I’m a tangle of knots when I step off the plane.
You have to understand: this trip is the culmination of 18 years of dreaming and planning. My mum and I used to empty lots of Kleenex boxes watching Bollywood tear-jerkers. I imagined what eating chicken varuval and drinking bru coffee in India might feel like. My buddy Wendy and I even tracked the promotions on India trips…
And then I see a familiar face, with that orange-check work shirt he’d loved wearing in Penang.
I shriek like a little girl as I approach my ex-boss, who will be my guide for parts of my trip here.
I continue gabbing at top speed as he puts my luggage into the taxi and we take off. Craning my neck out of the backseat window, I gawk at billboards proclaiming the best telephone services. The roads are mystifyingly – disappointingly – empty.
“Oh, you’ll see the real India soon,” he assures me. He has booked me a room at Ballal Residency, strategically located in the heart of town.
“Where should I have dinner?” I show him my notes and travel itinerary. “A friend sang praises about Nagarjuna Restaurant.”
“Wow!” he shakes his head in amazement. “I’m impressed, Alex. You’ve got all the right places covered. Nagarjuna is one of my favourite places to eat. It’s just a short walk from Ballal Residency.”
I startle at a loud honk.
“People here honk as a friendly way to say ‘I’m coming’ or ‘Get out of my way!’ Boss had warned. “You’ll get used to it,” he tacks on cheerfully.
As he’d predicted, the traffic picks up as we get into the heart of town. Cubbon Park. Viddhana Soudha. St Something-or-other Churches. Names that were once only words on travel guide books leap out at me from these somber colonial remnants.
As we’re waiting at the traffic lights, a small boy knocks on the window of my taxi door, brandishing toy aeroplanes for sale. A young mother precariously balances a baby in a cloth sling. Barefoot men in dhotis. Cows – sometimes entire queues of them – troop languidly as though they own the streets, never mind it’s peak hour. Pedestrians are mostly in sarees and Punjabi suits, unlike back home, where working girls and men parade the latest in Western fashion.
I also notice that all around the city, the walls have colourful murals. Everywhere there is a wall, it has murals. How on earth did they achieve this? Even more astonishing, there are NO repeats of the same object. Here you might have pictures of wildlife – tigers, lions, etc. In another section, vivid interpretations of Lord Siva, Ganesh and Vishnu leap out at you. They’re incredibly rich in detail.
Ballal Residency is situated at the end of a side lane off the main road.
A tall middle-aged chap leads me to my room. When I ask him if the internet café is nearby, he walks out to the balcony and bids me to go over.
After a series of complicated instructions, it suddenly dawns on me why he’s in no hurry to leave. Silly me – tipping is universal!
I make a big show of fishing out my wallet and handing him RS20.
Only then does he leave with a polite bow.
“A walk out the lane, turn right and walk on until you see the sign on your left. You can’t miss it,” the concierge directs me.
With such specific instructions, I find Nagarjuna with little trouble. The restaurant, a revered culinary institution, occupies a whole building. Although getting INTO the place will require some nimbleness – I trip over open potholes and broken bricks, etc.
I climb up two flights of stairs to the restaurant. It isn’t crowded yet. At slightly 7.30pm, it’s half an hour before the dinner crowd trickles in.
The lighting is dim, with air-conditioning, partitions made of lacquer wood, decorative mirrorworks and separate booths to give patrons privacy. It feels like a set out of a Humphrey Bogart movie. A battalion of waiters dressed in wine-red waistcoats and bow ties stand stoically next to the pillars like palace guards waiting to spring into attention.
With some trepidation, I order chilli chicken and briyani rice, as recommended by my friend Shivanee and my host. Back in Malaysia, I avoid briyani like the plague – can’t stand the soggy rice and all.
The deceptively bland-coloured, cone-shaped mountain of rice that arrives shortly is anything BUT soggy.
I wave the waiter over. “What rice do you use?”
My first encounter with the beautifully individually separated, flavourful and addictive Basmathi rice.
Chilli chicken is simply chicken pieces with sliced green chillies in a gravy the colour of dishwater in the dim light. But for a dish that looks so unspectacular, it is plain amazing: the meat is fall-off-the-bone tender and so well-marinated that the flavours penetrate right down to the bone.
Just one caveat – this dish is not for wimps.
The fire is slow-burn. It spreads slowly through your mouth, to your throat, and by the time it reaches your gullet, it’s a full-blown inferno.
Impressed beyond words, I’m now ready to expand my culinary horizons.
On my table are four containers of sauces/chutneys. I scoop a spoon of some yellow-orange powder on my plate. Would it be like eating curry powder, only much better?
“Try this, mam.”
A waiter scoops some oily liquid over the powder before I can stop him.
“What is this?” I flag the waiter yet again.
“It’s gunpowder, mam.”
Is he for real? I stare at him for several seconds, not comprehending.
“Yes, it’s called gunpowder,” my host confirms when I call him. It’s made from ghee, rice powder and spices. I shake my head, amazed that such banal ingredients can be turned into something so sublime. I decide to stop questioning, and just lose myself in the experience.
I’m really, truly, finally in enigmatic India.