Sunday, August 31, 2008

Marathi signboards in Dadar

I happened to go out for a stroll in Dadar last evening. That doesn't sound like news, does it? But hear this...I haven't had an off on a Saturday for the last six months. So I quite enjoyed it.

The Ganapati (Ganesha) festival is coming up and the predominantly Mahrashtrian Dadar is buzzing with activity. There are shoppers everywhere - those who come for clothes, shoes, torans, gifts, utensils, etc. There are festive shoppers, regular shoppers and shopaholics. Walking on the footpath is difficult during non-peak hours - thanks to the hundreds of hawkers (did anyone hear of the hawkers' plaza here?) and the bumper-to-bumper traffic jams.
Yesterday, it was even more difficult. There were policemen everywhere. Nah, they didn't look active enough to make it look like there was a bomb hoax or a security threat (believe me...they do a fairly efficient job at spreading the word among people, in either case). I couldn't make out why they were there in the first place. Yes, the Sena Bhavan, Plaza theatre and the railway station do make for soft targets, but a sudden increase in the number of policemen is still questionable.
It didn't take me too long to figure out. I stopped at the new Waman Hari Pethe (a jewellery shop) at Gokhale Road (north), where a man was adjusting the shop's display board. It was a new one - in Devanagari, of course. Two blocks down, I almost bumped into a ladder. A man, precariously balanced on the top step, glared at me before getting back to painting the signboard in Devanagari. "Aah, the Maharashtra Navnirman Sena's diktat. No wonder, there are so many policemen," I chuckled to myself.
Later, a thought came to my mind. I have had the privilege of travelling around India. If stores and roadsigns in Chennai could be in Tamil, in Bangalore in Kannada, in Kolkata in Bengali, in Gujarat in Gujarati and in Delhi in Punjabi and Hindi, why can't Mumbai, which incidentally is the capital of Maharashtra, have Marathi signboards? Language signboards are meant to help the locals. After all, how many of our people can read English and even if they can, why shouldn't shops put up Marathi ones as well for the benefit of those who can't. You don't find too many English signboards in Beijing or Soul, which are world-class cities, so why do we crib about putting up Marathi signboards in Mumbai? Is it because Mumbai is cosmopolitan or is it because we think we are above the vernacular? The MNS has raised a valid point. Only, it should have debated it in the House instead of forcing people to implement it on the streets and thus creating a security issue.
Language is the most important part of a culture (after its people of course). It should be preserved so that it can evolve in the future, to be able to bring and bind people together. It should be a matter of pride, not fear. People shouldn't be forced to display their shop names in a language, they should want to do it because they are proud of it. I guess, we still need to understand that...

Friday, August 22, 2008

Of Berry Pulao and Raspberry Soda

I must credit my friend Ashish (who is a girl, by the way) for introducing me to Britannia. No, she never took me there. But she did ask me to read an article on Parsi food joints she had written for Downtown Plus. I knew Merwan, Kayani, Yezdani, etc. But Britannia, didn't sound bawa enough. (Come to think of's British and hence Anglican Bawa but I never quite came up with that kind of explanation earlier). Ashish had described Bawa-ness of the Britannia restaurant at Ballard Estate (near New Customs House, if you please) and its speciality Berry Pulao. I never quite made sense of that. Pulao with berry? I alsways thought the owner has rechristened resins as "berry" to make it look like it was the only thing of its kind in Mumbai. I was sceptical - as I always am where food is concerned.

The first time, I actually visited the place was last year. I would have made a trip earlier but I was so scared of getting lost in the labrynthine bylanes of Ballard Estate that I just didn't have guts to try it out. Pardon me, folks. I hadn't developed my tastebuds for the sinful delicacy that actually draws people from as far as Surat and even Bawa expats who keep homing in during winter. The occasion presented itself in the form of a few junior colleagues who craved for berry pulao and sali boti. I had volunteered to participate in the conversation and it was very natural for me to actually take them up on the offer. We piled into three separate cabs - some 10 of us.

The first thing I noticed when I stood outside the very regular looking Irani restaurant was the signboard that proudly announced: "Britannia: The High Class Irani Restaurant." "Oh really! We shall see," was our collective response.

We managed to grab two tables with chequered green tablecloth (how Iranian) and settled ourselves into the 100-year-old black Czechoslovakian chairs (again!) as an old man came to our table. He introduced himself as the owner (pity, I don't recall his name) and talked to us about the restaurant - of how it was the secret headquarters for British spies during the World War II, of his pet rooster who welcomed guests until its ripe old age (it died a decade ago) and the food - "Try berry pulao - mutton, chicken or veg (that's the only veg item on the menu), whichever you please." And thank god we did.

From then on, Britannia's tangy berry pulao became one of my favourite delicacies. The berries are very real and slightly unreasonable (as per standard Irani rates) at Rs 249 a plate, you can have a comfortable meal for two with some delicious sali boti or sali chicken for company. As for the drink, I'd go for the very Bawa Roger's raspberry soda anyday. People may say it tastes like Benadryl cough syrup but it gives the tangy berry aftertaste a new flavour.

However, vegetarians may have a tough time as my colleague who is a Jain discovered on a visit. She had insisted she wanted to go to Britannia for lunch. I was reluctant. But she'd persisted. I had nothing to lose and I agreed to go along. Big mistake. My poor friend went twice through the menu before she zeroed in on the only two veg dishes there - veg berry pulao and veg dhansak. And to make matters worse - she said she wouldn't eat if I ordered non-veg. So yeah, I ordered a veg dhansak (a disgrace!) and veg berry pulao. Midway through the meal, my friend said she'd had enough of the pulao and opted for - you know what - bun maska (phew!) I had learnt my lesson - keep vegans off Bawa joints.

Monday, August 11, 2008

Everobody loves a good gossip

I just got a message on gtalk from my friend in the US. It reads, "I didn't know Kareena split with Shahid and is now seeing Saif." "What a pity," I thought but then I decided not to be mean to her so I simply responded with, "Old news." She wasn't happy with that. Whether she expected sympathy or probably more on the topic - when did the Shahid-Kareena break up happen, who got the dirt on it first, when did Saif declare his love for Kareena, the famed "Kareena' tattoo he got on his arm - I wasn't too sure. Nontheless, I empathised with my friend. She said, "This is what happens when you leave the country. You lose touch with your roots. You hardly get news about India in this part of the world unless there is a major disaster. And there's no gossip on Indian celebs."

I was a little shocked by her response. For one, I have known this girl since college. We weren't in the same group but we were very cordial classmates. She would sit on the first bench, I on the second (usually just behind her). I hadn't heard her discussing movies in class or in the girls common room at St Xavier's (where their gang used to hang out). She was studious...actually, still is. And was also my closest competitor in class. I wondered where she had acquired a taste for gossip. Probably when she studied in Baroda probably after she completed her MSc and was teaching at an NGO in Mumbai or maybe, I had been wrong all along - she may have had a thing for it all along.

Everybody loves a good gossip - even guys (as much as they want to deny the fact). If you just slip in a couple of lines laced with malice in the middle of a conversation at a party and everyone's ears prick up. Gossip is the best conversation-starter we have. Ask me, I was a Page 3 journalist.

My job was to go to high profile events, parties and dos to keep track of who says what to whom and why. When people would call Page 3 of Bombay Times 'trash' because of its gossip content, I'd retort, "But don't tell me you don't read that page." They would cringe or smile sheepishly. Once, at a party, a celeb artist saw me and remarked to her friend, "I don't know why so many art dos feature in Bombay Times. We aren't celebs. We don't seek this kind of publicity." My report for the next day, did carry her quote and my response to it as well (and I am very very grateful to the editor that he let it go as is) - "But, isn't any publicity good for you? And if it isn't why do you call us?" There would be times, when celebs would ask us journalists for gossip on other celebs (after all, we do know better). It's a vicious cycle.

Coming back to Saif-Kareena, it may be nobody's business to talk about them, but don't we all love to. As mediapersons, such gossip is the source of our daily bread and butter. But for my friend in the US who is doing a PhD in biomolecules in Boston, it's the only way she can connect to her roots. Yes, she has friends like me, but we can't contact each other whenever we want to thanks to the time-difference. She prefers to surf entertainment sites for gossip instead of 24x7 CNN coverage on the bomb-attacks in India. At least, the gossip makes her secure. The talk about 'others' is certainly more comforting than the thought of 'I could have been killed here."

My friend asked me, "Give me some new goss." I said, "I don't know." I lied, of course. There are million things I can gossip about - the Salman-SRK fight, Sania Mirza in track-pants at the Olympics' opening, sports, books and their authors (Rushdie comes to my mind now), cricketers, PYTs at parties, colleagues, friends-who-are-not-close-friends, politicians, economists, bosses, families, relatives - you name it. But then, the goss is a goss for a reason right? And it's got to be shared for a reason too. It certainly isn't free.

Thursday, August 7, 2008

Chelo Kebab

"Only Bongs can think of mixing sweet rice with chicken tikka," my friend remarked. I looked at the menu again. Chelo kebab. What the hell was that? I am a least by name and family...I've never heard of anything called Chelo Kebab. Nonetheless, we ordered them. I love trying out new stuff and Copper Chimney comes up with really nice kebabs, so it was a good bet, I thought.

It hardly looked appetising. Worse, it didn't really look like a Bong dish. But then, the glutinous curd rice was sweet. My friend insisted I have more. I helped myself to the chicken pieces, as he indulged in the rice. "It's very Bong and it's delicious," he told me. I still had my doubts and I couldn't really enjoy the dish because of them.

Later that day, I asked mom about Chelo kebab. She hadn't even heard of it. She didn't think it was a Bong dish till I told her about the sweet rice. "It may be a Bangladeshi dish," she said. I asked friends, relatives and all the i-know-it-all people I know, but none of them seemed to know Chelo.

Finally, I searched on google. There it was. National dish of Iran - Chelo kebab. The Mughals or the early Iranian settlers may have brought it to India, but it certainly wasn't Bong. I was glad. My friend was wrong. I called him up and fired him. "Stop spreading wrong information about Bongs." He simply laughed and I felt like a fool.

As for the dish - I must admit, it's worth a try. Imagine less-sweetened kheer with chicken reshmi tikka cubes. It comes close to that.

Chelo kabab is a national dish of Iran. The meal is simple, consisting of steamed, saffroned basmati or Persian rice (chelow) and kabab, of which there are several distinct Persian varieties. This dish is served everywhere throughout Iran today, but traditionally was most closely associated with the northern part of the country.

It is served with the basic Iranian meal accompaniments, in addition to grilled tomatoes on the side of the rice, and butter on top of the rice. It is an old northern tradition (probably originating in Tehran) that a raw egg yolk should be placed on top of the rice as well, though this is strictly optional, and most restaurants will not serve the rice this way unless it is specifically requested. Somagh (powdered sumac) is also made available, and if desired, only a dash should be sprinkled upon the rice.

In the old bazaar tradition, the rice (which is covered with a tin lid) and accompaniments are served first, immediately followed by the kababs, which are brought to the table by the waiter, who holds several skewers in his left hand, and a piece of flat bread (typically nan-e lavash) in his right. A skewer is placed directly on the rice and while holding the kabab down on the rice with the bread, the skewer is quickly pulled out. With the two most common kababs, barg and koobideh, two skewers are always served. In general, bazaar kabab restaurants only serve these two varieties, though there are exceptions.

The traditional beverage of choice to accompany chelow kabab is doogh, a Persian sour yogurt drink, flavored with salt and mint, and sometimes made with carbonated mineral water.

Tuesday, August 5, 2008

Tree-fall in Dadar

They came, they saw and they axed. One by one, the branches of the tree opposite my house came down with such force that it actually created a dent on the corrugated aluminium roof of the shed below.
Standing in my balcony, I winced every time I heard of a branch crack. Why, all the branches? The BMC is ruthless on its tree-cutting drives, I'd heard. But now, I thought I'd seen them all.
They cut off all the axillary branches and left only one vertical branch that stood out like a shaft. No more greenery outside my window. No more of crows cawing from their nests.
And it wasn't just this one. All along, Gokhale Road, Dadar, I saw wounded branches torn apart from the trunk. Massacred! Macabre!
Someone said BMC probably cut the branches down as they could be security threats. A bomb was found hidden amidst the branches of a tree in Surat. With Independence Day and Ganpati coming up, the security agencies probably did not want to take any chances. Some excuse, to chop off trees, I tell you.