The Rough Guide to India contains a mere 17 pages on the two states of Punjab and Haryana, compared to 77 on Tamil Nadu and a whopping 109 on Rajasthan. In that short section, it covers only two places, Chandigarh (which technically isn’t in either state) and Amritsar, dismissively stating that “there is little of tourist interest in the two states” other than the Rock Garden and the Golden Temple.
I thought it seemed a bit of a shame to rule out the whole region just because of a lack of tourist spectacles, especially when it has such a strong cultural identity. I was keen to experience the Punjab for myself, and was already considering going off piste and looking for a couchsurfing contact in the middle of nowhere, when a better option was presented: my couchsurfing friend in Chandigarh suggested that I go and stay with his parents at his family home in Dhuri, a small town (a mere 50,000) in rural Punjab some 130km from the state capital.
A series of buses took me from Chandigarh, via Patiala and Sangrur (which, I notice, boasts unconvincingly in its Wikipedia article to be “a noted centre of international business”), to Dhuri, where I was met off the bus by a family friend and transported efficiently by Hero Honda to the family home, a small but cosy compound on the very edge of town, backing on to fields.
My friend’s parents were very welcoming, and although they spoke no English, only Punjabi, and I only speak a tiny smattering (“tora tora”) of Hindi and no Punjabi, we managed to get along fairly well (“Chai?” “Ha, ji!”). Communication became a lot easier when his twin sister (whom I shall call Sunaina) finished tutoring some local children and was able to bring a more functional bilingualism to the table. We had a long and fascinating chat, comparing our different lives and cultures.
Dinner was served at 2100, which is quite usual for India, and dispells any Western faddish nonsense about the timing of calorie intake having an effect on weight loss/gain. Can we all agree to stop deluding ourselves now and admit that good, unprocessed, home-cooked food and physical activity are the only important factors to a healthy lifestyle; there are no quick fixes like “superfoods” or “no carbs after 6“. It was another simple but delicious meal: daal, vegetables, roti, and curd flavoured with some fragrant additive – maybe fennel seeds? Although I’m starting to suspect that I just don’t know what fennel seeds taste like, so I’m inclined to attribute to them any new flavour I don’t recognise.
The next morning, Sunaina, two female cousins and I walked to the market to do some shopping, me accompanying them as an older brother might, “for protection”. In the outer parts of Dhuri, we passed workshops where men welded trailers, cut up tractor tyres, fixed engines and generators and appliances, and performed all manner of other light industrial tasks. Further in, they squatted in the street to cobble shoes, stockpiled cardboard, or stacked their shop high with vegetables for wholesale. There was the usual proliferation of stalls selling crisps, nuts and paan from hanging strips, food carts cooking snacks of questionable hygienic quality, or sitting abandoned and dusty against walls.
The purpose of the market trip was for one of the cousins to prepare her outfit for a wedding she was due to attend. Our first stop was at a smart-looking shoe shop, selling ornate gold and multicolour embroidered pumps, and little kids’ trainers with “FRNAS TROMERS” logos. Next, a white dopatta (scarf) and gold/tan coloured kurta (dress) were dropped off with a man dying clothes on a little gas stove in a back alley, with instructions to match the dopatta to the kurta. Some long deliberations and negotiations over nail polish and bangles were followed by a visit to a henna artist, after which the cousin was made to walk apart from us, so that she didn’t accidentally smudge us with her brown-glooped arm. The gold/tan dopatta was collected, and from a specialist ribbon emporium a suitable border was chosen to sew on to it.
On the way home, I was encouraged to try the street snack called “pani puri”, or “golgape”, depending where you’re from. I’d wondered before what these little hollow pastry shells were, and how you ate them: dry, like crisps, or prepared in some elaborate way? It turns out it’s the latter, although exactly how, I could never have predicted. The shell has a hole poked in the top and a blob of mashed potato is inserted. Then the whole thing is dipped into a pan of seasoned water and filled. The resulting boat of tasty liquid is popped into the mouth whole and eaten in one go, requiring a bit of skill not to dribble any down your chin and clothes.
On the final morning before I left, Sunaina’s father demonstrated how to tie a pugree, or turban, on me. He said that this version, with one side lower down the face than the other, was the “Patiala style”, although that might just have been an excuse to spare me the embarrassment of having a lopsided head. Sunaina suddenly remembered something she’d been worried about. She showed me on the computer the scenes from Platoon where [SPOILERS] Tom Berenger kills Willem Dafoe, and Charlie Sheen kills Tom Berenger [/SPOILERS] and asked if it was true that in the Army, you’re allowed to kill your own men if it’s for the good of the team. I explained that ‘Nam was crazy, man, and besides, it was just a story. We said our goodbyes and I left to catch the train for Amritsar.
I can’t blame the Rough Guide for not including Dhuri, or any of the thousands of other towns and villages of Punjab or elsewhere. Its job is to pick out notable sightseeing destinations, and it can’t be expected to cover the sort of experience I had here: warm, friendly, real, thought-provoking, and overflowing with hospitality and generosity; a pleasure and a delight, and a highlight of the trip so far.