Friday, January 20, 2012

Trip to Mumbai, Mangalorean food and the Mahesh Lunch Home in Sakinaka, Jan 2012

The accumulation of must have electronics piles up in preparation for a trip.  By the time I have packed a laptop, an ipod, headphones, a small camera, a Kindle, various power supplies, plugs and cords, the backpack feels quite full.   It is January, there is a light flurry on the drive down the New Jersey Turnpike, and the overcast sky renders the industrial buildings a gloomy monochrome.

I drive with the usual slight apprehension prior to a trip to India.  The sentiments have transposed somewhat in the 25 years that I have been here.  Almost 40 years ago I had heard my first descriptions of America as a child from an aunt and uncle who had visited a relative in Ohio.  We sat around after dinner, wrapped under thick blankets in a bone chilling Assam cold, as the uncle, with a facility for storytelling, recounted their two month trip to the United States in vivid detail: the traffic jams, the tunnel underneath the ocean (Fort McHenry Tunnel?), the recounting of ordinary suburban life in Dayton, augmented by photographs of fresh faced smiling kids in bright jackets posing against wintry landscapes.  Sitting in a remote part of north east India, in a small town the description felt difficult to relate to.  The place felt exotic then but does not anymore.  On the other hand India has changed in many ways since, and I do not feel sure-footed there any more as I used to.

The Air India flight to Mumbai has a viewable list of Bengali movies on the  in-flight video.  Attempting to watch Jamai Raja starring one Ms. Paoli Dam, I learn one thing-- commercial Bengali films make Bollywood movies appear to have the sensitivity of Iranian films.  It is a color film full of black and white emotions, and I cannot take it after a couple of minutes. I spend the rest of the flight reading.

 Checkout at Mumbai is efficient—at times it is faster today to get out of Indian airports than the ones at New York or Narita.  Computerization coupled with a low cost of labor that allows many immigration officials to be deployed enables this.  For those of us used to the long delays at customs and immigration in the nineties this is a pleasant surprise. In those days I would often get to exchange pleasantries with the immigration official who would appear to be in no particular hurry; and the entry into the country often took upon the flavor of an extended social visit to the immigration hall.  Even after computers were introduced in the early days, the staff would often pick at the keyboards in single finger slow motion, the machine often a source for further confusion and delays. All this is streamlined now, and as in NY or Narita, there is an official who curtly directs traffic to the numerous immigration stalls, the transactions are business like, so that I am out in a matter of minutes.  But underlying this orderliness that is on display most of the time, there is always a looming threat of chaos in a system that appears to have no plan B or preparedness for handling anything out of the ordinary.  In a few days I would be held in a long delay at a domestic flight security line as a bevy of security officers examined a complicated medical instrument with a long optical fiber that a traveler had passed through the x-ray machine, holding up the everyone else, instead of taking the inspection off line so that others could proceed.

There is massive construction as a new terminal gets built, raising a dust that tinges the sky orange against the setting sun.  Mumbai is the most businesslike of Indian cities and inspite of an enormous population pressure, there is an efficient manner with which things self assemble in order for day-to-day life to proceed.  In one passing scene on a busy road a cricket game is in swing using the street as a pitch, pedestrians cross hopping between cars and two-wheelers, business is being conducted on the roadside stalls that have encroached onto the blacktop—yet these events glide past one another making subtle accommodation like a jigsaw puzzle in time, the people neither friendly nor discourteous to one another, avoiding redundant exchanges like two efficient boxers conserving their energies for the full distance.  As we proceed along the road to a friend’s house, we arrive at a jam ahead—there is a car burning and a large crowd gathered around it.  All the drivers calmly turnaround their vehicles, make room for one another within what space is available and we are soon re-reouted and on our way.  I doubt that Kolkata drivers would demonstrate this level of collective intelligence.  I spend the night with our friends S&P, where a wonderful evening of conversation and a hot Mangalorean and muslim meal awaits me. 

The next morning I am driven to IIT Bombay by the driver.  He points out that this was Bombay’s worst winter, and then proceeds to turn the airconditioning on in the car.  I had been sweating and I needed it.  The campus stands between a national park on one side, and a busy road on the other.  Parts of the campus are leafy, but it does not have the historical feel of IIT Kharagpur, or the natural beauty of IIT Guwahati.  Leopards come into campus every few years losing their way out of the national park.  In what is a humane process that other nations can learn from, these animals are invariably tranquilized and then released back into the wild.  Even when the animal has injured and killed people, as was the case with the recent appearance of a leopard in Guwahati, it is captured instead of destroyed. 

The IITs have changed significantly.  More emphasis is placed on research among the faculty and there is increased funding for labs and equipment.  A professor cannot expect promotion without demonstrating significant research content in his/her work and, in a departure from the past, the number of post-graduate students exceeds the numbers of undergraduates.  A majority of the undergraduates today arrive by way of intensive retreading at coaching factories that have gamed the entrance exam.  This has led to significant debate, and a possibility that the legendary entrance examination may be done away with.  With the exception of a few, graduating students prefer to take higher paying consulting type positions rather than traditional engineering jobs.  Far fewer travel to the United States for post-graduate education in engineering than used to earlier.

Afternoon presented an opportunity to visit a newly opened outpost of the Mahesh Lunch Home at Sakinaka.  Mahesh Lunch Home is a legendary Mangalorean fish place that, starting from its original establishment in Juhu, has spread across the city to four different locations. I had been to the one in Juhu several years ago, and it left a strong positive impression. It would make a fish lover evoke the same sentiments that the Mughal emperor Babar expressed upon visiting Kashmir—if there is a heaven then this is it, this is it, this is it.  It is one of the few Indian restaurants where I will eat fish, for fish molesters are a common lot among restaurant cooks.  Fish is not as forgiving as meat, and unlike meat strong spicing can subvert its flavor.  This is the reason why fish tastes best in Indian dishes that use fragrant, light spices—such as fish steamed with mustard, a light hint of coriander seeds, or fish simply fried with some turmeric and salt. The lunch that we had at Mahesh was all fish—and these were displayed to us, some alive, at the time of order.  We started with fried rolls stuffed with Bombay Duck (a type of fish) and prawns, and tawa (pan) fried pomfret. The pomfret, a Bombay specialty, was overloaded with tandoori type masala and an unexpected disappointment.  This was a pity since I get one shot at a perfect pomfret on these breakneck pace trips.  As the main entrée we had a superb crab curry in a butter garlic sauce accompanied by a Mangalorean specialty called a Neer dosa, a rice based dosa with a gelatinous, slick texture.  This is the very first time that I have scooped up crab (or any fish) using a piece of dosa, but this is one of the reasons to go to a place like Mahesh Lunch Home.

For all its ethnic sophistication, New York City is still mired either in traditional North Indian, South Indian, or the wallet scorching fusiony cusine that uppity Indians in Manhattan seem to enjoy.  On trips such as these, like the ancient British colonials on their annual trips to London from the sub-continental mofussils, I like to find what I cannot in Westchester county and NYC.  Fish at Mahesh Lunch Home is one of them.  Good Bengali food is another.

No comments:

Post a Comment