Friday, 26 December 2008

Masala Dosa, Mexican Style!

When it came to spicy food, my friend Peter was more Indian than many Indians themselves.

Peter was German by birth. While still in his early 20s, he moved to Mexico, fell in love with a lovely Mexican girl, married her and stayed on there for close to two decades. When I first met him, he had already moved to the US and acquired an American accent. But that was about all: the drooping moustache, the colourful shirts, the easy charm, the laid-back approach to life and the passionate fondness for spicy food proclaimed him to be a true-blue Mexicano at heart.

Whenever Peter visited India on work, I used to travel with him to all the major metros including Hyderabad. After working-hours, it was the unwritten agreement that we go out for dinner together and I introduce Peter to the local cuisine, the spicier the better. Peter was unfazed at whatever I threw at him, whether it was a piping hot Rasam in Chennai, fiery Kozhi Varutha Curry in Mysore, or Chicken Kolhapuri in Mumbai which would have easily cauterized the taste buds of a lesser mortal. Peter enjoyed every meal and held forth at length on how similar, yet different, were the cuisines of India and Mexico; he had this strange thesis that Indian spices affected the inside of the mouth whereas the Mexican chilli peppers gave you a burning sensation around the lips.

Once we are in Bangalore and Peter expresses a wish to have a typical South Indian breakfast. We have been on the road for almost a week and I have been getting rather tired of the “orange juice-toast-fried eggs” routine. Happily acceding to his request, I take him the next day morning to a very popular South Indian restaurant.

It is seven-thirty in the morning and not very crowded. We start with idlis which I tutor him how to have, with chutney, sambar and other accompaniments. Peter takes to idlis with gusto, breaking off large pieces and dipping them alternatively in chutney or sambar and plopping them into his mouth with obvious relish. Four plates of idlis go down the hatch pretty quickly when I, still on my first plate, order for Masala Dosas.

The Masala Dosas when they come are a treat to the senses, golden-brown, crisply folded, and exuding a heavenly aroma that brings tears to my eyes. Peter takes his first mouthful, closes his eyes in intense concentration, opens them and beckons the waiter. He dismisses my wordless query with a gentle, dismissive wave and asks the waiter for a plate of cut green-chillies.

As I watch in consternation, Peter opens the flap of the Masala Dosa and empties the entire bowl of finely chopped green chillies into the filling, replaces the flap and calmly resumes eating.

“It tastes even better now,” he says laconically.
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Friday, 19 December 2008

Requiem for a friend

In the normal case, he would have left the office shortly after 5 pm. But just before closing time, a machine breakdown had been reported and he was assigned the call. The problem was a knotty one and took a long time to fix. By the time he got the service report signed, washed, and changed from his work clothes to normal office attire, it was past 11 pm.

It took a while to wave down a taxi. And finally a long wait at Bandra station for the Harbour Line local that will take him to his wife and two kids and his home in Mazgaon.

There were only a handful of commuters in the first-class compartment at that late hour and by the time the train left Wadala station, he found that he was all alone. Not that he was afraid. He was a Mazgaon boy, born and brought up in Bombay and knew the area well. As the train rattled through the night, past the dilapidated industrial shantytown of Sewri and the long-abandoned warehouses of Cotton Green, he fell into an uneasy, fitful slumber.

They came for him at Reay Road.

One look at the three youths that towered over him in a half circle and he knew he was in trouble. Half-crazed with drugs and armed with switchblades, he guessed them to be members of one of the many gangs that operated in the eastern dockland area. He knew better than put up a fight and willingly parted with his wallet, watch and his gold chain.

They wanted his ring as well but try as he might, he could not get it off his finger, which for the stoned youth seemed like deliberate delaying tactics. So they pulled him up roughly to his feet, stabbed him once and jumped out of the train which was slowing down for its stop at Dockyard Road station.

Bleeding profusely but still conscious, he staggered out of the train and managed to drag himself to the stationmaster’s room. Still thinking lucidly, he described what had happened and gave the stationmaster his name, address, and office phone number. By the time the stationmaster with the help of a few good Samaritans got him to a hospital, he had lost much blood and slipped into a coma.

He died two days later.

It took us weeks to recover from the death of a colleague who was liked as much for his easy charm as for his quaint, Goan-accented English. What we found hard to reconcile ourselves to, was the irrationality of it all; how a number of seemingly insignificant factors conspired to come together on that particular night to bring him in front of an assassin’s knife.
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Saturday, 13 December 2008

The Biscuit tin Rider

During the summer vacation months of April and May, the buses which plied the route from Bombay to Mangalore ran full. Without booking at least a month in advance, it was impossible to get a seat on any of them.

One hot summer day in May, I find myself stranded in Mangalore without a ticket to Bombay. Lugging my suitcase, with sweat trickling down my spine, I visit the tiny offices of all the major bus operators for a seat on a bus leaving that night, only to be turned away every time. No seats are available. All buses are totally booked out.

Finally, the booking clerk in one of the offices offers me a biscuit tin.

“Sorry?” I don’t understand what the man is talking about.

The booking clerk patiently explains to me since the bus is completely full, he cannot offer me a seat of course, but he can place a tall biscuit tin in the aisle, provided I was willing to undertake the 24 hours travel sitting on top of that biscuit tin. Normal charges would apply, he adds for good measure.

Such was my desperation that I agreed and forked out the money.

Only when I boarded the bus did I realise that I was not the only “biscuit tin rider” on the bus. The intrepid bus operator had ensnared three other unfortunate souls besides me and there was not one, but four biscuit tins in the aisle, placed at strategic intervals.

Although years have passed, even today I can think of that journey only as a metaphor for sheer physical agony. By the time the bus stopped in a roadside restaurant in Kundapur for a short break a few hours later, my back was on fire. Somewhere along that long night, I guess I became inured to the pain but the pangs of regret and jealousy I had felt seeing the other passengers leaned back in their seats in quiet slumber, were enough to keep me awake the whole night.

Talk about the kindness of strangers, relief came the next day morning when a passenger offered to exchange his seat with me for the biscuit tin for an hour. I was touched by this gesture and told him I couldn’t possibly accept his generous offer. Fortunately he insisted and very soon my protestations sounded too feeble even to myself.

Ah! The sheer pleasure of sinking into a proper seat and allowing your inflamed back some much-needed succour!

Believe me, it is in moments such as these one starts contemplating the possibility of God and such other weighty philosophical issues.
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Sunday, 7 December 2008

Video Nights in Belgaum

The other attraction in taking a “luxury coach” from Bombay to Mangalore was that most of these buses had a video player and colour television and showed at least three movies during the journey. This was during the early ’80s, when most middle-class Indian households had not even a colour TV to boast of, let alone a video player. So there was something incredibly satisfying and romantic at the prospect of leaning back in your seat and watching a movie as the bus negotiated the dangerous hairpin curves of Bor Ghat or as it sped swiftly through the deepening night along the Konkan coast.

The videotapes were invariably pirated camera prints of the latest Hindi film releases. Since the whole process of making a camera print involves someone sitting with a clandestine video camera in a projection room, most likely with the connivance of the projectionist, or even in some undetected corner of the movie hall, and videotaping a movie when it is actually being screened in a theatre, one could hear applause and catcalls in the background and see the back of some of the viewers’ heads as they got up from their seats and made their way across the aisle for a smoke or a toilet break.

The prints were grainy and the colours were awful. The soundtrack, often stepped up for maximum volume for the benefit of the viewers at the back of the bus, screeched painfully and reverberated within the confines of the bus, making sleep nearly impossible.

The passengers took these minor inconveniences in their stride and grumbled good-naturedly and without malice and sat stoically through the movies.

Not that there was no respite, of course. The movie timings were more or less fixed and rest of the time you could sleep or daydream or look out of the window. The first movie started once the bus had left the choked suburbs of Sion and Chembur behind and got onto the Eastern Express Highway to Pune and beyond. The second movie was put on around 3 pm which got over nicely in time for Belgaum and Hotel Ramdev. The third and final movie, which I seldom got around to watching for obvious reasons, was screened around 9 pm and finished close to midnight.

Sometimes you were lucky enough to catch a really good movie from an original print instead of a pirated one. One such movie which I saw on such a bus journey was Mere Apne, which also marked the directorial debut of a man called Gulzar.

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Tuesday, 2 December 2008

A Bus to Mangalore

Not exactly the right time for a light-hearted post, but God knows, all of us deserve a break from the sustained grief and melancholy of the past few days. Forgive me, if you find the levity of this post inappropriate.

There was a time when I used to travel quite frequently between Bombay and Mangalore. This was before the Konkan Railway had opened, when trains from western India had to make their way down south close to Madras, go transverse, and then loop back up along the Kerala coastline, to reach Mangalore. It was a journey that took close to 48 hours and was guaranteed to test your patience and physical endurance.

A quicker alternative was to take one of the so-called “luxury coaches” from Bombay to Mangalore. It was less comfortable than the train, confined as you were to your cramped seat for a whole day and night, but had the advantage that it cut the journey time by almost half.

There were many operators plying this commercially-lucrative route and, I suspect, they continue to flourish even today. Most services from Bombay were either early in the evening or late at night. But I preferred the morning buses for a particular reason and it was called Hotel Ramdev.

The morning buses reached the half-way point of Belgaum around seven in the evening and halted at that excellent hotel for a whole hour. Now Ramdev, catering as they did to the weary traveller, had a well-stocked bar; the quality of food served was also quite good. So the more experienced and enterprising travellers, knowing that time-management was of utmost essence here, jumped out of the bus even before it entered the parking lot, quickly freshened themselves up and headed straight to the bar to tip back a couple. Once blood circulation returned to the tired limbs and aching backs, they tipped back a couple more and trooped to the restaurant to feast on the food they had pre-ordered at the bar itself.

When the bus pulled out of the parking lot, these gentlemen came out of the restaurant a bit unsteady on the legs, but none the worse for wear, and clambered onto the moving vehicle with a smile on their lips and a song in their hearts.

Never once did they miss the bus.

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Stepping Sideways... by K. Radhakrishnan is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-No Derivative Works 2.5 India License.