Gajraula: One day in the life of a Roadside Dhaba

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I was sitting on a charpoy at Tyagi ji’s dhaba at Gajraula. This was the place Antara Mali deserted to have a shot at Bollywood in Main Madhuri Dixit Banna Chahti Hoon. I could see why. Sarabjeet Singh lathered his big brawny body with a conspicuous bar of red Lifebuoy at a tank near the dhaba. His khalassi had just finished his bath but there was little he could do about his dirty mouth “Main kya b*******, zara dal lagana.” The proprietor Choudhary Chetram or Tau sat on a charpoy in all his shirtless glory with his hookah. What woman can stand so much testosterone? But where Gajraula lost out on its woman count, it made up in terms of tourists. After all, it had it in its gene.

During the Mahabharata era, Garhmukteshwar formed part of the capital of Hastinapur state and was an important center for trade. Kings usually halted for a dip in the Garh Ganga while their clamorous elephants were stationed in stables a little away for feeding and cleaning. It is believed that this elephant stop came to be known as Gaj-raula from the ‘elephant noise’. Today, the elephants have been replaced by burly drivers and their noisy trucks that guzzled as much fodder and disgorged an equal amount of tripe.

I sat with Omkar Tyagi, who had been running a dhaba for 15 years. His set-up was the average trucker’s dhaba you’d find anywhere on GT Road. The access was the usual rut of wheels and a row of charpoys was hedged in between the bevy of trucks and the shiny vessels on the dhaba counter. In between sips of tea, Tyagi ji explained how the average trucker’s dhaba functioned. Highway food is a different category, he expounded. Repeat clients usually come after several months, hence a dhaba takes longer to create a reputation. It all boils down to the food. Cooks, usually locals, never use packed masala and make their own fresh masalas. 

It’s a 24-hour cycle and they work in two shifts, the first starting as early as 4 am. At any given point of time food ought to be ready for 50-60 people. Mornings are usually dominated by parathas – aloo, paneer, mooli, pyaaz; take your pick. The peak time was afternoons extending to late evening and the second round of cooking depended on how much food had been consumed from the morning stock. This was how it’s ensured that no food is wasted. While the motley bunch of local and Nepali helpers dished out the food, the cooks were helped by a chela, who followed his master diligently, till one day he took over and got an apprentice for himself. It is because of this tradition that the taste of a dhaba remains constant. Perhaps the only thing that changes is the tea, which can vary from cheeni kam, patti tez, doodh zyada to malai maar ke, customized to the tea!

Meanwhile Sarabjeet Singh, with all the leisure of a tusker, had returned after his bath. He had been a regular here and said that a trucker can change his truck but not his dhaba. It’s not just loyalty; you tend to develop a long-term association that works like security in times of adversity. You might run out of gas, be short on money or your vehicle might break down. In such cases, the dhaba owner lends the familiar trucker some money, which he repays on the way back or on another trip. And with that content feeling of being at home, Sarabjeet spread himself on the charpoy and joined his gang of truckers in varying shapes and different stages of undress. Barring the odd group of drunk teenagers looking for some adventure, the dhaba’s profile remained the same. Which is why in India, there are two distinct types of dhabas – a trucker’s dhaba and a family dhaba. It was clearly time to upgrade to the second. Gajraula was famous for its yellow urad dal and the special thandi kheer. And perhaps no one makes it better than Bhajan da Dhaba. 

Prem, a third generation owner traced the history of his famous dhaba. In 1970, his father IPS Bedi left his job as manager of a petrol pump to take over a chai stall that his friend had reneged in exchange for an unpayable debt. Slowly, new items were added as take-away to the staple chai and fen (long country biscuit you dip into the tea) – biscuits, samosas, bread pakodas and kheer in ready-to-serve kulhad’s. First it developed into a trucker’s dhaba, then a bus dhaba and finally, a busy modern eatery. Such was the fame of its thali, dal, paneer pakodey, hari chutney and kheer that it made even Sunny Deol stop for a bite and eventually the whole clan and the cast of Kaal. Prem explained that the ingredients used in the kheer are the same used in an average household, but it’s impossible to get the same taste. The secret lies not in the recipe but in reducing the milk for 6-7 hours in huge containers until the ingredients are cooked on a simmering flame. At a bare minimum, Bhajan da dhaba hosted almost 500 visitors a day. 

No wonder Gajraula’s annual dhaba industry ran into crores. And in keeping with the changing times, the humble dhaba too, was mutating. Instead of the amusement of a waiter rapidly rattling names of dishes, you now had badly spelt menu cards. Charpoys had given way to plastic chairs. Hand-painted signs were replaced by branded Hutch signboards. Instead of the old fried parathas today’s health-conscious consumers preferred the tandoori paratha. Meanwhile, a fresh busload of tourists had arrived. The old lot greedily stuffed their hands with saunf. It was time to hit the road…

Author: Anurag Mallick. This article appeared in the August 2005 issue of Outlook Traveller magazine.

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