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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  

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