Wednesday, July 14, 2010

Cafe Tales

This morning, feeling quite blue and in serious need for a pick-me-up, I decided to try the breakfast menu at the Barista cafe on the ground floor of my office complex. It turned out to be surprisingly pleasant, considering that this was the first time I had had breakfast alone at a cafe. Maybe it was the ambience that gave me the calm I needed, the time I needed to collect my thoughts, or maybe it was the delicious food, but I felt great and ready to take on the day and the challenges it may present. Mental note: must do this more often.

On another note, it made me think of the cafes and restaurants that I have frequented in the cities that I lived in or visited.

I used to stay in the university hostels of the University of Delhi, located in north Delhi. Kamla Nagar was an area my friends and I used to frequent. It had its share of inexpensive restaurants specializing in Chinese and Tibetan food, and when the Barista and the Cafe Coffee Day outlets opened, we were a happy lot, spoilt for choice when it came to eating out. Majnu ka Tilla, located near the Yamuna, was another place you could go to if you wanted to taste authentic Tibetan food. In south Delhi, my favorites are Dilli Haat (for its myriad offerings of ethnic cuisine from all over India), South Extension Barista, and New Friend's Colony Community Center for its Shawarma, momos and of course, its cafes.

In Hyderabad, sadly, I didn't explore much of its eateries, but my favorite remains that rooftop restaurant--Koyla on Road Number 1. And my undergrad days in Shillong was a gastronomical delight! Almost every Sunday, I'd lunch at the restaurant in Hotel Broadway and feast on palak paneer (I still think they make the best I have ever tasted!) and chili chicken. There also used to be a chain of restaurants serving authentic Chinese food located all over Shillong-- I think it was called Abba, which had the best momos and fried rice and noodles. Nice ambience too. Then there was Palace, right bang in the middle of Police Bazaar, which served the best samosas and dosas in Shillong. And need I mention the traditional "jadoh" stalls run by locals that dotted every nook and corner of the city? A jadoh stall is a place people go to for tea, but mostly for lunch, and it would have an inexpensive but delicious menu that consists of rice prepared in the traditional Khasi way (more on this later) with traditional chicken and pork dishes and fried seasonal vegetables and lentils. This was a place where people, even strangers, bonded over food and enjoyed the easy camaraderie. I should also mention the Chinese restaurant that's run by my friend Chin-Hai (who's also a biker) in Dhanketi. It used to be called Touches (unless he's rechristened it) and served the best Foo Yong in town! Ahh Shillong, it's a foodie's paradise, with its restaurants and cafes, and I miss it so much.

And my hometown, used to have some nice restaurants back in the nineties. As teens, my friends and I used to wait for holidays or weekends to snack at the Lake View near the Kangla Paat (a moat that surrounds Kangla). It used to serve delicious Chinese food and had a nice view of the Kangla Paat. Sadly, the restaurant has long been closed. A restaurant that has seen the seventies and still serves nice food is Airlines (I wonder why they named it that way). It's located in the heart of Imphal on Mahatma Gandhi Avenue, right opposite my alma mater. After school, we used to go and get strawberry ice-cream from there. It seems my parents used to date there and my mom till date swears by the cutlets they serve there! I haven't been there in a long, long time. My husband says the food is still great (he went there last November to meet his buddies), and the impression I get of the place is that it's become a hang out for men, almost like a male-only watering hole, though when I was a school kid, families and youngsters would go and enjoy a nice cup of coffee there. Another restaurant I still like is Naoba's on RIMS Road, which is frequented by office goers and RIMS hospital staff and students. You can have a decent lunch and hang out with buddies there.
Now, the reason I mention that  is that Imphal doesn't have a great eating-out culture which is really sad. Apart from the places mentioned here, there is hardly any decent place to go relax over a nice cup of coffee. Some other exceptions are the Host and the Hotel Nirmala restaurants. Sure, you can see myriad establishments with the tag "restaurant" or "cafe" in their names dotting the city. However, the horror that greets you on entering these restaurants just isn't worth it. For one, these are usually dimly lit places frequented by drug addicts and couples who want some privacy and is NOT a place to have coffee or snacks with your friends or family. Forget about lunch or dinner at these places! These places have given a bad name to the terms 'restaurant' and 'cafe' and so if you inadvertently mention that you'd like to go to a cafe, people would stare at you. If you have friends from outside the state visiting you, you CANNOT think of taking them to try out these restaurants/cafes. Now, there are rice-hotels and tea stalls, where you can go and have tea and some snacks, but these are the poor cousins of the Baristas and the Cafe Coffee Days of the world. Visit these stalls if you are in for an adventure and like to give/get a taste of the local life. The plus point of these rice hotels and tea stalls is that you can taste authentic Meitei cuisine like "tharoi thongba" (escargot curry) and "tharoi angouba" (fried escargot), paaknum (a salty steamed snack made of gram flour and vegetables tempered with fermented fish) and pakoras and kanghou (fried vegetables) and ooti (a traditional curry made with peas). I long for the time when the cafes of Imphal would clean up their act and become family hangouts and serve ethnic cuisine too.

Tuesday, June 1, 2010

Homesick 3

What is it about being pregnant and being away from your parents and in-laws and extended family that makes you homesick?

There are a lot of plusses when it comes to living an "independent" life with just your husband in a land far away from home. But this isn't about the benefits of such a lifestyle. It is more about how you begin to appreciate family because you are so far away from them. Family, after all, is your bedrock, your support system. As they say, many hands make light work, and definitely more fun. Getting the dishes done by your maid isn't as enriching or as satisfying as doing the same task with your sister/mom/sisters-in-law with a dose of family-jokes and anecdotes sprinkled in between. Mundane housework remains mundane when you are the one doing it with a husband glued to the idiot box or the phone for company! Hah! Now that's when I start missing the rest of the family.

The other day, I was dicing potatoes for stir-fry when I remembered how my grandmother used to do it every morning and I remembered her instructions crystal clear as though she were right in front of me. And of course, mom used to do it differently. All in a flash, memories of the stories they had to tell about when they were young brides, when they were pregnant would come flooding. The stories had prepped me to some extent, but I was on my own. Scary...and that's a different level of homesickness altogether. When you know your elder female kin cannot be with you then and there because they are at different places, different planes of existence...

Some days get tiring and you just want to take it easy and leave making dinner to the husband. But predictably, like my mom used to fret, I would invariably worry that he'd not make dinner the way I do. Illogical totally, I know...I mean there could be a dozen ways to skin a potato and your way isn't the only way of doing things right, but that thought comes only as an after-thought. Sometimes, it's such an effort even to relax! Then I start missing the rest of the family again.

Of course, there are those days when business calls late and your husband's home barely in time for dinner. The TV's on for some background noise, the mobile phone is put to work--connecting you to friends and family while your tasks are getting done, you try reading or browsing or social networking to fill in the time, and then you flop down on the couch and realize what an effort it is to get up even for a drink of water! You waddle all over the apartment, because that's the only way to keep your balance as your weight and your belly-girth increases. The bell rings and with your limited mobility, you waddle to open the door again, taking a long breath (you are so out of breath all the time!)! Hurrah! The husband's home! I wish my mother in law was around--at least, she'd answer the doorbell and chat with me before he arrives. Boredom and homesickness all rolled into one...and I live to miss home, yet again...

Wednesday, May 5, 2010

Ailing Manipur

My Manipur has many ills...and I despair at its plight. You may say, every place has its own share of ills, but I think Manipur has far more than is ever high-lighted to the world.

For one, it is a strife torn state. Everyone knows that the denizens of the state are the ones who suffer silently amid the innumerable strikes, bandhs, curfews, economic blockades and bomb blasts. There are those nameless women known only as "Meira Paibi" who try to bring some semblance of order to the chaotic state of affairs and then there are better known activists like Sharmila...Amid the hullabaloo over the Armed Forces Special Powers Act, there are your usual share of thefts, robberies, kidnappings, and natural disasters. Recently, the imagination of the people of Manipur seem to be captured by Muivah's impending visit to his hometown of Ukhrul. So many protests for and against his visit and so much public property destroyed. And to what end? No satisfactory or simple answers there.

And then there are those "relatively mundane" concerns like the power problem that ails the state. Even in the capital of the state, frequent power cuts are the norm and there is a scheduled load-shedding every alternate day. Many have analysed why the state suffers thus, but still there is no viable solution. Life goes on in the meantime with the help of generators, inverters, rechargeable LED lamps, candles and the traditional "podon" and "thaomei" fuelled by kerosene. Some people have even adopted the practice of having dinner before sunset so that they can sleep through the power-less nights. Such is the power of adaptability and flexibility of the average Manipuri. Solar power has been harnessed to a minor degree but not to a sustainable level. No one is bothered about demanding something like clean fuel from the government or asking for subsidies for that when all the world is hassled about carbon credits and  carbon footprints. There are just too many things occupying the mind, like the simple act of worrying about survival. You see, you never know when a bandh or economic blockade is gonna happen. You are too busy worrying whether your loved ones will be home safe every sunset or be the prey to a stray bombing incident, shootouts or encounters...

Potable water!!! Well, it's a dream. Even after years of independence, many localities and homes do not get access to tap water. You can forget about running water inside homes. This has of course kept the tradition of fetching water from the community pond each evening alive. But that's besides the point. Suffice to say that civilization's common fruits haven't reached Manipur.

And the education system--I don't know where to start or where to end. Post independence, my father's generation went to noted government schools like Johnstone, CC, Ram Lal Paul, Tamphasana Girls. These schools had fine faculty members and facilities that a good school of those days had to have. At present, if you happen visit these schools, you can still find fine faculty members there, but the buildings are like ruins and the facilities seem straight out of the forties. The amenities seem to have been frozen in a time warp. I don't have enough context to talk about the state of affairs in privately owned schools. However, I have an inkling that while the rest of the country uses state-of-art technology in their educational institutions, the same cannot be said for those in Manipur. It's actually a wonder that good students still come from the state. It must be quite a struggle. I am told that many people send their kids to private tutors as schools do not cover the syllabi. Of course, people must be aware that last year, schools in Manipur did not operate for months on end in the stand-off between the government and some activists. In this state of affairs, quality education can only be expected to take a back seat. Sigh. It's a vicious circle.

The environment! Pollution hasn't spared Manipur. Age old traditions of Manipuri youth cleaning the community on weekends have disappeared. People are dumping their wastes on the streets and public places have become garbage dumps. Civil works like a purported sewage system installation have added to the mess as the project has been left midway. To add to the woes of the people, come some rains and the roads become a muddy swamp. No one cares, no one has time to fix these ills. After all, you are only worried about survival. Like I said before, all you care about is whether everyone is home safe and sound...and that no dear one has fallen victim to a stray bullet...

Sunday, April 18, 2010

A farmer who breaks eggs?

I enjoy breaking eggs and farming. What kind of farmer breaks eggs, you may ask. Wouldn't they be more concerned with selling the eggs instead? Even though this may seem contradictory in the real world, it's quite possible to do both in the virtual world. You see, like many people on social networking sites, I play some games online. So I have a virtual farm courtesy Farmville and break eggs on Eggbreaker--both hosted on Facebook. Some scoff at how "mindless" and how futile these pursuits are, but I don't really care as long as I get my entertainment in this harmless way. To each his own, I say.

You see, some people like watching movies, some like to read, some like to vegetate in front of their TV sets, some download music/movies from the net, some people just go on long drives, some watch traffic, and some like to hang out in the mall, some like to drink--alone or with buddies, some like to run, some like yoga. It's their way of having fun. And as long as it does not harm anyone and gives the person a decent amount of enjoyment and a means to de-stress, what's the big deal? As for the so-called mindlessness behind this, how mind-bending is watching a movie or television soaps? And who says entertainment has to be mind boggling to be "decent"?

And for a person like me who doesn't have a real farm, the satisfaction of seeing my virtual plants grow to fruition is really worth it. After all, it brings a smile even after a tough day. And as for breaking eggs on Eggbreaker, it brings out the inner child in me. I break virtual eggs and wonder what will be inside. It's almost like unwrapping gifts and being surprised every time. And the prizes I get from the eggs don't take up extra space or clutter my home...after all, they are neatly arranged on my virtual shelf in my virtual trophy room.

If you have pursuits that you enjoy but people think are mindless, drop in a line. Would love to hear about it. As for me, I think I am gonna break some eggs now and check on my farm. After that, I will have some tea and join my husband and vegetate in front of the TV. :)

Friday, April 9, 2010

Homesick Again

My Dad was in town this week for his checkup. After much cajoling and pleading, he finally agreed to stay with me and my husband. If he had his way, he would have stayed with my siblings as he, like all Meitei elders, thinks that a married daughter's home is good only for a visit for tea. Needless to say, I am overjoyed and thankful hat he did stay with us and that joy was compounded by my brother and sister's staying with us during Dad's visit.

Like all good things though, his trip here too ended-- this morning. We dropped him off at the airport to catch an early morning flight home. And I am homesick again.

As I sit on the balcony where Dad used to read the morning paper during his stay, I think of the days as a young girl when making breakfast for the family seemed like a chore. His visit gave me the opportunity to make up a little for that. Now that I am married and hardly ever get to see him and Mama, I long for days when a simple task like making breakfast for them seems like the opportunity of a lifetime, when a simple walk in the neighboring park is a time to be cherished.

I miss you Dad, and I miss home...I miss the times as a kid when you used to take me with you to fetch the Sunday paper and ended up buying comic books for me, the rare days when I could go back home with you after school, and the times you had meetings in Shillong around the time my vacation would start and I could travel home with you. I remember the time I ran home to go out with you and Mama. It was Cheiraoba and you were going to visit my maternal grandparents and I was too late...I was inconsolable and refused to accompany Mafa who offered to take me with her. I must have been two or three then. Sigh. More memories come flooding and I feel like crying.

Yeah, I am homesick, yet again.

Thursday, April 1, 2010

Adventure @ Age 3+

I was three already and in kindergarten-- my first year at school. I felt pretty serious about going to school and meeting different folks unlike my younger brother who hadn't yet gotten the chance yet. I had it going well with my uncles and aunts taking turns to drop me off to school on their bicycles or scooters, or better still, getting a chance to go with my Dad on his parrot green Lambretta. You see, Dad's office at the local State Bank of India branch was just next door to school. At noon, school would get over and I would tramp out like the other kids and look for a familiar face in the crowd of parents and guardians come to fetch their wards.

As it went, my grandparents or my aunts usually came by to take me home. With my aunts, the trip always always led us through the busy Thangal Bazaar. As expected, they loved the opportunity to window-shop on the pretext of fetching the niece from school. My grandparents preferred the quieter route which took us past the MG Avenue and over the small bridge to Soram Leirak. We'd then reach the community pond 'Pukhri Achouba' and then after that, it was just a matter of crossing the erstwhile RMC Road (now RIIMS Road) to reach home. I loved it more when my grandparents fetched me as I loved the leisurely walk and the fact that they'd buy me snacks on the way home. With my aunts, it was a short trip home by cycle rickshaw--no fun, no snacks--all cut and dry.

Now, I had a friend named AS who was the most independent kid I had ever known. She couldn't have been  much older than me, but she used to come to school on her own and go back home, again on her own. I  retrospect, I guess it could be because both her parents were working and there was no one else to drop her to school. But the idea of going to school on your own kinda appealed to my 3 year old mind to the point of obsession. What added fuel to the fire was AS's jibe at my being such a kid and being so dependent on grown ups. That was the melting point. I decided that I too could go home alone and to prove that, I was on the lookout for the day when no-one would come to pick me up.

The awaited day arrived soon enough. A few days later, I was overjoyed to see that no one from my family had showed up to take me home. I quickly ran to where AS was standing and told her that I'd go with her unescorted by grownups. I remember saying, "AS, quick, let's go home. No one has showed up today to take me home." We then wasted no further time and quickly made our way home. We took the route that my grandparents favoured and soon enough, it was time for me to cross RMC Road. AS looked one way while I looked the other and between the two of us, we estimated the time that was safe for me to cross the road. "Run!" she shouted. And I ran, half scared, half excited-- scared as I was crossing the road alone for the first time, and excited that I was now on my turf, safe and sound. I waved her goodbye and went home straight. Happily I rushed to the kitchen, where my grandmother sat having her lunch. She was surprised to see me home without any sign of my aunts. Before she could ask me how I reached home alone, I announced to her that I was now quite capable of going to school and coming back alone. As she listened horrified, I narrated to her my adventure of coming home alone. She scolded me, as expected.

Back at school, my aunts were panicking as I was nowhere to be found. They waited till the last of the children were picked up and then went to Dad's office. They were terrified of getting a scolding as they had arrived five minutes late to pick me up (you see, their window-shopping had extended much beyond the usual time). They frantically searched for me and my Dad notified the police. Those days, the only telephone in the neighborhood was with a neighbor who stayed three houses away from us. My grandmother managed to go there and somehow managed to give my Dad the information that I was back home. Safe. After an adventure of coming back from school alone. I can only imagine the mixture of emotions that they must have experienced. The adventure ended for me with a scoldings from all my uncles and  aunts, grandparents, and my Dad. Still, it was worth the adrenaline rush and the sense of independence.