This was yesterday at around lunchtime at The Verandah. I was in the middle room spicing minced meat that would soon be cooked into kheema, filling the air with its aromas, which then would be stuffed into the dough, rolled out and cooked into fresh, thick, steaming parathas. This happens to be my absolute favorite food to cook. How I love the sizzling sound of the parathas on a hot griddle and serving them up to hungry customers who devour them quicker than I can keep up. These kheema parathas made it to our menu because they reminded me of the carefree times from my youth in Bombay as a student of architecture, when we would travel all the way to Fort, to eat at a long, narrow cafeteria called Samovar, tucked in a corner of the famous Jahangir Art Gallery. We had not a care for the world then and eating the parathas with a hot mango pickle and yogurt in this artsy cafe was such a treat. I recently read in the news that unfortunately the cafe had closed after serving so many generations of artists due to pressures from the management. I was glad that I had taken my daughter there on our last visit to the city and she had tasted the legendary kheema parathas, which she herself can make now.
While I was smiling to myself reminiscing about the good old days and the spicy parathas, I heard some gleeful sounds from the dining room. I waited at my spot to overhear what all the excitement was about.
Over a period of time, I have come to realize that there are a few recurring instances that always warranty a certain amount of commotion in the cafe. Either it involves a group of first time visitors who are confused yet excited over the aromas and flavors and need assistance with the menu to make choices. Or conversely, it could be some regulars who have come after a long period consequently leading the staff to gush over them, ready to serve them their favorite dish. Occasionally it involves customers with severe allergies and the joint effort on everyone’s part in figuring out what they could eat.
When a substantial amount of time had lapsed and the sounds from the front continued, I poked my head through the corridor to see what was causing the excitement. It was a small group of people, with a couple of Indians. I happened to know one lady in the group, Sujata. She was a parent at the school my children attended and an acclamied published author of several books. For her last novel, The Widows of Malabar hill, she had recreated a world of 1920s Malabar hill, a neighborhood in Bombay where I grew up and she had sought references of the architecture of havelis from Amit and me. This had truly made me feel special and I carried an air of a writer for a few days, even though I had nothing to do with it.
Coming back to the lunch time, she had brought in her family comprising of her German mother and Indian stepfather, Gujurathi to be precise, and American daughter to eat at The Verandah. She introduced everyone in the group and we exchanged pleasantries. They were all very excited to find their favorite dishes on the menu and wanted to have everything. They finally settled on a few. We got busy getting their food ready. Soon they were served and on their way to relish it.
I often make a re-appearance at the guest table, once they are about halfway through the meal to check on them. By then they are satiated and want to chat. This is the best part of my job. I’ve met such interesting people over the years and had such diverse conversations on various subjects.
I noticed her stepfather was really enjoying every bite of the kheema paratha he had ordered. He pulled a chair for me and started telling me stories of his youth in Bombay. He said he belonged to a family which was strictly vegetarian; they couldn’t even utter the word egg in his home. So he, along with his other ‘vegetarian’ friends, would often sneak out during college hours to eat non-veg food. His favorite spot was this inconspicuous cafe with a temporary roof structure behind an art gallery in downtown Bombay. They went there because in those days all the hungry starving artists and actors would flock it as it was known to serve hearty meals at an affordable price. It was the place to be seen at if you had any artistic aspirations. He was aspiring to make movies. For a moment he was merrily lost in the aromas of his past.
He told me that my parathas reminded him of the ones he would eat at this cafe, about forty years back; the same flavors and crunch. He only wished that I had served the same mango pickle and yogurt with it. With each word he said I was brimming with fulfillment. Those were the best days of his life and he thanked me for a trip down the memory lane.
Little did he know that with his affirmation, my own little journey came to a full circle.