Myself, Travel

A City After 6 Years

It took me a few days of being in Hyderabad to parse the T in ‘TSRTC’ on local buses – it stands for Telangana. Six years ago, I would have been waiting for an APSRTC bus. But the hulking metal and glass blocks, regardless of political affiliation and State Road Transport Corporation, still make my heart lurch when they elbow their way past my rickshaw or bike.

The steamed dosa at Chutney’s is no longer called the Chiranjeevi dosa. When I looked for it on the menu, I realized that I could not remember if the name had ever actually existed officially or if it was just a bit of apocrypha we parroted to out-of-towners.  (But no, apparently the Chiranjeevi dosa does exist, and the actor’s family plans to capitalize on the name and the recipe. The official story however makes mention of an unknown restaurant in Mysore from where Chiru-garu got his idea, while we were told that Chutney’s came first.)

There are more Chutney’s restaurants now; one in Jubilee Hills, which we once turned our nose up towards because it was not the “real” restaurant, and one in Inorbit Mall in Madhapur. There are probably more that I don’t know of.

On my last day in Hyderabad, I went to the original restaurant at Nagarjuna Circle, joined by a friend who continues to work at our original workplace – the office of which has now moved to within walking distance of the restaurant. He will complete 14 years with the same company in May; had I stayed on, I would have celebrated the anniversary two days after him. “I hardly come here, though”, he said, making me groan in disbelief. He then ordered the South Indian thali while I got the steamed dosa, and the moment the gigantic plate loaded with the small bowls came to the table, I knew I had made a mistake.

“The city has moved”, my friend Shahnawaz said. “We hardly go to Begumpet anymore. We don’t need to.” Indeed, Madhapur and Gachibowli, once areas confused about their identity in the city greater, have embraced the “hitech” appellation whole-heartedly. The area, especially on weekday evenings, buzzes with festive. Brightly-lit alleys have busy hawkers serving tea, jalebis and bhajjis to a crowd that is dressed in a combination of pajamas and business casual; mostly young, some holding hands, others sitting inside cars waiting for orders to be served. I did not remember neo-Hyderabad this way, my memories of the Madhapur area is that of buildings in construction, desolate rocky areas punctuated with promises of dwellings both residential and business; unfriendly landlords and long commute times.

The first time I go from that part of town towards the older part of the city, the auto-rickshaw driver sputters and winds his vehicle through streets and past buildings that make me question my existence. The Metro is coming up, a winding spinal cord of giant pillars that introduces more chaos into my mental map of the city. It feels like being in a dream-version of Hyderabad, where the only thing I am sure of is that of my presence in the city, but there is nothing I can grasp and call my own. It is only when we reach Jubilee Hills check post that my brain realigns itself; from then on, I can make out landmarks of yore. Familiar buildings house unfamiliar names, but at least I can anchor myself to the once-that-was. I passed by a building that housed a restaurant I had come for a third date; another that had had a beautiful garden once. I went past a lane that a friend from work had decided was where the actress Trisha lived, and he would rev his bike through it every now and then while returning from the office, hoping that the lady would show up, and ask him for a ride, and then they would live happily ever after.

We reach Somajiguda Circle and I realize that I should have given better directions to the driver, because the road is now blocked and we can no longer make our way towards Raj Bhavan Road unless the guy drives another kilometer and makes a U-turn. But then, the guy reminds me that we are indeed in Hyderabad – he cranks his engine, swerves to the right, and drives through oncoming traffic on the other side of the road; honking twice as much as the annoyed drivers who still make way for him, he reaches the other end of the circle and merges not-so-smoothly with the rest of the traffic. Then he hears me guffawing in the backseat, and grinning wide, throws me a high-five.

Later, he tries to run down a kid who has walked to the middle of the street to pick up an errant kite. We are apparently friends, and he decides that his rickshaw is now a shared vehicle, stopping in front of random people to ask them if they want to get in. When I get down at my destination, the guy insists that he can change lanes again to make sure I stop right in front of where I am headed. But I do not wish blood pressure surges upon the good people of Lakdi-ka-pul, and proceed to cross the road myself. The Hyderabadi way, of course, which is to casually saunter across and hope nobody’s brakes fail. I nearly die twice, but nothing untoward happens to anyone. Maybe some wonder at the manic grin on my face, but I don’t really think about it.

Food, Myself

The Biryani Post

I am a bit of a biryani snob. Oh, all right, I am an awful biryani snob. I am of the opinion that the Only True Biryani is made in Hyderabad, and you find the best biryani in selected joints in the Older parts of the city. Yes, I am so full of it that I consider Paradise – a restaurant that is usually posited as the go-to place for biryani in the city – to be sub-standard. Paradise was good once upon a time, but now it’s gone all mainstream, catering to tourists and skimping on the spices and the chicken.

You could say that I am to biryani what the Jack Black character in High Fidelity is to music.

My friends know about this fine quality of mine, and they usually take it into account when they speak about this dish in my vicinity. The majority of them roll their eyes when I launch into one of my scathing diatribes on it. Some are taken aback. The vegetarians get the worst of it. “I just had some biryani for lunch“, one of them may say. “No, you didn’t”, I respond. “You had pulao. Or maybe spicy rice of some sort.” “You are rude and obnoxious, and you should go jump off a cliff.” “I will, someday. But you did not have biryani for lunch.” And then everyone but me rolls their eyes. Another lady and I were talking about cooking at home, and when she mentioned that she had cooked biryani for her husband a few days ago, I gently corrected her. She not-so-gently asked to something anatomically impossible. We agreed to disagree.

My reaction stems from the fact that it is a devilishly tough food to cook. The spices have to be in the right proportions, and the different layers of the meat-spice-rice have to be carefully added. Even the cooking time matters, and so does the time that you eat it after cooking. A little too less, and the heat messes with the taste. A little too much and you are having oily rice. And if you do not control your water proportions, you have destroyed the dish.

The worst biryani I had was the Bay Area, in 2007. That particular dish got every single thing wrong – the final product did not taste, look or smell anything like biryani. It hurt even more because expectations were high. Not only because the place came highly recommended by local colleagues, but the fucking dish cost $15.99! I shall remember the tonsil-humping, soul-crushing experience to my dying day. I finished every bit of it, though, even though I whimpered inwardly. Just to remind myself to take future recommendations about this specialized dish with a sackful of salt.

To this day, whenever I go to a restaurant and am about to order a biryani, my default mental state of mind is “I just ordered myself a pulao, it will be basmati rice that’s been fried with some spices and meat, and in all likelihood, it will taste and feel like something-that-is-not-biryani”. Having adjusted expectations that way, every dish becomes slightly elevated in quality from that unfortunate Bay Area sample, truly the apogee of the biryani-pulao orbit.

But sometimes I falter. Last year led to another near-catastrophic experience at a Pakistani restaurant. It was called Bilal’s, and that apostrophe in the name should have given it away for me. Authentic sub-continental restaurants have null or low apostrophe usage. A few months of non-indulgence made me order a biryani and be fairly optimistic about the results. When the waiter laid the bowl down in front of me, I did not have to eat any of it to realize the end of my hopes and dreams. A few stabs of the fork confirmed the non-biryaniness of the rice dish. My companions commented on my sigh and the look of dejection. When I explained, they rolled their eyes. I sighed some more.

My friend Sasi is a little more understanding of this fussy nature of mine. Probably because he’s a biryani connoisseur on his own, albeit a more tolerant one. He is more willing to take  biryani of the non-Hyderabadi kind in his stride. Thanks to him and his wife Shilpa, I found a few good places in LA. A great restaurant in Artesia whose name I forget, but where we dropped in for lunch 15 minutes before a screening of The Girl In Yellow Boots. We gobbled up the piping hot rice in 10 minutes flat, not wanting to miss the beginning of the film and also trying to savor every bite, every tiny explosion of flavor. Later on, we figured we should have just finished the biryani in peace – the movie sucked beyond belief. Then there is Zam Zam, a small smoke-filled hole-in-the-wall place on Washington Boulevard. It is open for business only between Friday and Sunday, and biryani is available between 2 and 6. Chances are they will run out if you are not there by 5, or if you do not call in advance to let them know you’re coming. The biryani’s sublime, as are the kababs.

All of last month, Sasi has been tantalizing me about the pulao recipe that he and Shilpa perfected over a few weeks. As I mentioned a few posts ago, I was vegetarian in January, and could not pop over to their place when invited. The kind souls therefore invited me again today, and this time, I had, as they say in Axomiya, one leg braced to jump across. A 30-minute wait at the bus stop did not faze me, and when I got there, sources (my nose and eyes, and Sasi’s hesitant explanations) confirmed what I had suspected – that the pulao was more of a biryani-in-waiting. As in, the only reason they were referring to it as pulao was because of my heightened suspicions/expectations at the definition of the word.

It was biryani. It was awesome biryani. I may have had the first non-Hyderabadi restaurant biryani that tasted like the real thing.

This post came about because this historic experience had to be recorded.

Books, Music

I am just done with the first draft of this gigantic article on electronic music, and I had this burning desire to listen to the Boom Boom Satellites loud. Really really loud. Instead, I stumbled across this singer/songwriter called Pop Levi who sounds like he’s going to be on my playlist for the next few days. Delicious, unapologetic pop music!

There’s a new bookshop in town called Books and Beyond. Apparently a part of Spencers’ Retail, it’s opened at Ashoka Metropolitan Mall in Banjara Hills, the same place that has the Apple Store. I met a friend on Saturday who raved about the stunning collection they have, and how he picked up the complete Basilisk volumes from the graphic novel section there. Intrigued, I made my way there Sunday evening. No manga volumes to be found, but I did pick up the latest Artemis Fowl ( AF and the Time Paradox, and it’s the pressure of writing the huge-ass article that has prevented me from doing a marathon read-session. That shall be remedied today). AND, I found this little hardcover edition of Lyra’s Oxford by Philip Pullman, the companion book to the His Dark Materials trilogy. It was pointed out to me, just as I picked it up, that the book had a “Signed by the author” sticker attached to it, and yes indeed, when I opened it up, it was autographed. Phew! Made my week. Buoyed with optimism, I proceeded to spend the next hour looking for more books tagged with the same “signed by” label, found a generic young adult book or two that I wasn’t really interested in, so just bought the two.

But Books and Beyond has a pretty cool selection. Other than the mandatory shelf-warmers, there was a complete set of the Flashman novels, a couple of books from the Dresden series by Jim Butcher, and Koushun Takami’s Battle Royale as well, though incorrectly filed under “classics”. I look forward to see whether they maintain the catalogue, or if it goes the Crossword way and degenerates into greeting-card world.