thali full of something that looked like a halwa. When we asked he said it was besan. I’ve only had it as a laddoo before, but the rhomboids he cut and gave us were rather nice. I guess shape does not matter when it comes to things like this. As we were praising the food, Soni, in his usual charming manner, said that the Punjabi version was much better. We all agreed that since the Punjabi version was not available right now, what we were having was the best. This was one of the tastier versions of the sweet I’d had, and I packed up some to take back to work.
I was moving about the shop as we talked, and took a photo out of the window behind us. It looked out on to a wonderful view that we’d seen in the morning. You could open up the door which you can see in the photo with the pots and the kettle, and walk out on a narrow platform overlooking a sloping meadow and the road snaking its way down to the plains. I didn’t want to forget about this little dhaba, with its genial cook who gave us some of the best food in the world 3 Kilometers above Mumbai.
I walked out on that narrow platform and looked again at the view. It was still windy; passes always are. But it had warmed up since we sat out here and had our breakfast. Everyone had taken off some of the layers we had worn then. A last look, and it was time to turn and head back north.
Our roadship took a long time to pull out of the gravitational attraction of Chandigarh. After a couple of hours dodging the motorbikes and tractors in its accretion zone, we were poised to take off into the hills. But then Soni ran out of fuel. “You have to eat before you leave Punjab,” he told us, “There’s no food after this.” We coasted to a halt outside a dhaba which looked like it came out of the sets of Jab We Met. An ensemble from rural Punjab was captured in the middle of a bhangra right in front of the dhaba.
We stretched our legs and The Young Niece strolled in to check for a fix of her sugary aerated drink. The rest of us got our caffeine with less added calories. I paused at the gate to take a photo. There was a pair of strangely understated lions welcoming you into the establishment. It seemed that The Family had convinced The Young Niece to try out the lassi instead of the usual bottled drink. Since 10% of Punjab has diabetes, I’m not sure that the calorie content was lower, but at least this drink had some protein in it.
I strolled around the courtyard looking for the toilets. The dhaba seemed to be a franchise, with several different shops set up within it. At one I found this wonderful statue of a well-educated specimen of the genus Pan. I wasn’t sure whether a smile on the face of a chimp was supposed to be reassuring or threatening. It wasn’t showing its teeth, but I thought it wise to retreat after taking a quick photo.
A second gate was flanked by horses ready to set out on a wedding procession. It seemed to be taking some time saying goodbye to a strawberry man. Is that a better argument, or a sweeter one, than a straw man? A sugar high from a sweet and milky tea can set you thinking of strange things.
The Family wanted to take a look at the food shops around the entrance. Before I could enter, I found a sign which caught me. Kitsch is not just visual. The idea of a chocolate paan is as kitschy as that of the chimpanzee reading a book. Soni had finished his breakfast. He complained that the parathas were not as good as they were the last time he stopped here. We belted up. Nothing stood between us and the hills now.
For most of the distance between Delhi and Chandigarh, you would follow National Highway 44. It turns out that this is the highway of kitsch. Finding a three-headed dragon in a parking lot, I asked The Young Niece whether it was from Harry Potter. The answer was definitely “No. Harry Potter only has a three headed dog.” This was a friendly dragon, and probably not called Fluffy. She posed under the dragon with an ice cream cone in her hand (which did not melt under its hot breath).
Much before that, before we had left the gravitational attraction of Delhi, we passed this wonderfully kitschy temple. The dwarapala of classic temple architecture have been replaced by giant statues of Ram and Hanuman. I took the photo as our car flew down the highway. Later, looking at the picture I was not sure whether the structure just behind the dwarapala is a dhaba or a temple. The triple spired structure behind the cube is definitely a temple, but, going by the signboards, the cube is probably a dhaba.
Our flight had landed in Delhi just after ten, and now it was getting to be time for lunch. The distance between the airport in Delhi and the center of Chandigarh can be covered in about four and a half hours, not counting a halt for food. The road is lined with dhabas, but most are empty of clients. It seems that opening a roadside eatery is a popular business, but not one which is highly remunerative. All the crowds seem to stop at places which are full of kitsch like the three-headed dragon.
That dhaba also had toilets which were guarded by these statues in armour: another touch which was right out of an alternate world Harry Potter. “Of course,” I told The Family, “in this part of the world it has to be Hari Puttar.” Reassured, I walked into the clean loo. The Lotus tried to put forward a different theory of the origins of these statues, but I think the Hari Puttar story is too colourful to be wrong.
Even the divider between the states of Haryana and Punjab is kitschy. Just after Amabala (or before, if you are coming from Chandigarh) is this amazing state border. The highway passed below a complicated arch with the name of the state written on it in large friendly letters. On the divider was a tall pole holding up something which looked like a conch shell disguised as a submarine. Some day in the future all this might look like classic art. I wonder what the kitsch of that time might be.