Friday, September 29, 2006

Nine days and one month

At 24 claysquare, Sadar Bazaar, the Ahmad girls sit together with their grandmother waiting for the Azaan. Twelve year old Saher and twenty year old Bushra Ahmad have washed up and are about to offer namaaz. Their young brother Aamir rushes out of the house with his white cap and a casserole full of pakoris his mother made, he is off to the masjid and will contribute the piping hot pakoris to the piles of snacks that other namaazis will open their fast with. His mother Asia says, “Don’t forget the casserole and don’t eat too fast!!”In Telibagh, the Agarwal children have just returned from a cricket match, it is nine year old Varun’s birthday and his little cousins Rachit, Tripti and older brother sixteen year Anubhav are washing up before they sit with their parents for pooja. Varun doesn’t mind that there’s no birthday cake today, he understands the importance of the Navrata. His nanima is proud of her grandchildren, “These little boys may be naughtiness personified but they keep their two vratas too and even though they have to wake up an hour earlier for pooja, they never grumble”. The boys bua, Neelam, smiles when Rachit asks if its ok to eat a banana.

The nine days and nights of Navratra are observed in most Hindu families across Lucknow, just like the month long rozaas in the Muslim families. Little children sharing special navarata food in school is a common affair, “ I keep my rozaas so my friend Sayali doesn’t eat her tiffin when she’s with me but waits till school gets over and eats on the tempo ride home. She keeps two navratras and her mother packs a tiffin of the special aloo sabzi and kuttu ki poori for me, so that I can eat it after Rozaa aftaar”, says Saher. Bushra who studies in Integral university offers namaaz in the special room for girls on campus.

In Nazirabad, the crowd gathers in the masjid and those who are left, stand outside, together they bow their heads to one call, in praise of one. Soon after they open their rozaa with the many snacks available on thelaas or in the masjid. Pakoris, dahi baddas, dates, water, biryani, a special channa dal ‘kichdaa’ which is served in kulaads is all available for the rozdaars. “When we were little children at Alambagh, my brothers and sisters and friends would all run to the masjid at Seheri and Aftaar, the maulvi ji used to give us a little of everything, papads, pakoras, dahi-phulki…everything!” remembers sixty year Hamida Bano. It is common for families to contribute food for those who keep rozaas at the masjid or to serve them water, dates and other delicious fare from small thelaas or at their own houses. Every morning in Sardari kheda, little boys rise early to run through the street beckoning the rozdaars to wake up as its time for sehri.

“We don’t expect our children or any other member of the family to observe navratas, personally my husband and I have been observing fasts for all nine days since the past 27 years. My bahus share the responsibilities of making the special food on these days,” says Varun’s dadima, Gyandevi. Her daughter Neelam remembers having she read an article that said abstaining from cereal for a short period is good for the digestive system, “Navratas can be a time for detoxifying your mind and body, but only if you abstain from the rich stuff!!” she laughs.

Aamir returns from the masjid, fortunately with the casserole. He sits down with the family waiting for his father to return from work before they tuck into an elaborately prepared meal of kababs, biryani, sheer mal, mixed sabzi, dahi baddas and Aamir’s favourite ‘ Pink city’ Kashmiri tea. Saher and Bushra help their mother with the rotis and Aamir serves his dadima. The Ahmad children look forward to Eid when they can invite all their friends over, “Ammi makes six types of saviyaan! And special pulao for my friends that don’t eat biryaani, everyone loves coming home for Eid,” says Bushra. Aamir is looking forward to Diwali, “ Firecrackers! I’ll keep some for Eid too, it’s a lot of fun on both days and especially since there are holidays in school!!”

The Agarwals and Ahmads finally settle down to their evening meals and Nazirabad, is still abuzz. The chicken biryani and tunde kababs are selling faster than they can be made, “This is the best season for us!!” laughs Jamil who is frying kababs at Aminabad’s tunde kabab. “A lot of people pack food and take it home for their families who are also observing rozaas, so we need to be extra fast in cooking, and feeding anyone who’s keeping rozaas is a blessing in itself!” says Sameer who’s kulfi is already sold out. The shops are being re-fuelled with extra clothes as people are busy shopping off the shelves, “I need to change the clothes on my mannequins everyday, what could be better!” says Nabi who has observed the rise in the number of little girls who want to buy lehengas. “Either for Diwali or Eid, everyone wants fancy but traditional clothes, we have to prepare ourselves with extra stocks around this season!”

Families come together in celebrations and festive fasting. Every year the two festivals bring colour, warmth and happiness in the lives of the lakhs of Lucknavis, keeping the spirit of Awadh and it’s beautiful culture alive.

Wednesday, September 13, 2006

Punjabi Choolha

Two years ago, the lady who used to sell piping hot sarson ka saag and makke di roti from a cart, stopped standing alongside the numerous florists and juice carts at Bhootnaath market. Jasmine Kaur and her husband Ashok finally found a roof under which they could operate their “Punjabi Choolha”. This little eatery serves over four hundred paraunthas, tandoori rotis, rice, kaddi, rajma, chola and seasonal sabzis. “We sell sarson ka saag and makke di roti from Diwali to Dusshera, it’s everyone’s favourite and so is our kaddi and the paraunthas,” says Jasmine who is fondly called “Aunty ji” by her customers whom she calls her children. On asking how many paraunthas she makes a day, she admonishes you saying “Does a mother count the rotis she makes for her children? Let them eat!!”

Five feet tall, with a cherubic smile a long gray braid and is the sweet old Punjabi aunty ji. Ashok, her husband and Saurabh their son all work with the ten helpers she’s employed. Jeetesh, a twenty three old worker who is from sitapur stands with her as she joins her hands and prays before the small statue of Lakshmiji that is balanced on her table where she rolls out her mouthwatering paraunthas. After a quick prayer, she kisses her “chakkla”, the round wooden base on which she makes her round rotis and begins her day. A lady standing with her order asks auntyji, “Does keeping two chakklas help make the paraunthas tastier?” Aunty, visibly amused laughs loud saying, “No! I keep two because otherwise my back and neck hurt while cooking, sometimes I have to stand for over four hours! Especially in the evenings”. The secret of her delicious paraunthas she says lies in the love and attitude with which she cooks these ghee delights. “100% vegetarian food is what we cook, those who don’t eat onions can enjoy our special paraunthas too!” the feisty fifty year old quips.

Young Deepak, who has been a loyal customer for three and half years says, “nothing has changed, not even aunty! I love my aloo paraunthas”. Most of the customers have been regulars since Punjabi choolha was only a cart kitchen. “Whenever my wife goes away for the summer holidays, and I am alone at home for a month, I come and eat here. And other days too, whenever mood bantaa hai”, laughs Suresh a local businessman. Ashok and Jasmine both thank Bhootnath babaji for giving them the space to operate. “We started our business by selling makke di roti and sarson ka saag at the Lucknow mahotsav in 2002. The food was an instant hit, especially with the boys of BBD college,” remembers Aunty ji. She gives credit to these students who suggested that they start a shop in Indranagar. “We used to live in LDA, I’ve done my Bed and taught in maharishi vidya mandir, we gave up all that and immersed ourselves in this business”, she says.

Many people have tried to ape the Punjabi Choolha, often using the same name to sell their food. “But it was never the same, and they all had to shut their shops in the end”, says Deepak. “No one can match her charm and the taste of her Punjabi food,” states another regular customer RK Jauhari, a district village industry officer. He thinks the food at Punjabi dhaba is more homelike than the one cooked at home!

Jasmine serves all her customers personally, if she’s not making paraunthas, she flits about her little restaurant checking if everyone is well fed, “My customers are my children, every mother likes to take care of her child’s needs”. Tears come to her eyes as she says, “I too have served my responsibility as a mother, my children have always had their requirements fulfilled. Now they are settling down and I have another responsibility, my country”. Passionate about the welfare of villagers and issues like family planning and education for them, she remembers, “ These men who work for me now, were all smokers, drinkers, ate tobacco and played cards. I convinced them to change their ways and today they are teetotalers, but I hear so much about their village life and this only reaffirms my stand to make a difference”.

This mother stands tall in her resolve to change the few people that she can. All those who visit her enjoy her company and conversation as much as they enjoy the paneer paraunthas and green raita, and before they leave Punjabi Choolha, they never forget to smile as they eat a piece of brown gud which lies in a large steel bowl.

Sunday, September 10, 2006

Mohammad Kalam

Mohammad Kalam, they expected him to take his father’s place behind the bar at Mohamed Bagh Club as a third generation “Aabdaar” (water-bearer) but he didn’t want to spend the rest of his life filling glasses. “Daddy”, as he is fondly called by neighbors and the residents of Topkhaana Bazaar in the cantt is a man who decided to do “something different”.

His grandfather ‘Jumman Sardar’ came to Lucknow with a battalion of British soldiers from Rangoon, “My grandfather worked as a bartender in the MB club and my father Mohammad Aslam who was called ‘Aabdaar Kallu’ followed his footsteps,” says Kalam, who was expected to do the same. “I worked for five years as a bartender in the MB club but my spirit wasn’t in the job, and I was miserable. It was then I decided to leave the bar and one of my father’s patrons General BL Kapoor introduced me the world of electricals. I began to work in the AMC MESS as an electrician,” he remembers. Kalam’s father, worked as an aabdaar for sixty years at the club, his patrons included late Mr. Naresh Kumar DGP and Mr. Jaswant Singh Sarna amongst others. “There were only two other clubs in Lucknow, the Awadh Gymkhana and Lucknow Club,” says Kalam who insists he’s forgotten how to make the cocktails that his father was an expert at. “My father never consumed a drop of alcohol ever, but every night he’d bring back boti and seekh kababs for my mother and me”, he fondly recalls a childhood spent in Topkhaana bazaar, as a student of the Kendriya Vidyalaya and later Harish Chand college in Sadar.

But ‘Aabdar Kallu’, Kalam’s father was not happy with his career switch and Kalam was told to leave the house. “After being turned out of my house, my wife Anwari Begum and I tried to never look back. I decided I’d show everyone that a change from a traditional occupation is possible. And it was never easy, we went for days without food, my older son would sleep wrapped in sack cloth”, he adds how his father taught him that anything was possible with “ Mehnat, neeyat and imaandaari.” These three rules and a burning desire to prove his mettle made him continuously upgrade his skills and business acumen.

Kalam had begun to work with his father after passing his intermediate, “I was a student of biology and my classmates and friends are doctors. But I don’t regret leaving my studies.” Today he is the number one retailer for GE countrywide and Bajaj, “I kept expanding my small businesses, as an electrician I saw the scope of public address systems and arranging sound and lights for events” he says. A keen observer of market trends, he saw potential in organizing the DJ and music for parties, “My youngest son, Javed who is twenty years old takes care of the music and dance floor arrangement at parties while my older sons Aftab and Parvez take care of my shop.” But it is his daughter Shaheen he is most proud of, “She’s done her BA and Bed and is teaching in school now, my daughter is the first person in my family to go to college” the proud father of four successful children gives credit to his wife Anwari Begum with whom he takes a one hour morning walk everyday. “My life behind the bar would have never allowed me this freedom and lifestyle, I don’t regret any decision I took, I wasn’t destined to be my father’s waaris at the club”, he says.

The enterprising almost-aabdaar is very fond of plants. With over two hundred potted plants in his house, his wife is fed up with his botanical fetish. “He loves flowers and that too in pots, he treats them like children and I cant get rid of even one of them”, quips Daddy’s Begum. In the neighborhood, a widow whose daughter was recently married says, “Daddy arranged the lights and music for my daughter’s wedding for free. If anyone has a problem we always go to him for a solution, he is like a father figure to everyone in Topkhaana bazaar.”

Fifty six year old Kalam enjoys his paan and wishes his father “Aabdaar Kallu” would have been a part of this success, “Abba is the reason I dared to try and dream. Had I not been disowned my ambitions would have never been ignited this way, but his blessings must be with me.”