Two fat dogs were always found idling outside the old Khan Chacha, back when it was still a tiny kiosk in the middle lane of Delhi’s Khan Market, selling tikka roomali rolls. They looked like big furry mountain dogs, and spent entire days looking hopelessly sluggish and cute, forever making sad eyes at patrons. Someone would throw a couple of pieces of chicken tikka in their direction, which would finally make them move. Once, in the mid-2000s, Delhi was gripped by a bird flu scare, which meant that restaurants stopped serving chicken. A lot of patrons at Khan Chacha had to make do with paneer rolls. It was a difficult time for many of us, especially those two dogs.
It was also the time I – first during my school years and then college – was a somewhat-regular at Khan Chacha. The titular character, Haji Banda Hasan or “Khan chacha” himself – an elderly man whose hair was tinged with the redness of age, wisdom and hair product – would sit at the back of the store, not really engaging with customers but forever keeping a watchful eye to make sure everything was in order. His two young sons – Mohammad Saleem and Mohammad Javed – would handle the operations. They were always impeccably polite and courteous. The place would be swarming with school and college kids on any given afternoon, some of whom would settle down on the bike parked outside. It is possible the bike belonged to the brothers, but they never once complained about all the chutney and kebab spillage.
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Much has changed since. For starters, those dogs are probably sprawled on a farm somewhere. Khan Market, a hearth for the arrivistes and the arrived, has become the punchline it always threatened to dissolve into. And Khan Chacha is no longer the plucky underdog stall among the other tony restaurants in Khan Market selling their tikka roomali rolls to students and celebrities, an odd combination which was somehow their prime audience. The fanciest cricketers, the political bigwigs, the very best and worst of Bollywood – they all showed up unannounced. It’s what made Khan Chacha an institution, ubiquitous to any food-map drawn out in Delhi.
It still very much exists – it’s a big brand with many outlets across the city. But the three protagonists of this story – the battle-hardened father and his two sons – are no longer associated with the brand. Khan Chacha is now a chain of Mughlai restaurants, and there’s a whole battle going on for the “Khan Chacha” trademark, and perhaps its soul. So instead, let’s talk about Rule The Rolls first.
Burden of history
I meet Saleem and Javed at Rule The Rolls, which they run together. A relatively new outlet, it is located, fittingly, right next to Khan Chacha. A small board featuring photos of the two brothers and their father with a host of celebrities greets customers. This is a bit of a tradition: at all their old outlets, they would have a collage of photos with actors, cricketers and politicians, along with newspaper clippings of the media coverage they received. Even now, photos with Virat Kohli, Daler Mehndi, Priya Dutt Roncon, Swara Bhasker and Ranveer Singh find their way to the walls at their restaurants. It was a matter of great pride that a small joint had captured the imagination of the country’s very elite. In fact, Javed has to take a quick break from our conversation as he poses for a photo with a television actress who has just finished her lunch.
The brothers started Rule The Rolls in February 2017, first opening an outlet in Galleria Market in Gurugram, before returning to their spiritual home, Khan Market, in October that year. This was after a difficult period for them. “Har kisi ki life mein ups and downs aate hain, uss tareeke se humne bhi challenges face kiye (Ups and downs are a part of everyone’s life, and we faced many challenges),” said Javed. “But our main focus was always on work. We’ve learned our skills from our father, and he’s famous all over. We are just carrying forward his legacy.” Hasan, given his advancing years and health issues, is not quite involved in Rule The Rolls, but his sons – who have a 50-50 share in the venture – are intent on maintaining the same culture they imbibed from him, and they want to pass it on to future generations.
Rule The Rolls may only be a couple of years old, but it’s saddled with the burden, and perhaps the privilege, of immense history. For this venture, Javed and Saleem are using their father’s old recipes and maintaining the same taste that got them such a loyal following in the first place. But they’re also expanding. They own the Khan Market and Galleria outlets, as well as a small kiosk in Saket. Apart from these, they have started outlets in Indirapuram in Delhi as well as in Vadodara and Chandigarh on a franchise model, with more on the way.
The old favourites – chicken tikka roomali roll, mutton seekh kebab roll, paneer tikka, kakori kebabs – are all there. The spices of the tikka still soak gently into the roomali for a roaring contrast, put into sharper focus by the green chutney. But they’ve also introduced half portions of all their rolls. This, Javed tells me, is a way to move with the times. People are now keen on trying out multiple dishes. The smaller portions are affordable and allow people to make their own platters, or eat when they’re not too hungry or part of a group. What’s more, they’ve started serving kebab burgers now, which have become their top-selling item in Vadodara.
How it began
Haji Banda Hasan was born in 1948 in Saharanpur. He moved to Delhi, to Jama Masjid, in the ’60s, and he learnt how to cook kebabs, tikkas and other Mughali dishes from his ustad, Haji Mohamad Yusuf. By 1972, Hasan opened a small stall in Khan Market – at the time, the market had shops on the ground floor while upstairs were residences. He created his own recipes for tikkas and kebabs, and started steadily building a loyal base of customers. Saleem, his younger son, joined him in 1996. Together they moved the business to 36, Khan Market in 1998, which is when things took off. Khan Chacha, at this point, was a stall at one end of the middle lane, close to the entry for the market’s second Big Chill (today, there are four different variations of it here).
Javed, who had been working a corporate job, joined his brother and father in 2000. Saleem would do all the cooking, while Javed was responsible for taking the orders. This was pre-computers, and the brothers had devised their own little system to speed up the process. Javed would scribble shorthand orders, and sometimes he would draw a little doodle – “you’re wearing a checked shirt, then I’d draw checks on the slip” – so that Saleem knew who it was for. Khan Chacha became a major attraction for students, who enjoyed not just the food but also the vibe. It was welcoming. “That time, there was no school or college that didn’t know us – Modern School, Sardar Patel, IILM,” said Javed. “We were the only shop in the gully, and even if one kid came, we’d know…we had to get ready, because all of them would soon show up and hang out there. Woh ek sunehra daur tha (Those were golden times).” By 2005, they had moved to the other end of the middle lane, next to where Perch now is. That was probably their peak, with heavy media coverage – including The New York Times, they tell me with a smile – and a huge customer base.
Now at 41, the first specks of grey have appeared on Javed’s light stubble. He speaks with a kind of sincerity that’s hard to fake. As we sit down, he looks at me and remarks: “You’re an old customer of ours.” He has no reason to remember my face – but he does. Both the brothers share this trait. “We learnt this from our parents. Yeh tehzeeb, it’s natural. It’s god-gifted,” said Javed.
While Javed has fond memories of running Khan Chacha, he is more excited about the direction they have taken now. He walks me through the décor of Rule The Rolls, explaining how they have created a graphic on a wall to narrate their journey. How the Galleria outlet has a Mughal theme, while this one merges that with a British tinge.
Eye on the future
At some point in 2009, Khan Chacha shut down abruptly. Coincidentally, all the street stalls and kiosks in Khan Market were shuttered around the same time. But that’s not what happened with Khan Chacha. There was some kind of dispute, which the brothers are reluctant to elaborate on. A news report suggested a battle over the name. “Who’s the real Khan Chacha?” the headline asked, as Hasan and his sons and the landlord of the spot offered contrasting statements. They remained closed for three months, after which they opened as a swanky new restaurant, complete with an open kitchen and an electronic signboard that displayed a flickering number once the order was ready. They received plenty of offers and finally entered into a partnership with Navneet Kalra (of Dayal Opticals) after a promising proposal. From 2010 to 2016, the partnership flourished as the brand name grew further.
But business disagreements led to what seems, from the outside, to be a bitter split. Javed was unwilling to offer details of what happened since the matter is under litigation. But they are not associated with the Khan Chacha brand any longer – the official website lists only Navneet Kalra in its “About Us” section. The only thing Javed mentioned is that they have not shared the original recipe with anyone.
But a report from 2017 in the Economic Times pointed to a messy affair, with accusations and counter-accusations, as well as allegedly “forged and fabricated” documents. There are, as per the article, claims that an agreement from 2012 that handed over the rights of the trademark to Kalra’s company, the authenticity of which is being disputed.
Javed sounded circumspect about the matter. How long do you think the case will go on, I asked. The brothers merely laughed, a laugh that suggested: “you know how these things go...” Did they make mistakes along the way? Javed chose, instead, to take on an abstract, philosophical tone, speaking of the value of working with people, and how trust is implicit in any business arrangement. “To work, it’s important to trust,” he said. “Duniya mein har tareeke ke log hain (There are all kinds of people in this world). We can only do what we’ve learnt from our elders.”
The priority for them was to start something new. And so Rule The Rolls came into being. They’re grateful to the loyal customers, many of whom are now starting to return. The complicated past and the case do remain on their minds, and they have now realised the value of not just the craft of hospitality and cooking but also the intricacies and coldness of running a business. “Moving forward,” said Javed, “the immediate plan is to develop and further organise Rule The Rolls. Whatever mistakes happened in the past, we won’t repeat them.”
As we’re speaking, an American man showed up at the entrance and struck up a conversation with the brothers. He had visited in 2015 and he remembered the brothers. He wanted to know the story of how Rule The Rolls got started. They finished speaking, and he promised to return.