The way it was: Memories of another time

Mian Ijaz Ul Hassan

Ghannia must have realised that he had achieved his best, there was nothing more to be done. He had no desire to perpetuate himself by even opening a proper restaurant. And like an artist, he chopped and fried the inner layer of the last onion of his life and melted away into another dimension like a slab of butter on a hot platter

The Indian coral tree is showing off its raving red blossoms these days. The blooming coral has been quite a favourite with many of our painters. Even Khalid Iqbal who finds considerable empathy with the dark demeanour of the acacia has not been able to ignore the coral’s haughty spring presence. Personally, I find its red far too bright and overbearing. The dhak trees, only a few remaining in the city, have a much more interesting and random form and flowers in orange clusters. In appearance the dhak is much more harmonised than the Coral whose flowers seem stuck onto the branches.

I first saw the Indian Coral in March 1948. There is a handsome avenue beyond Aitchison College’s mosque. The red flowers and the way they adorned the tree’s dangling branches dazzled me. The birds and bees loved flocking to it. It was without doubt one of the favourite haunts of Starlings, commonly called Tillyars. Perched on the coral tree, the relentless loud twitter of these migratory birds, believed to fly in from Japan, transformed it into a symphony of music and colour.

I believe the coral tree is also called Kesu, sometimes also Gule Nishtar (flower of arrows) because its flowers have pointed tubular petals resembling the fingers of the human hand. There is obviously a poetic twist in the name. The arrows are meant to draw blood. The coral or the kesu flower is associated with the hand of a beloved that has drawn blood from a loving heart.

The really grand avenue of Gule Nishtar was on Davis Road. It stretched from the Mall to Simla Pahari, which deluded the Lahoris into believing that they were not far from the forested Himalayan slopes. Even when we took off on French leave (translate freedom leave), we would cycle around the Simla Hill at least once before proceeding onto Abbot Road or Mcleod Road to see a film or order platefuls of Takka Tin.

Takka Tin was Ghannia’s innovation. Ghannia had his shop adjacent to the late Regent Cinema, opposite the Odeon. He sat perched on his feet like a bird on the footpath — except that there was no evidence of a footpath — before a considerable round platter on a stove, which he spasmodically stroked. He wielded a flat instrument in his hand, usually employed by house painters to scrape off paint, which he deftly used to dice, slice, cut, scrape or admonish various ingredients and even to scratch his back.

It was a culinary delight to watch Ghannia cook. He would throw two to four slabs of butter on the hot platter depending on the individual order and while the butter melted, he would hurriedly chop up an onion, roughly dice a root of ginger and cut a few green chillies, and allow them to sizzle in the butter. The required number of minuscule kebabs were then counted in lots of ten and smashed back into mince and mixed with the lightly fried greens. Ghannia at this stage became very alert and would continuously nudge and prod the mix and as soon as he felt it was ready, would break open four eggs on top of it. A few more tosses and turns and the Takka Tin was ready and was neatly scraped off the platter on to a plate. There was a choice; you could either have plain hot nans or the soggy ones. Many preferred the soggy ones, which are steamed and fried in the leftover fat and spices on the platter.

We had a friend called Chozy, who had an incredible appetite. He could polish off four helpings of Takka Tin and order an additional side helping of six to eight eggs fried in slabs of butter. Have you ever tried six eggs fried in slabs of butter? If you have not, you haven’t lived. Chozy was an amiable person but quite a character. He was known for his ample nose and off-spin bowling. He had an extremely deceptive style. Even to this day the unfortunate batsman who got caught or were bowled out cannot say with any degree of certainty whether Chozy was a left- or a right-armer. Unlike our great Abdul Qadir, he never made the Test side because his nasal endowment would constantly get in his way.

Those days we rarely opted for the spicier concoction of chopped chops, and diced up kidneys and kapooras, which were sold in Ghannia’s neighbourhood. Occasionally when one felt strong in the stomach and weak in the head, we dared. Rasheed Toru, who was in constant trouble at school, could also be quite unpredictable. It baffles me to this day, why he, instead of asking Pehlwan jee for the usual plate of kidneys and kapooras, referred to the latter by its real name? Why not stick to the established innuendo? We were all astonished and embarrassed because Toru had addressed Pehlwan jee in a shrill high tenor. The obese mass of fair flesh that constituted the proprietor of the roadside establishment, who took orders while he cooked squatting under an old Banyan tree, remained visibly cool. He merely looked up in Toru’s direction and pleaded, “Baoo jee, why are you bent upon ruining my business?”

We continued to visit Ghannia and Pehlwan jee for years before going abroad for “higher studies”. I left to study art at London, but returned with a degree in English from Cambridge. In our days in England, there was hardly anything available, which could be legitimately called our own real cuisine.

In an evening Latif Fancy a friend taught me how to make curry of sorts, which could either be had with a toasted or a plain slice of bread. I liked the hard loaf ends with the one side baked, which are usually discarded. It was the closest thing to our roti.

The curry with slices of bread always reminded me of food prescribed by the doctor when a person was sick. Actually with lots of chillies and big round Simla mirch and diced potatoes thrown in, it became quite nice. But one missed the Roti. In England I felt convinced that if other people could be persuaded to get onto a paratha cooked in butter for breakfast, we could conquer the world.

On coming back home after an absence of more than three years, I was impelled to visit familiar haunts where I had spent a good part of my impressionable years. Top of the list was of course to tuck in a bit of Takka Tin. Ghannia was dead. Had died the previous year. His lifelong associate and second in command was extremely competent but Ghannia was something else.

Ghannia must have made millions, which he squandered away on cards and betting on horses. In the field of culinary arts, Ghannia had created an original dish, which is today popular all over the city, but seldom replicated to the level of his excellence. A man of his talent was inevitably estranged from the times in which he lived. I believe in order to overcome the tedium of cooking everyday of the year he took to drugs. He must have realised that he had achieved his best, there was nothing more to be done. He had no desire to perpetuate himself by even opening a proper restaurant. I believe he had an eye for his own sex but no other passion or attachment. And like the artist that he was, he chopped and fried the inner layer of the last onion of his life and melted away into another dimension like a slab of butter on a hot platter.

Prof Ijaz-ul-Hassan is a painter, author and a political activist