By Devki Pande
This article is based on an experience with a Bombay 99 Dosa maker in Mumbai.
The man rolled his cart slowly down Avenue Road and placed it in front of a shop. Then, moments later, he wheeled his cart a few more stores down after he was told, in histrionic Kannada, to get the hell out of the way. As the owner of the chai shop questioned him, what did he think he was doing? Well, he would inform him: he was hampering his business, that’s what he was doing!
Mournfully, Balvishnu moved his cart over in front of a store that had been shut down with steel bent like a Japanese fan, and began to set up. His was a variant of the Bombay 99 Variety Dosa – a chain that was frequented mostly by hungry college students because the pizza dosa she made were nutritious (alright, maybe not that) and delicious, and if one closed their eyes, they could almost imagine chewing the cheesy topping of a thin crust Dominoes Pizza. Some even claimed that he could create a pineapple-like flavour from ingredients that were nowhere near pineapple. But it was like the claim that human flesh tastes like frog legs – to make the idea seem more acceptable, if not appealing. They were inexpensive, so when a student of limited means consumed a dosa, it wasn’t combined with that sense of regret doubly over.
When something has the ability to satisfy, one’s experience of it should leave one completely fulfilled and thus, he provided big helpings while pricing them reasonably.
He was not from the state of Maharashtra or Karnataka. He was from the southernmost state of Tamil Nadu, though he had not gone back for ages. The Tamil alphabet was still written on his tongue, and it accented every word he spoke of Hindi and Kannada, giving away his origins. That black steaming stove that was placed horizontally on his cart was where he made paper thin dosas. He heated that blackened cuboid by fanning coals under it until they swelled scarlet.
He then flicked water onto that blackened cuboid, watched the drops evaporate, and wiped it with a reasonably clean cloth. Then, with the dexterity of someone who had been doing it for years, he took a glob of batter from a steel bowl and began to run it in concentric circles on the stove. It steamed and sizzled. He had a number of dosas on the menu but his favourite was the Mysore dosa; the one that he cooked with tomatoes and beetroot. Beetroot was there mostly for the colour and it stained his already purple fingers a deeper shade of magenta, and made his teeth look paan stained.
Balvishnu had moved to this area to ply his trade quite recently, in fact, just two days ago. It had taken a lot of jugaad to get a spot right here in front of a stationary shop, which was always populated by students.
On the very first day, a girl in a red kurta had approached him after exiting the shop, carrying cylinders with a very white nozzle. Though she spoke Hindi in an accent foreign to him, she spoke it well, and after looking through the menu, hesitantly decided on the masala dosa, tapping the plastic with an index finger speckled with peelings dots of blue and red. She ate the dosa with her fingers, like French fries, licking off the chutney slowly. She was not used to eating such fare, any self respecting South Indian would have polished off that lake of chutney within the first few bites and immediately, belligerently demanded more. But she didn’t. She finished eating, and handed over three ten rupee notes. He didn’t think that he would ever see her again.
The next afternoon, she was at his stall again. This time, she hadn’t arrived at his stall from the stationary shop. No, she had walked twice down that road. His eyes had followed her, as it was difficult to miss the lime green bandanna that tied back her hair and an interesting shawl-like apron thrown across her shoulders. She had marched up the pavement, and down the pavement, and looked around. There were other stalls and restaurants around; one sold chaat, bhelpuri, panipuri, and the like. But although she stopped in front of them contemplatively, that was not what she was looking for.
And then finally, she caught sight of the stationary shop and marched over. She was his first customer for the lunch period of the day. She ordered the masala dosa without even looking at the menu, seeming to be in haste. Halfway through the dosa, she asked for it to be packed and although that wasn’t custom, he pulled out a foil box and foil wrapper and deconstructed the dosa so that it wouldn’t be a mess the next time it was opened.
After the weekend, Balvishnu was setting up stall when he felt a shadow fall on him. He raised his eyes to see the same girl, this time in a kurta as yellow as one would wear on Diwali, with a border of red umbi’s teardrops. He could predict her order, he thought. She looked through the menu again, and he saw her mouthing masala dosa with her lips. He reached at his batter. But then, her eyes scrolled downward, and she tapped a bitten fingernail on something lower down on the menu. A paneer dosa, or a pizza dosa, he thought.
“What it is a Mysore dosa, Mysore dosa kya hai?”, she asked him hesitantly.
“Aapko khana hoga.” He said, a grin on his face. “You will have to try it.” She paused, not looking at him.
“Okay, one Mysore dosa”, she said, handing back the menu to him. He began his whole process of flicking a few drops of water onto the steaming black stove and wiping it. He spread the batter in concentric circles on the stove, added a dash of mashed masala potatoes, and sprinkled the fare with onions, chillies, capsicum and tomatoes; squashing them to a pulp using a wooden pestle. He caught her attention by holding out a plate of grated beetroot. She looked back at him questioningly, raising her eyebrows.
“Beet?”, he asked, his fat fingers ready to thrust that plate under back under.
She paused. She nodded. He could bet anything that she didn’t know what it was or that its presence in her food didn’t affect her one single bit at all.
As the beetroot created that rich purple masala, he felt proud of his expertness, all of a sudden. This task was so simple to him that he could do it with his eyes closed while trying to solve a complicated sum of integration in his mind or while reciting Tamil poetry. He often did that at night, when he missed his family, and his homeland; the rich red of the soil, the coconut trees, and the smell of Marina beach in the evening.
The first time he had expressed these feelings to his roommate, his roommate had told him: “But even this is reasonably close to the coast.” Well, Balvishnu said, “Reasonable is not near. And besides, this is the west, and that is the east. What was that saying in English? East is East and West is West, and never the two shall meet!”
He rolled up the dosa and cut it into five slices using the back of the square steel handle. He heaped them onto a steel plate with a plastic covering, and doled out chutneys with his own hands; one orange and one white, the one with coconut was the one she preferred. She began to eat, the tips of the notes poking out slightly from her wallet; one hand waving occasionally near her mouth, fanning herself as she felt the heat in the food. He had forgotten to warn her of the green chillies in the dosa. Water filled her eyes, and she placed one hand on her hip, and looked at the sun.
“Mirchi hai, Madam, is it spicy?”, he asked. She nodded smiling, wiping tears from her eyes, and resuming eating. A slight hint of a smile revealed pearly white teeth and purple gums the colour of beet. She looked at the menu as she chewed slowly, feeling with her tongue to avoid any chilli shaped pieces.
“Balvishnu.” She read out, looking at the menu. Balvishnu looked perplexed. Every word on the menu was English, except for the subheading of the menu – it was written in the Tamil script. It was his name; it declared his ownership over this cart. He looked at her.
“You are from Tamil Nadu, aap Tamil Nadu se hain?”, she asked.
“Haan, aapko kaise pata, yes, how did you know?”, he asked her, curious. She smiled.
“I’ve lived in Chennai for fifteen years”, she said to him. “I can read and write the language. Regrettably, I cannot speak it.” He stared at her in incomprehension. She, with her tilted eyes, green to the tip, and black, black hair like the crab holes in the sand was from his homeland?
He asked: Unghala peyar yenna?
She said: Alexandra. He repeated it after her, unable to pronounce it, or grasp any syllable of that alien name. She tapped her chest when she said that however, so he couldn’t mistake it for a word from her own language.
“I’m from Germany”, she said. “Well, my dad is anyway. But I love the Tamil script. It’s home to me.”
He smiled, then. “Yes, there is something about it, isn’t it?” Alexandra nodded; the glimmerings of a wistful smile on her face.
That was the last that he saw of Alexandra. She never visited his stall after that. He asked about her, her looks were too different and too defined to be missed. Consequently, he learned that she had been part of a group of students who painted murals on the walls and got on a bus everyday from a suburb of Bangalore to Avenue Road. That explained the painted fingers and the interesting way of dressing.
Just the other day, he had spotted a young boy with a circle of steel dangling from one ear, and a safety pin impaling an eyebrow. When the boy turned his profile towards him, he noticed that half the head was shaved. Business next to a stationary shop provided for interesting characters; that was for sure. Nevertheless, there was a certain warmth in the cockles of his heart now. Somehow, Tamil Nadu didn’t feel so far away now. How could it be, if a German girl knew about it?
A few days later, he was walking down the end of the road. People had been buzzing about the deviant artwork that some youngsters from a fancy school had done on the wall. Disgraceful, the women with the gajras in their hair muttered. Shameful, said the old men who had conducted business in Avenue Road for nearly quarter of a century. To say that this was art? There were black houses with feathers – ugly as sin, and a gigantic jellyfish with every colour of the rainbow, and a Masakalli mural featuring that bollywood starlet, Sonam Kapoor. Personally, Balvishnu didn’t feel that the work was too bad; he could see that there was skill involved.
But he couldn’t appreciate its significance. What was he, but an ordinary dosa maker on one of the biggest commercial destinations of India?
Modern art was alien to him. Besides, he didn’t really feel anything when he saw Sonam Kapoor stare at a pigeon like it was the answer she had been seeking for eternity. Nor did it affect him if the houses had been rainbow streaked, and that gigantic jellyfish black instead.
And then he encountered “Tamil Nadu” splashed across the concrete in red and blue and green with a thick, undulating outline of black. Except that it wasn’t in English. If it had been in English, he wouldn’t have been able to read it so swiftly; being only a fifth class pass in the subject and that too scraping past by the skin of his teeth. No, this was written in the most beautiful and elaborate script he knew; the Tamil script. He was speechless. One hand crept up and clutched the collar of his checked shirt, open at the collarbone. Was it too much to hope that that German girl was responsible for it? It could have been made by anyone else from Chennai who was missing the sultry weather.
He approached, appreciating the artwork. There, on the corner, was a smaller word written in Tamil. He leaned in to investigate it. What did it say? Al-leks-and-ra, he said slowly. Alexandra. So that was her name.
Devki is a student at Srishti Institute of Art, Design and Technology, intern at Contract Advertising Ltd, has worked for Essel Vision Productions Ltd, developed education oriented content for Laugh Out Loud Ventures, conducted workshops for underprivileged children in rural Uttarakhand and is an avid marathon runner. She is currently interning at Penguin.
Featured Image Credits: Visual Hunt