Tuesday, December 20, 2005

The days of good food karma

Work demanded a recent visit to Ahmedabad. I was back with money in my pocket and that was a change. I did my design education there and was pretty much a pauper right through the stint.

Design education was not a standard academic option that South Indian middle-class youngsters would choose those days. It is not like my father dreamt that I would grow up and be a graphic designer. The truth is, till date, he does not know what I do for a living. Our design school campus was in Ahmedabad, a dusty quasi-capital of Gujarat where short-frocked milkmen flirted with camels. The campus however was self-sufficient fortified dream capital with clean air, love and bad food available in plenty. Other than structured courses that demanded us to go out and document through conversation and drawings, we students were immune to the grime and grit of the city. The proverbial ivory tower of the self proclaimed cerebral knights.

I had a hand written boarding pass and clambered over seven software engineers, two media women with black lipstick, a vegetable dyed NGO lady, a gaggle of clipped cackling British guys and an unattended Samsonite to identify my lonely blue bag on the windy tarmac – the systems were down. It is needless to say that I had no friends in that flight to Mumbai. I gate crashed at Vivek and Monisha’s house, ate up all their food and subjected them to Woody Allen banter further bored-down with my own. It is a miracle that Monisha was still willing to join us in Ahmedabad the next morning. But her pursuit was more epicurean and less camaraderie.

That night I slept with Anthony Bourdain’s Kitchen Confidential and dreamt of samurai sword carved lamb in a strange seaside restaurant.

Vivek and I took a ruthlessly early flight to Ahmedabad with foul coffee and no breakfast. I have this nasty habit of growing hair all over my face, incessantly drooling and tearing through my shirt when I do not have breakfast. But I held on. The early morning Ahmedabad air hit me with deep nostalgia and a mild hay fever. We were driven to a guesthouse, an apartment with late Victorian Gujarati baroque décor where chartered accountants and mills men were dished out custom breakfast of upma, cereal and tea. The cook was good and he baled us out. But we did miss the coffee. We had factory visits the entire day and I was dreading the lunch. But that was not bad either with an unnecessarily spiced spinach soup, cottage cheese in get-as-fat-as-you-can gravy, high calorie rotis and a thimble full of rice. More of factories and I reached my threshold - breaking point. I almost skipped a fantastic dinner at this highway restaurant done up like a supposedly rustic charming village for visitors from faraway land called Vishala.

Monisha had flown in later with the sole purpose of eating at Vishala and Lisa accompanied to join us for the factory visit. Winter darkness arrived before you can say ‘jamvamaté jaun chu!’ – ‘I am going to eat’ in Gujarati. We landed at this oil lamp lit walkway of Vishala village bumping into each other in darkness. A turbaned young man, who in broad daylight could be an ex-collector’s son from Srirangam working in Ahmedabad for a living, ushered us in. (Later I should tell you this story about Palaniappan who wears Pathan suits and serves in an Afghani restaurant called Kabul in Amsterdam.)

We started with jaljeera. I hated this drink in my earlier days in Ahmedabad. I could not understand how a drink that tastes like dilute cough syrup and smells like acute flatulence in livestock could be refreshing. I learnt to like it over years and I had a few glasses now. I also learnt that the cattle flatulence ingredient was rock salt or ‘kala namak’ as it is popularly known. We were walked further into the village and were seated on mud washed floor against a low table in a thatched roof cupola. Then it all started. It was as if their leader did a strong propaganda speech around the corner in militant Gujarati and the gist of it was ‘FEED THEM! SHOW NO MERCY!’ The turbaned youth brigade got into action. They brought leaves and pre-formed cups made of dried lotus leaves. First there was a sea of salads with sprouted chickpeas, peanuts, sweetened cucumber pickled, tomatoes in limejuice and more. Then they brought the vegetables – bataka nu shak (semi-dry potatoes with turmeric, cumin seeds and a little tomatoes to make it moist), mind-blowing undhyo (an amazing, tasty oily dark gravy with unrecognizable vegetables in it), and lots of deep fried fritters, thin rotis, butter and gooey jaggery to go with it. All this served with so much love and persistence that I ate too much, my legs went off to sleep and I needed help to get off the ground. It was wish fulfillment, manna from Amdavadi quarters of heaven, a nostalgic awakening, culinary excellence that surpasses a Gujarati invoked Bull Run – I was satiated and had a dreamless sleep that night. It was not over yet.

The next morning and I was still craving for coffee. The ignorant cook at the guesthouse showed me a bottle of Nescafé. He did not know that instant coffee is not kosher among people in Bangalore. Alternatively he offered milky white ginger tea that can launch lactose intolerance in R2D2. I realized that coffee is not necessarily a core competence in this part of the world. I had a fleeting glimpse of a café as we drove in the previous night. This is one of those places where very nubile young things and very young thugs courting nubile young things are draped on chairs looking vacant (read cool). I walked across middle-aged Gujarati men riding scooters sidesaddle and located the café. I asked the man at the counter for two double espressos, little milk no foam, to go. He looked at me as if I just ordered the 1952 version of Clark’s Logarithmic Table in Hebrew. I slowly deconstructed my order and drove it home. He was a slow barista and that is an understatement. The wait at the café felt longer than it was. There was an impervious early morning Roman orgy well underway in one sunlit corner involving a lot of thugs and things. If this coffee was not happening I was planning to go intravenous, sent right where it matters. Finally I was violently sucking at a paper cup filled with my coffee and took a couple back to the guesthouse. Then there was a boring breakfast and more factories to visit before our noon flight.

We boarded. Vivek had an epiphany somewhere over Surat. We were going to Highway Gomantak for lunch. Highway Gomantak is a small restaurant on the service road in Bandra that promises a good seafood meal. They somehow manage to gently coax every living creature in the sea to convert to a delectable curry dish or a rava fry on my plate. I let Monisha and Lisa decide between a hoard of dishes with names that sound like the entire process of cooking – ‘slowly twist the head and pull the inerds out as you sing an upbeat excerpt from a Konkani song’ could pretty much be a name of a dish. The place was teeming with inspiring eaters who with a sleight of hand could devour a crab with a lot of rice and sunset yellow gravy in coconut sauce. I probably had a significant part of an underwater food chain that afternoon – clams, mussels, silver fish, shrimps, pomfret in their many styles. I loved the food and hated the fact that I was going to work and Monisha to sleep at home.

I was back in Bangalore that night. This trip was an epicurean deliverance. Thanks to Vivek, Monisha and Lisa who brought in the good food karma.

Saturday, November 12, 2005

Deconstructing a Svengali – Advertising voyeurism

In America Television is God. It is the all-pervasive omnipresence. When the people are saying their little prayer at their table a small television is on and watching them. The channels are vying the spot on their mind luring them with grand promises while doing mundane things like predicting weather. American television commercials are probably the best keyhole to peep, to conjure up an intelligent voyeuristic opinion on the country that is otherwise uninteresting. In this post I have tried to deconstruct this Uncle svengali Sam through a set of advertisements caught on a Friday from noon to evening central time.

TGI Fridays
Americans are cursed with a countrywide eating disorder. There is the morning meal with bacon eggs grease-fest plus lots of coffee, a couple of demented hi-sugar snacks, a loaded lunch with half an angus (you can hear it moo) in it with a super-size soda, then a few more snacks that range between packed candies to salted cheese fries and then there is supper with lots more things that are dead and unhealthy. They eat varied meats, an assortment of fowls, soda and sugar in bowls. TGI Fridays is an all-American institution (Does anybody know what this actually means? Can you call me?) that promotes overt consumption of a gastronomical nature. They have juicy (read bloody) steaks beautifully rendered in all its pristine glory while being cut and dipped in a sweet sauce and there is an entire family playing hooky to eat at TGI Fridays. There are more such advertisements – Papa Johns, Red Lobster, Taco Bell, Olive Garden and it goes on. They have to feed 295,734,134 people with similar disorder and I do not blame the chains. They are making their bread.

Thyrin ATC
This is a derivative of the earlier paragraph – obesity. Let me feed you with some statistics first. New statistics reveal that a startling 64.5% of American adults, or more than 120 million people, are overweight or obese. The numbers probably will mean an explosion of diabetes and heart disease cases if things don’t improve, top U.S. obesity experts say. The number of Americans who are overweight is at the highest level ever recorded. 31%, or about 59 million adults older than 20, are obese. Obese is defined as 30 or more pounds over a healthy body weight; overweight is roughly 10 to 30 pounds over a healthy weight. 33% of adult women are obese, compared with 28% of men. 50% of black women are obese compared with 40% of Mexican-American women and 30% of white women. (The survey doesn't have a category labeled Hispanics.) There is virtually no difference in obesity among men based on race. 5% of people overall are extremely obese. That's up from about 3% in the early 1990s. But 15% of black women are extremely obese. About 15% of children ages 6 to 19, or about 9 million children, are overweight.

There are equally staggering amounts of prescription-less cure for obesity for a lot of money. One such product is Thyrin aimed at the larger ladies. The advertisement is a boring set of facts with typical before and after scenarios. Thyrin cures - as the tagline suggests - ‘weightloss plus thyroid support’. I sometimes wonder, can this be ever reversed?

Bowflex – Delivers Results
This obesity and eating disorder issues are discharging a more health and fitness oriented culture. I personally think, unhealthiness is associated with a class that the upcoming urban America does not associate itself with. This is why they need regimens of diet and fitness. Low fat, low sugar, good carb, bad carb (like in a culinary film noir whodunit), high fiber, bran, light beer, with a promise of a six pack abs and plasticky looking people who are on Red Bull to do the commercials –this is the overall scenario. Bowflex is a home gym product with pumped up men and women working out. You can get one for $19 a month and it apparently delivers results. I am happy about this. This is probably the tip of the reversal.

Coca Cola Zero
I think cola commercials have gone beyond the standard message to generic banter. It is more about recurrence and so a recall. This commercial is for a zero calorie Coke that is focused at the health conscious American. It has a man from the Coca Cola Company who claims that they have nailed it – they have discovered the Zero Calorie Coke. As he says that he wants to share the formula he gets hit in the neck by a blow dart and faints. You see an executive hiding in the next room with the dart pipe. Can anybody decipher this masterpiece from Madison Avenue? For some odd reason you do not see desis drinking Coke. I am not sure whether this is about staying healthy or saving money.

Dell Dimension
Talking about saving money Dell is whipping out deals before Thanksgiving to lure families to own a new desktop. They are cutting costs – moving more jobs to Bangalore. Dell has been a pioneer in this call center outsourcing bandwagon. The other day I called United Airlines to change my flight and my call landed on a table in Pune. I had meetings that were more pro outsourcing than before. So Dell Dimension can sell at $399 to a suburban kid playing games.

Gameboy Donkey Kong
Hip-hop is an irreverent culture that is prevalent among young adults. For the uninitiated this is about wearing clothes that are a few sizes larger, showing underwear that include boxers, tshirts that look like they have been vandalized, jargons and groupie moves that others cannot understand, general demeanor of disrespect to anything other than fellow hip-hoppers. This has left quite a few parents worried. Gameboy is a mobile gaming product that promotes this culture. The commercial has a bunch of kids driving an old car with one playing a Gameboy and the car is slowly getting filled with cartoon-ish surf culture tattoo-ish florals and characters that jump out of it. Everything about this commercial including ’77 automobile is worrisome.

Mazda 6
Car advertisements have gone desi in America. Everybody is promising mileage. The fuel prices have been bad after the country got made by the three witches of the south – Katrina, Wilma and Rita. It was close to $6 a gallon at one point and America has suddenly been shaken into understanding moderation and fuel efficiency. All car companies are taking about the mileage or hybrid cars that run on electricity or ethanol. Mazda is one of those few old school car companies still talking about an exciting new car – not boring as the other sedans. The commercial has people sleeping in their cars in a typical downtown street while Mazda 6 zips past.

Geico – Different Tastes. Different Personality. Same Insurance Company
In corporate America the next best thing to compare among men after the size of manliness blessed upon thee is what you paid for your automobile insurance. I have always heard desis harp a lot about paying a brown limb for their insurance. Geico has been the most visible of the companies. This advertisement is actually for motorcycles with members of a strange looking suburban family driving different vehicles including a scooter. Ends with the proverbial 800-number that you can call.

The Cochran Firm
America knows how to sue. You can bite into a beef jerky and your teeth comes off you can sue; you can keep a coffee cup between your legs and it mars your ability to exercise other things between your legs you can very well sue; you can sue for injury, for somebody’s error, for pain and for prayers not of your belief. The Cochran Firm is a couple of legals in Dallas area who will help you with your injury claim. They advertise with these suited guys standing back to back like the Starsky and Hutch to save you from evils of injury of any kind.

There are more – upside down Christmas trees, holiday vacation plans, more food, a lot of odd beverages and snacks.

And a dumb president.

Saturday, November 05, 2005

Immigrant Angels – Four cabbie stories

I flew an Embraer 170 jet across the United States from Dallas Fortworth to Chicago O’Hare. A small thing to take care of in Chicago and I took another such flight to Washington Dulles.

This is probably the perfect time to visit the capital area – fall. The State of Virginia looks like a young media professional from London when shades of reds are the color of the season – wearing red silks, fluffy boa, dyed hair, bright red demented eye wear, jewelry and more. (After I paint the picture I realize how bad it is.) Virginia looks beautiful, surely more attractive than that media girl.

The people from capital area are predominantly occupied in governance or working for agencies that are government parasites. Of what I hear from friends who work in defense contracting companies the bureaucrats are a bunch of frustrated sods warming chairs and acting pricey for the mere fact that they are sitting on government money. I got a fantastic deal at the Hyatt Dulles right next to the airport (and I almost missed the flight back to Dallas Fortworth and that is another story). I got a well-appointed room overlooking a terrace garden with a lounge area and a sleep area for $80 a night all inclusive and it otherwise costs $354 and taxes (Priceline.com rocks!). This is like a pauper placed in a palace. I was sharing elevators and waiting for cabs with bureaucrats wearing arrogance on their two thousand dollar suit sleeves. They threw loaded glances at this strange Asian guy wearing jeans and an Eddie Bauer corduroy jacket – ‘is he staying here. I need to get Cindy to change my reservations next time’.

There is a pleasant comfort in meeting immigrants in the capital area. Like New York City, Washington DC has always attracted immigrant population driving cabs or working at Delis. They are legal immigrants polite, confident and engaging. This posting is about four cab drivers who in their own way made a difference to my otherwise sober trip.

Flare of existence - Kelly Zhu
The first morning at Hyatt and I was worried about calling a cab from the hotel. I thought they would send me a gleaming Merc and fleece the daylights out of my meager travel budget. However, I decided to go with them and a Lexus GS440 lands up. I had to share the ride with another Asian girl from California. She was going to Reston, VA and I was going across the bridge to McLean, VA. Kelly Zhu, a Japanese lady in her thirties, was the cab driver.

The champagne silver Lexus was a fantastic car with a Magellan GPS (the type that constantly talks to you - ‘you missed the exit you dumb ass’). Kelly maneuvered the car with great ease and skill. She was a silent woman with a pleasant smile; unlike the ones in Ozu movies. I pictured her in a small town home that smells of fish in Maryland with her Pokemon daughter, eating small portions of clean food on a perfectly square plates on perfectly square low table. She dropped me at McLean, VA, handed me her card and left.

After I finished my meeting I get a cab driven by Siraj Khan and we got stuck on the beltway. The radio said that there was a rather bad accident on the beltway. We crawled for over a mile and saw those flashing lights up ahead. We had to skirt around a tow truck and a couple of police cars blocking the accident and one of the lanes. Then I saw it through those flashing lights in my eye – the ravaged hood of champagne silver Lexus awkwardly pulled up at the shoulder. The airbags flopped over the front windows. It cannot be Kelly’s car. But since then, I had grit in my mind about Kelly and the visual of the mangled car filled my vacant afternoons. Kelly Zhu if you ever read this show me a sign – send up the flare of existence.

No line of control - Siraj Khan
Irrespective of where you flag them in the United States, Pakistani cabbies have a consistent remark. They are out to prove that the hostility between people of our countries is a weak mirage conjured in the heads of the state for political advantage. The truth is we are one, like renegade Siamese twins.

Siraj’s illustration of this point was a bollywood-style drama of friendship. He is of Pakistani origin – a cricket player-like handsome man in his early thirties in a Walmart polo neck, jeans and wrap around dark glasses. He drives an unmentionably yellow cab with the CD player incessantly playing ‘Pretty woman dekko dekko na Pretty woman’, franchised for Falls Church Cab Service. His friend Raj, of Indian origin, drives a cab for the same company. (Raj – Siraj. Who said truth cannot be cheesy!) Raj threw a huge bash on Diwali day with booze and fanfare. There were three Indian families in attendance and about ten Pakistani ones. They had a ball, of course on a common ground of Hindi film songs, not to mention the inebriated sing-along and dancing.

Raj and Siraj do not eat lunch without each other. And they do this everyday. Last month was Ramadan and Siraj was fasting. Raj had these unhappy and lonely lunches that he ate to live. Yesterday was Id and Siraj organized a do and invited the same bunch – biryani, butter chicken and lots of beer to wash it down. A re-run of the song and dance routine and the bunch was elated. Now, Siraj’s fasting is over with Id and he can eat lunch again. He wanted to drop me of at Great Falls, VA as early as he can for the friends are uniting again for lunch after a month. Raj is buying Chinese and they are meeting at Tyson’s Corner.

I did call Siraj that afternoon for a drop back at Hyatt. He was at DC after lunch and he called back to say that Raj was tied-up too. I called the cab company and after couple of hours of wait they sent me Steven Mbwaza.

This was a typical establishing decoupage in a Hindi movie to illustrate friendship, with jumpy comic songs, heroes in colors that hurt, which the west will discard as something camp and not at all übersexual.

As corny as it may sound, it was earnest and I liked that.

From the fields of gold – Steven Mbwaza
Friday afternoon, I was working at Content Enablers at Great Falls, VA. Brad went early to convert eighty pounds of chicken simmering at home into enchiladas for a night party. Mathew came over, had a $9.99 Gyro dinner at Deli Italiano with me and left. I called for a cab and they sent me a thin, tall, articulate, deep voiced young African American who introduced himself as Steve.

Steven Mbwaza was from Ghana, Western Africa. His country was a colony of the British Empire and was declared independent ten years after India in 1957. Steven was 32, well read and well informed. He wanted to know my take on the Delhi bombs and was concerned that the Pakistani borders were not secure after the earthquake. He was all for democratic progress and India seemed to be his benchmark. ‘You guys are smart and we want to be there too.’

Ghana is a small and peaceful democracy of about 14 million people south of Sahara with rich metal resources. Appropriately christened Gold Coast by the British Empire, it traded that name for Ghana later. The unpronounceable President of Ghana is apparently a progressive man sending youngsters out to learn and bring back wisdom to make a difference in the economy and governance of this small country. Kofi Annan is a Ghanian and he supports this cause. Him being the UN Secretary General visible and influential has helped in Ghana getting noticed by the larger global community.

Steven, a dual citizen of US and Ghana, drives a cab, studies at the University of Maryland and runs a small acupuncture pads business back in Africa. ‘I want to go back home soon, like how you Indians are and make a difference to my land.’ I was impressed and inspired by this young man’s patriotism, drive and conviction.

My travel planner – Ahmed the Turk
Too many Sam Adams the earlier night and I woke up late. I had to catch a flight at 8.27 am and the front desk had told me that there is a shuttle every half hour. They did not tell me that they start at 7.45 am on a Saturday.

I had to call for a cab. Ahmed the Turk drives in and I politely told him to step on it. It is a short drive. Ahmed talks without a pause in an interesting mid eastern accent with guttural flourishes to an otherwise insipid monologue. I made the mistake of confessing that I am planning a week’s vacation in Istanbul. Ahmed quickly donned his cap of the knowledgeable guide set out to create my itinerary as I panic.

‘First day is at the bazaar Kapalıçari; next day is at the mosques Ahi Celibi, Selimiye, Al Sophia and Zeyrek; then the churches Anglikan and more. You get everything in Istanbul, the legit and the illicit. But you need to know the path. You should eat the fish, with what do you call that, lemon and olive oil at the bazaar. Ask them to make it hot and eat it slowly. Do not forget to take the ferry across the river between the European quarters and the Asian quarters. The sauce for the fish is an amazing combination of olive leaves and spices. Ask the guys to top it’. At this point we have been at the United gate for a few minutes and my flight will shut in about twenty. I can see that the airport is extremely crowded with weekend traffic. I am being polite and listening to him as I pull my wallet out. He continues with the color of the sea in Turkey, extended services in a Turkish bath (he winks), but does not tell me the fare. Another minute of his banter and I am about to excrete wire-cut house bricks. In between somewhere he said ‘Thirteen dollars’ and I stuffed a twenty dollar bill in his palm and shot out like a moor during crusade. I ran to the counter, inched nervously in the queue, get half naked through security check, dress up, reach gate C16 and as the lady is deciphering my last name to announce I slide to her, enter the gate and it shuts behind me. I was the last person to enter the plane and the vacation in Turkey was the last thought in my head.

I breathe as the Embraer taxis out on the runway. It lumbers up the sky and I ease into a comfortable content nap. I am going back to Dallas.

Wednesday, November 02, 2005

Left index finger, Right index finger

I am back here again. Sleep dazed afternoon after a 22-hour flight through Frankfurt with Warsteiner beer, chicken lunch, coffee and Baileys. This fancy new terminal with vast walk throughs and going down escalators that lead you down a deep chasm of a new promise of dawn for some and just a bunch of engagement marks, phone numbers on my calendar. A curt man behind the counter stamps my immigration with a St. Peter professionalism. Shiny new baggage claim carousel with the Germans on the banks cursing being there in there jagged lubricant spit-air tongue and beagles sniffing out African salted meat and Indian pickles. I just landed in Dallas-Fortworth, Texas.

I am in the land where there is an overdose of CNN, a similar serving of Public Broadcast and a plenty of stupidity in the governance to feed it all. I am here for the next fortnight and am hoping to post enough meat to collectively complain about this massive dysfunctional pretentious machine called United States of America.

I am back here again.

Tuesday, October 18, 2005

The Quintessential Hustler of Agra

I am writing this as we are headed back to Delhi from Agra. We braved a trip to the north for the junket – a fixed feature of Brad’s Indian trips. We met Prem at Agra.

Our travel agent had a package deal in a minivan to comfortably accommodate Brad’s girth and stature. Komal Singh, a sleepy driver from Garhwal with a pahadi ringtone, picked us up at the Delhi airport. After a few dusty stopovers to pay taxes from crossing state borders, taxes for drinking aerated water and taxes for general existence we were on a well-surfaced road towards Mathura and Agra. Somewhere on this road Komal slept at the wheel and we missed a disastrous camel cart accident that would have made us look like a bunch of kinky sex starved men trying a mangled bestiality maneuver with large animals. I pledged to keep Komal awake and engaged him in unnecessary conversation about everything other than quantum dynamics in a carefully cultivated chaste Delhi tongue. We crossed plenty of shantytowns, people, livestock, camels, three wheelers piled up with people and paraphernalia, dust devils and other accurate illustrations of mayhem (go Google Hieronymus Bosch). After a strenuous few hours we reached Agra.

Prem was a forty-year-old motor mouth with a bad dental plan and a penchant for one-liners. He, over the twenty odd years as a guide, has mastered the unmatched art of the gab and seriously believes that he is Woody Allen of the dust planet. He behaves like a stand up artist with a well-practiced gig and oft-repeated punch lines, body language timing and all. Altogether he comes across as the quintessential hustler you would not trust. He is the ripper, the rogue, the gallant savior of the vulnerable visitors, the lord of the guide-land, the well-connected human compass for the lost backpacking souls and above all the book of knowledge on Mughals. All of this packed in about five feet nine with gravity defying moustache and a deep gash on his temple that looks like a bullet wound. He limps a bit and he says he met with a two-wheeler accident a month back that lamed him for life. He owns a restaurant called Indiana (he added that Brad would know where Indiana is and we desis would not) in the dust tracks of Agra serving Continental, Chinese, Mughlai and Tandoor. The food, he says, is better than what you get in star hotels. We did not believe him as usual.

His monologues on the Taj Mahal and the Agra fort were engaging. He spoke in a strange diction and accent – a mix of splayed-in-the-middle cow belt English peppered with nuances of American and unrecognizable other influences from faraway lands. His demeanor was that of a self-proclaimed authority on five centuries of kings. He almost made us believe that Aurungzeb had to request Prem for permission in triplicate before he went to pee. Additionally, he had the fondness for painting the Mughals as a bunch of sexual deviants who watched there harem bathe in the royal Turkish baths or even better, lustfully watched them shop at the strategically installed palace market called Mina Bazaar (What?). He proclaimed at the Taj with great flair that ‘Love is not blind, Love makes you blind’. He also taught us that Islam prescribes visiting a mosque before visiting a tomb, that the Mughals believed in symmetry and so does he – he has two sons, two daughters and one wife as he puts it, that Shah Jahan had dozens of other women in his harem while he was deeply in love with Mumtaz, that the emperor had also planned a black Taj on the other side of Yamuna as his tomb with a bridge connecting it – white for feminity and love, black for masculinity and sorrow. It was all interesting and smart till he repeated them twenty odd times over the four hours we spent with him.

After all this he persuaded Brad to visit a bunch of organized handicrafts hawkers who promised to send everything but the Taj, packed and marked to his doorstep at Great Falls, VA for an exorbitant price. He persisted on taking us to yet another carpet maker who made any old rug look like a custom design that could fly for a price. I guess we did not fall for this and ruined Prem’s addition to marry-his-daughters-off or more-star-cuisine-restaurants kitty.

If you are a cautious traveler your heart is too weak for Prem. But if you are willing to take that pinch of salt and ignore his antics he is entertaining and certainly useful. Call on him when you are in Agra. Have a ball!

Prem Prakash Upadhyay, Tour Escort, Indiana Multicuisine Restaurant, Behind Hotel Ratan Deep, Fatehabad Road, Agra. Phone: +91.562.2332508 Home: +91.562.2411667 Mobile: +91.98370.57277.

Thursday, October 13, 2005

Going Downhill

Hill people are plain good. I have seen this in Himachal, Kumaon - otherwise set in a godforsaken state, and now in Wayanad, Kerala. Even the men smile with an attitude. But they smile. They are extremely helpful and cordial.

We had to leave Wayanad and go to Guruvayur in Central Kerala. The route is beautiful. Like a wise friend of us said Kerala is beautiful because the mountain has to meet the sea in about 40 kilometres. Vythiri to Thamarassery is a bunch of acute hairpin curves with considerate disciplined truckers helping you through. This is how you go downhill in Kerala.

You reach the plains and realise the attitude and the general demeanour of the people has also gone downhill along with the landscape. It is like God rented his country out to a bunch of beings who are too superior to pay heed to others. Sad and true.
Prince of Ramadan

Sultan's Battery is a small town right after the forest in Wayanad - Tipu Sultan's station for his foot warriors, artillery and ammunition during the Raj. We entered this town during lunch on a fateful Ramadan afternoon in search of a good place to eat lunch. 20 of the 24 eateries are shut for the month and they said Prince was the best of the lot that was open.

Prince is like a smelly public sector club with one huge powder blue hall, pink Formica tables that are faded at the chairs, upholstered chairs and an old wall clock with a still pendulum and quartz mechanism. We were hungry and we ordered for some specials - Malabar fish biryani, Malabar chicken biryani and curd rice for Uncle Krishnan's stomach in disagreement. If you are in Malabar and the menu has a Malabar prefix to its dishes, walk off. Get up and find another place. We were too hungry and my daughter was chewing on my hands to do that. The lunch was served late and was a complete disaster. The entire order were variations of the South Kerala ghee rice. A bit of Fish Molly and ghee rice over it was fish biryani, a few pieces of crumb fried grease fest chicken and ghee rice over it was the chicken variation and hold your breath, a strange dry mix of curd and ghee rice was the curd rice.

If you are in Sultan's Battery during Ramadan walk away from Prince. Better still, do not go there during Ramadan for there is a whole lot of good food you will miss.
Why not?

The pleasant man smiled at me and repeatedly said 'ok' as I was screaming at him waving my credit card with a continuous banter of Malayalam and English. I speak a bit of malayalam and I thought it was an advantage. Apparently not.

We decided to stopover at Kalpetta in the Wayanad District of North Kerala before we hit Guruvayoor. Wayanad, popularly known as 'whynotf' ( keep the 'f' and prounounce it by letting out air through your lips as they close - like air brakes in a bus), amid Malayalees. So, with some help from friends living around there we got a booking at a place called Haritagiri smack in the centre of Kalpetta - the district headquarters. Downtown Kalpetta is a little over 23 shops, a few houses and a lot of bearded Malayalee men with a serious attitude.

Haritagiri main building looked like a boring census office that got a recent makeover with clip-on tile roofs and pre-gummed terracotta murals. We got ourselves a non AC twin bedroom cottage for five adults and two kids next to the pool. The pool was dull green in colour and you could not see beyond the second row of small tiles on the pool wall. I would not jump into it unless the state sanitation department and the pollution control board sent a Nair each to personally talk me into it. The cottage was clean and the food was divine with 'Erachi Olathiyathu' (beef dry cooked with a lot of curry leaves and black pepper for the uninitiated) emerging a clear winner.

I loved the place till I tried to check out. I politely told the lady at the counter that we are checking out. She looked at for a few loaded seconds as if I asked her to explain the most crucial snitch in quantum dynamics. Then she composed herself and said 'ok' and smiled. From then the plot goes downhill. In short - they charge me for three extra beds for five adults over two double beds, they add that the children are not charged, the extra bed charges are for an AC room, their credit card machine does not work, the repair man is coming from a star in a galaxy far away, they call the manager - a pleasant man with a smile, he gives me a discount on the room tariff and the tax is on the old tariff and here as if on cueI break into a breathless banter.

Eventually I paid all the cash I had, the change I keep in the car, a bottle of dandruff shampoo, some bananas and ran before they routed for my kids.

Saturday, October 01, 2005

There is more where it came from...

This is working pretty well. I have quite a few stories from my design school and Delhi days that I can share with you. I did not realize that writing is easy when you are passionate about the subject and when you are describing events, emotions and textures of life that you have been through. Shall vow to write more.

Wednesday, September 28, 2005

The smell of time

It drizzled last evening as I ran back home from a walk with the kids. The rains have not stopped as I am writing this post at eight in the morning. Last night I decided to supplement our dinner with some punjabi protein - the tandoori chicken!

There is a new dhaba right next to the community gate that I live in and I called the guys up and ordered the fowl. As I was eating the meat in all its glory - the strange redness, burnt edges, the slight smell of charcoal, sardarjis and ajwain, goddamn, I remembered the sordid year in Delhi.

I used to live in a then suburb called Saket and my community was called Press Enclave. The place was teeming (?) with kurta clad confused socialists reading aloud Sartre and Mayakovsky to make their kids sleep. I was single then and I shared my apartment with a nocturnal friend of mine - an illustrator graphic designer. He slept through the day, woke up at around four in the evening, fixed breakfast of bacon and eggs, took it easy, made himself a drink and started work at nine in the night and worked through. This was his trick in handling Delhi. I was not blessed with such skills and I had to take Delhi head-on.

Delhi is very aggressive and if you are a sambar loving South Indian, it will stamp on you with such vengeance as if you are the runt with a sting. You have to be ready to swear or to be the victim at all times, twenty four seven. My morning to work included five minutes in front of the mirror, grimacing and repeating behanchod approximately forty times with varied tonality and pitch. You could have easily mistaken me for a method actor. And as I step out and ask the nimrod auto rickshaw driver to take me to work while he is picking his teeth with a screwdriver, he repeats ‘Klash Clooney? Nahi Jayenge!’. My Hindi was poor and gets worse in emotional distress. What I told him loosely translates like this ‘ Dear brother, you are creating a lot of trouble. You should anoint your vehicle with a board with your destination written’. He threw the screwdriver, loudly swore at me, deftly including my mother and sister in the rant. He then walked a little ahead complaining, burped, came back to his auto and put his screwdriver back to work.

The entire day was made of events with minor variations of this and me beating the retreat. The other party was either swearing at me or bragging about his diamond studded belt buckle (not one, he has three). I did encounter a one odd sardar who winked at me stressing the axiom that men are not safe in Delhi (if you drop something in Palika Bazar do not pick it up). I was plain bad at living there.

Eventually, I had no friends (with my only friend sleeping when I am awake) and I had these lonely dinners bought from a dhaba nearby. It was usually a small portion of tandoori chicken and an orange soda.

Yesterday I remembered the smell of those sordid times.

Monday, September 26, 2005

I have been lazy to think about writing a movie script. I have started a new blog to make you guys egg me on and help me create this script. There are a few things that I know in my plot. I am going to share this with alll of you and hope that you will post comments and guide this script to make it good. I will do a detailed posting of my outline and you can review that.

Visit my new blog for more details. Looking forward to work with you! Thank you.

Thursday, September 22, 2005

The monastery at Bylakoppa.

Lunch beneath the wheel of life

Olive. If I remember right that was the name.

The Apparatus team had a disastrous outing this year. We went to this strange joint called Veerabhoomi supposed in the hills of Coorg (there was a small mound with a cheap replica of a cannon on it. A hill, they said). The food was atrocious and in the evenings we were invaded by public sector bank clerks in shiny safari suits having private party before the go home, beat their wives and pass out. This posting is not about that.

One of the days that we were in Coorg we went to this Tibetan settlement, Bylakoppa. Tibetans were offered land on lease by the Indira Gandhi government here and they have been there since then. Vinod called an unknown number and told Tsering that 16 of us are landing there for lunch. Wise thought and is more valuable as Vinod does not get them very often.

After visiting the monastery with a huge wheel of life we reached Olive Restaurant run by this friendly guy called Tsering (his brother is Tsering and his neighbour is also Tsering, we call him Tom). We had three massive bowl full of momos - pork, chicken and vegetables. The tables were laid out under a small shelter outside the restaurant and it was Tibetan poetry. I heard a voice and ordered a Thugpa - a soup style noodles with vegetables and chicken. As I relished it I understood the basic axiom of existence - me, monks, rain, thugpa, bliss.

That is the best meal I had after curries that resembled dead terns in Greenpeace videos! Thank you Tsering!

Nonsense poetry in T9 English

Oven fresh minds are hard to find,
Even leavened bread is a pain to find,
Yo cloven head diner
Wish for a bread like mind,
For oven even leavened mind is thine.

Wednesday, September 21, 2005

Pronounced grains of a gratifying breakfast

I am a sucker for a good breakfast. I can pretty much miss any other meal of the day. Sir, but surely not my breakfast. In one such endeavour to discover the perfect morning meal I found enlightenment next to a strange store that sells womens undergarments and thermal for the traditional South Indian H1B heading to some redneck country. We are talking Bangalore and this is on Indiranagar's CMH Road.

Suswad is a easily miss-able car garage converted onto a polite clean 'standing-joint' as they are known in this part of the country. Suswad Idli Bazaar serves the best upma that I have ever eaten. Upma is a strange dish. With a slight lack of attention it could end up resembling post office glue (probably tastes like that too). A good upma should have pronounced grains of rava well lubricated with a perfect mix of moistness. On the other hand you can make upma with pronounced grains that is dry as flaked thermocol (this is the kind of stuff that is served in malayalee homes and they mix it with coffee and eat! YES COFFEE! Is there a place where we can complain about this? In triplicate?). The Suswad upma is the right blend and is completely delectable.

I am not a great fan of beans and carrot pieces in my upma. I love my upma uninterrupted. However the Suswad upma is sparsely interjected with discreet pieces of vegetables that I have learnt to enjoy. If and when you are walking on CMH Road to buy thermals or find H1Bs stop over at this place and you will know what I mean. Down this with a coffee and DO NOT MIX IT FOR GODSAKE!