Nagpur: She was the perfect example of a child born with a silver spoon in her mouth. Born to Gural Singh, the eldest of the Tuli brothers – of the Tuli Transport and Tuli Hotels fame – she was the ‘ladli’ first beti of her parents. Anything she wanted, was for her asking. Toys, clothes, chocolates etc. etc.
But the perceptive child learnt to discern between what could be asked for and what couldn’t.
Right to college education? No. Freedom to make your own life decisions? Not at all!
She was just 18 and 12th pass, when she was married off. It was an arranged marriage into another conservative Sikh family who did not like the idea of their bahu going out to college or doing anything professional of her own.
She started a Play school but was told to join the ‘family business’ and help out her husband if she wanted a ‘career’. Thus she started getting involved in running V5 – a popular restaurant of Nagpur. She realized in the process that she had a knack for the hospitality industry which ironically her own family of Hotel owners failed to ‘exploit’ of capitalize on. Only if she had been born a son instead of a daughter, life could have been so different…
But Mini Pal did not dwell on such things. She had a family of her own by now, a daughter and a son. She was determined that her own daughter would get to lead the life she wanted and not chartered by anyone else.
“For any outsider my life was still like a fairy tale. Pampered daughter married into rich family where I was the eldest daughter in law. We had intercoms in every room – I just had to pick up the phone and demand anything.”
But again, the ‘anything’ did not include precious things like Trust, Respect and Love.
As they grew older,instead of mellowing down, her spouse became more suspicious, more resentful of her ‘success’ and generally hostile.
“He wanted my help professionally, but at the same time did not grant me any freedom.”
The last straw was when physical abuse began. She had to make a police complain and later fight a bitter court case for divorce and custody of children. Her parents understood her predicament and supported her this time.
After 5 years of bitter wrangling, she was at last free of a suffocating marriage that had lasted for 22 years.
But what next? She was only 40, and did not want to live out the rest of her life as a ‘burden’ on her maiden family.
So, at that age, Mini went and enrolled herself in college to become a graduate. (She did BBA). Then she requested her dad for the most precious gift a ‘daughter’ could ask for – a home of her own! Not her father’s, not her husband’s or her brother’s or her son’s, but her exclusive place.
She had been thinking of branching out on her own for some time, and had experimented with some ventures. But this time it had to be something bigger than that, something that would make her financially independent forever… She learnt that there was an open air restaurant up for lease on the Wardha road, close to the airport. She took it on a long lease, rebuilt the whole thing and launched ‘Papa Pencho’ – a shack type cross between a dhaba and a proper restaurant, which almost immediately became a big hit with Nagpur’s foodies.
With her long experience of observing the operation of Tuli restaurants and her involvement with the running of V5 she knew the pulse of Nagpur public and their culinary choice.
“I decided to concentrate on Indian/Punjabi cuisine,kebabs and some Chinese popular dishes. My personal choice may be different, but I know Nagpur is not yet ready for continental or other international fare…so that is what I decided to offer, but made by the best chefs I could hire” says Mini.
In this enterprise too she maintained her principles.
‘No poaching of staff from Tulis or V5’ – even though many of her ex employees showed interest in joining her.
Though people liked the place and the food it was not easy going at all.
Running a dhaba, that too on the Wardha road, was not a piece of cake. That too owned and run by a lady!
There was intimidation and disturbance from many quarters.
Then there was an instance of a Police officer, getting high handed and physically aggressive with her partner.
It made the partner – a young person from Pune – quit but not Mini. She was now the sole operator but she kept going. The bad publicity that the incident garnered made her patrons keep away expecting more trouble.
“It took me 4 months to get my customers to come back” remembers Mini.
“But my staff,my chefs and others stood by me through thick and thin.”
Soon, it is going to be the second anniversary of her restaurant which has very regular customers and is known for offering something apart from great food.
A great Ambience! She has live music on many nights – popular brands or even Sufi music. The interior consists of luxuriously laid out ‘shacks’ with enough privacy for every table and a central air conditioned longue which she opens for private parties or during hot summer months.
“My regular customers say they feel a rare peace and tranquility here – they come 3-4 times a week. I know them so well they are like my family now” says Mini with genuine warmth in her voice as she waves to some of them.
(As we are chatting with her on a weekday evening at her restaurant, she keeps getting calls. “Mini, we are coming in 15 minutes… 8 of us, Keep our regular table ready.”)
There is such rush for her chicken kebabs, peanut bhel, chilly paneer and bhuna mutton that even on weekends she is kept busy till midnight.
On weekends, the rush can go on till 3 a.m.!
So how does she manage the commute from her home to her work place – a distance of at least 15 Kms?
“I drive myself.” She answers. Alone? “Yes, why not?”
What are her other secrets of success?
“Nothing much. I give my chefs and all my employees their space. Unless there is an emergency, I never go into the kitchen to see how they are cooking. I pay my people well and I treat them courteously. I do not have any problems of staff turnover” she says proudly.
As Mini shares this with us, she looks calm and peaceful herself. At last.
“My daughter Rachita says she has never seen me so happy and fulfilled. She is a working woman in Delhi and has no plans of coming here to join me” she adds.
The princess it seems, has finally found her Kingdom – or shall we say Queendom?
What are her plans? “To open many more ‘Papa Penchos’- but without leaving Nagpur. I love it too much!”
—-Mini Pal in conversation with Sunita Mudaliar