ON joining at Amritsar in April 1978, I was given a hot reception on Baisakhi day — hot reception is a mild phrase. In fact, I was clean bowled. Today, however, I wish to dwell on other aspects of life in Amritsar, minus the militancy that started growing and developed into a national problem. After things cooled down a little, being an avid reader, I went to a bookstore being run by a youngster in Hall Bazaar. I left the car behind and walked up to the store (those were not the days of pilots and escorts). On looking around, I found there were practically no books except for a few Hadley Chase ones. I enquired from the owner and he asked me if I was new to the city. When I replied in the affirmative, he struck his forehead with his palm and exclaimed that he would have done better if he had opened a ‘chhole bhature’ stall. I could not really believe this because Amritsar was associated with Gurbaksh Singh Preetlari, the doyen of writers in Punjabi who had created an oasis of intellectual activity in the form of Preet Nagar, where the likes of Balraj Sahni, Prithviraj Kapoor, Norah Richards et al joined in this pursuit. However, over the years, this initiative all but disappeared except for the Preetlari family.
I had the chance to attend a wedding reception at the home of an affluent family. They had an L-shaped lawn and on one flank were the food stalls and on the other a stage where Asa Singh Mastana and Surinder Kaur (famous Punjabi folk singers) were tuning up for a recital. The stalls were crowded and the other space was vacant. Surinder Kaur made fervent appeals to get an audience, even suggesting that they could carry their plates and eat and enjoy the music. A tardy response and the singers packed up. That was Amritsar: culinary delights first, and everything else afterwards. My first introduction to the culinary delights was at Kotwali, where we used to congregate from early morning till the situation cooled down. On the first day, early morning, in came a tray of tall steel glasses filled with lassi which had a top layer of cream at least 2-3 inches thick. I found everybody slurping it down, and followed suit. I finally managed to finish it; of course, it was yummy, but my tummy was not used to the cream. When poori-aloo came, I looked the other way and got into serious discussions. That was the first and last glass of lassi I had in four years at Amritsar. We had our High Commissioner in Pakistan who would ring up while starting from Islamabad and request for lunch from Kesar Da Dhaba at the Circuit House, and the same on the way back. It was famous for its dal and paranthas — wonderful heavy stuff if you had the stomach for it, but every Amritsaria would swear by it. It was not all heavy stuff. You had the rehris of seasonal kheera, mooli, carrots, etc, passing by, loaded with the right masalas. Street food was a gastronomist’s delight with a special place for fish (Amritsari fish in Chandigarh is not a patch on it), mutton, dal, kulcha, chhole-bhature, chaat, tea — you had to just name your choice. Only after staying there can you understand the craving of the “expatriate” from Amritsar for Amritsari food. The late Arun Jaitley is believed to have had weekly binges of Amritsari food in Delhi.
However, I would like to dwell on one address and one person whose imprint is etched on our collective family minds — Number 10 The Mall (falling in the cantonment area) and the occupant, Mrs Tammy Bhandari (and her daughter Ratan). Parsi by birth, Tammy was a widow well into her 60s (actually, indeterminate age) and always dressed in a white salwar-kameez. Short in physical stature, she filled the description of ‘sting like a bee and dance like a butterfly’. She ran the Bhandari Guest House like a General from her seat in the pantry. The troops she commanded were hordes of maalis, housekeepers, cooks, cattle attendants, carpenters, plumbers, tailors, etc, and of course, her daughter, Ratan. Her guest house was frequented by foreigners mainly, including the ambassadors of USA and European countries, High Commissioners and many who came from Pakistan (foreigners only). Then there were busloads of tourists, mainly Germans, who would camp on her spacious lawns and eat the Indian food she dished out with the addition of a European dish. Ratan had been my wife’s classmate in college and hence we were frequent visitors. I used to watch in amazement as Tammy conversed with the tourists in English and then let off some of the choicest Punjabi phrases. All this time, the whole place ran like clockwork with nary a breakdown. The staff were spoiled by her generosity and also used to the whiplash that was her tongue. She had a special after-dinner treat for the tourists: tonga rides to the Golden Temple, which they enjoyed immensely.
However, the trait I admired most was the wealth of information she had. She was a walking-talking encyclopaedia of Amritsar’s history and present goings-on. She was a very astute observer of the political and social scene… all this and yet she hardly ever ventured out of her pantry. Right from the social scandals to Akali politics to what was happening across the border, it was all on her fingertips. I never fished for information but she was a fountainhead which bubbled over with it. The children were small and they enjoyed her treats and the swimming pool. We had wonderful times at Number 10 with Tammy and Ratan. Tammy has gone, Ratan is there and we do meet occasionally, but the spirit of Number 10 has spirited away. Gone are the visible energy and the fire that fuelled it.
I must mention the wonderful hosts that the people of Amritsar were. To their credit, they rarely asked for any favours; amazingly, this was true of the leading politicians also. There was Dr Baldev Prakash and Laxmi Kanta Chawla of the BJP, Satyapal and Vimla Dang of the CPI, Kirpal Singh of Janata Party, RL Bhatia of the Congress and Gurcharan Singh Tohra, the SGPC president (who was constantly in Amritsar). All these eminent persons hardly ever asked for personal or political favours, they only wanted to be heard and dealt with respectfully. Because of the emerging militancy and law and order problems, the DC often convened peace committee meetings. However, these ladies and gentlemen were so alert and conscious that they sometimes rang us up to call for a meeting. In this regard, the name of GR Sethi of The Tribune is worth mentioning. He was the special correspondent in Amritsar and a man of integrity, having connections everywhere. We sought his help many times and he never let us down. On the cultural side, he entertained artistes and I was fortunate enough to meet Faiz Ahmad Faiz at his house. However, Faiz Sahib was not happy when Mr Sethi made a rare faux pas by introducing me as a police officer.
There are so many memories but I would like to mention one in particular. Prince Charles (King Charles III now) had come to Amritsar and went to the Golden Temple. In those days, the police did not enter the premises and arrangements were made by the SGPC. We were sitting outside in the information office. Prince Charles spent much more time than scheduled, listening to kirtan. As a result, the devotees literally mobbed him when he came out but there was no problem. However, the Director General of Police, who happened to be in Amritsar, rang me up and conveyed that he was not happy at the Prince being mobbed. I kept quiet because we could not have done anything. Later, at about 11 pm, I got a call from Sardar Tohra, who congratulated me and said the visit had gone off very well. I informed him about my DGP’s view. He had a hearty laugh and said the ‘munda’ (youngster) went away very happy. He suggested that the next time the DGP came to Amritsar, I should take him to the museum where there was a photograph of Pandit Nehru climbing the Nishan Sahib to get away from the crowd. He said the late PM had been very happy with the boisterous reception and that he had got the opportunity to showcase his physical agility.
These were just a few glimpses of Amritsar and its people even when we were gradually sliding into the maelstrom that was to come.
— The writer is ex-chairman of UPSC, former Manipur Governor and served as J&K DGP