Monday, May 26, 2008

Café chaos

Irani chai, bun maska, broon and kheema, and bun omelette. I sit and stare into nowhere, just soaking it all in. The sunlight streaming in highlights the dust in the air. There are a few flies about, and the marble-topped tables have been scarred by lovers. The formaica ones have been wiped thin. Cheap stainless steel cutlery and coarse china cups and plates are de rigeur. The waiter has the clichéd checked duster over his shoulder, and the owner-manager picks his nose contentedly.

Each one is the same. The chai is thick and sweet, and you either hate it or love it from the first time you take a sip. The omelettes are fluffy, and the pau, lusciously soft. And they’re all elegantly named; Metro, Café India, Sundance, Diamond Queen, Olympus, Grand Central, Free India Restorant. On occasion, they’re named after the family business or the resident dowager, so you get Kayani, Naaz, and Mahanaaz.

But what really draws me to these joints, apart from the delicacies on the menu, are the signs on the walls. Intriguing at times, sometimes plain silly, they contribute to the ambience. I make my way to the ‘wash besan’ and am greeted by a ‘do not comb’. But I’m bald, so I take it personally. I get back to my table. The facility holds more chairs and tables than seems feasible, but the waiter traipses from table, to kitchen window and back, threading his way with a delicacy that would confound a ballerina.

I turn my attention back to the signs. ‘Do not gamble’, ‘consuming of alcohol is prohibited in the ristorant premisses. – By order’. ‘Only one cup tea will not be served to two persons.’ Fair enough, you don’t want a cheapskate bunch blocking a table.

Then I get back to the menu. All irani café owners have realised that in addition to the traditional fare they serve, ‘Indian snaks’ should be on the menu. So we get sada dosa, masala dosa, cheese sada dosa, cheese masala dosa, onion uttapam, tomato uttapam, onion tomato uttapam, onion tomato cheese uttapam…you get the drift. And there are permutations and combinations for everything. You take a base, which is a dosa say, and pick and choose your toppings. Best of all, you’ll already find it printed on the menu, coz somebody already thought of it. They need to sort out the prices, you see. But how the ‘ghee mysore rava masala dosa’ costs 23 rupees to the ‘paper butter sada dosa’s’ 24 rupees is beyond me.

Then I turn to ‘Eggs’. Aha. There’s omlet, masala omlet, cheese omlet, masala cheese omlet, and all are available as either ‘single’ or ‘double’ – one or two eggs, that is. Best of all, there’s a ‘bred omlet’. The cook made one daddy omelette and one mummy omelette and they keep having baby omelettes. Clever.

But while irani cafes might be fading away, they will never truly die. They live in the hearts, and stomachs, of millions of people. Student, blue collar, white collar, tout, tourist, film star and flunky, lover, and loser, have all dined, and I say dined, at these joints. You walk out heavier, and your wallet not much lighter, and revel in the delight of tasty, cheap meal. I feel a burp coming on, bred by an omelette!

Thursday, May 15, 2008

For want of a helping hand…


Hold on

Help out


Where does she go from here?

Her sunny smile and eccentric ways charmed all who saw her. Alive with a naiveté that disarmed me, her socialist ways and contradictory opinions always left me puzzled. A livewire of a woman, her disposition was electric. Big eyes, the biggest I’ve seen, and a nose carved by two swift strokes of her maker’s scalpel, a high brow and a wide mouth completed the picture. She wasn’t beautiful in the conventional sense, instead she could be expansively described as attractive. I first saw her a decade ago. She was a chubby little thing, perennially amused at the follies of her peers. Too intelligent to hold anyone’s interest, she flitted…a social butterfly in her adolescence.

I ran into her on the causeway in our college campus. It’d been over a year since I’d seen her. She greeted me with a typical squeal of delight and a big hug. “what are you doing here?” we both said to one another at the same time. Celebrating our reunion with a cutting chai and ciggy, we caught up over where we’d been, who we’d been dating, the books we’d read and god knows what.

She was thin now; I detected a blossoming feminism which was at once alluring yet somehow misplaced. We exchanged phone numbers. She wouldn’t call, she said, coz she couldn’t. She was broke.

We met most days at noon, lolling in the plastic chairs at Happy Guys, our on-campus haunt. Over endless cups of tea, shared cigarettes and the daily crossword, we bonded. I watched her metamorphose; the bindi phase, the peasant skirt phase, the jeans and knotted shirt phase and the short skirt phase. She was waif thin by then…but the shrill squeals of delight at beating me to a word were still rendered with a volubility which is simply unmatched.

One evening, I got a call. A small voice pleaded with me to come to Happy Guys, now. There she was. The ever-smiling face was downcast. The voice was monotone. This was her sad phase. She wept. She called people names. She ranted. She stopped.

One afternoon, she skipped in, in her peasant skirt, her tiny anklet clinking, and with a hicky the size of her palm adorning the side of her neck. I groaned inwardly, and dare I say, I felt a twinge of jealousy. But that was her. Ever bold, ever the centre of attention. She could have any man, and she knew it.

Did I sleep with her? No. It would cheapen what we had. We talked about it though.

She grappled with demons. Well-meaning but misguided, I always wished she’d keep her own counsel. Her gullibility was at odds with her intelligence. Her “why me?” phase extended beyond the regular time frame I had gotten accustomed to, and became a worrying facet of who she was. Fond of her drink and with an abiding passion for marijuana, she escaped to an imaginary world where her siblings weren’t suicidal, her house wasn’t prison, and her lovers were people who cared.

In my mind’s eye I’ll always picture her walking the desert, her hair loose, in no hurry to get anywhere. That was her; expansive, free. And monochrome.