Saturday, July 23

Lotus Eater

My previous workplace, or as I call it, advertising hell, is squeezed into 2 floors of a raffish building in a venerable part of Bombay - Fort. Day after day, I would walk from Churchgate past the Maidan, eye-catching examples of British architecture and gloomily lonely agiaries to reach that creative sweatshop. Some days, I hated it. Other days, I loathed it absolutely. The only saving grace was Swagath.

Even though I was born in Bombay, have lived in Pune most of my life and speak Marathi pretty fluently, a part of me is still mostly Tamil - my diet. Don't get me wrong; I love Maharashtrian food. But my genes are stubbornly South Indian when push comes to shove. Sadly, imbeciles have boiled Tamil cuisine down to sambar, rasam, curd rice, idlis and dosas. They only need visit Krish Ashok's twitter food feed to realise how misplaced their notions are.  

Anyway, when I fall ill, I crave comfort food. Which is home food. Admittedly rasam is one of the most tried, tested and trusted options. Much as I love my grandma's molagu (pepper) rasam - it's an immersion in a warm, nourishing bath after a long day; or limbu-poondu (lemon-garlic) rasam which, frankly, could revive a dead body, neither satiates my craving perfectly.

Besides, too many busybodies have heard of rasam. It has become trendy to flaunt their knowledge of it. As is to be expected, the adding of their own twist to this simple dish has begun. I can't wait to read about how their lentils and tamarind are organic, or how the garlic is farm-to-table authentic. Or even how the lemons have been plucked and squeezed by suitably pious and virtuous ladies. Ugh.

Whenever I'm under the weather (current case), I crave Pongal with a vengeance. It's the humblest of dishes elevated to heavenly heights by a few, balanced ingredients. Rice, moong dal, crushed pepper, jeera, salt, haldi, kadipatta, mustard, roasted cashews, ginger and ghee. That is all. Individually, they're nondescript. When they come together, served hot... let's say I sort of get why people believe in god.

It's not easy for me to get good home-made pongal. Spotting it listed with avial (another rock-solid dish) on the Swagath menu, I was sceptical. It arrived at the table in one of those compartmentalised steel plates. The biggest section was reserved for the pongal while the other two held the avial. One bite and my soul did a little jig of delight. As Swagath was a short walk from my office, I'd eat there pretty often. And, while their other dishes are excellent, pongal-avial became my go-to lunch option. Call it a kind of genetic homesickness; a need to eat healthy and tasty food. Whatever it was, I couldn't get enough of it.

Then I shifted jobs (it was either that or death) and haven't visited Fort in over a year. This past week, I came down with a particularly heavy cold. Sitting at my desk, miserable, snivelling, fighting to breathe and with a head that felt distinctly full of wool, something snapped inside. I randomly searched Big Brother for "Pongal in Lower Parel" and stared incredulously at the page.

Swagath's sister concern Poornima (also in Fort) had opened a branch at LP. A short walk from my office. Listed on the menu was Pongal-Avial. I dashed out like a tornado (given my health, it was a tortoisean crawl) and headed over to the restaurant. And, would you believe it? One of the guys from Swagath was running the place. He saw me, beamed in recognition (yea, I was that regular a visitor to Swagath) and invited me to sit.

I'm not saying the pongal-avial cured me instantly. Though it certainly renewed my interest in living. The way life is going right now, that's something.

Song for the moment: Straight from the heart - Bryan Adams  

Tuesday, July 12

Get lucky

The funny thing is it wasn't supposed to turn out such a great party. Well, 'supposed' is harsh. 'Wasn't expected' shall we say. Yet, it did because all the ingredients came together, not in their perfect measures but haphazardly, dashed into the pot with a careless grab and fling.

Old friends, good friends, absent friends, whisky and rum, good conversation, better pauses, the best laughs, the melancholic sighs of wistful disbelief, the unholy glee of impishness allowed for a change that led to the incident of the contact between the alleged permanent marker and the dome, much hilarity, the kind of which had been forgotten for years by all and then sleep.

It is when everyone will realise just how great a party it was. That is when a bolt of something wonderfully good and thankful will strike everyone together. Of course, we'll all shrug it off.

Pity really.

Song for the moment: He had a good time - Cliff Martinez (Drive OST)  

Sunday, July 3

Waves

It's the monsoon and watery green dominates the view from my window. It's a colour I love because I'm mad on plants. My dream house would have a large garden where neem, mango, jackfruit and jamun trees would flourish. Maybe pomegranate, peru and chickoo (sapodilla is such a strange word) too. Of course there would be a kitchen garden for the chillies and lemons, kadipatta and dhania.

Right now, my passion for gardening is quenched by the earth-coloured pots and plants fighting for space in the drawing room window. Some of the leafy warriors are at least 20 years old while others were planted last year. Tulsi of course grows wherever it likes, making its home in multiple pots at once. Yet, every time I look at them, it is with more than a twinge of sadness. Because this is the first time in years they are growing without the gardener.

A slight old man. That's how I remember him. An old man with slouching shoulders, in a shirt no longer white and brown trousers. A tatty Nehru hat perched unsteadily. No one at home can recall ever seeing him bareheaded. Bloodshot, rheumy eyes and a nut-brown face scoured with lines. Flecks of white bristle on his cheeks. Most of his teeth were gone, lost to the ravages of time and chewing tobacco. The rest formed a chaotic Stonehenge, visible when he smiled, which was often. His voice felt like it was coming from underwater. He spoke a peculiar dialect of Marathi and very dodgy Hindi so our conversations were interesting, to say the least. He would show up on Sundays, potter around with the sickle for 15 minutes and leave. In those 15 minutes, he and I would talk about the health of our current crop and whether we ought to plant something else. Every once in a while we'd actually do the latter, which meant me hauling the pot outside the house, arranging for newspaper, ensuring the soil didn't spread all over and listening to his instructions about when to water the latest arrival.

He wasn't the most reliable person. He'd go off on leave for weeks without letting us know. He'd miss at least one Sunday a month. He'd ponderously and indignantly protest any hint of a cut in salary because of his absence and I never had the heart to do it. He also had a mysterious dislike for flowers so we hardly have any at home right now. But, god almighty, the man's thumbs were green. All his other fingers too, come to that.

In an odd way, over the last (as far as I can guess) 14 years, we became friends. I'd tease him, mock-threaten to sack him, plead with him to get more interesting plants and ask his advice on how to protect them from pests. Almost every Sunday, the bell would ring around 11 am and my dad would say "your friend is here". I'd open the door and he'd be there, beaming.    

I saw him for the last time sometime in March. He'd been missing more than his fair share of weekend visits so we thought nothing of it till the end of April. Even in mid-May I supposed that he'd gone to his village and would be back anytime. Except that he never did. On some Sundays, the bell would ring around 11 am and I'd open the door, half-ready to admonish the geezer but it was always someone else.

I think you've gone to the big green garden in the sky. Where, no doubt, you'll be happy growing everything except flowers. An old man in a shirt no longer white and brown trousers. A tatty Nehru hat on your head and a smile on your face. I will always remember you that way. And, you will live on through the plants in my window. Maybe one day, we'll meet under a great, spreading tree in a green field, sun shining golden with that special 4 pm Pune light in a blue sky, amidst a gentle wave of susurration. Until then, thank you.

Song for the moment: Sanpo Suru - Jasmon