It is 45 years since I visited Rishikesh last. My memories were of floating wood logs, young boys and girls with tins tied to their back jumping into the river learning to swim, and boat rides when even as a kid I could stretch over and touch the cool waters of the new born Ganges. The promise of 4.58 hrs in Google as average travel time was tempting, so we chose Rishikesh as our week-end outing destination when my niece and nephew landed up. In the end, we spent the weekend, shall I say, trying to ‘reach there’.
We had our lunch at Ramdev’s ashram (or more appropriately his mini republic in the making) near Haridwar at around 4 pm… on the recommendation of our driver, who always recommend places that fit their standard of hygiene and cleanliness or where they get their food free. Sometimes they kind of force that choice on you. But in this case it must have been more due to affiliation and reasonable prices.
His establishment on the right side of road looked massive, huge herbal gardens, what looked like factories, and Patanjali research centre, Yoga centres, etc following one after the other. The food courts housed with some other facilities are on either side of the road just outside Hardwar towards Delhi. We saw a fleet of cars and buses parked inside the campus (thank him for they were not spilling over onto the roads. He seems to have skillfully estimated his following or having established the facilities created the requisite following). There was a milling crowd even at the time.
Most of the crowd was middle age – people who looked between 35 to 60 years – hardly any older ones (i could have counted them on my fingers), with their young ones in tow. I saw the same kind of devotion or urge in their eyes as when i go to India’s religious places like Tirupathi, Siddhi Vinayak Temple or SriNadhwara. Except here there was no God, it is more Ramdev. He seems to have become a sort of a messiah for the low income or low-middle income class. They were not chanting his name like in Trirupathi, but the vibes in the air was clear.
I may not be able to put a finger on what exactly his USP is – but it is not just religion: it is something more. May be they feel left out by the political process or that their lots have not improved as much in recent years as that of others. Or they are feeling culturally betrayed and need a new sense of identity. Or the rest of India has tried to fast forward traditions beyond what this class is comfortable with and Ramdev is the best bet to put the much needed speed breakers. There seems to be a huge vacant space of serving which marketers and political parties seems to have missed which he is serving which should account for his popularity.
I may not be conclusive – it is not just religion or yoga alone. Or just product benefits, aroma, taste, medicinal value, or environmentality, superior packaging. It seems much more, much different. May be Ramdev knows or may be he himself does not know but has per chance hit upon the magic, like sometimes you succeed without knowing the reasons for your success. He would require a lot of de-coding. His products are a huge succees and I reckon that even if he were to put Patanjali banions and underwears, they will become instant hits. Such seems to be the sense of affiliation in the Ramdev Republic.
Now on to the food. The food itself was tasty – better than Ammas kitchen (Chennai), or Brahma Kumaris (BK) or Sri Sris (SSR), or Tirupathis Anna Prasadam (free). Reasonably clean.
While i was waiting for my turn to pick up my Thali, the man ahead started an argument with the counter server. It was about the quantity of Rava Kesari (Sheera) in his meal. I thought it was alright but he was arguing it was less in comparison to his predecessor’s. It filled the steel saucer alright but still the man kept arguing over what perhaps would have been 2-3 gms difference or perhaps the shape it was served. I don’t know what gets our (all Indians and I stand at near the head of the queue) worst guts out when it concerns food. May be long years of seeing starvation around and many of us would have liberated out of that only recently and embedded memories and psyche remain. Finally when the man behind counter obliged him in sheer frustration, the customer walked away with a smug (or triumphant) smile on his face.
Even while the drama was unfolding at my counter there was some heated exchange at the other. The customer was insisting that the kichdi be packed and the counter man as explaining that there is no such system. With each denial the temper was shooting up. The man behind counter turned around and asked his colleagues if there was some such system. Finally he lost his cool on his own ilk and ‘why don’t they tell at the counter itself that we don’t pack food’. And some mild adjectives to describe their mental state, etc. He was at his wits end … about to become one of the ilk that he himself described moments back. Finally he served kichdi to the brim on the plate (just that it wasn’t spilling over) and sort of threw the plate at the customer. I felt sorry for the counter server. I thought it was too much of a sampling error (2 in parallel) what i noticed. But if true, i suspect I may not last that job more than a couple of hours. Poor man from the interior or upcountry area in search of a daily living by serving people … we can be sympathetic or sensitive to each other a lot more. This is where i find Buddhist countries far more evolved.
I had been to Ammas kitchen a year or so back. They served too much of kichdi. I tried reasoning (when i argue with the counter clerks, i call it reasoning, pl note) i was imply incapable of eating their serving … it may last 2-3 sessions etc. and that she could serve as I deem full. But she said that she had to serve 275 gms (or 375gms) as the board announced and nothing short as per strict instructions, and that i could throw the excess if so desired. Some such similar disciplining happens in Tirupathi as well (they won’t serve anything in side cups or rasam and Butter milk in tumblers – impossible). I realised the value of standardisation of serves after seeing the quarrels.
A simple board announcing ‘No packing of food’ and just keeping a weighing scale near the counter and mentioning the size of serving (gms) would have quelled both the ‘Beja Frys’ I thought. In both cases, my sympathies were overwhelmingly with the counter salesman.
Rating wise Ramdev’s food was tastiest, Tirupathi service quality the best (for the volume they handle anything less would be chaotic in no time), and for overall experience Ammas kitchen stands out. Ramdev must be recovering full cost at least and others don’t.
Whatever it is Ramdev Baba stands for or preaches, he could also teach them some basic courtesies, politeness, respect for rules and queues and sensitivity towards others. I have not found ground level sensitivity being taught at SSR, or BKs either. The 11 year old boy at Ramakrishna Ashram who showed me around in 1994 near Trichy was dignified and self assured. I wonder if they have such programme. He could have a huge impact. They all have raw love – if i fall ill on the road or down with an accident these are the very same people who would most likely rush to my rescue, not the priests of polish and outward politeness – it is the just the briefing which may be the missing link. Ramdev may be the best placed to bring about that welcome change.
May be he could teach them some basic hygiene, cleanliness and lessons on littering. They could become a million walking advertisements for his enterprise and convert a lot of the as yet unconvinced.