The Great “Indian” Cuisine

January 1, 2012

I have been wondering for the past few years; so what is Indian cuisine?

When I first moved to South India to take up my campus job, I had gone there “knowing” that I will need to live with the “Madrasi” cuisine. Hyderabad was my base city and I had to travel across Andhra Pradesh. I was bewildered with the cuisine variety. The stuff in Hyderabad (biryani, haleem, khubani ka meetha etc.) and that in coastal Andhra (the Andhra Meals, Chicken 65, Babai Idli in Vijayawada). And, by the way, you were lucky to get some edible stuff in the remote corners of Telengana (think towns like Belampalli, Mancherial etc)! Often I had to report to the company HQ in Chennai. The MADRAS! Here too the choices were amazing! Food made Iyengar style, Iyer style. “Military hotels” were diagonally opposite the preceding two cuisines. Then Chettinad stuff as well. What is “Madrasi” cuisine?

A large part of my recent life I have lived in Bangalore. I thought I knew all about the variety of state-wise cuisines till I discovered the food served in Bangalore is different from that in Mysore and totally different from the stuff in Mangalore. The Bijapur/ Gulbarga khana is something else. Not to speak of the Coorgi stuff (the meat of wild boar is a coveted delicacy here). I am sure Chikmagalur, Belgaum, Karwar etc would have their own distinctive flavours.

Take Rajasthan for example, a state I worked extensively in. There is the “saatwic” Marwari cuisine, the laal maas favoured by the Rajputs and then the fafdaas served in areas bordering MP.

I could go on-and-on showing-off my knowledge of India’s geography. But I will stop here. Just two more points.

Bihar is where I was born and raised in. Once, I tried a few months ago on my blog to champion the cause of the unheard “Bihari cuisine”. I was (am still) toying with the idea of starting a Bihari speciality restaurant chain. I have, since, realized that there is no such thing as Bihari cuisine. What I was discussing in my blog was Bhojpuri cuisine. Bhojpur is the region in Bihar where my parents hail from. The neighbouring geographies of Bihar; Bengal, Orissa, Nepal and Uttar Pradesh have their own distinct cuisines.

I now live away from India. When I talk to folks here in Hong Kong, or see people ordering food in the restaurants, I hear that they “loooooove” Indian food. And what is that lovely Indian food in their opinion? Naan, tandoori chicken and prawn vindaloo! (Some evolved ones may even mention samosa and “poppadums“.) I would love to know how many Indian households cook and serve naan/ tandoori chicken/ prawn vindaloo! And, pray, what is a vindaloo???

Now I am sticking my neck out here, please bear with me. For most Indians food is like religion. If you were to ask a Hindu to describe what “being-a-Hindu” means, will you get a uniform and cogent answer? If you do, let me know. I am still struggling with my thoughts on this subject. Similarly, if you ask Indians what cuisine they like, most are likely to mention Indian food. Now ask them to describe the cuisine. If you get a uniform and cogent answer out of a diversified sample, please let me know.

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Happy Mother’s Day

May 8, 2011

The hobble has accentuated over the years, but the activities remain undiminished, albeit a bit slow. The dementia has worsened over the years, but she does not forget to ask me for a repeat helping of the post-dinner dessert. If anything she asks even oftener than what she used to, thanks to her dementia. The voice and eyesight are substantially feebler, but her feistiness remains. I have a sure-shot cure for the eyesight, “Why don’t you clean your glasses, the greasy lenses are clouding your vision. And why do you need to wear your specs anyway, you neither read the newspapers not watch the TV.” She gives me a glare, “How do you think I will see the time” she yells as she gesture with her left hand making sure I see clearly that she is indeed wearing a watch. I don’t have the heart to tell her that she can barely read the watch- with or without her glasses- regularly confusing the minute hand for the hour and vice versa.

Regular readers of this blog would find this person familiar, yes, it is my mother, mai we call her, now into her 81st year. Mai, and Pitaji who is onto his 87th year live by themselves in Jamshedpur. They have regularly appeared in this blog, though I have not told them of all the posts on them I have written. Here are an older post on mai which they are both aware of, and here is another post which I have never told them about.

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I am in Jamshedpur for a day just to look them up. Travel to Jamshedpur from Bangalore is an arduous task. Jamshedpur does have an airport, but strangely it has no commercial flights! So I take a flight from Bangalore to Kolkata. A cab drive to Howrah and then take the train to Tatanagar. I reach home late evening on Friday, Pitaji is already asleep, mai is waiting outside in the verandah. “You must be tired, come and have your dinner.” I was indeed tired and I readily acquiesce to dinner. She hobbles across to the kitchen fixing things in the microwave as I change. “Leave it mai”, I exclaim rather rudely. “No, no, how can I leave it! You go and change!” I have not choice but to do what she says.

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Saturday at home- the only full day I have at home- goes in meeting people. Neighbours and relatives. Parents are in the background all the time.

We have a quiet dinner and we plan to sleep early. I have an early morning train to catch the following morning, after all. The return journey to Bangalore as tough. I have the 6.15am Steel City Superfast Express to catch. This will reach me in time to Howrah Station from where I can take a taxi-ride to the Kolkata airport to take my 2.30pm flight to Bangalore. The regular auto-wallah (tempo-wallah in Jamshedpur-speak) has been reached on his cell phone after multiple tries by Pitaji (after multiple reminders to Pitaji by Mai.) I have set my mobile alarm to 4.30am.

We are all set now.

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I was not been able to sleep. At all! I kept waking up with the fear that I may not be able to wake up in time for the train.

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Mai walks in at something like 3 am in the morning. She drapes me with another sheet over what I am already having. I can hear her muttering to herself, “Santosh must be feeling cold by now.” I do not react, and I quite welcome sheets two. It was slightly cold as it had indeed been raining throughout the night. Very off-season rains, they have been.

Thirty minutes later- and I am pretty deep asleep- Mai bends onto me and asks, “Don’t you need Poori and Sabzi for your journey, you have a long journey ahead.” I am very very irritable and I shoo her off, “Why don’t you let me sleep in PEACE!”

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Another 30 minutes, Pitaji walks in and announces that my cup of tea is ready and I should wake up. Mai is hanging around behind Pitaji. I was not told the following by either of them, but I knew the following:

  • Mai had had a bath at something like 3.45 in the morning
  • Prior to this she had swept and swabbed the floor.
  • She had changed into fresh clothes.
  • She had made cups of tea for me and her at that hour.
  • She offered me the good-luck bowlful of dahi and sugar. Never mind if I refused the sugared dahi. “You must have it”, she said, “Brings you good luck for your journey.”

I do remember this routine of Mai from the countless early morning departures of her many offsprings. No sweeping/swabbing/bathing after people leave.

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I have now placed my luggage in the waiting auto. Pitaji and Mai are around to see me off. I bend down and touch their feet. Mai pats me on my back and wishes me well. There is something to her touch that makes me clamber into the auto. I wave at her without getting into a discussion. I try my best to wipe my tears unseen. I don’t think my tears have escaped mai’s eyes as I do that.

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I reach Tatanagar station and get hold of the daily newspapers for the journey ahead. In each newspaper I see an ad or two announcing that today is the Mother’s Day.

I had not known this, and I am sure she does not either.

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Happy Mother’s Day!

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Travel Travails: Another Five Star Story

April 30, 2011

One of the professional hazards in my job is travel. When you travel within India, Murphy’s Law operates big time! You know Murphy’s law, right? Something which states a profound truth so simply, “Anything that can go wrong, will go wrong”. While I cannot do much about airline delays, I get worked up big-time when the hotel goofs up. Like last week.

I had asked for an airport pick-up at the Delhi International airport. I normally take a cab, but landing late into the night after an over five-hour flight I did not want to be standing in a queue for a cab. But the hotel had goofed-up big time. No car at the airport.

I call the hotel and I am told the driver is somewhere around and that they will get back to me. Ten minutes of waiting and no response.

I call again.

“Sir, the driver is certainly there, but his mobile is switched off. We will call you back in two minutes, Sir!”

I get a call ten minutes later.

“Sir, I have located the driver. He is right there!”

WTF, I wonder, if he is right there, how come he is not holding the placard with my name? And I say so on the phone.

“No, no, sir, do not worry, I will send him right-away to meet up with you. Here is his name, and here is his number”

I dutifully scribble it on the back of the stub of my boarding pass. “I am at the exit gate number five right next to the CISF jawaan”

“Right away, Sir”

The driver shows up presently and he is indeed carrying a placard. But the catch is that it bears an altogether different name, that of some foreigner. And the driver proceeds to enlighten me that he has indeed been rostered to pick up the firang and he is confused as to why he has been asked to meet me and that I should proceed to the pre-paid cab counter and buy myself a cab trip to the hotel.

I am fuming now. I call the hotel again and give the guy at the other end a piece of my mind. Several pieces of my frazzled mind actually.

“What are you saying sir! How can this be? Can you give the phone to the driver, let me speak with him”

I disconnect the mobile with an angry twitch of my thumb. Get lost, I say aloud in my mind to the hotel guy.

And this treatment coming for my favourite hotel chain, I am determined to teach them a lesson!

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I reach the hotel and announce myself to the lady at the reception.

“Ojha, Santosh Ojha. (just like “My name is Bond. James Bond.) I have a confirmed reservation here.” I am determined to stay calm initially so that the impact of my outburst would resonate even better after I let go!

What I did not quite notice while I was savoring the thought of the outburst as I was introducing myself was the lady’s reaction as soon as I uttered my first word “Ojha”. She looked to her extreme left diagonally across the reception desk gesticulating wildly to someone who had his back towards us. She even banged on her desk and hissed, “Sir, Mr Ojha. Mr OJHA!”

The gentleman swivelled around instantly. A young, earnest looking and burly gentleman wearing a linen suit.

“Sir, sir, come with me sir!” He nearly grabbed me by my hand.

“”Hey, come where? I am checking in now”

“No, no, sir! You come with me to your room, we will complete the check-in formalities there only.”

He leads me to the lift mumbling as we walk along. The bellhop in tow with the luggage.

“Sir, myself so-and-so, sir. Sir, I am the duty manager here. Sir, I was the one who called you, I am sorry for the mix-up. That driver had no business to say what he did. And sir, I have ensured that I have given you the best room possible. And yes, of course sir, you can smoke there.” He went on and on….

Now this guy looked like an avatar of Obelix, though a little smaller in size. How can one get angry on Asterix even if he is a tad tinier and all-so-apologetic? I can’t!

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“Here Sir, is your room!” He opens the door with a flourish and marches into the room. The bell-hop and I stumble-in in his wake.

“Sir, sorry, sir”, he starts again.

“No, no, it is OK! These things happen. Anyway your hotels are like second home to me, so relax!” I reassure him.

“Sir, I am sorry”

“Relax buddy!”

“Sorry, sir!”

“Buddy, relax”

I was feeling sorry for this guy, he did indeed look to be genuinely repentant.

But more importantly, I wanted him and the bellboy outside my room. I was dying to have a peaceful smoke after several hours.

“Bye, sir, here is my card. Do let me know if need anything. Anything!”

I nearly told him that if he indeed wanted to serve me with “anything”, then perhaps he should send up a nubile woman to warm my bed for the night. Or for good measure, two!

I was getting really angry at his over-stay!

He did leave finally, smiling toothily and bowing to me as he left. While the bell-boy was bowing to the Duty Manager saheb!

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I hear a knock on my door twenty minutes later.

“Ah, the mandatory fruit basket”, I think to myself. Or maybe Obelix had indeed read my mind and sent across two nubile women. Ok, even one was fine! I slip on my T-shirt and open the door. And who do I see? The Duty Manager again! No women in tow alas! Just a room service guy holding aloft a tray with two wine glasses and a bottle of wine.

“Sir, here is something for you.”

I can indeed see the something, that wine bottle. Satori merlot. “No, please, I am fine. Not to worry.”, I reassure him.

“Sir, just something from our side, just for you to remember the evening.”

I thought his phraseology was rather inappropriate. I do not want to remember this evening which was getting into midnight now, really.

“Hey, theek hai yaar! Koi baat nahin

Nahin sir, kuchh to…?” His voice trails off.

All this is happening at the door. Obelix and his flunkey in the corridor, Myself at the door making sure that these two guys do not enter the room.

“Sir, don’t you like a drink?”

“Sure I do, but I have my own whiskey. Maybe you could join me for a glass or two.”

“How can I, Sir, I am on duty. I am the Duty Manager here tonight.”

“Ok, Ok, sure.”

This was getting into a circle, and I decided to take charge.

“Ok, I shall carry the wine bottle back with me to Bangalore to “remember” this evening. And thank you for your gesture.”

“Thank you sir, thank you.”

“Thank you”, I say.

“Sir, see you tomorrow at the coffee-shop at breakfast.”

“Sure, sure. Good night!”

“And sir, ask me for anything you may need tonight.”

I bang the door shut. I have had enough of these entreaties.

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Given his eagerness to make me happy, maybe I should have indeed asked him again to arrange those two nubile women. Ok. Just one. Maybe someone who could make a hot cup of tea for me. Or even help me unpack by luggage. Or just someone who could sing a lullaby…..

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Blast from the past: MUQADDAR KA SIKANDAR

April 30, 2011

Remember this is late 70’s and yours truly is a teenager. Like a teenager I have confused views about life, where to head to, what to do. One keeps toying with various idols, various “ideologies”, multiple ideals (heavy words for a kid!). There is no clear solution in sight. There is one beacon however in this miasma, Amitabh Bachchan. Or rather the persona of Big B those days (who was called AB still, not Big B), the angry-young-man, ready-and-keen, to take on the establishment. He, from the dregs of the society, taking on the heavyweights. Remember Trishul, Ganga Ki Saugandh, Adalat, Deewar? If he was not from the dregs, he was tortured soul personified. Mili, Namakharam, Zanjeer, etc. etc., remember?

Sorry, I digressed, I do not mean this piece to be a discussion on Amitabh Bachchan’s filmography. Let me just tell you that I loved this movie, loved enough that after watching it for the first time, I saw it twice again within seven days of its release.

Let me tell you a small story. I was born and raised in Jamshedpur, a small town in what is now called Jharkhand. After I completed my 10th in the city, I had to move out as there were limited options for +2 in Jamshedpur. My classmates and I chose Nagpur. There were two simple reasons behind this. Nagpur was just 12 hours away by train (Geetanjali Superfast Express) from my hometown and more importantly the Maharashtra Board exams (for +2) got over in March which gave me enough time to prepare for the IIT-JEE scheduled for May. Those were the rational reasons. There was one more reason, known only to me then, Nagpur had many more cinema theaters, compared with Jamshedpur. And me, a hard-core movie buff, this was incentive enough to relocate from home in Jamshedpur to a hostel in Nagpur.

The year was 1978. The year I saw many interesting movies including AB’s Trishul, Kasme Vaade and Don. And MKS!

It was during my early days in Nagpur when MKS was released. And I saw the movie on the 8th day of its release in a theater called Liberty, in the Sadar area in Nagpur, close to my college hostel. To say I was bowled over would be an understatement. This was the movie about an underdog going down fighting!

I will not go into the details of the movie, but suffice it to say that the great Kadar Khan’s “speech” in the graveyard when young AB (the hapless Master Mayur) is moping on his foster mother’s grave was inspirational:

Sukh mein hanstey ho to,
Dukh mein kehkahey lagaao.
Zindagi ka andaaz badal jaayega!”

(If you laugh when happy, chortle aloud when sad. You will then find an altogether novel way of living)

And the adult AB comes on screen soon enough riding around in South Bombay on his motorcycle dressed in a natty jacket, singing aloud: “Rotey huey aatey hain sab, hanstaa hua jo jayega.”

Sometime during the song he crosses a hearse on the street. He pauses and sings:

Zindagi to bewafaa hai, ek din thukrayegi,
Maut mehbooba hai apni, saath lekar jayegi

Enjoy this song, one of the greatest movies of AB, ever, and one the greatest songs from Amitabh Bachchan/Kishore Kumar combo.

PS: This song was placed 13th in the “Binaca Geetmala 1979”. However the top two songs were AB’s. In fact of the 39 top songs of the year, 16 were from AB’s movies.

PS2: This post was written a few months ago for my friend Atul’s excellent blog on Hindi film songs http://atulsongaday.wordpress.com


Blast from the past: TRISHUL

March 25, 2011

 

Here is one more post I did for Atul’s remarkable blog http://atulsongaday.wordpress.com/ . Enjoy!!

May 5th 1978 was a most awaited day for an Amitabh Bachchan fan. That day his latest movie Trishul got released. Zanjeer, Deewar, Sholay, Adalat and Khoon Pasina had been released in the preceding years and had proved to be super-duper hits. Amitabh Bachchan’s distinctive “positioning” as the “angry young man” in the rather cluttered world of Bollywood heroes was firmly established. That the above-mentioned movies were interspersed with blockbusters like Kabhi Kabhie (romantic hero) and Amar Akbar Anthony (comedian) only helped to intensify the hero’s aura among his fans.

Yours truly, then a gangly teenager growing up in Jamshedpur, was one of his millions fans. Jamshedpur, in small town India with five cinema halls, four of them were called “talkies” (like Basant Talkies, Regal Talkies) and the fifth reverentially known as “cinema”; Natraj was its name, Natraj cinema. The nomenclature perhaps drew its source from the fact that Natraj was the newest cinema in town and it was the only one to have air-conditioning and push-back chairs in the “Dress Circle” section. (The others had intermittently working ceiling fans and torn seat cushions). Of course the ticket price was higher for Natraj Cinema as compared with the lowly talkies. Rs 3.72 for a first class ticket in Natraj and Rs 3.15 for one in the talkies.

I have digressed. Let me now tell you why the date was so important. Jamshedpur was participating in a simultaneous all India release. Trishul was premiered on in Jamshedpur on the same day as its all India release!! Truly historic for a kid in the city used to seeing “new” movies only after a few months after its release in the metros and other lucrative circuits. So how could I miss the first-day-first-show of this movie!

Together with my regular movie-going pal, we figured out a way of raising the finances and also – more importantly-  an excuse to stay away from home during those hours. Soon enough I was groping my way into the darkness towards my seat in Natraj Cinema.

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After a rather long build-up, Amitabh Bachchan emerges on the screen through a cloud of smoke-and-dust at a construction site. The lanky Amitabh with fitted jacket and trousers, puffing at a bidi. He puts his bidi to a better use when he nonchalantly picks up the fuse of the dynamite and lights it up casually. He unhurriedly walks away from the site even as we see his co-workers running away from the blasting area. When the cloud clears after this most recent blast, his colleagues asked him how he could do it without being scared. His reply,”Jisney pachchis saal sey apni maa ko dheerey-dheerey marety dekha hai, usey maut sey dar kaisa?” I still remember to this day the thunderous applause this dialogue received from the already noisy crowd in the Cinema! Needless to say, my friend and I were two of the more voluble ones!

The magic had begun!

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The magic had actually begun twenty minutes prior when the director, Yash Chopra, started laying the foundations of the story.

Young R. K. Gupta (Sanjeev Kumar) is in love with Shanti (Waheeda Rehman). His mother (I forget her real name now, Sudha something?) persuades him to marry Kamini (Priya Siddharth) who is his boss’ daughter. (Compare and reflect on the meanings of Shanti (the wronged one’s name) and Kamini, the usurper’s!). The boss is a construction magnate in Delhi.

R.K. Gupta succumbs and ditches Shanti who most “stoically” wishes him well and informs him that she is carrying her child. And that she does not need his patronage, as she does not want to assuage his guilt feelings of being a ditcher. She declares she is leaving town and that she will most certainly bear their child. She works on construction sites to support the child, a son. She, of course, dies rather prematurely and her son swears to take revenge on his biological father, RK Gupta, who has now inherited his father-in-law’s business and is now the biggest builder in Delhi.

That child happens to be Vijay (Amitabh Bachchan).

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He walks into Delhi, penniless, “merey paas paanch footi kaudiyaan bhi nahin hain”, as he informs his father in their first encounter. He demolishes competition with devices fair-and-foul and soon rivals RK Gupta’s empire and finally bests him. Along the way he meets his half brother, Shekhar, (Shashi Kapoor), and his half-sister (Poonam Dhillon’s debut movie). He befriends an RK Gupta loyalist Geeta (Raakhi) and nearly ensnares Sheetal Verma (Hema Mailni). What a multi-starrer! Throw in some more in the picture, Sachin, Yunus Parvez, Prem Chopra etc., etc. Total multi-starrer!

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The crowd in that first-day-first-show in Natraj is besides itself with joy, admiration, and adulation! We are supporting Vijay- and his Shanti Constructions- all the way in its contest with the “RK and Sons” banner. Till, after the denoument in the movie, this hoarding transposes into “Shanti Raj Constructions”.

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This song is from a party thrown by AB; Shashi Kapoor and Hema Mailni celebrating the joys of love; by dancing, and singing. “Mohabbat bade kaam ki cheez hai”. Shashi Kapoor in his jerky but lovable self and Hema Malini as only Hema Malini would. AB, who is the host, responds with “Ye bekaam, bekaar si cheez hai”- utterly useless stuff this romance is. This is understandable, considering the tribulations his mom went though. “Kitabon mein chhatptey hain chahat key kissey, haqeeqat ki duniya mein chaahat nahin hai” , AB goes on to sing in Yesu Das’ voice.

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