My great great great great great great great great great great (well, let’s just say bahut-ai great) grandfather was born at Dablu Maharaj Ki Five Star Kachori in a narrow gulli near Ghantaghar. Handsome fellow he was – perfectly-round, rosy-cheeked, and full of the good stuff. He glanced around. Hot oil was gurgling in the havan-kund-sized kadhai, hissing and curling as other kachoris were slid in. Orders were being relayed, repeated, revoked by a group of busy, sweaty men. Near the drain, a dog licked a pattal that once had aloo subzi on it. A rickshaw trolley passed by. A convoluted mesh of water bottles and school bags clawing at its worn-out body, its chassis bobbing under a dozen bright-faced children in uniforms. From across the street, the aroma of fresh, syrupy jalebis wafted in to tease his nose, merging with several smells on its way: the putrid, soapy smell from the drain, the fumes from the two-wheelers, and the cloying incense from the small temple at the end of the road. He lay there proudly,
‘I am a proud to be born in this historic city’, he beamed, just as he was scooped up by the deft fingers of Dablu Maharaj.
Dablu Maharaj was the owner and proprietor of Dablu Maharaj Ki Five Star Kachori, though he did not know what proprietor meant. He had a generous nature and paunch to match: expert imarti-maker, loving husband and father, who sent his sons to Saint Washington Das Convent (English medium), a benevolent leader who gave his entire staff silver coins on Diwali and took them for a picnic on Republic Day to Khusro Bagh. He loved his work, but he loved his two sons, Devanshu and Medhandhu, the most.
‘One day, my sons will open a branch in Civil Lines and talk to customers in English’, he would brag, swatting flies with the expertise only the best of babus of local government offices could match.
‘One day, my sons will put up a shop in Kumbh Mela. It will be fully five-star. It will be better than Taj hotel food’, proclaimed the fellow who’d not even been to the nearby Rani Deluxe Hotel (with 24-hours running water) on Zero road.
‘One day, my sons will start a catering business. No wedding in Allahabad will be complete without Dablu Maharaj Ki Five Star Kachori. Instead of dowry, boy’s side will be asking for my kachoris, subzi, sauth and raita.’
Chedi, Purushottam, and Phukkan had smirked between slurps of tamatar chat and sakoda paani. What was this fool talking about? Why is he dreaming of the impossible?
‘Sathiya-e rahe hain Dablu bhaiyya, chaalis-ae ki umar mein hi?’
Times were tough for kachoris, my family would often discuss. Matar-waali chachi said burgers were replacing us. Pock-marked daal mami said pizzas were present times’ Mahmud Ghaznis that were invading our country and gobbling up our place on the plates. Demure, soft-spoken pyaaz-waali chachi said that the main culprit was internet.
‘Who is internet?’ a distant relative asked.
‘That rabdi-waala from Mainpuri? He does look wicked’, Matar-waali mausi sought confirmation.
‘No, no, it is all this information young people have on their phones. They want to copy western culture. They are forgetting Indian traditions and values’, she said just as she was picked to be placed next to raita-mama.
Indeed, these were difficult times for us kachoris. Despite Dablu Maharaj’s optimism, we knew we weren’t going anywhere. We’d be right here, near Ghantaghar, in this tokri itself, now and for all generations to come.
In a fit of optimism that frequently gripped Dablu Maharaj after an overdose of his favourite Karela chat, he decided to turn entrepreneur.
Disregarding Purushottam’s words of caution, Dablu Maharaj took up a huge wedding catering assignment somewhere near Gita Niketan. It was a big step, you know like the one you have to take when there’s gobar on the road? Like that. His friends ridiculed him, laughing through slurps of malaai-makhan.
‘Bhang khaye ho kaa, Maharaj?’
He waved aside these accusations of having ingested mind-altering substances and called for an emergency briefing of the cooks. He said that the time had come for them to pull up their socks (proverbially, because they didn’t wear any, not even shirts) and approach the event in a planned manner. The prep would be critical. Then, there was cooking, packing, and transporting to be taken care of. No kind leave would be sanctioned starting two weeks before the event. Baboo, the master-chef tapped Dablu Maharaj on his shoulder, reminding him about his upcoming wedding. And, the fact that he’s found a bride after twelve rejections, one that even included a chappal flung in his general direction. Dablu Maharaj told him to postpone his wedding.
Dablu Maharaj got down to work. He took his older son’s old notebook and started chalking out a plan in the blank pages after the essay on the Battle of Waterloo. Little did he know that he was planning his own Waterloo just across Daat ka Pull. To be fair, nothing was wrong with his planning. He had a perfect menu, a time-tested sourcing strategy, the right chefs, and the resources. He even talked to Laltu Tent House and booked a vehicle for the transport.
It was time to meet the client, father of Baby Tiwari, the blushing bride who was on a cucumber water diet to fit into her wedding attire, with the final plans for the event. He dressed for the occasion. The pink shirt from Babli’s wedding was perfect: it was still new and shone like a scrubbed kadhai in the sunlight. Chhedi was his chauffeur for the day. He arrived at 10:00 a.m., sharp and after a complimentary glass of lassi, the duo commenced their journey to Tiwari Sadan. Traffic had just started peaking. The moped quivered through vehicles, hand-carts, and pedestrians. Honking, a fundamental right, was being exercised by one and all. Dablu Maharaj yelled out to errant drivers and even hit a wayward cyclist with his notebook as they crossed Gaudiya Math, Bharat Sevashram. The moped was weak and wobbled under their combined weight. The traffic grew denser and moved like a horde of inebriated flies. While Dablu Maharaj had to focus on remaining seated on the moped, Chhedi had to focus on multiple things: avoid hitting someone, avoid getting hit by someone, avoid the potholes, and, arre arre arre bhaiyya, the buffalo. He swerved to avoid it only to hit a half-constructed speed bump. The moped raised its rear tyre elegantly and Dablu saw Chhedi rising to draw an entire circle in the air with his body, like a fine Chinese acrobat, before he landed on the road, clutching the buffalo’s tail for support. Dablu was luckier – he just fell to one side like a sack of potatoes. The pink shirt was now, largely brown, with just some tiny revelations of pink.
Tiwari-ji looked at the soiled caterer, warily, and asked why he was so dirty. Dablu shared about the accident, leaving out the part where he had ditched his friend, Chhedi at the buffalo’s hoofs. He sat on the modha, next to Tiwari ji’s armchair in the veranda, and got down to business. Tiwari munched on samples of kachoris and imartis handed over by Dablu. Before moong-daal mausa was consumed, Dablu had already learned that making a customer happy was an uphill task, tougher than what Chhedi’s moped had endured some time back.
One month later, when Baby Tiwari had lost 350 gms and Dablu Maharaj most of his sanity, it was time for the mandap to be readied and the feast to be prepared. Blocks of fresh, tender paneer wobbled on the granite slab, bunches of bright, red carrots formed a mini mountain, fragrant, freshly-ground masalas sat in jars, and mounds of maida awaited kneading. It was showtime!
But for Baboo, it was no-show time. He had decided that getting a bride for himself was more important than preparing a feast for someone else to get one! Dablu Maharaj shook with rage when he heard that his master chef had quit. He was trying to work around this challenge when Chhedi returned from the gas-booking office to report that they hadn’t moved up in the waiting list for a gas cylinder. Things were unravelling like a poorly-sealed samosa, even as Baby Tiwari stepped into Modern Bahurani Beauty Parlour that offered ‘Bridal for Both Men and Women’.
Dablu was compelled to recruit his wife, sons, and his half-blind mother as cooks. They negotiated hard and he had to give in to a holiday in Nainital. Ten pairs of hands worked furiously to finish the cooking and packing. Sixteen large Tiffin carriers and cartons were ready and placed in the gulli for loading when Laltu called to say that the mini-truck he’d promised to send had veered off the road and got wedged into a narrow ditch where a pavement should have been. He apologized profusely and said he was sending two jeeps instead.
Early evening saw a harassed Dablu Maharaj and team loading cartons and vessels in the jeeps and then crawling into the spaces left between them. It was time to move. Dablu pleaded with the drivers to be very careful while driving. He could not afford any more disasters. He yelled at passers-by to get out of the way teaming it with the threatening brandish of a large ladle. Mission ‘Reach Gita Niketan’ skirting all bumps on the road was more challenging than the successful masking of all the bumps on Baby Tiwari’s face at the parlour. But, while that was a success, Dablu met his nemesis in Saubatiyabagh: a pothole, almost, the size of Naya Purwa. The jeep lurched, there were loud clangs and thuds. Half of the kheer lay regurgitated on the road, along with Gokul and Parsiddi. After the customary yelling and name-calling, Dablu Maharaj quickly assessed the damage, sent Gokul to the dispensary, re-loaded Parsiddi, and resumed the journey.
It was such a stressful night! By the time Baby Tiwari became Mrs Pappu Tripathi, Dablu Maharaj had become depressed, disillusioned, and perhaps, diabetic.
In the days that followed, his trademark optimism was replaced with a trademark whine. He no longer had grand plans. There wasn’t going to be any catering business. There wouldn’t be any stall in Kumbh. No Dablu Maharaj ki 5 Star Kachori in Civil Lines. The man with the undying dreams was dying a slow death.
A few years passed. Dablu Maharaj was now white-haired, his chest had slumped like a week-old bunch of spinach. He sat all day against the pillar that now had few bricks missing and paint peeling in oddly-shaped patterns. He watched his team bustling around, customers coming and going, flies flitting from his arm to his thigh. He just sat there. He didn’t go anywhere. Heir No. 1 Devanashu couldn’t take it anymore. He was now a sturdy man with a delicate moustache, studying to be a lawyer. Or, a banker. Or, perhaps a civil servant. He had enrolled for all coaching classes since Excellent Basis Tutorials gave a one class free with two enrolments. But, right now, all he wanted was to fulfill his father’s dream.
‘I want to put up Dablu Maharaj Ki Five Star Kachori stall at the Kumbh’, announced Anshu one day.
Dablu Maharaj coughed out a piece of the dahi-wada.
‘Dimaag kharaab hui gawa hai kaa?’
Over rasmalaai commenced a long argument on how difficult it was to do any kind of business in the city. The basic infrastructure did not support it. Baby Tiwari’s wedding fiasco was quoted in support. How they barely managed to serve dinner that day. How the baraat almost returned because the groom’s maternal uncle did not get any kheer. How milk had curdled on the bumpy road.
But Junior Maharaj was one determined young man. He had already visualized a shiny kiosk with an online-payment-friendly billing counter, a neat section for service, and staff wearing white coats with the golden DMK logo (Dablu Maharaj Kachoris) embroidered on it. Meetings were held. Plans were made. Menu-sheets designed.
Purchase-budgets allotted. There was a contest for designing the logo and the winner was Ganesiya, the vessel washer, who visualized the kachori as a sudarshan chakra.
Anshu worked relentlessly to get the approvals, design the kiosk, and order the ingredients. He even ordered good-quality paper napkins, replacing the current lot that melted on wet fingers. He was truly his father’s son – he dreamt big.
The time for the test came. Dablu Maharaj Ki Five Star Kachori was set to be launched a few days before the first holy dip scheduled for mid-January. Anshu went to his father with a new kurta-pyjama.
‘Aapka sapna, papa…aaj poora hoga.’
Dablu Maharaj was overcome with emotions. Happiness, seeing his entrepreneurial boy. Also, kadhai-loads of fear. Would Anshu be able to cope with failure and disappointment? Would he also become cynical? Whipping fear into paranoia, Dablu Maharaj put on his new clothes and walked down the street. A cab was waiting for him. Along with it, two mini trucks stocked with the raw material. He froze. He stood there, memories of a similar journey he’d made eight years back came rushing back It was his duty to warn Anshu about the traffic, the roads. He grasped Anshu’s shoulders and started narrating his mishap, step-by-step, all over again.
His son hugged him, and, gently, told him not to worry. He led him to the cab. Dablu Maharaj had worn all his lucky gemstones and had his prayers ready. Just as the ignition turned, he closed his eyes and started muttering prayers and chants. Anshu smiled softly watching him. After invoking blessings a few times, and promising paybacks, he opened his eyes. Whoa! He was startled. Where were they? The roads didn’t look familiar at all. They were speeding down a broad, makkhan-coated road that was leading to a flyover. He gripped Anshu’s arm,
‘Arre, kahan hain humlog, babua?’
‘Sahi jagah par, papa’, Anshu assured, his eyes brimming with happy emotions.
The cavalcade rolled into the mammoth area earmarked for the Kumbh crisscrossed with neat cross-sections of roads. The place was buzzing with technicians, security personnel, and staff setting up tents, first aid camps, spas and massage centres, and restaurants. LED lights glowed warmly, music rode the air side-by-side the squawking of the herring gulls near the banks of the rivers. It was a sight to behold, I hear!
A few days later, I was born. At Kumbh 2019. In a resplendent, well-lit Dablu Maharaj Ki Five Star Kachori kiosk.
My name is Anshu Maharaj Special and I am the gutsy sign of the new times.