Tuesday, June 17, 2014

Australiana #10: Cooling off

When we were looking for apartments or houses to rent in Brisbane, we encountered a very unusual problem - the lack of cooling devices in rooms. Brisbane sees temperatures above 40 degrees Celsius every summer and near 100 per cent humidity. Ceiling fans and air-conditioners were not just missing but the bedrooms (the living rooms often come equipped with ACs) did not have outlets, stands or suspenders. "How do people here sleep without ACs or fans in this heat?" The real estate agent I had directed this question to opened her mouth in disbelief. "In all my years, I have never been asked this question." Once we had found a place we could make home, I checked my neighbour's house for answers. She's British (she insists, though she has lived in Australia for 40 years) and I thought she may have figured a way to keep herself cool in her bedroom. No. "I just leave the air con on and let the air drift into the bedroom." Birbal ki khichdi, Anglo-style! Someone then mentioned how Aussies are more tolerant of heat than most other people on the planet. Maybe. But we got our standing fan (the owner was against AC installation). I had given up the hope of seeing a ceiling fan in this country, when I came across this one:

And it was the largest I have ever seen, suspended from the roof of the Brisbane Central station's platform number 5, on full spin during the peak of winter where the temperature was 7 degrees!

Thursday, June 5, 2014

Australiana #9: The Zero-dollar Day

Moving countries is expensive business. The older you are, the more difficult it gets. When you are a student in your early or mid-20s, you are more adaptable, willing to share a two bedroom space with four other flatmates, juggling lectures at the university with evening work-shifts at the local cafeteria and probably even skipping a meal or two to save some money. By the time you are in your 30s, you're well-settled as a professional or in business and have developed a strong liking for the comforts you can afford – the weekly movies, books, expensive showpieces, shopping trips, weekend getaways and meeting people over coffees. Inertia has seeped into your life.

Then you get a jolt. You move miles away to a land far, far away, very different from the one you have known. At first, you soak it all up – the pristine beaches, the clean air, the freedom to dress the way you want to without anyone staring at you, the silence. It is far-removed from the densely-populated, heavily polluted and congested country you have just left. But then you start hankering for that old lifestyle – the comforts of a home, finding new friends you can meet over coffees, shopping for people back home and yourself and watching Indian news channels on YouTube. The more you want it, the more it costs.

Australia is one of the most expensive countries in the world mainly because its population of only 22.68 million is hardly the market most global brands would vie for. Less population, controlled immigration and severe quarantine means few goods in the market. Almost all of them are imported from China, adding to their cost. Then there is the remoteness of the country and how far you are from Sydney or Melbourne. Unlike other countries, where costs reduce when you move away from the metros, here they build up. The most isolated city in the world, Perth, is also the most expensive city in Australia.

In the first month we moved to Brisbane, we found our good reserve of Indian rupees dwindling as we kept converting more and more of them to the strong and stable Australian dollars. We had to pay weekly rent for the apartment, needed basic furniture and groceries. Frequent rides on the public transport were ruled out because they are expensive. Our main form of commute to office and shops, for sightseeing or anything else would be our legs. Once in a while, we would take a bus, train or ferry. But to any place in the range of a couple of kilometres, we preferred to walk. It saved some money and made us a lot stronger. At times, though, we were miserable. “Did we really move out of our comfortable home in India to live like this?” 

Then one day, at the free local library, I picked up a magazine. It had an article about zero-dollar days. It stressed on the importance of savings. You did not have to spend money each day of the week unless you wanted to. There could be a couple of days in the week where, if you planned well in advance, you would not have to spend a cent.

I liked the idea and decided to give it a shot for a month. Wednesdays and Thursdays would be my zero-dollar days. I could do grocery shopping on Mondays and travel by public transport on other days to places I wanted to explore. There was a limit to the number of things I could carry while walking so I didn't go on a spree while shopping on non-zero-dollar days. Wednesdays and Thursdays were for cleaning, eating only home-cooked meals, library visits (free), walks, reading, conversations without coffees and finishing off pending writing or accounting (I am moonlighting here) assignments. It has been over a month and so far it has worked. My spending is structured and we now have some savings. Sometimes, I overspend but feel less guilty with the knowledge that two zero-dollar days are round the curb. What started as a bit of an experiment may gradually become a lifestyle.  

Tuesday, June 3, 2014

Australiana #8: The Indian Takeaway

I love Australian food – meats, fishes and veggies, their textures, flavours  and the fact that it does not go over-the-top with breads and potatoes on the sides. More often than not, it's simple, fresh, spiced and flavoured well. It is easy on the stomach and very filling. And a reason why I haven't bothered to look for Indian joints or takeaways. Until this weekend. I had vegetarian guests from India who found the Aussie flavours pheeka (the Hindi word for bland). So it was time to go to Uncle Google (shouldn't say that because Google is 15 years younger than me) and look up Indian restaurants near Brisbane CBD. So there was Indian Mehfil, which seemed too posh for our pockets, Punjabi Palace at West End in the middle of the city's art and culture centre and Sultan's Palace in Paddington on the fringes of the CBD.

The first night, we went to Punjabi Palace. It was 10 pm, Friday night. Whereas anywhere else in the world, the place would be teeming with people on a weekend night, this restaurant, like many others in Brisbane, was closing for the day. We waited at the reception for one of the staff to attend to us. A young man came along and told us the place was closed. “Only takeaways,” he said. Disappointed, we ordered aloo parathas and raita, rotis, dal and a paneer dish. They took 20 minutes to give us our order. Back in the apartment, we found two full containers of oily, spiced rice with with everything else. It was a sign: things had indeed closed for the day and the staff wanted to pack everything up before turning off the lights. The rotis (we had forgotten to mention, tandoori) and the parathas were the size of kabuli naans, too big to fit into a large dinner plate. The food was average by Indian standards but pretty good by Australian Indian standards.

On Sunday night, we decided to go to Paddington, a party hub in the city. Sultan's Palace was decorated with gaudy lights of all colours (the Chandni Bar kind) and paintings and murals that were inspired by Mughal and Rajput art. At 8 pm, there were empty, dirty dishes on the tables and one waiter, who seemed Spanish/Italian. The food was good but they had run out of dinner plates so we had to eat from the small white quarter plates. We asked Jabeel, the manager/owner if he had paan. “All I can offer is saunf (fennel seeds),” he said apologetically. We took spoonfuls as he guided us to an Indian takeaway down the road.

That is how we met Prem Mishra, the owner-manager-cook at Indian at Paddo. Mishra was stirring a curry wearing his red apron and plastic gloves when we arrived at his counter. We asked him for paan. “No, I don't have paan but I have some paan masala in my car, which I can get for you,” he said. We asked him where we could get paan. “Nowhere. Betel leaves are banned in Queensland,” he declared. Really? “Yes.” With nothing more to do, we asked him about his business, clientele, Indian sweets and menu. The son of an Indian armyman who had schooled in New Delhi, Dehradun and Bangalore, Mishra came to Brisbane as a university student 14 years ago. He had worked in the IT sector for five years, when one evening, he managed to win a jackpot $15000 in pokies. He came up with the idea of investing in a restaurant the same night. Over the years, he's had four Indian restaurants in different parts of Brisbane. He has created new restaurants and formats and like most entrepreneurs in Brisbane, works hard to keep things small. Being in the party suburb means he gets a lot of walk-ins on weekends and takeaways on weekdays. He has made enough to support his extended family back home in Hauz Khas and build a house in Dehradun. Does he want to ever move back to India? Mishra responds with a shrug, “I don't know. I love cooking and feeding people here.”