Saturday, May 3, 2014

Ambala, Punjab

My friend got married the night before. We were up and early the next day. And lazing around contemplating waking up the newly weds. We were accommodated as guests in a big bungalow with a wide terrace overlooking the flat green fields of Punjab stretched to miles. It had rained the previous night so everything around looked wet and fresh.There was a knock on the door and to our dismay there stood our newly-wed friend with a broad smile on his face. We sighed and wished we had gotten up earlier and gone knocking at his room. Anyways. He said the breakfast would be served in an hour’s time at his house which was just a few minutes walk away. Suddenly we realized how hungry we were. We dashed to the bathroom for a quick shave and shower. Punjabi breakfast. mmmm. Hunger multiplied. We were eager and ready under half an hour.

Ambala, Punjab. Nature’s nest was just waking up. Good morning. We walked the streets, narrow but tree-lined. Few hand carts rolled by and milkmen on bikes whizzed past carrying drums laden with fresh milk. We crossed a small wooden bridge over a stream and strolled into my friend’s neighbourhood. Immediately we were struck by a strong, rich cooking aroma. Food was within our radar and antennas were on high alert. There was a spring in our step.

They were waiting - my friend, his wife, and fifteen family members. My friend's house was palatial. Balconies jutting out from each room- a rare sight for us city dwellers. A sprawling lawn sans paraphernalia. A swing hung lazily in a quiet corner. Two cooks wearing sleeveless tees sat on low stools. They were frying puris in an enormous vessel brimmed with oil. The smoke swirled up every time they put a puri in it. My friend came and hugged us- reintroduced his wife, and the platoon of family members- whose names we quickly forgot. We were welcomed into their household with lot of ding-dong.

The breakfast table was set. Bowls of chana masala, jars of chaas and lassi. And of course, sweets. Small children scampered around the house with shrills of laughter and excitement. The moment we sat down, we were screened by the elders of the house. Where we lived? What we did? where we worked? Each member from our family tree was plucked and scanned. We were uncomfortable in the comfort but blabbered polite answers. After all, we were hungry. My friend just stood their, muffled up his laughter, gave no assistance. Punjabis are jovial, fun loving. And in no time we became a part of their family. I guess we passed their test with flying colours. Time to eat.

Plates were placed and huge quantities of food exchanged hands. We half-filled our plates the elders joked at our appetites. My friend’s mom and aunties sat with us and directed. Younger ladies stood by and fussed over us, which was not required since the food, like any Punjabi household, was ample and delicious. Flow of hot puris continued back and forth from the lawn to the kitchen. Each item had to be tasted and commented upon. I ran out of superlatives. We hogged, till not an inch of space was left in our stomachs. Finally we stopped, satisfied. We were about to get up - with a struggle- and icecream arrived. No ways. Others, who were still eating, looked at us and smiled. Yes ways. The banter continued.

The atmosphere was colourful. My friend was on a roll. His wife - now no more shy - joined us. Somewhere from the table someone remarked that she sang well. We all egged her on. And she compiled. She had a silky voice. She sang few lines soon chorused by other women. The men beamed with pride. Children continued jumping. And finally, the cooks stopped cooking. We slurped our icecreams and relaxed. How easy it was to blend. Enjoyment is so much a spur of the moment thing than planned. I wished we had more of this day.

I had an afternoon flight, and the airport was about an hour drive from Ambala. I had to pick up my bag from the guest’s bungalow so I took their leave. They gave  me two big packets of sweets to carry back home. Souvenirs for the family, they said. I was touched. They smiled and hugged me. As I got out of the house, I saw the two cooks sprawled across on the lawn. They had wound up their business for the day. They got up as soon as they saw me. Was the food ok? I showed them my bulging stomach. More than ok. I thanked them. My friend insisted on dropping me back to the guest house.

And we trudged along.

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