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Food, Memories & Cheetal Grand!

One winter day in February, 1968, two unconventionally dressed men landed at the Delhi Airport and got into an Amabassador. They travelled along the dusty road for 6 hours and reached the town of Rishikesh. In between, they stopped briefly for lunch at the Cheetal Forest Restaurant at Khatauli, which was next to the Ganga Upper Canal. It was surrounded by a dense forest and had a small deer park. There they ran up a “huge” bill of Rupees 35!
They were the Beatles!
“A comfortable three minutes, thank you,” wrote John Lennon in their visitor’s book. George Harrison tried to impress with his Hindi and wrote “Accha”.
Khatauli, in Muzaffarnagar district lies on the National Highway 58, which is an important route for trade and commerce and also a main route for the many places like Haridwar, Rishikesh, Kedarnath, Badrinath, Dehradun, Mussoorie and Chopta. There is also a huge inn which was built by Shah Jahan. Khatauli is also listed in the Ain-i-Akbari as a pargana under Saharanpur. It also boasts of Triveni Sugar Mill, which is one of the largest sugar mills in Asia.
However, it would be safe to say, that almost everyone who has been to and through Khatauli in modern times has heard of it because of Cheetal Grand Hotel.
The original Cheetal Forest Restaurant on the banks of the upper Ganga canal has now disappeared. When the Beatles stopped for tea and snacks it was a fledgling restaurant and deer park, where travellers used to halt for a cup of tea, samosas, omelettes and bread pakoras. As time marched –so did Cheetal, the small outlet. It transformed itself into “Cheetal Grand”, albeit a little further from the original one. Grand it is for sure.
Cheetal Grand further evolved when the new flyover submerged its visibility. The owners were smart enough to build another one on the opposite side of the highway. The newest Cheetal Grand is now an iconic stop for any traveller on the Delhi Dehradun Road. One can’t miss it – you will see hundreds of cars jostling for space in its parking lot. Once you step into it, you will find hundreds of people having food and snacks in its spick and span eating spaces. On the left of the entry sits the owner – Mr Shariq Rana. His eagle eyes are matched by his neat dress and a perpetual smile. He looks at ease and in command.
My first memories of Cheetal are from the days when it was a small eating outlet in the late sixties and early ‘70s. The word had gone around among travellers that Cheetal served excellent snacks. Those days I was studying at the Delhi University and used to travel on an “elite” bus called the “Doon Queen”. It was elite not because it had air-conditioning. It was elite because it had cushioned 2 by 2 seats and plied only once a week! It had large glass windows with curtains. In addition – the bus used to halt for a break at Cheetal! Personally, I always travelled in the Doon Queen, not for its relative comfort, but because I knew it would stop at Cheetal!
I had the privilege of seeing Mr NM Khan (Shariq’s father) who founded Cheetal. He was born in Bareilly but in order to escape the ravages of a virulent plague, he came to seek his fortune in Khatauli. Being a nature lover, he wanted to start a motel with a natural theme. His dreams took shape when he set up an eating /refreshment outlet in the Cheetal Forest.
However, the Cheetal Grand as we see it today is the vision of Mr Shariq Rana, son of late Mr NM Khan. He was 34 years old when his father died, but he did not allow his father’s dreams to stagnate and took charge and responsibility to expand what he inherited.
Cheetal Grand was born under his leadership.
Whenever I go to and return from Delhi, I always stop at Cheetal Grand. I think I am among the few who have stopped at all its 3 locations on the highway as they evolved. Even when I am not hungry or when I am in a hurry – I stop. I feel guilty otherwise! It’s like passing by a temple and not praying!
Two weeks ago, I stopped and talked with Shariq Rana. He is a celebrity as one can make out by the people crowding around him. I have seen him from his younger days and remember him as a young man who was always hands on in his approach. He used to stand behind the counter, scrutinise the orders and ask his staff to prepare the needful. Sometimes, he would pick up the dish from the kitchen section and hand it over to the traveller!
I talked to him at length. He is a perfect gentleman and got up from his impressive looking cabin and walked with me as I asked him questions. I asked what was the secret that the quality of the food and snacks has not only been maintained but become better despite the number of dishes Cheetal offers and the huge number of people that it caters to.
“The quest for excellence generates quality. I am not satisfied with anything that I feel is not the best we can prepare,” he replied with a smile. I guess that summed up what happened to be a rather long chat that kept getting interrupted by people saying “hello” to him!
He asked me whether I had eaten anything.
Of course I had – butter chicken, grilled vegetable sandwich and my favourite – samosa.
Vintage Cheetal stuff! Excellent food and what was more important, it was spiced with a lot of memories! George Harrison had written “accha”.
I would have written “bahut achha. Lajawab”!
(Kulbhushan kain is an award winning educationist with more than 4 decades of working in schools in India and abroad. He is a prolific writer who loves cricket, travelling and cooking. He can be reached at kulbhushan.kain@gmail.com)