Sunday, September 27, 2015

Memories of Ms Mitra


I am ashamed, for when Mohua Roy sent me the above picture, I had no clue who this person was, and decided to discard it for her idiosyncrasies. It was unfortunate that she died (Nandita Mitra, not Mohua), but why should I care? Neither the photograph nor the name rang a bell, after all.

Mohua admonished me later for not even asking who the lady was. And then she told me. And the sky came crashing down. This was her. This was the woman I have always wanted to meet but never made an effort to.

***

Though I had no memory of her name, let her refer to her as Ms Mitra.

For a long, long time I was annoyed at this Ms Mitra, especially during my student days. Her mantra was different from her competitors: though she, or her outlet, never mentioned, the moment you tried out her product you realised she would dish out quality (the best in the world, and I am not exaggerating) over anything else.

Unfortunately, this also meant her products were almost invariably out of my range during my school days. The pocket-money increased as I entered college — but so did the prices at her joint. But whenever I managed to conjure the money, or had managed to procure something as a gift, well, it was magical.

I cannot forgive myself for not knowing her name. I really cannot. For this seems as impossible as using Microsoft products for close to two decades and not knowing the name of Bill Gates. Or not being aware of the fact that Bloomsbury had published Harry Potter. Or not knowing of Thomas Bata (Tomáš Jan Baťa, to be specific).

I had probably taken Ms Mitra for granted. I had assumed the outlet was a nameless, ownerless outlet designed for me. Its products were created for me, and only me — something I knew was not true — for there are thousands, more, many more of them who have craved for that quality-over-everything-else aspect; for when Ms Mitra said quality, she meant it.

***

How to describe what she dished out for her customers — her immensely loyal fan base? I had made an effort, in vain, in one of my earlier posts. Let me copy-paste:

No chilli sauce. No tomato ketchup. None of that cucumber nonsense. Maybe a few minuscule strips of well-cooked onion, but that’s about it.

It gets unceremoniously dropped inside a brown-paper bag, along with a single green chilli and a slice of lemon. You bribe them and get her released. They do not bother: for them you are just another customer. For you, however, they are demigods who can be bribed to open the gates of the forbidden garden. Now it’s just you and that object of desire in your eager, impatient grip.

Roll.

Your fingers clutch around the roll. You know it is hot, but you also know that rolls are at their succulent best when they scald the ceiling of your mouth. And then — after a wait that had seemed longer than waiting to catch a glimpse of your first crush on her balcony — you’re there.

She is stuffed it with a precision so magical that not a single cubic millimetre is left unoccupied by meat; your eyes shut automatically the moment your teeth dig close on to her, sending a thrill down your spine. It is like a kiss — only with more reciprocation than any human can dream of producing.

Take a moment here to appreciate the porota; the flour is never left raw, and not the smallest of squares is charred beyond edible limits. They somehow form an idea of the exact level of crispiness you want, they never over-fry, they go low on oil, and execute it with the precision of a surgeon performing a brain operation.

One bite follows another. You now face the infamous Roll-Eater’s Dilemma that has haunted mankind for decades: should you make it last longer or should you finish it while it’s still hot? Ultimately you end up sinning as patience gives in.

The chicken roll does not get a chance to cross the road.

And then, if you’re fortunate, you get a final moment of joy: once you’ve eaten your way to glory, you turn the wrapper upside down with your palm cupped underneath it in frantic hope.

If you have led a life of penance, if you have helped the poor and the needy, if you have never committed adultery, if you have always fulfilled every wish of your parents, if you have never cheated in an examination, if you have never taken personal print-outs at work, there may be a possibility that a piece of meat — the last survivor — may slide into your anticipating palm.

Bliss.

***

Ms Mitra owned Campari — the greatest roll boutique that has ever existed; and Campari owns me.

Rest in peace, Ms Mitra; you will not remember, but I am one of the many teenagers you had probably seen counting coins on the palm outside your shop in late 1980s and early 1990s.


Oh, and thank you, Mohua.

Friday, September 11, 2015

A tale of two cities


Image courtesy: Somewhere on the internet

It was a hot, sultry day in Mumbai. I was making the long, dreary journey on Harbour Line from CST to Vashi. There was no place to sit, but my eyes had started to droop — something no sane pair of eyes is supposed to do in The City That Never Sleeps.

I usually read through these journeys, but Mumbai had sapped all energy out of me that day. The glasses kept slipping down my nose. I looked around, my eyes resting for a second or two the glassy-eyed faces flipping their fingers vigorously on their touch-screen cell-phones.

WhatsApp? Possibly.

Barring a few exceptions, they do not read in Mumbai trains. This is in stark contrast to Delhi metros, where every other person consumes Chetan Bhagat books with intimidating fervour. Mumbai train passengers do not indulge in such dilly-dallies: when they travel, they travel; and at times, they...

Nah, I need to master the art of storytelling.

Where was I? Yes, my tired eyes were hovering across faces worn out by the gruel of everyday work and travel. Some had managed to obtain seats; others were not as fortunate.

Then I saw her.

No, it was not what you are thinking.

She was your everyday woman. I do not remember exactly what she wore, for I never noticed. All I saw was the plastic containers; and the blade — the unmistakable glint of a knife.

She was chopping vegetables.

I clearly remember French beans and carrots. Were there ladies’ fingers (okras)? Probably. It did not matter, for my overawed eyes refused to look away from those fingers that would put a pianist’s to shame with their nimble swiftness and precision.

I remember a push, a rush of sorts. Kurla? Possibly. My body refused to acknowledge the overpowering thrust of Kurla crowd, second to possibly only the Dadar crowd when it came to single-mindedness to grab seats.

It was an exercise in futility. I was pushed inside. I moved closer to that seat.

Several minutes passed. The plastic containers, now full of chopped vegetables, were tucked away in a large cloth bag. Out came more containers: an empty plastic bowl; a tumbler-ish thing full of water; and — finally — aata (whole wheat).

I remember staring, open-mouthed, only to be disturbed by a bored voice: “Vashi?”

I barely nodded, and led him to the door as those fingers, in all probability, went on with business.

Did she get down at Belapur? Or did she go all the way to Panvel? Alas, I will never find out.

I have subsequently shared this with my Mumbai mates. They have apparently all seen vegetables being chopped on a train, though kneading dough was not exactly the commonest of sights.

***

The above incident had taken place some time back. I had planned to write on this for almost a year but kept it aside — till Tanmay (Bongpen to the world) told me a story.

This is not Tanmay’s story. This is a story about Tanmay’s friend, whose name I am not aware of (TFWNIANAO). I will use the same acronym to refer to him.

TFWNIANAO works in Haldia but stays at Andul (Google these places if you need to). He takes a train from Andul to Haldia four days a week. It is a two-hour journey.  

On reaching home every day, TFWNIANAO gets going. He makes a new two-hour playlist (presumably with a buffer) for the way to work; and gets a new book ready for the journey back. If the book is too thick for a train, TFWNIANAO photocopies some of the pages (he has got his estimate right; if not, the mp3 buffer is always there).

In other words, there is a full-fledged plan for every two-hour journey. Or, to be more precise, every pair of two-hour journeys.

I am not sure whether TFWNIANAO is a Kolkatan. But he certainly represents one.

***

The Mumbaikar plans for home when he travels.

The Kolkatan plans for the journey while at home.

The Mumbaikar saves time so that he can put in that extra bit of effort the day after despite being sapped of all energy.

The Kolkatan wastes time that he could have utilised productively.

The Mumbaikar leads the nation, and strives for more.

The Kolkatan keeps falling behind with every passing day, but refuses to care. And probably never will.

Thankfully.

Saturday, September 5, 2015

Vote for me in Melonade 5!

All right, you wonderful people: you have loved me and my blog over the years. Here is some wonderful news for you: I have made it to the nationwide (by nation I mean India) shortlist of Melonade 5.

What is Melonade 5?

Melonade is a short story contest hosted every year by WritersMelon. Given the fact that they are extremely imaginative, they name the versions Melonade 1, Melonade 2, and so on. This one was Melonade 5.

Yeah, yeah, so what's the big deal?

Like last year, I have made it to the shortlist. The final three will be decided by your votes. Unfortunately, the deadline for voting is tomorrow (September 6, 2015 AD, IST).

What happens if one makes it to the shortlist?

Well, we get published. Those shortlisted on Melonade 4 are getting published in an aptly named collection called First Brush on the Canvas. You can pre-order it here. It costs Rs 150/-, which is approximately two kilograms of onion at today's price.

Cool. So what do we do?

Obviously, you will vote for me. You click on this link and leave a cool comment if you like the excerpt. Remember, they declare the winner based on the number of comments.

Dude! Where are the other entries?

How does it matter? Well, since you insist... all of them are here.

What if I like theirs more than yours?

Well, then vote for them. Let the best candidate win.

Awwwww, you did not mean that, did you?

Of course not! May I win, by hook or by crook. There are a couple of close friends on the list, and I will be only too happy if they finish second or third. You know that awesome feeling when you come first and your close friend finishes second, don't you?

But guys, vote for me. Make sure I come first. Won't you?

Tuesday, September 1, 2015

Tannin

It was the best of times, it was the worst of times.

only said that because I wanted to quote Dickens for no reason. Oh well, because I had a wonderful year away from home, which meant I led a life spanning two cities.

I was in Delhi, the city that has been built (or rebuilt, I am never sure which one is correct) seven times. I was a student from Kolkata, which meant I owned neither a car nor a gun (for Kolkatans are too lazy to purchase guns); this probably meant I should have had issues maintaining a proper status in the greatest city of India — one that has been built (or rebuilt) seven times, and whose laddoos are, for some mysterious reason, considered synonymous to marriage.

I added to the infestation level in a hostel infested by Bengalis. There we were, marvelling at the broad, Boroline-smooth, sun-baked roads of the capital, home to politicians and bureaucrats and power-cuts and water problems. Thankfully, we managed to avoid all four during my stay in the city barring a slightly uncomfortable 18-hour ‘load-shedding’ in summer.

But let us not digress.

We were pursuing our Master’s, and shared the hostel with wannabe PhDs. These people, despite being infinitesimally more knowledgeable (by this I mean serious stuff; you probably get it), chose to treat us like fellow humans.

They were really nice people, that lot — all of them.

So nice that they decided we should have proper Delhi food. They took us out, and made sure our wallets never left our pockets. I kid you not. Yes, in a city where people have traditionally murdered fathers and brothers, we had the most amazing seniors. In fact, they were so nice that we often thought there was a catch somewhere.

A month or so had passed since our arrival. The seniors seemed genuinely concerned by the fact that we were reluctant to step out of the campus (all we seemed to enjoy was playing cricket in the lawn under floodlights), and decided to take us out. Since the nearest place of any significance was Sarojini Nagar, the destination was a no-brainer.

We loitered around Sarojini Nagar and the market nearby, which was named, rather imaginatively, Sarojini Market. Given that Delhi boasts of names like RKpuram (and, of course, Ghitorni, which I was to find out over a decade after this stay), this came as a major letdown.

The seniors, of course, were disappointed at our lack of enthusiasm. They decided to treat us to something capital (see what I did there?). There was a brief discussion before they came to a conclusion. They suggested something that translated to cold tea.

Mind you, this was 1998. Eating out in Kolkata was restricted to a selection from the Chinese package (chicken fried rice, chicken chow mein, chilli chicken, and chicken Manchurian), the Indian package (biryani and/or naan with a ‘gravy item’), or, on excellent days, continental. Barring dosa and idli, our exposure to food from other states was genuinely limited. Cold coffee (of course, with ice-cream) was not unheard-of, but cold tea?

Yes, I was surprised to find that kulcha was not cold tea, or any form of tea, or anything remotely close to ‘cold’ in temperature. I must have looked extremely foolish, and got away without being ridiculed only because the sex ratio at our institution has traditionally been unfavourable to youthful men in full vigour.

Did the seniors guess something? Perhaps, perhaps not. The kulcha was, of course, delicious. It was unlike anything we had tasted before, for it was a Delhi kulcha, and had probably been created (or recreated) seven times in pursuit of perfection, so our honest, innocent faces (one look at my current photograph will reveal my honesty and innocence) must have glowed in satisfaction.

We came back happy, for we had eaten well (yes, we were satisfied easily back then; contentment started to vanish as adulthood crept into our lives without a warning). Our seniors were happy, for we were happy. And Delhi, the great city with whom the number seven is associated in some way I am never sure of, was happy as well.

***

A fortnight later, we made the same trip, this time with a purpose: we actually had to buy a few things. Afterwards, the seniors — those wise, generous men — decided to treat us again; and once again they insisted on paying.

We were told it was a delicacy that was new even in Delhi (this was true). This was true, and surprising, for Delhi is the city of all cities, and something had been done it to it a whopping seven times. We were told it was dispensed in a manner we have never seen before (this was true as well).

I asked what it was called. After all, not all names sound like variants of tannin-rich liquids. One of them smiled and enlightened me.

“Softy. It is called softy.”

It was kulcha all over again.

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