Saturday, September 17, 2011

Reflections on a roll


Exploring Bihar – many parts of it that I had never seenbefore – has been, perhaps, the most interesting experience of my current job till date. It’s been like re-discovering the Indian heartland. Those who consider Bihar backward –haven’t probably visited interior West Bengal. Masked in fudged statistics of agricultural growth and claims of more equitable income redistribution by land reforms – the Communists masterfully kept the state wrapped in a poverty net for over 30years.

Travelling through not only the districts but even the shanty suburbs of Calcutta – one feels depressed to see how living standards far from moving up has indeed slipped back. Sights in the less affluent parts on the fringes of the big city – narrow lanes with cyclerickshaws bellowing their air-horns and road side vendors selling fish and vegetables in the light of kerosene lamps , hand-carts of tele-bhaja sellers and hawkers of Phuchka dispensed in the most unhygienic standards, neon-lit local sweet-meat shops – seem almost implanted from rural mofussils of the 50s and 60s of yore. Time has stood still here for more than half a decade easily – notwithstanding the mindless and aesthetically appalling concretization all around.

Political agnostics

True West Bengal doesnot have the baggage of social inequities and not beset by the cast fissures ofBihar and UP – though a religious fault-line is soon developing with both the current and previous ruling parties trying to create a separate vote-bank of the growing minority, who were traditionally politically agnostic. That has in fact further diverted the attention of the political class from real issues of development.

In comparison, remote Siwan in the Western Bihar (birthplace of Dr Rajendra Prasad) – though not one of the most developed constituencies of the state - appears more civilized than an average district town in West Bengal. A look at the District’s official website http://siwan.bih.nic.in/ gives some indication of
the greater engagement of the administration - a sense of ownership - in governance. For me, however, a simple index of development is the cement consumption in the area – which was large enough for us to spin-off Siwan as a separate Sales Area cutting off its umbilical code with Chapra, to which it was earlier attached.



the power of 3 and Didi

It’s probably thanks to the 3 Railway Ministers Bihar had invery close succession – Nitish, Paswan and Laloo – the Siwan station is visibly neat and tidy –where one wouldn’t mind waiting if the train’s late in arriving. But, I was more impressed by the train itself – on which I traveled to Lucknow from there. The AC1st coupe on the Vaishali Express is one of the cleanest I have bee non in a long time. The attendants were courteous and helpful. During the 6 hours journey – the sweeper came at least
thrice offering to clean the cabin - something that’s becoming a rarity these days. I can’t say this any longer of trains emanating from Howrah or Sealdah (Calcutta) these days. In any case Bengalis, are never known for their service orientation. But, now with their “Didi” (succeeded by her chella) at the helm – theyhave total immunity from all work ethics.

We all lament that, train journeys are not the same anymore. But, for a change I quite enjoyed this one – whistling past the cow-belt country, watching the prosperous fields soak in the mellow sun of the fading summer, while gorging on a packed lunch of dry mutton curry and parathas.

The train reached Lucknow on the dot of time and was alloted berth at the old station of “chota line” – the terminal for the meter gauge service that has since been closed. Though not as imposing as the main “Char Bagh” station – it’s still charming. The best part is – presumably, under Maywati’s programme for social upliftment of the backward classes – all Coolies have been provided with hand-carts, no doubt making their lives much easier as also it lightens the conscience of passengers who dump their load on these poor porters.

Viva Taj

I used to be a regular at The Taj in Lucknow – in the late 90s when it had just opened. Even then it was one of my favourite hotels – and morethan anything else I remembered it for its very good Awadhi restaurant –Oudhiyana – which could any day give the ITC’s Dum-Pukht a run for its money. I have always wondered why the Taj hasn’t carried Awadhi cuisine to their restaurants in other cities. – when they do such a fine job of it in Lucknow.


Went back to The Taj – now re-christened Vivanta, their new mid-priced brand - again after nearly 14 years. The value of address has been greatly enhanced by Maywati’s beautification drive ofthe Gomti embankment – where it was earlier a solitary structure. Its design very naturally blends into the red sand-stone architecture that now adorns the stretch alongside the river. The refurbished rooms are very smart and the service has become crisper.

I used to be earlier somewhat critical of the Vivanta . I thought it was a forced make-over to make a brand differentiation. But, now I think they are getting their act together and I am beginning to like it. Recently we stayed at the Vivanta Malabar in Cochin and loved the place. The attitude of the staff, I find are more friendly and helpful in keeping with the old Taj culture and not uppity and synthetic as in their flagship luxury properties like the (Taj) Mahal on Mansingh Road in Delhi.

But the best part of the experience was Oudhiyana – which,mercifully, have been retained in its pristine glory – without trying to go for a facelift or relaunch. Apart from the excellent Kakori and Galauti – Chef Sharma turned out a brilliant Gosht Nahari for us – which he admitted is not simmered overnight, as the traditional masters would do – but slow cooked over an hour in a special mutton stock.

However, must admit eating in front of a huge portrait of Wajid Ali Shah and the Nawab looking straight onto the plate – did induce a tiny of guilt, which had to be overcome with a generous gulp of a deep rich Sula Dindori Shiraz.

Finally I was left wondering, if only Wajid Ali could haveavailed of Bariatric surgery a la Nitin Gadkari – we probably would have a few more signature entrees of Oudhiyana.