Saturday, March 13, 2010

Served with Love and a Cup of Chutney

Bus rides in India are a curious experience. And here I am referring to those long bus rides spanning a few hours, across states or involving at least one loo break. Delhites may refer to their cramped DTC / Blueline rides as an experience too. Since I completely missed out that delightful nugget of Delhi, I can only empathize with fellow Delhites and nod my head with fake compassion when they rant about the sweat, the heat and the occasional budding love affairs with Delhi creeps.

I prefer buses with aggressively tinted windows. This ensures that the passengers of non-airconditioned buses at least think that we are having a more comfortable ride. Superlatives in the bus name like Video Coach, Luxury, Deluxe, Super-Deluxe also helps me believe that this indeed is royal treatment. These buses also have mighty air conditioning that helps justify the ticket cost. And of course there is the Free Movie screening.
Now unlike inflight entertainment which involve personal screens and headphones, this movie is played from a fixed television in front exploiting the abused bus speakers for everyone's pleasure. This is quite similar to India's new Right to Free and Compulsory Education. You can't really call it a right if it is compulsory. You can't call it entertainment if it is blaring without your consent. Passengers who pay over Rs 500 for a seven hour ride would of course demand full paisa-vasool out of the journey. And you can't quite argue with that logic either. Once you occupy your (alloted) seat, the standard procedure is to stuff your bag in the cramped overhead spaces, block the passsage with the bigger suitcase, adjust the aircon fan so it blows on someone else's head. If the movie is not to your liking, you should try to recline your seat and twist your head till your neck is sprained from looking sideways. Soon you'll realize it is impossible to ignore the movie. If this bus ride happens to be in South India you can be sure they'll play the latest B-Grade regional hit.

South Indian B-Grade movies have something incredibly repulsive and addictive about them - Lead actors as alpha males with the shirt unbuttoned till at least the navel; At least one actress whose character sketch involves skimpy clothes and occasional dialogues for them to squeal 'ouch!' and appear coy; A comic character with scenes of either failed flirtations with other random side actresses (with character sketches as described above) or loud slapstick conversations with another comic character. Watching these movies for prolonged periods can halve your IQ. And that's not a joke.

After a drive of anywhere from 3-5 hours, the bus usually makes a mid-point stopover at a food joint. I am not sure about the business arrangement details of these mid-point stopovers, but it sure is one of the best examples of unhealthy business cartels. Here you have a desperate, thirsty group of travellers who need their shot of caffeine, sutta, loo breaks and some food. While they conveniently jack up the prices beyond the MRP for retail products, it's the food where the organization really turns into Dr.Evil. Being a chef at these joints surely is not the best route to improve your culinary skills. But owning such a joint ensures that your progency can have a rich comfortable upbringing so that in their adulthood they will not have to endure long uncomfortable bus rides which involve stopovers at joints with really crappy food.

Last week my sister Aparna and I were on a similar seven hour bus ride from Bangalore to Chennai. On the bus we got to watch the hero Gaja in a gripping eponymous Kannada movie where he got to flirt with a skimpily dressed actress and beat up a lot of bad guys. After a few hours, we had to get down at the prescribed stopover. You may not believe it. But the whole article up till now is a mere prologue to my anecdote about the world's worst samosa served at the stopover. To appreciate our wrath at receiving those golden triangular turds, you must emotionally be on the same page. And hence I had to describe the bad airconditioning, the seats, the movie and the length of the journey.

All this was of little concern to the waiter who nonchalantly slid the menu on our table. Aparna was sick from an overdose of Idlis. So was I. Don't mistake us to be snobs. We love our South Indian heritage and love the dish that Koreans refer to as 'those white rice donuts'. But even the most ardent Muthukrishnaramaswamy would long for some North Indian food after having consecutive Idli meals. And hence we perused the menu beyond the Snacks section. The waiter sniggered and pre-empted us before we finished saying 'Parantha'. "All that is not available", he said, and rattled three options to us - Idli, Masala Dosa and...Samosas.

Ignoring all instincts of avoiding unconventional dishes in South-Indian outlets, we boldly ordered a plate of Samosas. A point aside - why hasn't South India adopted North Indian cuisine properly while North India has mastered the art of Dhhosa and Saambur?. The waiter noted down the order and walked away. My conspiracy theory is that he would have burst into the Kitchen and screamed, "Hey! Get that crusted stuff out. We've finally found 2 suckers!"


He arrived with a plate of samosas after a few minutes. A bunch of golden triangles served with cocounut chutney. Yup, that's right. Samosas and coconut chutney. It's wrong to even call them Samosas. But we didn't know that before tasting it. Aparna cautiously picked up one samosa and peeled off the outer crust. After removing a dozen layers of crust, we discovered some potato inside which did not deserve to be served and certainly not within a dubious samosa. After a lot of deliberation, we both gave it a shot.

We spent the next few minutes mutilating the rest of the samosas. We had made 2 critical mistakes of ordering samosas and even attempting to eat them. Our day might have been ruined, but we didn't want any other travellers to be re-served the same golden things. To be doubly sure that the samosas wouldn't be reconstructed, I picked up the Cocounut Chutney and splattered it over the ripped samosas. Finally, as futile retribution, I gave a lecture to the cashier - "Stop making samosas. You make the worst samosas in the world. I don't think your cook even knows what a samosa is. You should use the money you made from all these samosas to send your cooks to north india to understand what real samosas look and taste like. Your samosas were really, really bad."

Ok I'll end the samosa anecdote here. I know you care squat about the tortorous food. Since you are really curious, the Kannada Movie ended with Gaja beating up the bad guys and the skimpily dressed actress fell in love with him. You may call that stereotypical. But sometimes I'd prefer if things turn out the way they are supposed to be.