Tuesday, July 20, 2004

What Was I Thinking?!

The usual result of a man’s cohabitation with a woman is to make him a trifle more petty, a little more mean, a shade more shallow than he used to be and all together lacking in substance. I recall being able to say profound things in such funny ways without making the effort and being light on my feet and possessing a certain savoir faire... And now I am just a middling slob concerned mainly about getting through the week, wearing laundered clothes to work and sleeping in late on Saturday mornings. I am concerned about what people actually think of me and worry if it is bad form to turn up at a wedding without my wedding band on my ring finger.

Used to be that I could knock back a couple of Patiallas without a second thought. Now I vex about “not” appearing drunk. I am less intense and more inattentive to things around me. Maybe I am not drinking enough. Hand me a chotta, yaar….

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I am down memory lane in Bombay again this evening. I remember Kooler’s Café in Matunga, and the Restaurant and Cafe outside Dadar (Central) Station… I forget the name. They were both Iranis….

I guess, I must not have been more than four years old (I hadn’t quite started school yet), when my dad took me to this Irani restaurant. I cannot recall where it was, but I remember the black chairs and the round tables and the manager’s counter right at the entrance, and I remember, most fondly, the Kasata ice-cream.

Desi cuisine was not on the menu when people in Bombay went out to eat a generation or two ago. I read somewhere that the most common restaurants in the city until the late 1960s were the Iranis. They served up the standards of British high-tea: cakes, flaky pastries, buttered brun (a crusty bun), sweet buns, rusks and tea with milk and sugar.

There is something distinct about Irani restaurants. Yes, the décor is still stuck in the 1950s, the menu in the 1930s and the proprietor (who usually doubled up as the manager) looked like they were from the late 1800s.

But that was not it. Maybe, it was the mirror on the walls and the ceiling – that was a touch of gay… wouldn’t you say? Perhaps… Perhaps not. It was not the picture of Zarathustra, who looked on serenely from behind the cash counter. Indians are used to their holy-bolies.

The Iranis were quaint – they served tea in British-rail-type service, and the cookies served out in china saucers came out of bulbous glass jars placed along the cash counter. The restaurants usually occupied the strategic corners of buildings, and you could spot the manager at the counter from across the street. The Irani café exuded an attitude, that no other restaurant I have ever been to since, does.

That’s it – an attitude! The attitude of the waiter, who couldn’t care less if you didn’t like his service. An attitude that came across in the Bawaji in his sweaty sadra swatting flies off his marble topped cash-counter. The attitude reflected in the indentation in the said marble top, from years of abrasion from coins transacted over its surface. Some restaurants took the attitude to a Seinfeldien level.

I recall a restaurant near Metro Cinema that actually had a set of written directives for its customers. I don’t remember its name… Maybe, it was Bastani… I am not sure. Any way, it is not far from Kayani’s so famous for its nan-katais (cookies). Most of the rules, as I recall, were prohibitory in nature. They ranged from the garden variety (Don’t put your feet on the chair) to invigilatory (No discussing politics) to the extreme (No hanky panky in the stalls).

Nissim Ezekiel, Bombay’s erstwhile unofficial poet laureate was inspired by the signs to pen the “Irani Restaurant”


Do not write letter
Without order refreshment
Do not comb
Hair is spoiling floor
Do not make mischief in cabin
Our waiter is reporting

Come again
All are welcome whatever caste
If not satisfied tell us
Otherwise tell others
God is great.”

Beside the rules, I recall, they had an excellent bread pudding. Across the street, Kayanis was more well known for their excellent cookies and plum cakes.

The Iranis are on their way out. I fear, I might not even see them on my next visit. There was talk during my last trip of Kooler being converted into an Uduppi.

Bombay’s fast food has decidedly gone South Indian these days. The Shettys and the Nayaks from the South have seized on the Irani template, adapting the design to suit their ends. The straight-back black chairs have given way to sturdy benches. Marble-tops have been replaced by formica-topped cafeteria-style tables. The buns and biscuits have given way to vadas and doasa. The footprint is almost the same, but the Uduppi’s buzz of efficiency, stands in contrast to the quiet, easy pace of the Irani. There is still a garlanded picture and incense sticks behind the man at the cash counter – chances are it is Nityanand, not Zarathustra. Oh! I do miss the Bawaji in the sadra behind the counter.

Sunday, July 18, 2004

Qui In Ventem Urinat, Se Lavare Constat...

.. That's all that I have to say for today. In case you are wondering what that means.... Well... Who pisses in the wind, washes himself... Goodnight!

What Was I Thinking?!

I’ve ceased to be moved
Not fear, nor pain
Not love, nor gain
Or sentiment of any kind
Stirs those thoughts in my mind
Not booze, nor rush of any kind
Prods the muse, or makes me write
I fear, I am dead from the inside
How else could I explain these tides
My memory ebbs, my thoughts wane
I recall no joy, nor prick of pain

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Vada-pau-walla’s tended to be less of performance artists. That distinction usually went to the pau-bhaji-wallas. I still recall the ones lining up outside Borivli Station on the Western suburban train line. Every evening, L.T. Road came alive to the clanking of spatula-on-griddle as the pau-bhaji-walla bhaiyas served up their mashed vegetables with a pool of melted butter and a garnish of chopped onions and cilantro, and just a squeeze of lemon. The voices, in orchestrated rhythm, called out in the heavy up-country hindi.

The pau-bhaji cart has not evolved much, oh, for the last 50 years or so. Just a bit bigger than a small dining table, riding on four bicycle wheels, it features a pressure-primed kerosene stove with an enormous griddle. One pan is heaped with potatoes, cauliflower, cabbage, peas and any other vegetable the bhaiya who runs the stall happens to find in the market that morning. The veggies are mashed in with oodles of butter, liberal handfuls of a fiery spice mix called the pau-bhaji masala, and pulverised into a thick puree. That pounding of metal spatula on griddle is the call to dinner in Bombay. On the other pan is a pool of molten butter in the middle of which is piled a mountain of small bread loaves – the pau.

At the heart of the popular street fare in Bombay is the humble loaf of bread. The pau, as Bombayites know their fluffy loaves, baked in eights, is a Portuguese word. Until the advent of the Portuguese, Indians ate their bread unleavened, many still do. By the way, another of the main ingredients in the both vada pau and pau bhaji is batata (another Portuguese word). You may call it potato, or aloo as the upcountry natives call it. The Portuguese carried the root to the subcontinent from its native regions in their South America. Cashew, chilli-pepper and the tomato were among the other South American transplants in India.

The marquee over the pau-bhaji cart usually has an appropriately auspicious name like “Jai Ambe Pau Bhaji” or “Jai-Javan Jai-Kisan Pau Bhaji,” and is festooned with dim Christmas lights. The food is usually served up under the light of a hissing petromax gaslight. Of course, that might have changed in recent years.