The Man Who Was Delhi’s Original King of the Good Times in the Fun Fifties
WHEN Pishori Lal Lamba arrived from Lahore in New Delhi in 1940, and set up a hand-cranked ice-cream store named Kwality (the odd name wasn’t a spelling error, but a marketing ploy to get people’s attention) at the Regal Building owned by one of the builders of New Delhi, Sir Sobha Singh, and designed by the English architect, Walter Sykes George, his clientele consisted mainly of American GIs who were barracked in the neighbourhood and their Indian girlfriends.
India had been dragged into World War II and most of the Americans, commanded by General Joseph ‘Vinegar Joe’ Stillwell, were awaiting their turn to go to what was then called the ‘CBI’ (China Burma India) Theatre, one of the toughest terrains where battles have been fought.
The non-combat GIs of course lived like royalty (as you’d find out from the pages of their community newspaper, CBI Record — www.cbi-theater.com). They attended balls hosted by the Maharaja of Bikaner at Bikaner House (now in the news for becoming the address of the second Chor Bizarre); threw pool parties at the palatial home of Sir Shankar Lal (‘Shankar Niwas’) on Curzon Road (Kasturba Gandhi Marg); watched the newest Hollywood releases at Regal; dined at the theatre restaurant Davico (later renamed Standard, which after being shut since 2006, is set to return as our own Madame Tussaud’s); and surprised Lamba and his old friend, business partner and, later, brother-in-law Iqbal Ghai with their prodigious appetite for ice-cream after late night shows.
Long-time manager Kuldeep Raj, who joined Kwality as a 16-year-old in 1956, says Lamba used to reminisce that it was common for GIs to ask for ice-cream and meaning not a ‘slice’ but a ‘block’ (those were the days when ice-cream was served as slices cut like bread from a block). They introduced Ghai-Lamba (as they were popularly known till they split in 1979) to the Sicilian Cassata and the all-American tutti-fruitti, which are still served at Kwality, and they taught them to make sandwiches with freshly baked bread.
It was a U.S. Army veterinary surgeon posted in New Delhi who introduced Ghai-Lamba to the commercial ice-cream business, which led to the birth of Kwality, the iconic ice-cream brand that the by-then estranged duo sold to HUL in 1994, which is why it is known as Kwality Wall’s. Kwality, the restaurant, meanwhile became famous for its butter-soft Pindi chana and bhature, whose recipe came from another Pishori Lal, Lamba’s favourite halwai at his summer home, Mussoorie. The Kwality chana-bhatura‘s fans are said to include Nargis, Maneka Gandhi and, more recently, Rahul Gandhi.
Lamba, however, will be remembered for being the city’s first urbane restaurateur famous for his perfectly tailored suits and colourful pocket squares (in complete contrast to Moti Mahal founder Kundan Lal Gujral‘s Pathani suit and turban), for his penchant for living larger than life, and for his razor-sharp understanding of the business. Industry veterans, one of them being former ITC Hotels chief S.S.H. Rehman, who started his second career as hotelier at the Ghai-Lamba hotel, Rama International in Aurangabad, can never forget how he used to be a walking Excel sheet.
Kuldeep Raj remembers how he quizzed prospective employees at interviews, asking them questions like how many cups of tea can be made with a kilo of tea leaves — that would leave even managers with experience stumped. Rehman remembers Lamba once teaching him how to reduce the wastage of potatoes by purchasing only those with the least number of eyes (green growths that have to be scraped off). Lamba’s eye for details was legendary.
The Lamba-Ghei duo’s most colourful contribution to the city’s social life was Gaylord, a brand that got cloned in places as diverse as London and Tokyo, Hong Kong and Trinidad — there was a Gaylord even in Kobe, which is famous for its finely marbled wagyu beef, making Ghai-Lamba India’s first restaurateurs with an international footprint. And they did it in the high noon of the licence-permit raj, when RBI allowed just $8 per person travelling overseas, when angel investors, venture capitalists and PE funds did not appear even in the wildest dreams.
Those were also the days when ‘gay’ meant happy, so Ghai-Lamba also ran a shop named Gaytime selling espresso coffee (the kind we get at shaadis) and softy ice-cream. Lamba once said to me that the Bengali gent who had coined the name Gaylord in a contest advertised in The Statesman, the favourite newspaper of the Bengali community, won a bottle of Johnny Walker Red Label for his hard work (the word was special to the duo because it had a ‘G’, for Ghai, and an ‘L’, for Lamba).
Gaylord was the symbol of Delhi’s Fun Fifties — it was the city’s first restaurant to have a wooden dance floor and employ foreign musicians to get the elite jiving (for many years, a Spanish trio kept Gaylord’s patrons entertained); it frowned upon casual dressing and kept a stock of spare dinner jackets and patent leather shoes for those who violated the dress code.
One of them was the industrialist Gujarmal Modi, who came one day to Gaylord wearing his Marwari dhoti, kurta, chappals and topi. Lamba went to him and asked him curtly whether he had read the notice regarding the dress code at the entrance of the restaurant. Modi took out a cheque book and asked Lamba to dictate a sum of money. “I will buy this restaurant at whatever price you state and turn it into a stable for my race horses,” he thundered.
It didn’t take Lamba long to realise he should just melt away and let his managers assuage the ruffled tycoon. Fortunately for Delhi, Modi did not carry out his threat, but Gaylord did not survive beyond the early years of the new millennium, although it’s thriving in Mumbai and London. Kwality, nonetheless, continues to be a reminder of the man who turned it into an everlasting part of CP’s history.