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On the pearl trail

Monish Gujral with the photographs of his late grandfather Kundan Lal and father Nand Lal at the family's Moti Mahal restaurant in New Delhi. Photo: S. Subramanium.

ON APRIL 3, 1983, he got his first job. A sales boy at a bookshop in The Oberoi's in New Delhi. A day later, he joined his family's restaurant. No, the rest is not history. It is the present as his yesterdays slipped into his today and today seeks an appointment with tomorrow. Yet, it did not all start on a note of hope. "The bookshop was offering me a salary of Rs.600. My grandfather gave me the offer to join the family business for Rs.700. I joined it. On the first day, I went wearing a tie to the restaurant with a driver of the family. But there was no chair waiting for me. Instead my grandfather took me to the kitchen, asked me to take off my tie and learn on the job. He thought it was important for me to know the business. Since that day, I do the job as life."

This is Monish Gujral, the scion of Delhi's well-known Moti Mahal family. One uses the term because it has become synonymous with the family of the late Kundan Lal Gujral who started the first of the Moti Mahal series of restaurants, with the first one in undivided India's Peshawar. Then came the Partition, and Kundan Lal came to Delhi as a refugee along with Mukha Singh, who had initiated him into the restaurant business. This trip was necessitated by circumstances beyond the control of the common man, but soon enough Delhi was to gain from the arrival of Kundan Lal. In came the now good old Moti Mahal restaurant in Daryaganj, and with the Palace of Pearls was laid the foundation of Delhi's new culinary map.

Butter chicken, chicken tandoori, dal makhani became delicacies to be savoured, for the first time to the accompaniment of qawwalis. In came the likes of Sunil Dutt, Dilip Kumar, Nargis and political bigwigs like Pandit Jawaharlal Nehru, Indira Gandhi and others.

Recalls Monish, a Modern School product who has just authored "Moti Mahal's Tandoori Trail" (brought out by Roli Books), "The word Moti Mahal was so overpowering. I was always so popular with teachers and friends. As a child I would see Bollywood's who's who at Moti Mahal parties. I recall seeing Dilip Kumar, Rajesh Khanna and others."

But Monish was still so young then. The baton had to pass on to the father, Nand Lal Gujral. Unfortunately, Nand Lal passed away before the chain could be extended. "My grandfather started his day early. He would go to the restaurant and come back in the afternoon. At 7.30 p.m. he would go back. He had a social life, he was a juror too, but Moti Mahal was his life. He never thought beyond the Walled City. He was sold to it. He spent life perfecting what he loved. My father, a product of Hindu College, died quite young but he wanted Moti Mahal to be upmarket. He told me to carry the flag forward, never to take it as a job. He encouraged me to live my dreams. I am carrying his dream forward."

Kundan Lal and Nand Lal passed away in the 1990s. Recalls Kundan Lal's rakhi sister, "He retained all the old world values." Adds Monish, "We have always had a temple and a gurudwara at home. My grandfather as well as father would start their day meeting their mother."

Today, he recalls wistfully the days the family spent in Peshawar. "There was no Hindu-Muslim enmity. Our clients were like a family. In fact, we don't mind opening an outlet in Peshawar now after the response Indians have got in the wake of our cricket team's Pakistan tour."

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