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Saturday, 29 April, 2000, 10:28 GMT 11:28 UK
Indian cafes go upmarket
food stall
Dhabas are popular with middle-class Indians
By David Chazan

The dhaba is an Indian institution, India's equivalent of the British transport café.

Dhabas originally served the drivers of the brightly-painted lorries, often battered and overladen, which hurtle dangerously along Indian roads.

Yet dhabas have long been popular with many middle-class Indians.

Reputed to serve some of the finest food in India, they've been invested with a kind of rustic chic. Claridge's, an expensive hotel in Delhi, has a theme restaurant modelled on a dhaba.

I first visited one 20 years ago, on a road journey from Calcutta to Delhi.

It was little more than a bamboo hut. Outside was a jumble of charpoys, or string beds, on the flat brown earth. Much of the cooking seemed to be done outdoors - in makeshift stone or brick ovens and huge vats.

The customers - mostly truck drivers, some turbaned, sat on the charpoys, scooping up dhal and roti, chicken and fish, with their fingers.

Colourful atmosphere

Behind the dhaba were lush green paddy fields and clusters of coconut palms. An idyllic spot, had it not been for the roar of traffic, hooting horns and dust from the road.

For the Calcutta friends who took me there, the food was the biggest attraction. Freshly baked Indian bread, farm chicken cooked in garlic and spices, lentils scented with coriander.

But they also relished the atmosphere, for a dhaba was a place for freewheelers and transients, kings of the road who travelled the length and breadth of the land, their cabs gaudily decorated with pictures of busty Bollywood stars and images of Hindu deities, while we were cooped up in office blocks.

I remember most customers at the dhaba seemed to drink dab - coconut milk - but there must also have been Thumbs Up, the Indian soda resembling Coke, in those now faraway-seeming days when India was off-limits to Coca-Cola and many other big western corporations.

This month, for the first time in years, I ate at a dhaba, on the road from Delhi to Agra. I had visited India several times in the past few years, but this was a kind of dhaba I hadn't seen before.

The new India

women and taj mahal
Agra: there are dhabas on the Delhi road ...
Where the charpoys would have been, were neat rows of white plastic tables, with blue umbrellas advertising Pepsi Cola, and red plastic chairs, neatly arranged on a vast cement forecourt.

The dhabas I remembered had pit latrines, privacy assured by bamboo screens. But this one boasted a gleaming white-tiled bathroom with neon lights and western-style cubicles.

While I recalled dhabas without electricity, this one had electric hand dryers. As I ate samosas and drank tea at prices no truck driver could afford, I felt I was in the heart of the new India of consumerism and e-commerce, a country which is a growing market for Mercedes-Benz cars, where newspapers publish photographs of socialites at celebrity parties.

Clearly, the customers at this dhaba were the busloads of Indian and foreign visitors who travel this way to the Taj Mahal.

Sure enough, I was told, there are still eating-places for truck drivers, even on this road, but only a few.


Perhaps the strident red, white and blue dhaba I encountered on the way to Agra was an extreme case, but like so much else in India, dhabas are changing.

Many now cater for the growing numbers of middle class people, most of them as unused to reclining on a charpoy as the average westerner.

This dhaba, where plastic and concrete had replaced bamboo and mud floors, might have lost its charm, but it loudly proclaimed its place in the age of globalisation, standing as a milestone on India's road to a new prosperity.

But how much of that development trickles down to the villages where three-quarters of Indians still live, despite massive migration to the cities?

So far, relatively little.

Rural India

Some village girls are now studying hard
Behind the new, urban India with its nuclear weapons, increasingly nuclear families, and high technology centres like Hyderabad and Bangalore, lies the old rural India, steeped in traditions of clan and caste.

Leave the modern world of the plastic dhaba, away from the paved roads, and you soon come to villages of thatched huts.

In this part of India, men still live most of their lives apart from women, who have their own, separate quarters in the family house.

Yet, the headman of one village told me, this practice of purdah will die out within another two generations.

He was proud that his daughters were educated, even if his main reason for wanting them to study had been to improve their prospects of finding well-off husbands.

I would like to visit that village in another 20 years. Perhaps I might find it as changed as the dhaba.

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