I didn’t know very much about Ambala, but I had the vague idea that it was in Punjab (it's in Haryana) and that it was somehow associated with dhabas (The only time I'd heard of Ambala before was when I went mutton-hunting in Los Angeles and discovered Ambala Dhaba). Obviously, dreams of mutton again swimming in my head, I went looking on the Internet for famous dhabas in Ambala. So the story starts.
It turns out Ambala does indeed have a dhaba that’s famous. The Hindustan Times warned me that the famous one is full of copies – apparently there were over ten of them (even a reference to one in Chandigarh). This piqued my interest – anything with this much imitation must be worthy of flattery) - so we headed to Ambala.
On the GT Road (now all expressway-looking) right off the bus stand we came face to face with it. Only, it wasn’t quite what I expected – it wasn’t just some dhabas noisily claiming to be the ‘original’ Puran Singh but an entire eco-system with dhabas, shops, an auto repair shack, a grocery and even a hotel all claiming ‘original’ links with the big man. All in all, about fifteen shops of various kinds. This man must have been something special – apparently he’s been dead nearly a decade (and childless) but the craze for his legacy continues. Dhabas of all shapes and sizes insist on being either mashoor or asli or both, and one even insisted that we not pay any attention to other people’s baimaan and dhokebaaz claims.
Our driver pointed out the one that apparently had the best claim to original – the dhaba at the corner called Puran Singh da Mashoor Vishaal Dhaba. Adorned by a life-size picture apparently of the man himself – Puran Singh enthusiastically stirring a pot with two other people who look like the family he didn’t have – this dhaba is the biggest of the lot. And of course, just like the driver had warned, the sign said rather prominently that it shuts at four. We were there just before six…
It seems, from my deep and researched analysis of all claims and some backfill from google that the big one in the Blue Corner - Puran Singh da Mashoor Vishaal Dhaba- is the original dhaba, but is no longer owned by his family. They seem to now own the contender in the Red Corner - Asli Puran Singh da New Dhaba – but the ownership change seems to have happened after the big man died giving the Blue Corner, in my mind, the upper hand. Of course, food joints are decided by recipes rather than owners, but alas neither was open for me to try. Not even the toilet.
We decided to try one of the pretenders – and the most interesting was the one claiming that we should not believe the traitorous and fraudulent claims of the others sounded like the cheekiest. This resulted in a standard dhaba meal of pleasant mutton, good dal and roti. Nothing worth driving to Ambala for, which makes me think - was the big man’s food so great or is it just a fabulous exercise in branding? Punjabis certainly know good food and the GT Road is basically a thousand-mile stretch of food joints, so there must be something to the place to have overcome so much competition to gain (and retain for decades) so much popular appeal.
As every imitator of Schwarzenegger says at some point – Ai will be buck…this time before four.