There is always excitement and trepidation when I return to the motherland. I dread the long flight with my fellow travelers for random reasons such as the deteriorating toilet conditions, children running down the aisle during take-off and landing, passengers trying to stuff their overflowing bags into every available crevice and the overpowering smell of methi. I was in transit and as I walked towards my gate at Zurich, I knew I was close to my gate before I reached because I was suddenly assailed by the undeniable whiff of winter coats worn by Indians.
During warmer weather, the olfactory is not as rudely assaulted but as the weather turns cooler, the nose begins to protest. The fragrance of Indian cooking accompanies the jacket owner everywhere he or she takes the jacket, bolstered by body odour. The aircraft was also reeking of these aromas. At these times I try but fail the indulgence test. If only hygiene, travel and etiquette form an important aspect of the excursions.
Another thing I dread about returning is ‘the attack of the allergies.’ Within a few hours of touch down, I start sniveling. Within a day my eyes begin itching and my throat gets scratchy and in 48 hours, I have a full blown attack with runny nose and sneezing fits. Invariably this is my welcome package. My friends laugh and call me an NRI, my homeopath says it the pollution and hands me a small bottle with little white pills and I miserably plod through my day, battling jet lag to boot.
Having lived in Pune for almost three decades, one more thing triggers my stress-o-meter: meeting up with friends. I want to meet everyone and cannot say no as far as possible. Balancing a work day with that quick bite, drinks, dinner, coffee in between and also running errands like visiting my tailor, jeweler, doctors etc. makes me feel like a sponge squeezed from every angle. But it is a good feeling, coming back to so much love, caring and warmth. I miss these unconditional moments and tuck them away in my memory folder for those moments of solitude in Brooklyn.
Returning to India during the festive season is special because of the celebrating and feasting. Talking about food, I rarely cook in the US and coming to India is an indulgence of the gastronomic variety. Starting from my mum to friends and my favourite haunts, my stomach gets the royal treatment. Then again so does my digestive system and there are some not too pleasant moments to accompany my excesses.
Pune seems to have sprung many new places for culinary adventures. As a rule, I prefer home-made Indian food and do not enjoy going to Indian restaurants. In the last week, much to my regret, I broke this rule twice.
On my penultimate day in New York, the son, his girlfriend and I celebrated Diwali early with an Indian meal to befit the occasion. The New York Times has been giving rave reviews to Pondicheri and we decided to try it out. The khandvi wrap was a few centimetres thick instead of the paper thin roll it is meant to be. This gave it an overpowering taste and it was weird to eat something ‘khandvi like’ that needed extra chewing. The uttapam was deep-fried and sweet potato samosa certainly does not tick my search for that perfect samosa. The icing on the cake was the turmeric curry and after much prodding and insisting the waitress find out what else flavored the curry apart from turmeric and ginger, I was told it was pumpkin. It looked like a ‘gujukadhi’ but tasted bland and there was no salt. To top it, the food was cold. I did convey my critique and magnanimously, they offered us dessert on the house. (My kids chose Besan Laddoos, if you please!)
Talking about trying new restaurants and in Pune, I dined at Farzi Café with my girlfriends. Unless they drastically change their cooking style or get a new chef, I will not go there again. Every food item we ordered was drowning in spices and was deep fried to boot. Macherjhol, that delightful Bengali dish, was deep-fried and the gravy was then artistically poured over the fried fish and rice mound in front of us. Noodle biryani with chicken is basically over cooked noodles bathed in biryani masala with chicken pieces thrown in. They get high marks for service, presentation and trying to create something different such as guava sorbet with chat masala and chutney, as a palate cleanser. But somewhere this experiment of theirs is failing. By the end of the meal, my stomach was protesting violently so we decided to get some soothing soojihalwa cake. The cake was fine except it was more like banana bread. We had ordered wine by the glass but later asked them to change it to a bottle. They refused. We eventually ended up paying for 10 individual glasses of wine. I was quite disappointed with my meal and true to form, enumerated my misgivings to their manager. I believe critical feedback is imperative.
However, I will not allow a few bad meals to deviate from my desire to check out some new restaurants on the Pune food scene. I will avoid Indian restaurants. Twice bitten, three times shy!
It is good to be back.
Happy Diwali and Saal Mubarak to all.