Monday, August 20, 2012

Floating face down on seas of delectable bliss

I have not yet found my voice. Though it would seem that I have found my feet. And while my feet wander free, it is not often that I feel the looseness drift up into the throat that I might share stories of my time here. There are reasons for this, but this is not the place. Suffice to say that whenever I sit down to share (not write, for the private writer knows little inhibition), a self consciousness seizes me. What the hell do I think I am doing? Publishing random bits of information about my poorly arranged life? What audacity! To think that anyone should read these unimportant stories about some lost stooge who has thrown himself into the vaguely unfamiliar, hoping that his life might rediscover some aromatic wind of adventure. Forgive me if you're reading this. I shall do my best to stick to details, external to myself, that might somehow amuse the reader:

Taking up the challenge from the hipstamatic posters...

In my quest for good local places to eat buttery dosas and thalis,  I recently discovered an excellent blog published by a Bangalorean woman:

Unfortunately my apartment complex is about 12kms north of Central Bangalore, and I don't like the idea of travelling too far for breakfast. But I've recently been getting out on the local buses, and this added to the excitement of going on a quest for food. Not to mention that on weekends my alternative is to spend the whole time lolling about in my apartment, which will make a brother crazy.

So with a list of potential venues in the Malleswaram suburb (and a few traditional music schools to inquire at) scribbled into my diary, I set out on a bus that looked like it had been an air-conditioned, luxury vehicle in a previous life. As proud as I was of travelling on the bus, with the locals (working faces not necessarily pleased to see a foreigner on their early commute), it took bloody ages for me to get to my destination. As in most parts of the world, buses don't run so regularly on weekends, and my chosen route was an obscure one. But my efforts did not go unrewarded.

The rickety bus hurtled past one of the venues on my list. The exterior of Veena Stores boasted a crowd that would rival the Boxing day opportunists moments before sale time, so I decided to catch the next stop and try my luck at Central Tiffin Rooms. From the outside, CTN appeared to be crawling with people in a manner not unlike the hordes of ants that laboriously dissect the carcasses of recently deceased spiders in summer time. My appetite won out over the waves of anxiety and I elbowed my way into the sweet smelling darkness. It appeared that finding a table would be like trying to locate a contact lens in a spa bath. I pushed my way to the back of the cafe, parried a series of startled looks, experienced an intense moment of self doubt before hustling my way back to the entry. The person in charge of collecting money from patrons gave me a curious look, then pointed to a table that had one seat free in the furthermost corner. One of the waiters took it upon himself to lead me there, wipe my seat then ask me what I wanted. Do (2) idli and eck (1) butter dosa, I blurted and he folded back into the heaving darkness. My neighbours made little effort to conceal their interest as I munched on my idlis and dosa.

I should point out that after eating in local joints for most of my time in India in 2008, and for the best part of my 3 weeks this time around, while I love the local fare, one can start to think that it is all of a similar quality. From one cafe to another, there seems little difference between vadas, dosas, chutneys, thalis. However, my perspective has received a necessary adjustment. The breakfast at the Central Tiffin Rooms was absolutely extraordinary. The dosa crackled and melted in my mouth as the corriander chutney simmered on my tongue. Amidst the grubby surrounds, barefoot wait staff and teeming crowd, I felt momentarily set adrift, floating face down on seas of delectable bliss.

I washed down the dosa with a chai and set out into the streets. An unexpected bonus to go with my breakfast: a festival in honor of Sri Ganesh is soon approaching, and to mark the occasion hundreds of women had set up in the street to create mandalas out of chalk, seeds, candles and earth. I wandered aimless among the myriad mandalas, gazing transfixed from one spiralling meditation unto the next. 

A young woman asked me how I had come to know about the event and was delighted when I told her it was an accidental discovery. It would seem I was the only foreigner fortunate to stumble through Margosa Road that morning.

Then there was more time waiting for and riding buses. Exercise at the gym and another delicious lunch served on a banana leaf just up the way from my apartment. Some colleagues and I met for dinner at the Sheraton (a valuable lesson: if the food is being served in an expensive hotel then chances are that it will be awful. The vegie burger at the Sheraton cost me $12. The lime soda was $5. Breakfast and lunch combined (with chai/coffee) was less than $3 all up. The burger was near inedible), then went to see a production of The Seussification of Romeo and Juliet (I did not know that this pantoesque adaptation existed until a few days ago), directed by a local dramatist (who I have replaced as Drama teacher at Stonehill International School). 

Despite the assorted satisfactions of yesterday's outings, I did not sleep well last night - this is how things have been for some weeks now - and woke feeling lethargic and deflated this morning. Being Eid, I knew that most of the shops and restaurants would be closed today. But, being Eid, I also knew that there would be something happening somewhere. And so I dragged myself out of the apartment and set off on the bus to the most famous Mosque in Bangalore, the Masjid E Khadriya. I had no idea what to expect as I made the corner approaching the mosque. What I found was a beautiful building bulging with men of many ages all adorned in white robes and taqiyah (prayer caps). Unable to approach the entry to the gardens, I was welcomed to join a man and his sons not far from the elaborately decorated gate. Recitations from the Quran bubbled and hissed through loud speakers with majestic intensity. The man stared into his hands and uttered prayer while his boys unashamedly stared at their anglo attendant. After a moment one of those nearby handed me a prayer cap of my own and I sat in stupefied reverence as a paparazziesque storm of camera phones hailed all about me. Insistant beggars tugged at my sleeve and the chanting thundered on. I caught glimpses of those glistening minarets. That wondrous onion dome. 

And then the chanting stopped. People staggered to their feet and handed back each others' shoes. The stream of human traffic haphazardously negotiated its way back up Miller's road, away from the Mosque, and into the wind.

I decided to walk back to the MG Road area (good bookshops, restaurants, easy passage home, etc.). A 4km wander through old Bangalore. I recall someone telling me back in January that Bangalore was a terrible place, full of American style shopping malls and commercial enterprise.

True. Bangalore is a thickening example of booming economy India. I have not talked about the skyscrapers of UB City or the various malls that pepper the city limits. They do not interest me, though they embody an extreme of irreconcilable social inequality.

But. If one ignores the well trod yellow line of Bangalore's main roads ("safe" main roads and commercial districts appear in yellow on road maps) in favor of the narrow lanes and destitute bazaars, there is a world to be discovered, rich in the twin polarities of life and death. Cows tussle over scraps udder deep in rubbish, while veiled women light candles at awkwardly stationed idols. Tiny shops pedalling all sorts of trinkets. Old men stooped over who knows what. I stopped for a chai and talked cricket (a point of reference) with two muslims.

I felt that wind of adventure (tho I shudder to call it such) for a moment there. Faint. Despairing to be found. A fleeting awareness, embedded in the crumbling walls of a melancholy street. One of hundreds in a labyrinth of human perseverance. Audacious or no, this is one more story. Unimportant. Absurd. Lived. I thank the writer, the women who create their mandalas in the middle of the road, the man and his sons. In the shade of mega malls and soaring enterprise, there is music to be heard, dosas to be devoured.

I would go on. But I won't. There are classes to prepare and a dinner to be made.

Until next time the winds are calling. I thank you. For reading.


Aedre Kore said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Aedre Kore said...

Ben, that was wonderful. I enjoyed how your writing of your venturings into Bangalore created this slowly unfurling mandala of juxtaposed experiences - the crowds with moments of serenity; the religous and the everyday (the camera phones going off around you with a prayer cap in the middle of a mosque - sublime)
Despite your apologetic beginning,(no need), you write very vividly.Thanks.