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Lunch in Patiala, NY, USA
|by H.N. Bali|
Before you have your lunch in Patiala, let me tell you about two endearing attributes of the American way of life. These are two e’s: eclecticism and entrepreneurship — and the very warp and woof of the much-envied American Dream. A word of explanation about both and the role these have played in shaping the American civilization.
Eclecticism represents a conceptual approach that is never content with a single paradigm (i.e., a set of assumptions) and is ever ready to draw upon any idea or concept — old or new — and from anywhere from Mars to Mauritius. The flavour of the season must unfailingly change, and as often as possible. Today’s latest must be replaced with a newer version. If “business of America is business” as Calvin Coolidge told his fellow Americans – a message that Mitt Romney is reiterating as a faithful Republican — fashions must change very frequently so that what I possess today must look outdated by tomorrow, clamouring to be replaced. The reason for the economic stagnation of recent years, the Republican diehards tell us, is the same white colour shirt that Obama insists on wearing day after day. (One day red and blue on the next is bound to stimulate economic demand.)
And for this Americans – believers in free trade that they are — import the best of everything – idea or product — from others irrespective of compatibility or incompatibility. Iraqi kebabs, Iranian pullao, Greek yogurt, Chinese fried rice, Russian chicken a la Kiev, Brazilian coruru, Italian pizza, and, of course, Indian chicken massala. The Main Streets of most American towns are dotted with shops bearing labels like Chinese Food or Korean Delicacies or Mexican Cuisine or Mongolian delicacies along with an Indian restaurant invariably named Taj Mahal run, ironically, by a family from Sylhet, Bangladesh and a Tandoori Chicken jaunt by a Sardarji hailing from anywhere in India. And how dare I forget another one or two Italian Ristoranti side by side a fine dining French eating house.
And this broadness of range of choice doesn’t end with food. The United States is a land of immigrants starting from the Pilgrim Fathers (of the Plymouth Colony in present Plymouth in Massachusetts) to an estimated 11 million Mexican illegal migrants. Perhaps it’s not fair to use the much-looked-down adjective illegal for any arrival in the USA. After all, the entry papers of the Brownish English dissenters — no, no, the color of their skins wasn’t brown; they were followers of Robert Brown — Pilgrims from England – were as suspect as the Mexican who sneaked through the border yesterday or that of Indians manning gasoline stations in New Jersey who sell gas with a differential in prices between payment in green-backs and the ubiquitous VISA credit card or the Russians with macho money who land in droves on the Sunny Isles Beach, Florida, a suburb of Miami. Why single out poor Latinos. The vote of those with legal papers will be in great demand in a few months. The only entrants who were welcome without papers were the slaves that England supplied as workers for American cotton plantations. Of course the Americans have now all forgotten about chattel slavery.
Another example of this endearing eclectic trait is the great variety in the names of town and villages dotting all the states of the Union. I have while driving on American highways encountered Warsaw and Moscow within ten kilometres of each other. (I’m sorry not kilometres but miles. USA and Congo are still debating whether the metric system is scientific enough to adopt.) And if there is Berlin on the west of Warsaw and Moscow in the east, the chilly relations among the citizens of the three towns would be well understandable. All migrants aren’t blessed with historical amnesia. (Isn’t it convenient to forget all that happened till yesterday evening. Today is what matters. No wonder in America everyone asks everyone else first thing every day: How are you this morning?)
There is no Indian town you have heard of – Bombay, Calcutta, Madras, Patna, Ranchi except with rare exception of Chikmagalur (aka Chikkamagaluru) and Jhumritaliayan which doesn’t exist in one (often more than one) US State. So you’ve got to be particular in saying where you had been to. You’re, for instance, expected to say: “I’m back from Madras, Pennsylvania or London, Ontario: otherwise you’re bound to be misunderstood to have returned from a lunar trip.
Driving through Pennsylvania, we once reached Moscow. Don’t get scared. We quickly checked up. No fortified complex. No sign of the Kremlin. It turned out to be just a real small town. And look and behold. It had its Main Street. We explored, looking for an eating house in its southern fringe. A young Chinese couple runs it. The husband is the chef and the wife manages the rest. In my country we’ll need a dozen odd helpers. Most items on the menu card were most reasonably priced, particularly the sea food.
May I now turn to the second great trait of American way of life, namely, entrepreneurship which shapes and determines the warp and woof of American society — the trait responsible for bringing the above-mentioned young Chinese couple to try their fortune out.
I learn from the pundits that entrepreneur is a loanword from French and it crept into the lexicon of modern trade and commerce for the first time courtesy the economist named Richard Cantillon. He used it for someone who puts whatever he has or can manage to muster to launch a new venture and is ready to steer it through. An entrepreneur simply is an enterprising fellow who builds capital by taking a risk to become either a millionaire or go bust. (Generally, the real clever ones risk others’ money to build their own capital and then file for bankruptcy. Don’t you remember Enron Corp., WorldCom, Delta Airlines and the last but not least, as the Bard would say, the venerable Lehman Brothers?) When the financial hurricane Katrina hit the market in 2008, Wall Street wanted Obama to build overnight a China Wall to save Uncle Sam from getting drowned. Poor fellow couldn’t really fulfil all expectations. However, let’s talk of honest hard working average man whose entrepreneurial spirit built the foundations of the formidable economic system of contemporary America.
Joseph Schumpeter in 1930’s offered an insight into the working of entrepreneurship. According to him, an entrepreneur is essentially an innovator who shatters the status quo. Think of innovators, and images of Thomas Edison, Graham Bell, and Nikola Tesla crop up. The shape of things after them could never be the same as it was before them. This definition of shakers of status quo so aptly applies to Bill Gates and Steve Jobs. Recent Apple innovations — iPad as much as iPhone — fundamentally changed the spheres of their applications as Microsoft did in its day. The very title of Robert Lomas study of the life and innovations of Nikola Tesla illustrates this attribute. He called it The Man Who Invented the Twentieth Century. After the invention of AC current (as opposed to DC current that Thomas Edison was content with, things could never remain the same as they were before.)
Peter Drucker, the man who built the foundations of what today masquerades as management studies, emphasized how an entrepreneur searches for change and exploits opportunity that exists waiting to be tapped by an enterprising soul.
It is this entrepreneurial spirit which has made America what it is today — a land of opportunities that enterprising people of the world throng to. That is the very essence of the American Dream.
And it is one such innovator that my wife, son and I recently ran into driving through the New York State on the way to Toronto. His name is Pammi Singh who is one of those thousands of enterprising Punjabis whom you run into at Delhi international airport. You ask anyone of them: “Where are you heading for?” and unfailingly the answer is “Imreeka.” Their knowledge of the language that they are supposed to be communicating in after reaching their port of call; is far from adequate. This doesn’t daunt them. Where there’s a will there’s way to communicate. Most of them are not educated enough to face the world of challenges. But the shine in the eyes speaks of the hope of a better life in the land of opportunities.
The hero of my story is one such enterprising Sardar. Pammi Singh who now liberally trims his beard but unfailingly supports a turban, landed in New York and destiny led him to Buffalo. Was it a wise decision to seek livelihood in one the coldest cities of New York State? For years he did odd jobs to support himself and his family. One thing all immigrants unfailingly do is to make sure that their children get as good schooling as they can manage. That education is the key to a better life is their firm conviction.
For good twelve years Pammi Singh worked as taxi driver operating mostly in the Niagara Falls area which any Indian – or for that matter most first-time arrivals in Buffalo must visit just as the first-time arrivals in Delhi must see India Gate and Red Fort. He picked up passengers from the railhead to drop them to their destination. Day after day he did that.
One day it so happened that someone Pammi Singh was talking to, saw a throng of visitors proceeding to see Niagara Falls from the American side. (The Horseshoe Falls from the Canadian side are far more rewarding. But for that, you must have a visa to enter Canada via the Rainbow Bridge. Most visitors coming from Buffalo are content to view of the Falls from the American side. After all when back from the American trip and asked: Did you go to Niagara Falls they must be able to say “Oh yes, it’s wonderful”.) “With so many visitors everyday there’s great scope for a Indian fast-food jaunt nearby,” Pammi Singh’s friend remarked casually.
The idea hit Pammi Singh liked a thunderbolt. “Why don’t I be that person to start an eatery of Indian fast food”, he told himself. As he was mulling over the idea it was his turn to pick up a passenger in his taxi. He was as obsessed with the idea as the 23-year old Isaac Newton back home from Cambridge University, relaxing on his mother’s farm; he saw an apple fall nearby: “Why do things fall? What brings them down? ”.
He went on mulling over the idea and visualizing how he could get going. Soon it was turn again. He passed it over to the next in the queue. The idea had obsessively got hold of him. Till late in the evening he went on thinking about its ramifications. Soon he called his wife over to have a look at the site where he thought he’ll put up little stall the next day itself.
Soon his wife joined him and a vague business proposition crystallized into a concrete plan. Soon both of them headed for the local Sam’s Club — Wal-Mart’s wholesale outlet used extensively by restaurateurs to buy raw material — to start their venture. As thoroughbred Indians they knew their countrymen’s culinary taste buds: curry-chawal and chhola-bhatura. So, that’s what they would begin with.
They bought four pounds each of ground gram and chick peas and some wheat flour and rice. They worked practically till the wee hours and were ready the next day for the launch of their venture. Reciting “Sat Nam Shri Wahe Guru” they set their stall. And with the Guru’s blessings the tourists lapped up their fare by noon. The price was most reasonable: four dollars for a plate of curry-chawal and the same for chhola-bhatura.
And from that afternoon onwards there was no looking back for Pammi Singh. Neither he nor his wife – now the kitchen manager of the vastly expanded facility — had been to the Harvard Business School — nor had Dhirubhai Ambani — but they knew how to adjust their prices to the rising demand curve. After a few weeks the same menu was priced at four dollars fifty cents with a some raw sliced onion and pickle thrown in. Pammi Singh’s rustic business instinct told him he could get away with frequent upward revisions of prices while simultaneously improving quality and his product range, for the simple reason that tourists being his sole customers were different every day.
One day a customer enquired why he didn’t keep Coke. The very next day Pammi Singh bought from Sam Club a gross of Coke cans. It cost him twenty five cents each and he priced it with the meal now at a rounded five dollars with a can of pop — a handsome margin of profit. He did all this to build some capital. After all he had started with practically nothing but the will to succeed, the real entrepreneurial streak.
For the first two months Pammi Singh and his wife were operating from a make-shift stall. Now he hired a small outlet at 200 dollars a month. After the first year of operation he had made enough money to take small premises of lease. Simultaneously, he went on adding new dishes — gajar ka halwa and gulab jamun as deserts priced to leave him good margins. When he reached the ballpoint of $ 7.50 for a meal, the unexpected problem of giving back change, cropped up. He devised a simple solution: revise the price label at $ 8.00
He ploughed back the handsome profits into expanding business by adding more accommodation and then adequate seating arrangements. And once the setup assumed a respectable look he named it Punjabi Hut. Underneath the signboard carried the punch line: The Best Indian Food in USA. An exaggeration, you might say. But don’t forget exaggeration and advertising walk in tandem.
Punjabi Hut soon added an ice cream parlour. And to this he gave a quintessentially Indian name: Chapan Bhog and for its English equivalent, he selected 56 Flavours which actually served 101 flavours. (Don’t mind the arithmetic.) And for the burger-and-coke-addicted younger generation, Pammi Singh – now joined by his clean-shaven son who was serving the police force in Washington DC — started a separate restaurant in the almost one-acre sprawl that he had leased by now.
When we stopped by for our lunch, there were nearly a hundred odd customers around. The menu was simple: chicken curry, dam alu, daal makhni and another vegetable. No printed menu cards, no one to take orders. Just help yourself. And as much as you can. Of course, a few youngsters were going around replenishing your plate if you ask for it. The speciality is the lightly buttered Tandoori Roti – crisp oven-baked bread. Kheer (Punjabi milk pudding) was the desert of the day. All priced at $12.95, tax included. Perhaps a trifle bit on the high side. But tourists don’t mind spending a little extra. After all they won’t be revisiting the place in a hurry.
This is, in brief, the story of the Punjabi migrant Sardar Pammi Singh, his devoted hardworking wife and his son, the heir apparent. While he narrated the story to us we didn’t have the heart to ask him: what happened to your taxi?
The tiny suburb of Niagara Falls, New York just before the Rainbow Bridge leading to Niagara Falls, Ontario, where Pammi Singh’s Punjabi Hut stands, I’ve called Patiala – that is where the Punjabi entrepreneur hails from. For all you know in the usual display of their magnanimity, New Yorkers may one day call the suburb Patiala, NY.
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