Chaats and namkeens from over here.

Monday, August 16, 2010

Md. Ali Rd.: The Return

Found all the old haunts on and around Mohammed Ali Road. Read all about it here.

Friday, March 06, 2009

Babasaheb Ambedkar Rd, Dadar

As the fever broke, I arose as if from a dream.  I had a yen for something hot and crunchy and as I pondered how to exorcise it I took the right out of St Paul's and ran smack into a dabeli stand.

The froth of wish fulfillment melted quickly beneath the mercury lamps.  I was transported quickly from fantasy through a string of genres: melodrama, farce, tragedy, to horror and, finally, coming-of-age.

Distressingly, there was no butter in sight.  Something oily in the center of the tavaa would have to do.  I was game.  "Ek banaa do," I prodded the wallah.  He heard nothing, for he was locked in that most volatile of standoffs: the large-change transaction.

A previous customer was attempting to pay for his eight-rupee dabeli with a hundred.  Not bloody likely!  For what seemed like minutes, he stood poised with the note in hand, his opponent steely-faced, until finally the latter began counting out tens for what seemed like even longer.

"Ek banaa do," I repeated.  He picked it up, dropped it on a square of newspaper, and shoved it at me.  I scrutinized it.  One side, predictably was cold.  "Thanda ho gaya," I remarked.

"Pehle kyon nahin bataa diya?" asked the guy next to him.  (I hadn't realized it was a tag team.)  It threw me for a loop; I should have told him earlier it was cold?  Or that I hadn't wanted it cold?  I gave him a quizzical look.

"Kanda hai is mein; nahin chahiye to batao," he explained.  A-ha.  Kanda: onions, in Bombay, anyway.  I set him straight.

"Kahaan se ata hai?" he inquired, and I replied: Bandra.  "Tumara Hindi bahut weak hai."  I smiled, and got a wink in return.  That's the first time anybody's told me that: they always tell me how well I speak.  I've hit a milestone.

Friday, December 19, 2008

The traveller halts

Unflattering qualities in good writers: wan condescension and an unwillingness to meet halfway.

Amusing though Matt Yglesias' modest proposal may be, I'm afraid the demand for a corps of globetrotting grammarians to scour the developing world for bad English is, roughly, nil. Sure, there are a million "oddities" out there to elicit our derision or James Fallows' "sympathy." But they're here to stay, and not only that; they're not wrong!

The sign in question isn't hanging there to satisfy our American sense of proprietorship over every corner of the globe. Its purpose is to communicate basic directions, to us and to every other non-Chinese-speaker. Okay, so "The Traveller Halts" isn't beautiful, like most literal translations. So long as it's intelligible, though, it's correct. And, as per Matt's point, each of us knew exactly what it was supposed to say. You could call the phrase a gaffe in the Kinsleyan sense: it said exactly what it meant.

Global English isn't pretty, or even immediately intelligible to a native speaker. It has no discernible rules and frequently misappropriates vocabulary. But it works in a purely transactional fashion. If it offends your aesthetic or grammatical sensibilities, well, get used to it. Or laugh at it! (Maybe this example would have been more clear cut.) But wipe that sneer off your face, or it'll freeze that way.

English as she is spoke has been mangled for centuries; such is the price of ubiquity. What's new is these pidgins propagating in reverse, in accordance with the logic of the new marketplace. If English owes its prevalence to British and American economic and military hegemony, so, too, as China and India emerge as the largest markets, their Englishes, however painful or amusing to our ears, will have the competitive advantage. What Fallows calls a "standard" English translation like "No Entry" will not be standard for much longer. Or was it ever standard at all? I'll be paying attention next time I pass through Amsterdam, Frankfurt, or Dubai.

On the street here in Bombay you'll encounter three languages. Transactions occur not in the vernacular but in the imported tongues, Hindi or English, or most frequently in a mixture of the two. This patchwork is, to all listeners, confusing. Rare is the case in which two parties theretofore unknown to one another emerge from a conversation certain that they were understood. The presumption is the reverse, and that the effort of listening entails a great deal of interpretation.

At the airport, where the split second it takes us to reinterpret a sign could mean a missed flight—or, for a pilot, a missed runway—we naturally apply a more stringent threshold for intelligibility than we would to a conversation, a TV advertisement, or an instruction manual. But who gets to determine that reasonable standard? I've got an idea: whether you spent any time literally scratching your head. That's a bar low enough for this sign to limp over.

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Sunday, May 11, 2008

90-Feet Road

The options were to stick around for another two hours of Pangea Day and then another hour or so until the trains started running, or to leave before the taxis dried up. I left. The Kaospilots were already stretched out on the chittai, and who could blame them. I prefer my Christiane Amanpour in small doses, with regular breaks for mortar rounds.

Girish, a Reality Tours & Travels guide, was kind enough to show me the way to a taxi. Of course one pulled up almost as soon as we stepped out of the community center—yes, at 1:15, in Dharavi. But even before it could, we stumbled over a kulfiwala—yes, at 1:15, in Dharavi. I flinched, uncharacteristically, upon seeing the color of the slush in which the tin capsules had been chilling. Now, I realize it probably had something to do with rock salt; then, without the benefit of chemical analysis, I said, "ah, fuck it."

With a surgeon's hand he popped the top, slid in the stick, and wedged out the resulting popsicle with a spoon. The creaminess surprised me. Nothing like the cassata slices you get from freezer cases, this kulfi was completely smooth, like the gelato I'd earlier that evening taken my students to try. Completely, that was, until I got to the bottom, where I met a question mark of a sour, icy plug. Some sort of thermochemical reaction squeezing the whey parts out to the frosty exterior? Requires more experimentation: swayam shikshan prayog.

The monologue in the cab ride was infinitely more entertaining (and, I daresay, promoting of cross-cultural understanding) than Pangea's spokesmodels-across-continents, international Idol shtick. Of course, I'd missed the ending.

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Friday, May 09, 2008

Princess Street

The day-long stumble from Crawford Market to Zhaveri Bazaar spat us onto the Marine Lines downslope. B. and I were both thirsty, and my first thought was: a beer with Rashid Irani. Little did I realize I had missed the end of an era.

I'd been introduced to the Braebourne by Santosh, an aspiring filmmaker who saw Rashid as his muse and Princess Street as his museum. The way the narrow slice of morning light casts onto the stacked wooden balconies. The sheer density of aspiration crammed into the weekly rented rooms by emigrants from Bihar, Arunachal, or, as in his case, Orissa.

Did I notice, he asked, that the mirrors were positioned so that the man behind the cashbox could see every table? Did I see the various injunctions posted on the wall, always in incongruous pairs (No spitting/Treat your wife nicely)?

Such was the basic grammar of the Irani hotel, to which the food (kheema pav, khari biscuit) was just a reassuring adornment. In this case, beer was sold from a pavement-fronting counter over which presided a slightly crumpled man with three teeth and an encyclopedic knowledge of world cinema.

"Rashid's gone for dry cleaning," said the owner. The place, all old wood and San Miguel murals, is being transformed into a bakery. Good luck to them.

We slid into Pathakwadi where another winking proprietor beckoned. Taj Wines, "the little location with the big reputation," according to its Goan neighbor. Fully stocked with eagle decals and Zarathurstra portraits, the shelves ran the gamut from desi daru to your finer domestic scotches. Those Parsis are a tenacious bunch — don't count them out just yet.

Thanks and kudos to for outranking DNA on Google.

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Monday, April 28, 2008


Three unextraordinary drinks. After the trek down from Visapur, these may well have saved my life:

Nimbu pani, premade, in a dampened towel–wrapped steel decanter. No squeezing, no salting, just a sweet-sour-salty shot of dancing electrolytes. Okay, make it two. One for me and one for N. to pass off to me.

Kokam sharbat, the product of a whole family's five minutes' mixing and spicing. At first I mistook the jeera, hand-ground, for gnats. I would've drunk it anyway. This tin oven of a dhaba has perhaps not seen so much business in years.

Limca. More than a drink, it's a fully negotiable unit of utility. As in, how many Limcas is x worth? The answer is usually unflattering to the x.

Bonus Limca anecdote

The Greyhound stopped over in Atlanta for one hour. I made a beeline for the Coke Museum, spiraled my way up to the top floor, and beheld the dazzling array of spigots. When I spotted the green one with the limey orb, I understood what an addict must feel for his substance. My pulse slackened, my breathing became regular, and I had the sense of being at home. It had been years. I drank until my stomach ached. I drank some more.

With 15 minutes to get back to the station I finally pried myself away myself away from the nozzle. Bail bonds, bail bonds, bail bonds. And there was my bus, my luggage still on it, backing out of its gate. I broke into a sprint, dragging my guts with me, sloshing into the curve of the off-ramp. There we stood, face to face, Tienamen-style. I waved to the driver, and then doubled over, head between knees for the few precarious seconds before the door opened with a pneumatic woosh. I passed most of the ride to Montgomery with my legs crossed.

Bandra Station (E)

Meerut Haleem and Biryani. Not a review — it's a mental note. I might have been able to stand, with effort. I could even have shoved my way through the river of flesh on whose far bank perched three hulking bhartans of slowly liquefying mutton. (Red meat improves x-ray vision, studies show.) But asking the sigdiwala to cancel my order once he'd already thrown on the skewers just wasn't in the cards.

Boti, then. At three for Rs 20, there was no point in asking too many questions. I did not learn what kept them that scandalous shade of red. I did know one thing: for the aches and sweat stains of a full day of outdoor errands I had found a cure, and it was meat. Let's hope this ajnabee is here to stay.

Where? Past the platforms, on the far side of the foot-over bridge, where a solitary track threads its way up to Bandra Terminus. The iron picket along one side and the low wall on the other both have their occasional chinks, but the great mass of travelers flows through this one crossing. Somehow, they manage to close the gate once an evening when a solitary engine sulks its way out of the shed. At those times human traffic flows through foot-wide apertures on either side. Literally, through the wringer.

A Hyderabadi once told me that eating animal parts are good for our respective (counter)parts: gurda helps the kidneys function; paya strengthens the bones, etc. To have been spat out of this flattening machine to the smell of charcoal and the sight of these juicy chunks of mutton leg, I believed him.

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Monday, July 16, 2007

Jay Prakash Road

28 x 2 days later... and the place barely resembles its former self. Okay, I exaggerate; but the absences are glaring. My juicewallah — the one who tosses a hunk of ginger into his carrot pulper — and the kala khatta man have both moved on. To greener pastures, one wishes. In their plots stand two young and hungry new arrivals.

The first misguided lad has set himself up as a competitor to the jalebi man, whose skill and reknown are unsurpassed and have already been herein described. He's shrewdly taking advantage of the Indian fear of innovation, setting himself up as a classical (yellow and brittle) alternative to my man's heartier, braided fare. So far no crowds.

Next stupid move was mine. Surprised and entranced by the incongruity of a dabeli stand, I immediately ponied up. Almost as soon, I noticed the conspicuous lack of butter. Butter is the essence of the dabeli. My favorite stands don't even have a "dabeli" sign up: they just prop up the Amul box in their little window and call it a day.

Sure, peanuts, and great, pomegranate, and fine, tangy, fiery bhaji. A dry dabeli may as well be no dabeli at all. Just as well for me since it was only to tide me over until the Marriott. Of that which we cannot speak we must pass over in silence.