Thursday, 30 May 2002

Á la cart

In Search Of... A Midnight Snack.

’Tis late. Hunger strikes. The fridge is either empty or far away. You are solvent, of sane mind and reasonably cast-iron digestion.All the “decent” restaurants are closed. If you want to sit down and eat, it’s either a shady bar, with loud music and, ahem, waitresses, or a 5-Star coffee shop, where the obscenities are all in the right hand column.

Fear not. For the price of a cab ride (or petrol money, if ye are of independent wheels), sustenance may be had without too much of a pain-in-the-billfold. For thou art in Mumbai, Urbs Primus in Indus, the city that never sleeps (borrowed, that, but true), but loves to eat. Just hit the road, and keep an ear peeled for the clatter of ladle against tavaa. Then follow your nose to the nearest cart.

For a start, there’s the pau-bhaji chappies who peddle their fiery fare near VT, on the edge of Azad Maidan. Also available, vada paus, eggs – bhurji, omelettes, half-fry, or as-you-like-it- provided-it’s-oily, and boiled eggs – and sweet, overboiled “cutting” chai. Churchgate’s environs offer similar fare, but not as late, and there’s less variety.

Moving on, and north, Mohammadali Road during Ramzan is a good idea. Especially if it’s so late it’s very early. The restaurants and carts are all abuzz, rustling up delicious, decidedly non-vegetarian pre-dawn sustenance for the faithful. Ditto for Mahim and the area near Bandra station.

Further afield, if you’re near Worli Naka, cast your eyes down the shadowy minor roads. If haven’t been shooed away by the cops, you’ll find carts with the usual bhurji and pau-bhaji.

Dadar station yields provender too. On the West, mainly bhurji vendors under the flyover, but the East, thanks to Central Railway’s terminating a few trains there, and even more thanks to the usual tardiness of the said trains, offers a leetle more. Eggs, of course, plus sundry dishes with “masala” tacked on to the end of their names - which means there’s gravy. A few minutes away, on the main road, there’s a sandwich guy - not a cart, a roadside stall, but he’s in this piece for variety and your cholesterol. Peer carefully - post midnight, his lights are off. But he’ll make you a simple sandwich - jam, cheese, or tomatoes and whatever other veggies are going, and i do believe i once saw baked beans. He’ll even toast it for you for a coupla bucks extra. He also has fruit juices.

In Sion, near the railway station, you kind find simple South Indian fare. Steaming idlis, dosas too. The sambhar is usually excellent, but be wary of the chutney; coconut tends to spoil easily. Yes, more eggs.

All the way into the suburbs, the story continues. Enough people stagger home from the sapping commute to keep many a cart in business. Which is why you’re more likely to find them near railways stations.

Don’t expect much more, though, than the greasy fare you find downtown. But, as consolation, you can wash down your meal with a little steel tumbler of coffee, retailed by entrepreneurial lads on bicycles. They’re easily spotted, here, and near traffic signals, because of the large stainless steel urn tied to the back of the bike, and rinsing bucket slung from the handlebars. Besides giving them a far wider range – they’re usually on the move from signal to taxi stand to bus stop – i guess the cycles also let them disappear more quickly down the nearest bylane when a spoilsport cop van is spotted.

(To be fair, the police don’t normally get tough with the night carts. They seem to recognise that they’re just hardworking souls catering to other hardworking souls and turn a blind eye. Besides, our tireless boys in khaki need food and caffeine too!)

Ah yes, the coffee. It isn’t filter, just a cheap instant, and the hot milk-water mixture in the urns is pre-sweetened, so sucks to you if you’re calorie counting.

But it’s strong, and hot, just what you need to keep you awake on your way home to your antacids.

Published in the Times of India’s Mumbai edition, In Search Of, under the completely grotty title, "Midnight Chowboy."
In Search Of was a weekly column that focussed on a different food-related topic each week. Another sadly discontinued TOI feature.

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Tuesday, 30 April 2002

And The Living Was Easy

Summers Past.

A drop of warm sweat meanders down my spine.

And I’m thinking basketball. Vest so drenched i could wring it, squeeze it dry, quadrangle floor so hot you had to play with shoes or blister.

I’m thinking long, hazy afternoons, a broad almond tree that was pirate ship, Tarzan’s jungle and so much more. I’m thinking chor-police, hide-and-seek and dabba futli over eight building compounds in the long twilight and no worries about being called home now, because the exams were over!

I’m remembering gazing ardently up into mango trees, willing the fruit to ripen, knocking down a few just to check whether, perhaps, that small size and green skin was just the tree trying to fool us. And then the grimace of perverse pleasure as you bit and found so-uuurrrr.

And going up to one particular friend’s house for water, because they had a fridge.

I’m smiling about 25 paise coins hoarded from errands, splurged on little plastic tubes filled with flavoured ice, where you bit through the heat-sealed edge and sucked – pepsis they were called, with a lower-case ‘p.’ Soft drinks were rare – they cost all of two bucks, who had that kind of money? – reserved for restaurant visits with one’s parents.

And that long, sweet last summer between school and college. Three months of utter irresponsibility only now and then sullied with the quaking terror of SSC marks day. Badminton in the still cool, early morning air. Racing off to the lending library to pick up the daily fix of books and comics, and then, lying with them on the cool floor, legs propped up on the nearest piece of furniture, lost in faraway places of the mind. An evening of six, maybe eight innings of cricket, and when bad light – well, no light, actually – stopped play, sitting on swings vacated by the little kids and those strange creatures, girls.

College hols, the games stayed, but there were new preoccupations too. “Summer clubs,” that delightful suburban custom – a month of semi-organised competitions and fun, sports, plays, singing, dancing, cycle treasure hunts. Begging the use of houses and terraces to sit and plan, madly practising and rehearsing, borrowing props, stealing ideas, siblings in different teams not talking to each other all summer.

We’d moved upmarket by then, to the golavala. Almost drooling as he scraped ice into a glass, packed it around a stick, anointed it with syrup and dunked it into the glass, topped up with more syrup and water.

And cycles. Everywhere. Extensions of our bodies. Taking us further than we could run. From one frenzied arena to another. And then racing down quiet back streets, outstripping dogs, avoiding night patrol cops, composing excuses on the way as to why one was so late. Thinking also of how, one day, we too would have motorbikes. Maybe even cars.

And the sudden discovery that there was something compellingly, magnetically, irresistibly attractive about those girls. Twilight hours spent sitting on gates and bus stops in hushed discussions of the relative merits of one lissome lass after another as they passed by on the way back from whatever it was girls did in the evenings. Crushes and lust and heartbreak analysed threadbare, but seldom acted on, except by the bold, much-envied few. At least they said they did.

Which led to the summer of learning how to dance. Feet used to pedalling and running and jumping now having to learn how to take small steps, you idiot, and don’t pull so much.

And the beach, yes, the beach. Contract busses hired, lunches packed, and away, two hours of ribald songs and laughter, to the relatively safe sea of Gorai. Hours in the water, skin wrinkled on the fingers and burnt on the nose and shoulders. Eyes looking, and trying not to be seen to look, at girls in swim suits.

But summer ended when college did.

Yes, there was a certain kick to playing adult. To office clothes, and an office bag, and doing lunch andmaking a salary. But that attraction wears off in summer.

Because offices don’t give you a couple of months of summer holidays. You have to pass kids playing in the street. You can’t pitch hopeful stones into mango trees. Sweat is a social handicap. There isn’t time to idle aimlessly at street corners. There’s only corporate games and posing. They want you to work in summer.

Well, yeah, sure, I can afford more than golas now, but somehow, somehow, I can’t help thinking the trade-off wasn’t fair.

Published in the Times of India’s Mumbai edition, Snaphot,in a slightly edited version (-: yes, Nina, i’m admitting to "slightly" now. :-)
Snapshot was a weekly column that aimed to "capture that quintessentially Mumbai state of mind." Sadly, TOI discontinued it.

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