01 January 1970
#WeekendReads

A Tale Of Two Hotels

The writer’s tongue-in-cheek phrasing explores the world of late 70s Puraini village, Total Revolution, the purity of the milk sold by 'dhoti'-clad milk sellers, the opening of a new star hotel, and the usual patronage of a North Indian village.

A tale of two hotels
A tale of two hotels Shutterstock

SANJAY KUMAR

Somehow-even in those information-starved, languid days of the late 1970s, news reached my village Puraini in Giriyak Block of Nalanda about the opening of a star hotel in Patna. Not that Puraini cared much about the hotel or star grading. The only hotel that they would come in contact with or care about was Sitaram's sack by the National Highway which bore a forlorn look but its listlessness would detract nothing from the authentic Pedas it sold.

Making Pedas is more about the integrity of intentions than the complexity of preparation and old Sitaram would not cut corners. His sack had a few rundown benches but no tables and all through the day, those benches would be occupied by all manners of people. In the morning would come the milk-sellers. The purity of their milk was a big sticking point. The latter would vow insistently about the purity of milk; Sitaram would look at milk with utter disdain. For him, milk was always half-water. Milk-sellers would protest vehemently.

On days he would be in a surly mood and convinced that water in milk had exceeded normative limits, he would go for sample testing of milk. One litre or ser of milk would be set aside to be condensed as mawa and milk rates for the entire month would be based on the mawa content of that day. Milk-seller in question would wail about imminent starvation but being impervious is both a tangible and an intangible asset in business. On other days, Sitaram would ask one of them to stir boiling milk in the big cauldron and condense milk into mawa out of which Peda would be made. It was wily Sitaram's way to make up for water in milk. It was not forced labour. It was a tacit transaction that had always taken place.

Meanwhile, Hotel Maurya opened itself to the business of hospitality. There could be and in fact, there have been intense debates over totality and revolutionary aspects of Total Revolution but debates apart, Patna and Bihar by 1978 were ripe for some sanity, some normalcy after those years of turmoil. Maurya promised something exotic, something very different from whatever had existed in Patna, a brush with modernity, a very different sense of hygiene and hospitality. It soon became a landmark. With sprawling Gandhi Maidan in the foreground, it summoned grandeur. Passers-by would turn their necks to have a good look at it because Patna had seen nothing of its kind. To them, it summoned some connection with the original Mauryas who had ruled the subcontinent from Kumharar nearby.

Sitting on those ramshackle benches at Sitaram's sack, sipping syrupy tea and biting into Samosas deep fried by Sitaram's brother, Rajendra whose shop adjacent to Sitaram's- specialized only in frying Samosas- the wise men of Giriyak would discuss this and that including about  Maurya, Patna. The first point of discussion was the cost of tea at Maurya. Ramnandan Singh who had not been to Patna-had heard it from the nephew of his brother-in-law-who worked as a casual staff under Patna Nagar Nigam- about the exorbitantly priced tea. Rs. 10 in the late 70s must have been a tidy sum. Basudeo Yadav- also known as Khalifa Ji- would ask the fundamental question: our milk is pure; sugar and tea are the same everywhere. So why should it be so highly-priced. Mishri Sao- cynicism personified- would not say anything, would finish last sip of 10-paise tea with a subversive slurp- before proceeding to open his shop selling sundry items including tea and sugar. A few others would talk about going to Patna by DEVA bus (named after Devasharif), going to Maurya, ordering a cup of tea and tasting it by turns. Rs. 5 for the waiter who would serve tea. These talks would remain mere talks. They would never summon enough courage to take the leap after their talks. All through these rambling discussions, Sitaram would remain focused on his job-making Pedas, preparing for Kalakand and white Rasgulla over which Odisha and Bangal would go to courts. Subhash Chandra Bose was born in Odisha before going to Calcutta. Anyway, I always thought Sitaram was the inventor of those white Rasgullas. Parochialism makes one belief in all sorts of things.

Meanwhile, iconic eateries or addas of Patna were falling by the wayside. Pintu Hotel on Frazer Road- known for serving delicious cutlets and Rasgullas- fell ro ravages of time. Soda Fountain, East Gandhi Maidan, had been set ablaze by unruly students of B.N.College over a bill of Rs. 4.50. The 1980s was not a good time for coffee houses across the country. A few would drag into the 1990s but economic reforms warranted a change in the way they did business. Mayfair was trying to hold the fort, its decline would come somewhat later. Maurya did not fill any vacuum. It was very, very different.

It could arouse aspirations and looking at it, a student of class 10 could pledge to himself that one day he would be big enough to stay and eat here whenever he would wish. For those bred and brought up on socialist fads, they had a lot to say against this symbol of exploitative capitalism but they wouldn't mind availing its offerings as long as it came free. For anarchists, Luddites and radicals, this symbol of evil needed to be blown into smithereens. For those in power, it was a necessity long overdue. They could showcase it to visiting dignitaries from outside. Visiting dignitaries-after complaining about a thousand and one things amiss with it- would write some inanities on the visitors' register which the hotel management would showcase to other visiting dignitaries. Patna does not have an industrial base but its being the seat of administration would ensure that there would be enough money, enough dignitaries and enough wannabes to keep Maurya going.

But is it a star-hotel? This issue would be debated endlessly at Sitaram's sweets sack in early 1980s. Those given to provincial chauvinism would assert emphatically that it was a 5-star hotel. Those who did not know any better would dispute that it was a lowly 3-star. Some would downgrade it to being a 2-star. No one knew a thing about star-grading system but that needed not be a dampener. That is what democracy does. Entitlement to opinion is perfectly kosher. Someone who read Mayapuri magazine and had two shirts- would say a five-star hotel must have a swimming pool on each floor. Others would simply guffaw at the audacity of the idea. Sonu would ask what a swimming pool did. Nobody would care to answer his question. He would resume washing utensils.

Moinul Haq Stadium, Patna had hosted a test match between Indian and West Indies women's cricket teams. The Indian team had a few iconic characters- Shanta Rangaswami and Diana Edulji among them. Indian women needed to score 55 runs in the fourth innings to win the match. Half of the team was back in pavillion with a few runs still to be made. Diana Edulji's fighting 20 runs and Susan's 17 runs along with a few byes would see Indians through. Maurya was still to come into being. At that time, the need was felt to have a hotel good enough for visiting dignitaries. The 1996 World Cup match between Kenya and Zimbabwe with Mansur Ali khan Pataudi as referee- was a low-scoring match. The stadium had been refurbished with generous financial support from JVG- a Ponzi scheme company that promised windfall returns to depositors. The stadium had been renamed JVG Moin-ul-Haq stadium. A few years after, JVG sank without a trace. In local Magagi dialect, JVG was expanded as ' Jo Bhaag gelau" (Lo and behold, it ran away). Be that as it may, Maurya is where the players stayed.

Sitaram was getting old. Anand, his son, was coming into his own in the late 1990s. Now Sitaram would spend most of his time in the temple and visit shops only in the evening. Anand was practically in charge. One day local thanedar's (Bada Babu in local parlance) free entitlement to sweets was challenged by Anand. Sitaram did not have the temerity to challenge it. All hell broke loose. Two policemen visited his shop and upended the big cauldron. Lots of milk with lots of nutrients on the National Highway. One of the policemen shouted,"Saala Maurya Hotel samajhta hai apne aapko"(Look at his temerity...he considers himself the owner of Maurya). A big crowd gathered. The road was blocked. Local thugs who wished to have local thanedar transferred- were instrumental in road blockade. Patna- Ranchi highway is a busy road. Caught in the stalemated traffic was some Inspector General of Police posted at Ranchi (then undivided Bihar). The matter reached him. He took local thanedar to task. The road blockade was lifted. The local thanedar had to eat humble pie.

Beginning in 1991, economic reforms in India gave decisive fillip to the service sector-tourism and hospitality included. The much-abused license-permit-quota system were finally bad words. There were talks about the new economy, IT industry being the mascot, huge salaries, pay packages, eating out, holidays and so on. Bihar and Patna would defy the trend and no new star hotel- would come up in Patna. Maurya would continue to sort of Hobson's choice for big events including fat marriages. Lots of people would have their first brush with Maurya to attend some marriage in which hosts would be careful in not allowing small kids to go for the big plate costing Rs.1600 each. They were expected to eat from their parents' plates. A few unruly children would begin stomping feet, causing ruckus and create unruly scenes embarrassing both hosts and parents.

Back at Giriyak, Anand had other ideas. He wanted to transform his sweets sack into something more contemporary. So he ordered a few chairs and tables of Plastic. Neelkamal brand. The shop had no board to proclaim its name so he ordered a new board which sported a new name- Anand Mishtan Bhandar. It marked a generational shift. But people would still call it 'Sitaram's'. Bailey Road in Patna remains Bailey Road despite being formally named as 'Jawaharlal Nehru Marg.' More substantially, he turned his back on the tacit agreement, that omerta between Sitaram and Rajendra, his younger brother. He began frying Samosas. He also introduced new sweets including Gulab Jamun which he would fry deep and which would turn jet black leaving a burnt taste in mouth that would linger for a while. But authentic Pedas of yore had lost their authenticity.  Old-timers still craved for magical concoctions of Sitaram. Anand went for expansion. He introduced new sweets like Doda Burfi which was clearly exogenous. Some supplier would supply Doda Burfi to Anand. It was the first case of outsourcing in blissfully pastoral Giriyak.

Meanwhile, an invitation came my way to attend a wedding function at Maurya, Patna. I wanted Anand to attend it. He came from Patna and I thought he would be suitably impressed. He had bought a pair of new trousers and a new shirt for the occasion. After handing over customary Shagun inside a  maroon envelope with Lord Ganesha blessing the couple, we let ourselves loose upon food. Anand suggested that we should first try sweets. As most of the attendees were busy overloading their plates with varieties of breads and curries, the sweets counter had few visitors. There we chanced upon Gulab Jamun- deep-fried, jet black, syrupy and slightly burnt. I could detect a gleam of pride in Anand's eyes. "Bhaiya dekhiye, mera copy kar liya hai" (Look, how Maurya has copied my way of making Gulab Jamuns), exclaimed he. Partly not to displease him but mainly to emphasize my local identity against a city where I do not belong ( Camus says a city is a city as it has no inklings), I nodded in agreement.