Time out of the office on a weekday is always fun. Even if you do have to get back to work eventually. It would be funner if the rest of the day was an unscheduled holiday, of course, but one makes do with what one gets.
So I find myself sauntering down a road that was probably designed to be a nice, quiet side street with colony gates opening into it but has metamorphosed instead. The road has grown up and now sees hourly traffic snarls, cars and cabs zooming and vrooming up and down and a bright neon multiplex thrusting itself in between the faded painted hoardings that came up about fifteen years ago (when the road was oh, about in its teens).
It’s scorching hot after a week of grey skies and incessant rain. Great, I left my sunglasses behind and carried my extra-heavy-duty rain protection gear instead, that’s making my otherwise uber cool bag bulge like a pillow. No matter I tell myself, in Matunga, nobody will mind.
No taxiwalla is willing to ferry me to the railway station and my stomach is starting to make itself (or its emptiness) felt so I pause, mid-traffic to think. If I were in Dadar, I’d pop in to sample some no-frills delicious Maharashtrian cuisine. I spend a peaceful few seconds thinking about kokum sharbat, patra, shrikhand-puri and masale bath. The honking behind me jolts me out of my reverie so I rush on.
Bandra and I would have stepped into any of the cafes, restaurants and hangouts I know so well. Town has its own delights. Even if Tea Center has ceased to function, there’s always Samrat where I’ve enjoyed many a solo lunch with the waiters dancing in attendance. Yes, I know, I know that Gujjus don’t consider Samrat fare as ‘good food’ but like I said, one makes do with what one has. And what does Matunga have?
My gastronomical soliloquy has carried me comfortably down the entire stretch and I’m almost near the station. I sense an Udipi close by and I walk in. Did I say ‘sense’ it? Yes, when one is hungry, one’s senses are much heightened and besides can any Mumbaiker miss the Shetty-style maroon/navy blue uniform-clad water boys, cleaners and waiters? I’m in Udipi land alright.
Except…I’m most surprised to find the place almost deserted. An Udipi at lunchtime deserted? Besides I’m fairly certain I’ve been to this one before and it has reasonably nice food. Nonplussed I drift to one of the empty seats, taking in the darkness in the nether sections and waiters in huddles. One of them directs me to the inevitable ‘A.C.Room’ upstairs. I trudge upstairs only to find one single waiter and one sole customer both looking at me very curiously. So I back out, my customary confidence vaporizing and other senses taking over (“Yikes!”) and decide to sit downstairs.
The man at the cash register a few feet away whispers loudly to one of the water-boys to…
Funny, I’ve never seen an ashtray in an Udipi before. But the water boy shows up and I forget all, savouring the cool water in a way only someone who has walked down a road on a hot day can. I run my gaze down the menu. Chicken items, Mutton items, Egg curries, Fish dishes, Snacks (yes, they spell it right!) and beverages. Uh….in an Udipi? Of course, I know that the Shetty clan are as carnivorous as the next guy and enjoy their fish and meat. But you’ll never find even the smell of one of them in an Udipi. And ummm, has anyone in Matunga heard of meat?
Tentatively I ask,
This used to be a vegetarian restaurant?
The waiter shakes his head and then comprehension dawning late says,
No, this is a bar. Our veg restaurant is across the road.
So, of course, I beat a hasty retreat. If you need to ask….well forget it, don’t even ask. Across the road, I wonder if the glass of water I had, tasted any different from a restaurant. What if they had spiked it? Someone spiked my Breezer with beer once! I shudder off all those annoying senses that surround me and tell myself firmly that I would know if someone spiked my drink. And what’s a little beer going to do to a rum drinker? But Matunga has me forgetting my Lower Parel self.
In the vegetarian restaurant (which, I note is bustling with activity, much to my relief) I sink into a chair right near the entrance. Two minutes later the menu still hasn’t arrived and I haven’t even been given a glass of water (not that I’d need another one after that beer-spiked glass I downed not five minutes back). So I scowl in impatience and move to a better location. Right near the mirrored walls, on the sofa side, I have a view of the cashier, water boys, waiters, wash basin and the door to the kitchen.
What I need is a good thali. Nothing like simple pseudo-home fare to calm the (beer-spiked) nerves. The shiny steel platter arrives in exactly the time it takes me to walk to the wash basin and come back. Three soft and thin chappatis (I hate those doughy, chewy parathas or ‘parotas’ as the Southie restaurants call them) surrounded by round katoris all along the rim.
The curd is set in the katori and I break the smooth surface to test it. I note that the cream is thick enough to bend a little before breaking but light enough to not crumple. Next, the crucial taste test. Hmm….lovely! The proof of the Udipi is in the curd-eating. Matunga redeems itself in my dormant Tamilian taste.
One after the other, I sample each katori, deciding which ones I like and which I don’t and can be evacuated from the plate. So out goes palak gravy (*sob* but gastroenteritis was enough to throw me off my favourite green veggie in the monsoons…even if today is an uncharacteristically sunny day!). The beetroot-bhaji follows suit. I never got used to that evil thing. Lovely colour, but a horrendous taste. No wonder they say it’s good for the blood, it tastes like blood too!
The sambar-ey thing joins them (who ever heard of sambar with chappati?). So I’m left with aloo-bhaji, brinjals in a coconut-ey orange gravy, payasam (kheer), a watery brown thing that I always decide I will try but never do and the curd. I line up all the remaining katoris to the frontlines, place the mini-papad in the conclave they form and open and re-fold the three chappatis separately. Ready to begin!
The first morsel is dunked into payasam and disappointingly yields nothing more than two dripping fingers. So I beckon to a passing waiter and ask him,
Did you just dump the liquid in? There’s no payasam here!!!
He looks ready to argue but is pulled off by his colleague who tells him to replace it. In a blink I have another fresh katori, hot this time and filled half with soft rice. Damn, and I was hoping it would be semiya-payasam. Don’t tell my mum since I feign a dislike for payasam but I love the feel of a not-too-watery, not-too-sugary semiya-payasam within a chappati. Rice will do just as well so I attack tuck in. My fresh lime soda arrives in the ubiquitous beer mug (beer again!) with a straw in it which falls off the minute it is set on the table. It’s not a real Udupi restaurant if it doesn’t do that.
Mid-way, I’m interrupted by people standing next to my seat. Ah, the next occupants standing so as to ‘grab the seat’. But they sit down instead. And I’m mighty surprised. This is two men, the sort that I’d walk past quickly on the road anticipating their stares following me down the road. But they don’t, of course. This is Mumbai at lunch hour and the rules are different.
A person eating alone and sitting at a table meant for 4 (tightly squeezed) has effectively stated that they are fine with company. Company does not speak or look. The rules of the shared table are much the same as in a closed elevator. No eye contact and hold your breath till it’s over. One of them steals a glance at my almost empty katoris and I retract my uncharitable thoughts on staring. Hunger speaks across languages.
Meal done, I speed up the finishing bits and ask for the bill (yes, not ‘the cheque’). On my way out, I pause to buy a beeda. A bright green betel leaf wrapped around a mysterious something, topped with colourful dried coconut and finished with a clove through it. What Udipi meal is complete without one? Matunga, on a full stomach I can say it’s been a pleasure waltzing with you.
* The restaurant that served up this wonderful lunch is Ganga Vihar, close to Matunga Road West.
A decade and a half later, this book brought me memories of that day when I waltzed with Matunga.