One of the more juvenile -and reprehensible- habits that M and I had fallen into when working together was writing notes to each other during meetings. I came across this exchange in my notebook the other day:
C: I am not sure they have understood the larger goal of the project. Should we initiate a short session discussing that?
M: I dont think they like us..
M's reply wasnt really the sad non-sequitur it sounds like. This was a new education-based project being initiated, and the partners seemed absolutely unimpressed with the two women hosting the meeting.
Imagine my reaction then, when I was again called to intereact with the same partners, but in my role as civil engineer. Initially, I needed to establish my credentials- something I thought I had stopped needing to do 8 years ago. I am glad I persisted, because I was given wonderful gifts at the end of it.
After nearly a year of scheming to go to Pithoragarh, I was sent there with a day's notice. I stayed in village homes hosted by truly generous families. The photo of the golden glacier was snapped from the porch of one of the houses I stayed at. And the people..
Most were quietly friendly, like this stunningly beautiful grandmother
But there were also the imps. I met these siblings during work, and enjoyed talking to them and taking photos.
They would come running up to see the pictures on my camera and jostle each other out of the way.
Far more dignified was their ring-leader. Not once did she come up to me or chat, preferring to oversee her gang from a distance. That child is pure drama..note the pretend-cigarette.
Nearly all the time, Mian and I eat as close to natural as possible. Whole, unrefined, unprocessed, local. Often, the only convenience food in our kitchen is the dried pasta that's made in a factory from refined flour and shipped in from I-don’t-want-to-know-where.
And sometimes I swing in the opposite direction and decide I don’t want any more multi-layer flavours, back-to-the-earth goodness, or carbohydrates more complex than integral calculus. Give me simple, I say. Sugar that zings straight to my synapses, transfats that make a bee-line for my arteries and chemical additives that flirt with my immune system.
It is then that I turn to Sugar Box. As the photo illustrates, there is nothing natural about the things they sell there. And in a way, I respect them for it..they are extremely honest in that they do not pretend to be anything they are not. The pastry in the photo might be called Strawberry, but nothing in the colour, filling, or flavour hints at a nodding acquaintance with anything that might be grown on this earth. And it does not matter. The 'cream' is tasteless but plenty, the sugar cannot be ignored, the mouthfeel is eminently satisfactory in its fluffiness. Sometimes that is all we need. And at 35Rs for a pastry, one has cash left over to embark on the detox diet of one's choice.
Not gourmet, not like mum makes, but an acceptable junk food fix. I know of two outlets, near the clock tower and in Indira Nagar, there might be more. What about mum, you ask? Well, its clean and respectable. Whether she loves it or hates it depends on whether she spent her youth celebrating the arrival of super-snazzy instant coffee powder or lovingly tending to her pot garden (pun utterly intended)..you decide.
Travelling by Vikram on Kanwali road in the evening is a miserable experience. There are traffic jams, it is noisy, and even being crowded with the rest of the passengers does not lessen the impact of the cold winds that blow in from everywhere. The people sitting inside are tense and in an uncharitable mood; they try to make themselves as rigid as possible to ensure that no one crowds them even further. And then on a certain stretch of the road, they close their eyes and inhale deeply. Bodies relax, tension dissipates, eye contact is made and smiles exchanged.
All because of the warm and sensuous aroma of jaggery. Unlike sugar, jaggery has a complex taste- sweet, salt, caramelly, malty, and unexpectedly spicy. When it is melted, the aroma makes one swoon with a happy sigh, especially on a cold night. This is not the warmth of a duvet, it is the generous smiling warmth of an embrace. It is sweet but not cloying, warm but not oppressive; it is unrestrainedly sexy. And it alone is the reason I make it a point to often go down Kanwali road in winter.
For most of the year, Saharanpur Chowk is my least favourite place in town. It is crowded, noisy, littered and sends me home with a headache. From November to February, it is still crowded, noisy and littered, but also fragrant.
Candy shops line the street for maybe a hundred meters past Saharanpur Chowk as one travels up Kanwali road from the station. They are unnoticeable most of the time- as I write this, I find myself unable to recall what they sell in the warmer months. In winter though, each shop sets up a candy making unit at the back. The sweets they sell- 'gajak' - are designed to beat the chill. They are made entirely of warming foods- jaggery, sesame seeds, ground nuts- that provide a bit of warmth, sugar and protein for 60-100 Rs a kilo. Buy Mum the sweets, but subjecting her to the traffic is not necessary.
Unless she is interested in the candy making process which is fascinating and reminiscent of the proceedings in a witches' kitchen.. In each shop a huge (1.5m dia or so) iron kadhai rests on a rough stove. In it, a thick brown liquid simmers with an occasional 'glop' as a bubble rises to the surface. This is the jaggery that brings customers here. On the floor is a mound of bright tinkling sesame seeds waiting to be mixed with the jaggery. And suspended from a hook on the wall is Rapunzel's braid. Actually, no..it's a glistening golden rope of sugar that is being stretched and twisted till it is perfectly ductile and made of hundreds of fine threads. Sadly, I don’t have a photo of that..though I do have one of the candy-makers I bought some gajak from a couple of days ago.
Yes, just after I promise to accept Dun food at its own value, here I go again.
But see, for me falooda is a very specific food. A tall glass of super-cold, sweet, frothy milk- preferably bright pink and flavoured with rose water- and always, always, a good heaping tablespoon of crunchy-slippery basil seeds. Originally Persian, it is now firmly a part of the wonderful mixed goodness that was the Bombay of my childhood. My Parsi cookbook lists it, tightly wrapped plastic packets of violently coloured 'falooda mix' are sold in Pune throughout Ramazan and my mum would make it for me during the summer holidays.
A falooda is defined by the seeds- these are called sabja, and are of the 'kama-kasturi' plant which is a stunningly fragrant member of the basil family. The seeds are supposed to be cooling, and so dispel heat rashes, crankiness, and other such summer-holiday mishaps. It is traditionally flavoured with rose water or syrup, which is also reputed to be soothing. Restaurants nowadays carry saffron or mango flavours, which is quite sacrilegious since these are warming flavours, and falooda is more of a cooling medicine than a high-calorie indulgent icecream. Anyway, that's my story and I'll stick to it.
All this is just to explain why I refuse to call the wonderful concoction sold by Kumar's Sweet Shop a falooda. It is a helping of silky smooth kulfi, topped with rice noodles in a sweet syrup, further crowned with condensed milk. It is definitely tasty, and I do eat it often, and I do think that it is difficult to get this amount of sheer indulgence for 40 Rs. But it is not a falooda.
Kumar's Sweet Shop is at the Clock Tower Chowk, and all their sweetmeats are worth fighting your way to the shop through the crowd of hungry shoppers. Take mum there, she's probably better at elbowing others out of the way than you are. Be prepared to drag her away though..
I got back a few short hours ago, and I still have not collected my thoughts. What I have done, however, is downloaded my pictures. Here then, are some images of the fortnight I spent in the mountains.
I spent Diwali with my Mian, and to go to work the following week, I needed to walk down a mountain to catch the bus to take me to the place from where I could walk to the place I'd meet my colleagues from where we would all drive down to the village. The walk was beautiful though, with the entire valley still covered in mist.
I travelled alone in the lower Gori Ganga Valley, near Munsyari. My work required me to visit three villages there, all situated several kilometers away from the nearest road head. A steep walk of a couple of hours brought me to the first chai stall of the little village of Golpha. Looming over the chai stall is the Bainti Glacier, that as far as I can make out from the map, flows down the side of Nagling peak.
No less dramatic is the road to Bona, though sadly my photograph does not do justice to the wonderful striations on the rocks. They were marvellously coloured in all manner of blues and greens. As for the stream itself, I drank from it and a more refreshing drink I've never had.
And finally, home. The train I take back to Dun lands me there at 04:30, which is a most unreasonable hour to wake my landlady. And so I generally spend a couple of hours in the waiting room. many months of doing this has led to my thinking, 'Ah, my travels are over.' when I step into it. I stretch out there, recharge my phone, read a book. Today I found a paper someone had left the day before. I had a pen, and I bought chai. What better way to unwind?
My father died when I was two. In most families, this would have meant an instant crushing of hopes, a reining in of the pursuit of happiness. It did not mean that for me and my sister. All because early on, my mother gritted her teeth and swore not to 'let her children feel the absence of a father'. In most things, big as well as little, we were allowed to explore and experience all that we wanted to- including some things that probably would have had Baba hrrumphing. There was one limitation though, that my sis and I felt the injustice of and protested. The deciding criterion for everything- choosing restaurants, activities, professions- was always the same.
'are there Other Women There?' my mum would ask.
'So what?' We would say, our feminism bubbling over, ' let us be the first! Other women will see us and come!' The irony of protesting for our rights with the woman who had instilled in us the confidence to do so was lost on us then.
I recognize irony now, and smile when it presents itself. Three decades after my mother needed to create a new set of rules for a suddenly altered life, I have adopted some of those rules into my own. All other things being equal, the deciding factor that entices me into one restaurant instead of another is the old question of 'are there Other Women There'.
That question caused me to enter Aapka Dhaba instead of all the other places on the Inamullah building street. Not only is this the cleanest and neatest by far, but it is also the only place where I've ever seen Other Women. This is the first eatery as you walk from Tehsil Chowk to Prince Chowk, and is on your left- maybe a 100 metres past Tehsil chowk. While the sign is faded, the restaurant itself is quite noticeable, being an open-front restaurant paneled entirely in beige formica.
And whatever the reasons for choosing it, it is a smart choice- the food is beyond sublime. I do eat there throughout the year, but the food comes into its own in winters. A rich and spicy broth with succulent pieces of meat and a couple of spongy rotis to mop everything is the perfect dinner on those cold and dark evenings. I walk up and say hello to the baby-faced and bespectacled owner. By now, I have 'my table' and if it is unoccupied, that is where I go. I hear a cry- 'Madam is here! See to Madam!' and someone comes up with a glass of water. As I eat, every now and then someone will come up to press a little extra gravy on me, or ask if I want a roti. By the end of the meal, I am invariably smiling.
A meal there- of a half-plate of curry or kheema and a couple of rotis- costs around 30 - 40 Rs. You won't want to drink the water, so factor in another 15Rs for a cold drink- and a mango drink goes wonderfully well with the rich curries. These prices are for 'meat' which is buffalo meat; chicken or mutton will cost a bit more.
Don't take mum there. The buffalo meat will distress her, the gun shop a few metres away will make her uncomfortable. And most important, while I have occasionally seen Other Women There, they aren't there all the time
That said, should you wander in on a weekend afternoon you might see a woman sitting by herself at a corner table. She will have a bag of groceries on the seat next to her and a book propped up on the table. She might see you peek in and smile at the thought that now she is the Other Woman There reassuring travelers that its okay to enter. Do walk up and say hello, I'd love to meet you.
*The photo of the little Tandoor-wallah? Taken by Maliha, who is proof that vegetarians also can have a good meal there..