Outlook was born in that awkward age: the usual hangouts of today’s journalists—coffeeshops and pubs—were still years away, but we’d already grown too accustomed to air-conditioned offices to be able to hang around in hole-in-the-wall dhabas, tucking into our butter chicken-roti in the grime, heat and flies of the roadside, with stray dogs nuzzling at our feet, as an earlier generation had done. We were the in-betweens: experienced enough to know that even five-star restaurants couldn’t produce Punjabi Mughlai quite as good as one’s favourite dhaba, but with a new-found sense of propriety, wanting to avoid eating at the neighbourhood dhaba, but still sending the office peon across the road to collect the food for us in newspaper-wrapped parcels.
Our very first party on the rooftop was “catered” from Rajinder da Dhaba. And no closing night in Outlook’s early history was ever complete without Rajinder’s chicken and fish tikkas along with a bottle of rum. God knows how many story ideas we really owe to Rajinder’s food, considering how no brainstorming session was ever possible without ordering in from the dhaba.
But Rajinder da Dhaba was never really “ours”, in the way that most media houses claim a neighbourhood dhaba. By the time we arrived in Safdarjang Enclave’s marketplace behind the defunct Kamal Cinema, in 1995, the dhaba was already an institution. It wasn’t much to look at—a few rusty tables cemented into the ground under a large pipal tree. A tin board nailed to its trunk said (in Hindi): “Drinking is strictly prohibited”. Of course, no one paid any attention to it. During the daytime, it could easily pass off as a roadside dhaba: hordes of autorickshaw drivers, cyclists and pedestrians stopping to order food, served to them from metre-wide aluminium utensils.
Skewer treatment: Left, the original Rajinder da Dhaba across the road
But as the sun set behind the old cinema house, the dhaba woke up to its real life: cars and scooters lined up along the road, at first in a neat row, then pell-mell, wherever they could squeeze in. It was a bring-your-own-booze party. Street children appeared from nowhere, offering to open beer bottles in return for the empty ones. Beat constables and MCD clerks sat down for royal feasts (provided free, of course), obligingly turning away from the drunken hordes. The dhaba boys kept the tandoors going through the night, ceaselessly bringing out refills of the oil-layered curries. Fights erupted; stray dogs positioned themselves under the tables for the rich pickings—an astounding 150 kg of chicken, several crates of eggs, 70-80 kg of fish, all consumed in a single evening. By the early hours of the morning, just as some of us left the office after putting the magazine to bed, calm reigned once more—the bottle-opener children retiring to their jhuggis, the dogs to their hideouts, the dhaba boys to their beds under the open sky, leaving an occasional customer stretched out on the ground in a drunken stupor.
We knew little, however, about the dhaba’s owner. Did Rajinder really exist? We were satisfied to keep him at that distance: across the road from us. However, had we but known it, he was a story worth following: a man of old India, a child refugee of the Partition who built a multi-crore business from scratch, a man who spent a lifetime learning to negotiate his way past the countless bureaucrats and corporation clerks, police officials and income-tax sleuths who tried to keep him down, an incredible survivor of the Licence Raj who collapsed, like so many others of his ilk, when India eventually opened up. But in the decade that followed, when all of India seemed to be hurtling out of its socialist inertia, his son, Bharat Bhushan, not only doubled the dhaba’s turnover but swallowed up, one by one, the new-look chain of restaurants, bakeries and American diner clones that miraculously began to spring up in our once sleepy marketplace from 2002 onwards. It was, in fact, a story we have been tracking, one way or another, for the last 15 years.
It didn’t stop the demolitions—there were at least two attempts, one during the Emergency and another in September 2000—but what the agencies probably hadn’t bargained for was the family’s incredible resilience. Within hours of the 2000 demolition, for instance, loyal customers were again assembling outside the rubble of the dhaba, tucking into their roti-kababs. “Bheed thodi demolish ho sakti hai,” was the only response of the indomitable Rajinder.
But it was Bharat, a child of the new India that was just emerging, who kept pushing his father to adopt a new business model. “Our business had peaked. People had more money to spend, and we were attracting only the poorer clientele,” Bharat now recalls. “People left without paying, the workers were cheating on materials.” He suggested they modernise: cater to the new customer, seeking the dhaba-style food but with a pocket well-padded enough to afford new comforts like air-conditioning and bar service, bring more variety to the menu and computerise their chaotic accounts. But Rajinder refused to even shift across the road to the main market, where a few shopkeepers were still doing business the old way—selling groceries, medicines and stationery.
Rajinder was too old school to be swayed by his son’s rising ambitions: what had worked for him, he felt, should work just as well for his son. Then suddenly in March 2002, Bharat was facing the new future, alone. His father, besieged by a fresh onslaught of income-tax penalties, collapsed and died. He was sixty.
Within months, Bharat got to work, rebuilding the old dhaba to face a new future. The first step was to shift the business from the unauthorised plot adjoining a slum. The market was right across the road but Rajinder had always feared the move, apprehensive that its respectability would affect his business. But it was the market that ended up adapting to the dhaba. It was a curious spectacle: men in silk ties and residents of the posh colony stepping carefully along the blood-washed lanes as the dhaba workers, stripped to dirty vests and pyjamas, cleaned tubloads of chicken. Visitors in the parking lot being greeted by smoking tandoors and mountains of chopped onions. The fenced green patch between the circle of shops became the resting place and open-air bath and laundry of the dhaba workers. By the evening, nothing else seemed to exist but the dhaba, its cooks, its human bottle-openers, its stray dogs and the endless orders of chicken roasted in the line of tandoors. Of course, the market didn’t give in without a fight. The police came, saw and departed, leaving Rajinder’s as it was. By 2008 a police jeep was stationed in the parking lot, endlessly droning: “Drinking here is strictly prohibited.” But two more liquor shops sprang up in the little market of banks, offices and a Mother Diary.
We weren’t the only ones watching the competition keenly. Bharat, too, was following the developments. When Kent’s, an adjoining fast food joint, closed down, he decided it was time for his dhaba to open a continental wing. It didn’t work: no one wanted chicken sandwiches and momos from a guy renowned for his fish and chicken tikkas. But there were customers willing to pay more to eat his dhaba food in the comfort and privacy of a restaurant. Thus was born the first of Rajinder Dhaba’s takeovers. The next to go was a Chinese takeaway, sold on a streetstand. One day it was there, and a few weeks down the line, it was out in a new avatar: Rajinder Express. Bharat hired three new cooks for his Chinese food outlet.
Wine ’n tikkas RDX, Rajinder Dhaba’s new fine dining restaurant and pub. (Photograph by Narendra Bisht)
Other shops in the market too were slowly folding up—the grocery store selling detergents and plastic mugs disappeared one day, followed by the stationer, who sold his shop and moved into the basement, then the medical store went. More Rajinder Dhaba outlets sprang up in their place. And then a few months ago, the unthinkable happened: RDX! Rajinder’s familiar dhaba had undergone its twenty-first century transformation: a modish pub, with aquariums, blue lights and black ’n white seats and bow-tied staff, with a menu card that hyped up the dhaba food into five-star stuff like Machli Tikka Ajwain—“cubes of river sole with the flavour of ajwain”. Clearly, Rajinder’s son was ready to take on the world. Here was an India Shining story, in all its energy and robustness and grime, unfurling right under our noses.
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