We are at the Cherry Festival in Witzenhausen - a tiny town in central Germany, scampering amid the chaotically assembled town people along a narrow street for a glimpse of the year’s Cherry Queen. She has been crowned that morning, to adorn the pageant of the year. Suddenly we hear someone enquiring, “Aap India se hai?” “Are you from India?” The Cherry Queen is quickly forgotten, eclipsed by these words in chaste Hindi by an Indian woman in an alien city.
We are drawn to this Hindi Queen instead - Mrs Raj Binder – only to realize that we were standing in front of her Indian cuisine restaurant, something we never expected to come across in that isolated small town in Germany. She was there with her husband Surinder Pal Singh, the owner of Rialto Pizza, a name not exactly suiting the cuisine they served.
All six of us, professors from India on a mission to defend an Indo-German project on agriculture, had landed there only the previous night and were more than pleasantly surprised to find that at Rialto Pizza we could order dhal thadka, chicken curry, chapathi, biryaniand even raitha. To beat a sleepless night after a long journey, we were prompted to order a rather large dose of Indian dishes and ate to our hearts’ content, only to realize that Raj Binder was not willing to bill us for the food. She was more than happy to feed Indians for free in that far-off town in Germany.
It is from there that we were drawn into a most interesting experience of listening to the social, cultural and economic journey of this family - an exploration that at times triggered tears in their, and our, eyes too. They had learnt over the years that their living was a function of the social success of the food they cook; of cultural mimicry of the cuisine they love to serve; and of course the love to eat. For this they had to experiment, adjust and adopt and evolve in myriad ways, both in the food and in their business.
Then he decided to get married. Bubbly and exuberant Raj Binder from India joined him in 2002. Together, the couple set up a boutique, selling garments mostly from India. Amazed by their success, young Germans in the town were prompted to emulate their business and consequently more shops and eat-outs mushroomed. The small town had place for only a few similar businesses, moreover the locals preferred the natives over the established outsiders. This led to a slump in the Singh family’s good fortune and they decided to close down the garment outlet and downsize Rialto Pizza.
What the local eat-outs could not emulate were the Indian curries. Soon, Rialto Pizza bounced back. Over the last twelve years it has earned a name for itself, catering to the taste of their guests from across all strata of the town and the tourists there.
Just as in the evolution of living beings, in business as well, survival is for the fittest who adapt successfully to changing environments. The Singhs did so effectively over the years and Rialto Pizza has remained a success story. The couple is hugely popular with the locals as well, fully integrated into that small town as they are.
Philanthropy, it appears, is in their blood. There have been several occasions when the couple have served meals free to those who could not afford to pay for food. The ever smiling Raj Binder has been known by the sobriquet ‘Mama’ by Rehemo, a 70-year old native and many others because of her care and hospitality. Their popularity has grown so much in the small country side that a sizeable population of Hubanthal, a small hamlet near Witzenhausen, wait for an annual Indian feast hosted by them. The community also frequent Rialto Pizza to relish Indian cuisine.
The couple’s generosity extends to their homeland as well. A Shiva temple they have built provides free food and organises several activities for the local populace. During the Shiv Rathri festival, the Singhs visit India, bearing with them gifts and goodies for friends, family and the needy
Even as Surinder Pal Singh says that their hearts are in India and that they long to go back to their country, Raj Binder hastens to add, “The earnings, quality of life and facilities for their children are superb in Germany, though there is a sense of insecurity as well, especially in case of my daughter Priya.” They remain torn between two cultures. “Paise tho bohuth hai lekin life tho nahi hai” says Raj Binder with swollen eyes, that there is a lot of money here but not much of a life. All we have by way of consolation for them is a hug.
In the one week of our stay in Witzenhausen, we are treated to the best of Indian food at the Rialto Pizza. In that distant German town, Surinder, Raj and their two lovely children win us over with unmatched hospitality – Indian style.
Dr K N Ganeshaiah and Dr V R Ramakrishna Parama are scientists with the University of Agricultural Sciences, Gandhi Krishi Vignana Kendra (GKVK), Bangalore.
Dr Ganeshaiah is also a popular writer in Kannada.