Coffee at Mani’s Cafe

So here I was in Sri Rangam, which is a busy little temple town in the district of Tiruchirapally in Tamil Nadu, and that also, happens to be my hometown. I had come to visit my grand parents & my mom who was camping there and guess what- it was turning into an impromptu mini reunion! Suddenly there were aunts & uncles & cousins and it felt like the good old times when we would gather during summer holidays or during someone’s wedding…lots of people, lots of noise, lots of food & lots of fun…so well, one of the days my dad has a brilliant idea- that we all go out to have breakfast. We all set out, at 7:45AM, an unearthly hour in Pune, but there, we were already late. If you have been to Sri Rangam, you would know we have narrow streets lined with little shops & pavements brimming over with hawkers & the roads a mumble jumble of people hurrying towards the temple and bicycles tinkling away & cycle rickshaws & the odd honking autorickshaw, all bustling & bursting in & around the huge temple complex of Lord Ranganatha. If you were lucky, you could meet the temple elephant ambling away slowly, probably taking a walk? I remember I used to be thrilled when I caught sight of him…Now on one such street, just beyond the Raja Gopuram, was Mani’s café, a little place which you would have totally missed had you not known it was there…

Have you ever been to Tamil Nadu? Well the men usually wear a lungi or a veshti ( essentially a dhoti) which is worn folded by half so that its sort of like an above-the-knee wrap around – which I think is quite the appropriate garment for the sticky heat of that state. The veshti is always white, worn usually with a crisp white shirt.We south Indians revere all things fair & white.Well one such veshti clad man waved us into an interior chamber at Mani’s (probably the owner, I don’t know) and we somehow managed to save ourselves from the waiters rushing hither & thither juggling their plates of masala dosai & jugs of sambar, & plonked ourselves at two tables…with benches instead of chairs.. One of the men came forward immediately ( he had a folded crisp white towel that hung on one side of his shoulder – which gave one the feeling of military like efficiency & also that here was a man of importance.) He reeled off the menu with a casual confidence that comes of repeating it for probably the fiftieth time that morning – “inniki enna kidaikkum?” “idli-vada-idiappam-dosai-puri masala-pongal” (yes, my mouth was secretly watering) We all gave our own orders , and before we knew it, our leafy plates were laid out before us. Food here was served the traditional tamil way, that is on plantain leaves – trust me, it’s a lot of fun, if you know how to ( my brother still doesn’t) And just think about it- it’s a brilliant cost & time saving mechanism – since it does away with crockery completely & therefore someone to wash them, besides being supremely eco friendly- nature’s very own disposable plates! One of my cousins, who like myself, is a pretext for a tamilian, whispered urgently into my ear “they don’t have plates here! ” & I had the smug satisfaction of telling her this is how it is…
Our orders came in one by one..I had asked for a masala dosai. I was just about to bite into it when one of the Sambar juggling waiters came & poured a torrent of sambar right on top of my dosa! Before I could protest at this, in comes another guy to pour chutney right on top of the sambar- so now I had this soggy dosa-sambar-chutney mix topped with my irritation – apparently they didn’t believe in bowls in this place. But still, soggy or not, my dosai was beckoning to me & soon I was tucking into it with gusto, as were all the others. Between seconds & extra helpings we soon finished & the famous filter coffee was ordered. Coffee is the staple beverage in South India & if you were a non coffee drinker, like me, well, you could get looks ranging from astonishment to bewilderment to the kind of look one gives to a neighbour whose girl has run away to marry, O Lord, a North Indian 🙂 –- pity? Yes that’s what it is, I think…Anyway, the coffee is had in a davara-tumbler – davara being a cylindrical katori with a flat rim, and a tumbler being , of course a tumbler. The steaming hot coffee is then poured back & forth from davara to tumbler till the time it cools down a bit & the coffee becomes light & frothy, & sipped slowly while chanting our thanks to the gods for this manna from heaven. Now Mani’s Café had an innovation to add to this- they gave us black coffee in the tumbler, which was tilted upside down in the davara, while the davara itself had the milk separately in it!! Probably to give us a feeling of having made good with our colonial upbringing…

Soon, this too was over & we were ready to go. Or rather, they were ready to let us go – it was a busy place, & not really one where you could dawdle over your cup of coffee with a book… we decided to move. Breakfast was over, & chatting & laughing & squinting in the sun, we left for home.

Its amazing how you never really see things when they are all around you. Actually you never see things until they are not there for you to see…and then they are suddenly so clear. Srirangam & Tamilian traditions were all somewhat of a drag for me till the time I married a North Indian (yes, I was the one, though I didn’t run away 🙂 ) I somehow see both with new eyes today, in fact , I feel I am really only seeing them, now. Its only when you go away, that you have perspective. And only then you realize what it is you had up close. I remember wondering briefly about having an identity crisis marrying a Lucknowite, but surprise, surprise, I think am more Tamilian now than I ever was before….Yes, I might still look uncomfortable with flowers in my short hair, and I might still prefer chai over filter coffee, But I most definitely believe that chilled curd rice with pickled raw mango is the best thing in the world……hmmmm…

Street Outside theRaja Gopuram, further in is Mani's Cafe

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You can hear the whistle blow a 100 miles…

As the train finally started moving, I could barely contain my excitement. Pressed to the window, watching the people & the hawkers & the waiting room & the Wheelers Stall all pass by with increasing speed, my mind crowds with multiple emotions- excitement, anticipation, & somewhat strangely, a peacefulness.
I love train journeys. I am traveling with my dad to my native town in interior TamilNadu, and apart from the excitement of meeting all my relatives, the most awaited aspect of this vacation was this – the train journey! That I am traveling with my dad, after ages, brings back a flood of nostalgia…and the landscape outside changes to twenty five years of flashes of memories…

Train journeys – how much preparation went into them! Days before we (us kids) would decide what luggage to take & argue with mom about the clothes to carry, the number of books & comics, what games to fit in. Travelling games usually would be Uno, Memory, Ludo etc. There was this phase when all the kids in the neighbourhood, probably the country, went crazy after WWF cards, and Racing cards & what not & my brother was one of them. So these would be carried along too.

Food preparation used to be a huge activity in itself. Now that I have seen more of the world I have realized that every family has its own staple travel food- For example,My husband’s family, who are from UP, used to carry parathas or puris with a dry aloo ki subzi. In fact, we are carrying some of the yummy stuff with us right now. Many of us must have seen Gujaratis or Marwaris travel- boy- I don’t think they have any separate journey food- They somehow manage to carry the very same meals they have at home on travel too, from farsaan to salad to pickle!
For us, Tam Brahms that we were, Idlies & thayir sadham (Curd Rice!) was the most common staple. Mum would prepare idlies by the dozen & would carefully smear each with an oil & gun powder paste, instead of carrying the usual sambar-chutney which would spoil. Sometimes instead of idlies we would have puliyodharai (tamarind rice) or lemon rice. Curd Rice however was omnipresent. It was fragrantly seasoned with coriander & curry leaves, green chillies & ginger for a subtle bite with a sprinkling of mustard seeds & urad dal. If it were summer, we would have freshly cut pieces of raw mango with salt & chilli paste to go with- merely the thought of this combination is making my mouth water! Its true – curd rice & Tam Brahms are inseparable-whatever part of the world they are in or however many cuisines they enjoy! Now apart from the food we carried, there would be a lot of intermittent snacking going on, where every hawker who passed by was stopped, his wares examined, & more often than not, sent on his way lighter.. and what about all the chais & coffees?

“Cha—i—ya, chai-yya…” “Bhaiya- ek chai dena.” As I sip on my third chai of the journey, I can’t help but think how those days have undergone a change.
Those were the days when second class travel was the norm and AC a rare luxury. When train bathrooms didn’t give you nightmares from days before.When train food was fun & hygiene was simply a word in the dictionary. When hawkers added to the excitement instead of being a nuisance. When time was our own and no one was in a hurry….
You know we would usually reach the station about 2 hours earlier, because , well, my father is a cautious man , to say the least. So that would mean a good 2 hour time pass at the station – as a child I guess a railway platform is a fascinating place – there s so much happening! Now, all that I can see is an unbearably dirty station, stinking & smelling of the sweat of all the people jostling each other for space with railway carts, luggage, hawkers, beggars & the odd stray animal. Hair raising to say the least, but then, I am the one who has changed…

I like to simply look out the window… the whizzing varying landscape fascinates me…here field after field of sun flowers.. there you have mangroves for miles.. rice fields pass by now, with a solitary farmer trudging along side his crop…then a beautiful serene vast expanse of water- was that a crane that broke the surface?…then a bridge comes & the steady clatter of the wheels changes to a slower deep baritone & I look in awe at the river flowing beneath, always thinking, what if…? Here comes a city..a line of impatient lorries & cars & scooters straining against the level crossing….the window is actually like a bioscope..
There usually would be a mini World War between my brother & me- who would get the window seat? Usually, I being the elder one, always got to be the larger hearted one & had to give him whatever he wanted. The many sacrifices an elder sibling has to make for the ever-demanding never-satisfied greedy younger ones is not funny  Well anyway we would arrive at some kind of amicable arrangement for the window…I remember this one time when he & I were traveling all by ourselves for the very first time- from Chennai to Hyderabad to meet our cousins. Boy were we excited or what! I remember we kept chatting & giggling non stop throughout the journey….

Its getting dark as I am writing this now. I am snuggled beneath my sheet with my curtains drawn & my little over head light shining a little round spot on this page as I write…I think am sleepy now.

As I switch off the light & lie down, I am happy & peaceful as my eyes are lulled to a close with the soothing rhythmic movement of the train echoing in my sub conscious…

Run!

Why isn’t running the same anymore as it used to be when you were young? Why isn’t running the closest thing to flying anymore? And why is a non exercising lazy bum like me asking these questions, you wonder. Well, I run these days. Yes! One Part inspiration, and three parts-tension, that he, may grow fitter while I, grow a paunch & a double chin and also not wanting to throw away pots of money into a gym, I decided to run too.

Remember when we were young, running used to be the most natural & effective way of motion…Oh how I used to love it! Didn’t all our games involve running – Lock n Key, Chain Sisters, Seven stones, even Hide n Seek, Kho- Kho( I used to love this game, do they even play it anymore?), Dodge Ball and millions others whose names I cant remember…but I do remember running all the while and I do remember the whoosh of joy while taking off with the wind trying to avoid getting caught …

Soon enough though, we seemed to grow up, and girls no longer wanted to play.Things like propriety & appearances & complexion ( ! ) became more of a reality than games that were suddenly childish… time passed by, places, people, schools changed…my own priorities changed…probably Badminton was & is the only game I took forward with me for whatever little while at various points in my life after that…

Anyway, since the last two days, I have been reliving those memories and trying to feel again the sheer exhilaration that I used to feel then, while doing my morning run…yeah I am constantly pulled into reality by my groaning old muscles and the zillions of to-do s zooming in & out of my head – go to the bank, finish that assignment, talk to the boss, shit we are going to end up over spending this month, what exactly did he mean when he said that and so on & so forth– but then, just for a few minutes, I remember, and I fly.

Yes we can…

First Black President of the United States…Yes we can.

Iran.Afghanistan.Cairo.Multilateral ism… Yes we can.

Barack Obama: Nobel Peace Prize Winner 2009…Yes we can.

Even though I agree to have been surprised with Obama’s selection, and agree that he hasn’t really done anything yet to be able to equal the numerous people awarded the Nobel for their lifetime of contribution, I cant help but sympathise with the Nobel selection Committee , ’cause haven’t they too voted for that hope that Obama signifies – the hope of a diverse yet united world working towards a better future? The hope that the impossible can yet be possible…that dialogue and diplomacy can take the place of aggression & war? The hope of a newly humble United States leading the world , together, towards a greener , safer tomorrow?

Maybe I am just an idealist..but well, thats the audacity of hope…

The Red head

A head turner – that’s what she is….a head turning, heart stopping, absolutely ravishing beauty. She bursts on the vision of the unsuspecting traveler who is simply looking out the window, thinking no thoughts, seeing but not seeing, and then…..he catches a glimpse of her – the riveting, glorious red head.

He is unable to take his eyes off her, but he is a traveler, he has to go on. He enters the city, and is a bit put off with the sea of concrete & chrome & glass, when he glimpses her again-there! A flash of red- that’s her, isn’t it? Yes! Standing tall and alone, lending a vibrancy, a pulse of life to the drab city.
Who is she?
Tall…dark…her firm body lending style to whatever pose she holds, long sinewy arms, her crown being gently cajoled by the light breeze, a head of such glorious red as to set his heart on fire……
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THE GULMOHAR.
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My Best Friend’s Wedding

She and I started off as roomies in college. Cliched as it sounds, we couldn’t be more different. She is as outgoing as I am reserved. She calls a spade a spade where I might just keep mum. While music is emotion for me, she is indifferent to it. While I would any day prefer to read than talk, she is exactly the opposite.
But then friendship isn’t really an outcome of analysis, is it? You either click with someone or you don’t. You meet so many people, talk to so many people…while most drift away, a few remain and slowly etch themselves as an integral part of your lives….

So it was with us. I am perfectly comfortable telling her anything…without fear of judgment.Making plans always, she is my Idea buddy.

She is my willing accomplice in all things stupid, and impulsive & fun! If it’s a t shirt I want to paint.. or get drenched in the rain…I know she will join me. I remember our numerous walks to eat Mango Dollies..and drink chai at the tapri…and make ambitious plans to buy & redesign all the houses on our way…

Memories abound…Driving on a rented bike on a hot summer afternoon, gorging on water melons and fighting over a seed spitting contest…Our long chats into the night …sneaking upto the terrace to watch the stars…Visiting a pub for the first time …and together going through the embarrassment & thrill of being in a hitherto forbidden place by ourselves! And on our walk back to college when we pretended to be drunk, singing aloud together on the deserted streets (no, we were not drunk 🙂 )
I know there is some one I can always count on when I want to trek up unexplored paths…go parasailing with me, some one who will love the idea of tree houses ( 🙂 ) & camp fires like I do and dream crazy dreams with me…

Well she is getting married this week and will soon move to another city. With marriage will come a different set of priorities & responsibilities & I don’t know how often it will be possible for us to meet…or even talk but the emotional impractical fools that we are – we have already started making plans for get togethers in the months & years to come ( I remember the plan we made where she comes in with her 5 kids in tow and the 6th on the way 🙂 ) I will be going for her wedding .But between the bustling wedding preparations & the swish of lehangas & jewellery , the pull of relatives, between maintaining proprieties & the plethora of rasms & festivities , I don’t know if i will be able to convey more than a hug and an inadequate wish…

So, Pallavi, this one was for you & for our dosti

I wish you a fantastic life ahead with Abhishek & hope you weave crazy dreams together & share the joy of seeing them come true…

Love, Always.

10..9..8…..

5 more minutes, and it will be 9 days to go. 9 days to go, and he will be back!

I feel light as a feather somehow – his coming back will dissolve the burden of separation that was weighing me down….( The burden of responsibility is yet anothing thing altogether – electricity bills, property tax bills,EMIs & the like 🙂 )

I wonder, will I still feel the same way say 10 years from now? I guess only time will tell..