The city of Mr Singh

Zac O?Yeah | Updated on January 10, 2018

Break away: Chandigarh’s Rock Garden is only partly made of rocks. The rest is an artscape which has put broken plates, teacups, empty bottles, bangles and other recycled debris to good use   -  Wikimedia commons

Fowl play: The classical Punjabi tandoori chicken has a more mellow yellowish hue of golden orange which it gets from a mix of turmeric and Kashmiri chillies   -  Shutterstock

Things that don’t change unnecessarily are sometimes better just as they are. Chandigarh, and its classic tandoori chicken, is a good case in point

Back in Chandigarh after many years, I had a really simple agenda. I was looking for Mr Singh and for a classic tandoori chicken. You’d think it ought to have been easy — isn’t every second person in town named Mr Singh and doesn’t he eat tandoori chicken for breakfast, lunch, tiffin and dinner?

In my nostalgic mood, I started by meandering around the Rock Garden which is only partly made of rocks. The rest is a surreal artwork consisting of broken plates and teacups, empty bottles, bangles, tube lights and other recycled debris of modernity shaped into monkeys, humans, houses, bridges, paths, waterfalls… but I saw no golden roasted tandoori chicken flapping its wings. There was great junk food in the vicinity, enticing chaat sold from almost hygienic pushcarts, but it was veg throughout.

The creator of the Rock Garden, a gentleman named Nek Chand Saini, apparently initiated his art project in the early 1960s and it is still ongoing — probably making it one of the world’s grandest works of art. Compare those five decades to the four years that Michelangelo spent on the Nokia mobile phone ad that covers the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel in Rome!

By and large, Chandigarh felt much the same as when I had first visited it ages ago. It hadn’t become more congested, like other cities tend to get with age. The overwide roads that back then used to be empty save for a single squeaky-creaky cycle rickshaw, a scattering of rattling Ambassadors and an overcrowded scooter with father, mother, granny and kids riding pillion on the horizon, now easily accommodate growing traffic. The grid built out of 100-hectare sectors still makes it easy to find one’s way about. It was once a futuristic city, but now that we live in that future, it has turned into the most liveable metro in South Asia.

I chatted once with an architect who complained about Chandigarh: he was an Indian traditionalist and felt that old cities were built to match the climate, the culture, and above all the lifestyles. Winding narrow shady streets work better than wide avenues drenched in sunshine. Open courtyards that facilitated natural air circulation were healthier than modern encapsulated airtight glass-façade office complexes that drain precious energy to run their air-conditioning systems.

The first time I came to Chandigarh, I too found its design puzzling — until I met Mr Singh. It was 25 years ago and I was changing buses in town on the way from Dharamshala to Delhi, which also necessitated an overnight stay since the monsoon had rained on my backpack kept on the bus roof and everything was soaked. So while I dried myself in the station canteen, an elderly bespectacled gentleman in a turban sat down at my table and introduced himself as Mr Singh. I suspected he might be a tout, though he was too polite and he didn’t want to sell me a carpet or a houseboat in Kashmir. It transpired that post-retirement Mr Singh had taken it upon himself to be the unofficial tourist ambassador of Chandigarh and so he offered me a map and showed me, on it, how the city had been built to reflect the human body. The government buildings to the north, in Sector 1, were obviously the brain, the commercial centre where we sat in the Sector 17 bus station surrounded by restaurants was the tummy that also travelled, and the central parks with their flower gardens were the lungs, while the roads were its arteries. A city as a living organism? Where was its soul then?

“The Rock Garden,” said Mr Singh with a gentle smile, and told me how to find my way to that marvellous tourist attraction.

Leaving town, I forgot Mr Singh until years later when I met another tourist and as we shared some tandoori chicken at Moti Mahal in New Delhi we compared notes on places we had gone to. When I mentioned the futuristic layout of Chandigarh, he told me of one of the most fascinating tourist experiences of India — and I interrupted, “Yeah, I’ve been to the Rock Garden.”

But he said, “No, the man who collects tourists.” His encounter with Mr Singh led to them spending days together and finding some fantastic tandoori chicken. Mr Singh wasn’t a tout or unlicensed tourist guide, he explained, but a “bona fide tourist collector” whose ambition was to meet and greet every single foreigner passing through town, welcome them heartily and make them feel at home according to the Sikh tradition of hospitality.

So this time when I landed up in Chandigarh, I thought I should thank Mr Singh for that map that opened up the city for me. I hoped to find him in the same way that he had found me all those years ago by stalking about the bus station (and I thought, maybe I could ask him where to get the best tandoori chicken). The bus station seemed to have grown and was crowded with Mr Singhs, but none of them was the right Mr Singh.


It looked like I would have to procure my own chicken and to make it as genuine as possible I tried my best to figure out which might be the oldest restaurant in town — or at least one that was already in existence in the times of Mr Singh. It turned out that there was one obvious choice, the somewhat forlorn Ghazal in the Sector 17-C market. In those days the entire market square was un-happening — not a soul used to be seen — but today it beats the most cosmopolitan plazas with all the bright fast food joints of the world at your greasy fingertips. But Ghazal is a refreshing return to the past: gloomy lighting, clunky chairs and old-fashioned posh sofa seating that virtually scream: “Let’s travel back in time to the ’80s!”

When the ‘murg tandoori’ finally joined me at the table, it wasn’t one of those modern deep-red caramel coloured ones, but crispy turmeric and Kashmiri chilli orangeish. Don’t misunderstand me — it was of course a normal, traditional tandoori chicken and one can probably get similar meals in many places, but in this world of escalating complexity when everything must be fashionably fusion and gastronomically molecular, it is increasingly difficult to find such honest-to-goodness simplicity. While munching on that nice chicken, it occurred to me how the humble, pea-brained animal (scientifically named Gallus gallus) came from India and conquered the world not only once, but twice.

The first chickens on our planet were wild jungle fowls that lived many millennia ago in what is now Bengal. After a couple of thousand years, poultry was domesticated in Harappan times or about 4,300 years ago (though some scholars claim it happened four millennia earlier than that) approximately in the area that is now Punjab. From India, the flightless birds somehow spread to the rest of the world, reaching southern Europe on a happy day in the seventh century BCE and northern Europe punctually about the year 0, which, coincidentally, is the date from when Europeans start their method of counting time — though maybe not exactly for that specific reason. To the Americas, chicken came as late as five centuries ago.

So to cheer up my dinner, I told the tandoori broiler on my plate that all the chicken in the entire universe are descended from one ancient Indian fowl! Then during the last decades, this prehistoric invasion was followed up by a modern conquest when the actual tandoori cooking as we know it was developed by Kundan Lal Gujral — back in pre-Partition Peshawar circa 1930. It then started being exported from New Delhi where Gujral’s restaurant Moti Mahal became the post-Partition foodie rage in the ’50s or so. Today, virtually wherever you go, whether San Francisco or Melbourne or anywhere in between, you will find a hot tandoori chicken on your plate.

This amazing food journey in time and space set me back only by ₹1,182 including beer. Burping my way out of Ghazal and into Sector 17, I thought that although I had failed to locate Mr Singh, at least Chandigarh — in other respects — appeared very much like it had seemed to me a quarter century ago. Things that don’t change unnecessarily, such as a classic tandoori chicken or a restaurant like Ghazal, are sometimes better just the way they are.

Zac o’Yeah is a part-time travel writer and part-time detective novelist; zacnet@email.com

Published on September 08, 2017

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