One of the many things that Sher-Shah-Suri had in mind while building the Grand Trunk Road was the safety and convenience of his people. It was with this vision that he had built inns for travellers and shelters for their animals along the road. These inns, built at every kos (2.25 miles), were marked by a tall brick tower called kos-minar, which could be spotted from a distance. These kos-minars served as milestones as well as a sign of comfort and safety for the weary travellers.
As we drive along the legendary road, almost 600 years after it was built, we can still see signs of Sher-Shah-Suri – the kos-minars. Some stand majestically along the highway, some can be seen guarding the crops in the middle of the famous mustard fields of Punjab. What I cannot, however, see are the inns: unlike the kos-minars, they seem to have given in to the vagaries of time.
It has been barely a few hours on the road, but the December chill and the blinding fog has already made it difficult to drive. And even though, we had planned to drive non-stop until we reached our destination, our chattering teeth and growling stomachs have compelled us to stop by at one of the many Dhabas along the GT road. At 10 in the morning the place is already packed with people: large families with children, groups of youngsters, bikers in their biking gear, and the odd single traveller, all by himself. What seemed like a depressing December morning until now suddenly looks cheerful.
Speed is the name of the game at the Dhabas along NH1. With so many mouths to feed, and everyone in a rush to leave, no one has the time to stand and stare, not even the boy serving you. The boy – who is actually a man – serving us is in a rush too and rattles off the menu of the morning in a matter of seconds. Our Parathas arrive in a matter of minutes.
The funny thing about the parathas here, as I find out later, is that they are not parathas at all. Made in the tandoor, with a filling of your choice, they are actually stuffed rotis; the choice to add butter or not remains with you. I choose to douse mine with dollops of white butter to compensate for the lack of fat (someone told me that fat is good for you in winter).
Crisp on the outside and soft inside, the parathas, or rotis, come stuffed with various fillings: potatoes, onions, cottage cheese, cauliflower, radish. I expect each one to taste different, but soon realize that they taste just the same – but for the texture you cannot tell a gobhi paratha from a muli paratha. The culprit, I suspect, is the generous dose of Kasoori Methi common to all; it leaves a uniformly bitter after-taste.
As I get ready to leave, a tad disappointed with the food, I notice the crowd. Looking at the multitude of people eating, drinking, or just stopping by to stretch their limbs, it occurs to me that these Dhabas by the highway are nothing but a modern reincarnation of the inns of Sher-Shah-Suri. They may not give you exemplary service or fancy cuisine, but they do provide the weary traveller with comfort and safety. And that is precisely the purpose of their existence.