There’s more than a family recipe behind their tandoori chicken.
It was the summer of 1945. As the country burgeoned with political movements and struggled for freedom from the Raj, a young Sikh boy wished for his own kind of independence. 14-year-old Gurunam Singh lived on the fringes of Sialkot in Punjab (now Pakistan). The rebellious son of an affluent farmer, Gurunam decided to run away one day after an incident with his father. “Mere baap ne mujhe ghumake laafa maara,” (My father thrashed me for some mischief) he recalls. After telling his mother he was going to stay with a relative, he arrived in Amritsar on a train.
“I had a hunch the country was going through something huge...something that was going to affect all its people.” Dressed in a crisp white kurta pyjama, Gurunam is glad he came this side easily. His parents didn't have as smooth a journey. They left their neighbours, their house, their friends, pretty much their entire life and came to India with nothing but a handful of clothes and jewellery to start a new life - witnessing loots, gunshots and murders on the way. Partition had some horror stories and they thanked Waheguru that their son did not have to go through it.
The food here rivals that of a typical dhaba in Punjab. Image Source: lbb.in
“Amritsar and parts of Punjab were getting crowded so we came to Bombay looking for space and primarily work.” I chat with Gurunam in his nephew’s tiny tailoring shop at Sion Koliwada’s Punjabi Colony -- a space that itself witnessed the trials of the partition to later become the home for many Sikh Pakistani refugees. Looking out of the window I spot many Sikhs walking into Bombay's revered Gurudwara, Sri Damsesh Darbar, glistening under the scorching afternoon sun. The lanes surrounding it are full of typical chawls, colourful yet dilapidated. There are shops, restaurants and dhabas selling authentic Punjabi food which was my primary motivation to visit this erstwhile colony. What I got as a bonus were hundreds of colourful stories.
The 'langar' at the darbar is available 24 hours. Image Source: www.news18.com
My eyes first fell upon the Hazara Bar and Restaurant that is perhaps the earliest eatery in the area. Starting off as a small stall, it is now an upscale AC hall known for its delicious makke di roti, sarson da saag and melt on the bone tandoori chicken. The legacy of the restaurant is infact representative of the Mona Sikh refugees - the Hindu Punjabis who came to Mumbai from the Hazara area of Pakistan and reside in the colony. Rivalling its popularity is Mini Punjab (not to be confused with the one in Bandra Khar), welcoming its customers with a display of juicy kebabs.
Tandoori chicken is a must-try at this colony. Image Source: cookmealtoday.com
Breaking Samosas with Amarajeet Singh as he narrates the story of a dacoit who looted the train he was in, to hogging tandoori chicken at Sardar Paaya House while listening to Punjabi songs, a walk through the streets of the Punjabi refugee colony is like watching elements of Bombay and Punjab fuse into an enigma. I say this because 71 years ago Sion Koliwada was military hutments and reeked of tragedy as well as hope.
Today 1500 odd families have not just built homes, but also sustained relationships. “Here everyone knows everyone. We are a happy family,” 50-year-old Surjeet Singh says while narrating the story of his parents who fled Peshawar and came to Bombay in a ship. Dressed in a pale blue shirt and a black turban, he is busy in his seva of shoe-keeping at the Gurudwara. He is accompanied by a friend, Prahlad who makes it a point to state that Koliwada today houses Sikhs, Sindhis, Kolis and Muslims. “We live in brotherhood and unity."
Gyan Singh visits the gurudwara every evening
His sentiment is shared by most, but not all. Darshan Gyan Singh who came to India on a train from Pakistan when he was just a few months old, recalls his parents telling him about the attacks that their own Muslim neighbours had inflicted on them. Though he doesn’t feel any hatred towards the community, he likes to keep his distance from them. Prabeer Chopra, one of the Mona Sikhs and the son of a government official from Lahore says that they have a lot of land back in Pakistan but are unable to claim it. Gurunam Singh, who grew up with a lot of Sikh as well as Muslim friends in Pakistan, has differing views. “If they took our homes there, we took their homes here. Both sides faced equal trauma. But now it’s a thing of the past, let us move on,” he says waving his wrinkled hands in the air.
Indeed, Gurunam Singh has moved on. Having completely disassociated himself from the past, he narrates many stories of the time after -- the tales of him being a taxi driver in the maximum city for over 20 years, his grand wedding, his dentures that he puts in to give me a million dollar smile, the Gurudwara and his fellow community members who have looked after him well and have never let him feel the lack of anything.
“But have you ever felt like going to Pakistan, seeing what’s left of your village today?,” I ask
“I have everything here. Why should I go there now?” questions Gurunam.
Small and similar chawl-like apartments make up Sion Koliwada’s Punjabi Colony
As I head for lunch to Hardeep Punjab Restaurant to relish their speciality - chicken chaska maska tikka - chunks of meat slathered in butter and cream, I meet Har Kaur Thukral. She’s a 75-year-old woman who left Peshawar as a young child to come to Bombay and has been to Pakistan twice to visit Gurudwara Nankana Sahib, but the government did not allow her to go beyond that. “We had a beautiful two-storey house there. I still feel like going to my village near Peshawar and seeing how it is now." Her brother-in-law Pratap Singh, also a taxi driver has been to Pakistan several times. Sadly, his visits too have only been limited to the Gurudwara.
Like others in the colony, Pratap is a jovial person who has made peace with the past and present. Today they live their lives amicably, their eyes set on the future, that has its own share of troubles. Reportedly, BMC planned to evacuate the residents of the colony for redevelopment of buildings. But since they proposed no concrete plan, the residents protested and the BMC called it off. The case currently rests in court. Hearing this, I realise how insecurity plagues these residents even now.
At the Punjabi colony, home is a sentiment rather than a four-walled structure. I see it as I walk out of the Gurudwara, after being served a cup of hot chai. A group of old women are busy talking and laughing as they make rotis for the langar. Grabbing my hand, Har Kaur Thukral introduces me to her friend Dhan Kaur who was her neighbour in Peshawar as well. Dhan Kaur places a hand on my head to bless me. I feel overwhelmed. They invite me in for an elaborate meal in the langar. Though I am quite full, I really enjoy the fresh hot meal and special yellow daal made with the perfect amount of spices and a lot of love.
Disclaimer: The views expressed in this article are independent views solely of the author(s) expressed in their private capacity and do not in any way represent or reflect the views of 101India.com
By Devyani Nighoskar
Cover photo credit: flickr.com