Friday, August 1, 2014

The Punjab

I’m not a traveller by nature, but I am just privileged to have lived in so many places in during my childhood, days in college and now in my young career. This time, it was Punjab – to work in Rajpura (in District Patiala), to live in Zirakpur (bordering Chandigarh).

In so many ways was this different, in so many ways it felt homely. Either way, it was lovely. This was the first time I was posted full time at a work-site. It meant I would not be going to an office to chat up a computer. It meant I would have to spend days, nights, twilights, midnights, dawns, and everything in-between as and when required – at the power plant that was just bringing itself to life. It was what I signed up for, and I was so damn glad I was there. I have had little tastes of this before, but this was now mine for the taking.

The good thing about arriving in Punjab on December 30th evening is two-fold. One, you already have a pretty good idea about the worst winter chill and can find happiness in the fact that things will only get better from here. You know, until the temperatures and your happiness both drop a bit in January. Two, there is a NYE party waiting for you. You see, I have this little knack for arriving at places just in time for a party (except that one time I turned up in Mumbai and India lost the Test match). I was wearing my thickest winter jacket, and carrying the heaviest travel bags to arrive at the cute little railway station in Chandigarh. A taxi driver approached and asked if I was working in the Army.

Winters are beautiful. You won’t hear “summers are beautiful” in India. India is not England. You get baking hot sunshine free with candies here. Winters are beautiful here. The long journey to work meant I would be ogling at the mustard fields, with their blooming yellow flowers atop the green plants partly curtailed by the fog. The density of the fog is directly proportional to the length of time you let out a “WHOOOOOAAAAA!” when the bus hits the highway and into the fog. As days went by, I conserved my energy spent in WHOOOOAAAAAing and judicially used them in sleeping all the way to work.

Summers had long, long days. Night shifts were spent keeping track of day-light. Nightfall occurred as late as 8.00 pm and the day dawned as early as 4.15 am. There are tiny hills near our place, and watching the sun rise from beyond them was a spectacle. Soon after, we get into our rooms and make the air conditioner work like a slave. (The one in my room was a protestor, it never really worked hard. Or worked at all.) The monsoon are prettier, there are a few clouds to go with the hills.

Just after sunrise, capture from my balcony.
The only two things prettier than the monsoon were the city of Chandigarh, and the women of Punjab. Chandigarh means City Beautiful. It was planned to be beautiful, and that plan worked out well. I should mention that it used to be a bit more green and better maintained, but nevertheless, beautiful even now. There are many gardens in and around the city. There are parks in every corner. There is a pretty Sukhna Lake, where I go to watch ducks. If you don’t feed the ducks, they will make you feel ashamed. Imagine 50 people watching you as 25 ducks disappointedly walk away, quacking in disgust. On a scale of zero to Congress losing the election, how embarrassed will you feel?

Women in Punjab, the Punjab, are among the prettiest in the world. The noses larger than anywhere else in India, bridged to varying degrees; and magical eyes that can kill if they tried. Their hair long as a horse tail, tied in plait, all so similar to the ones in TN – the two states are similar on that front. I found this girl in Neeru Bajwa. (shut up, it is her. I know.) The girls in Chandigarh, though, carry a pound of make-up on their face. And wear the darkest lip-sticks. I still maintain, and have been vehemently opposed on this view, that Barodian women are prettier – they don't need the make up to look beautiful.
Jai Jai Garvi Gujarat!

Where do all the pretty women and their handsome other halves go to? Apart from the gardens and the lakes, there are a few malls. The Elante Mall is grand, a magnet of shoppers. It rarely disappoints. It made me a shopper, something that I never thought I had the capability for. I prefer to visit the old, slightly traditional, Sector 17 (best said “Sector Sattara”) market more. It is a luxuriously spacious area lined with shops, stores, restaurants, tuition classes, theatre, book-stores and a large open area for all kinds of fun. It is where you see the normal people, not sporting a fake accent to impress others, not here for a movie at the Cineplex, not here for the food court. It is where the kids come with their parents to kill some hours in the evening, under the tree, taking a bite of ice-cream and chasing the soap bubble. It is calm, soothing, silently humming normalcy. Normalcy, with all the branded stores, mind you. And Sec 17 market is excellently placed, too. The bus terminus is just across the road. And beyond that is Sec 22, and 21 along which you can walk all day in circles and not feel even a bit bored. I’ve spent some walks there, sometimes alone, and that is one little thing I’d miss doing.

One BIG thing that I would miss would be, duh, Punjabi cuisine. Paratha. Dal. Paneer. Dhaba. Tandoor. Butter. Butter. Butter. I honestly thought I would be able to get rid of my paunch when I get posted at site, the physical work ought to burn off the fat. But I didn’t factor in the Punjab. And not for once was that stated as a complaint. Laced with Dhabas all along the highway from work to home, it was a pleasant dilemma to decide on what to eat where when we returned late from work. And by late, I mean 2.00 am, 3.00 am or even later. Dhabas are open all night, more and more delicious as the night grows old. I loved Punjab’s favourite vegetable –paneer. Be it paneer tikka or paneer butter masala, or the hybrid paneer tikka butter masala, you don’t have to think twice about ordering them. I’ve tasted nothing like them before, nothing since. I shamelessly collected upto 25 menu cards of restaurants in my locality and kept most of them happy. I did receive a reminder from one restaurant that my orders to them had gone dried up.

This was slightly past midnight, a favourite routine of ours.
Have you tried honey chilly cauliflower yet? No? Why?

I could write a book on this, but I realised I am not there yet. I’ll keep it to a little blogpost. I will end this with a bit about the Punjabi people. Kishore Biyani, the chief of Future India Group (Big Bazaar, Pantaloons, Central etc.), wrote in his autobiography It Happened in India that the Punjabis have very good spenders, extremely happy, but not particularly loyal to a particular store. I tell you what, I found the Punjabis extremely loyal. I learnt the Punjabi script on my own, by reading off bill boards and matching them with the Hindi or English script above. This sprang up such a joy among the Punjabis, the smiles on their faces was child like. It made me happy that such trivial things could spread joys. They rarely take pressure on themselves. “Koi gaal nai, ho jayega.” (No problem, it’ll be done.) Once you connect with them, you are one of them. I’m a Punjabi now, they will attest. They will greet you with Sat Sri Akal, and feed you with a giant glass of chilled rose water or lassi and send you off with “Fir milna, hame yaad rakhna.

How can I ever forget you?