Last night, Tony and Gogi singh's Pritam-da-Dhaba at Dadar celebrated its first anniversary with authentic dhaba food of sarson da saag and makhi di roti, fried dals, country chicken and brass tumblers of frothing lassi, and a nondhaba anniversary cake with a single candle.
And, as the night advanced in the aroma of fresh meats being grilled in the mud tandoors and the friendly convivial company of silent Sikhs and their large wives, my mind went back to the many dhabas along India's highways where I had eaten during one month of riding on the trucks.
It was a time when I had hitch-hiked from Bombay to Srinagar (and back, on Rs. 44). In India, except when you are near the approaches of Bombay or Delhi, the lifts are given mainly by trucks, and most of the trucks are owned and driven by Sikhs. They are among the friendliest people in the highway.
The dhabas start from the frontiers of Bombay. I remember arriving the first night at Chandor, the night filled with the sounds of the jungle, interrupted occasionally by the sound of a heavily-loaded truck arriving outside the single dhaba. The food was simple, tandoori rotis, dal, a little fresh vegetable, a lot of onions, some green chillis.
Later in the night, on another truck with another Sikh, there was a halt at a cluster of dhabas between Malegaon and Dhule. There were coi-charpoys placed outside the dhabas, the drivers would rest on them, mallsiwallas working on their muscles, the cleaners would arrange the food from the dhabas.
I remember lying on one of the charpoys, looking up at the star-lit sky, and thinking-how dramatically life had changed. In the morning I was in Bombay, getting up to another humdrum day, and the same night I was here, in the middle of a dhaba settlement.
The following afternoon, I was in Indore, one of India's great truck cities. There is a whole street lined with offices of truck agencies and enough trucks to take you onwards, to Dewas and Shahjapur and Guna and Shivpuri and through the jungles of Madhya Pradesh to Gwalior.
The real dhaba-country starts beyond Delhi, along Kim's Grant Trunk Road that runs from Calcutta to Rawalpindi. The brass mugs of frothing lassi at Ambala are as large as at Pritam and more welcome in the dry heat of a North Indian afternoon. And the dhabas become more rustic, the poultry healthier, the vegetables fresher.
I remember sitting at dhabas entire afternoons, occasionally swatting a black cloud of fllies, watching the trucks fly past, waiting for the odd one to stop so that I could arrange a lift. And I remember the nights, sitting at the dhabas, in the glow of the tandoors, listening to strong Punjabi voices, discussing the weather, the crops.
I felt like that once again, sitting at Pritam-da-Dhaba in the heart of Dadar T.T.