Monday, 24 September 2012

When In Rome...

I brought my palms together and said namaste, aunty to the landlady - she and her husband were taking me and the housemates out to dinner.

The neon sign said 'Sethi's Restaurant', it blinked in bright pink and green. It was an outdoor eatery, and we were seated under the sky in white plastic chairs. On my left was a black metal fence, with a sign that said SMOKING STRICKLY PROHIBITED. On my right was a mishmash of colourful signs from different shops and joints. In front of our table were some bushes, randomly planted in the middle of the eatery.

Next door, Gaurav was being wed to Gunjan - or so the big sign had said on the main road. A huge colourful tent had been erected, a facade that gave the impression of a gold and red palace, and the wedding music was on fullblast, involuntarily providing us over here with a soundtrack to our dinner. By wedding music I mean every popular song from the latest Bollywood movies, remixed to a sickening disco beat.

They placed a tray of onions on each of our plastic tables first, appetizers I think. One bowl had some dip for the onions, the other had thin slices of onions, and the other had small, round, full purple onions. My housemate picked up a whole onion and put it in her mouth. So I tried it too. I've never put a whole onion  in my mouth, it was weird.

We were in the semi-dark, with only the lights from the road and the outdoor kitchen (of mostly child cooks) to illuminate the evening, and barely. They switched on the white light bulb that hung far up above our heads from a lamppost so we could look at the menu. Then the landlord was saying to the waiter in Hindi 'switch it off! switch off the light!' and we were plunged into semi-darkness again. This puzzled me for a while till I discovered that the light bulb apparently attracted the flying bugs, which would buzz about before passing out and falling into things on the tables below, so you see, people preferred the bulbs be kept off. But, well, they still kept those bulbs up there, just in case anyone took the bugs-falling-in-my-food option.

However this didn't keep one determined tiny insect from falling into my roommate's glass of water. She pointed it out to us and everyone shrugged it off. Insects from bulbs fall into drinking glasses all the time, so what?

Next, they brought us fish sticks and chicken kebabs and a white sauce. After this was the main course: naan and butter chicken and such, while I enjoyed a dish of vegetable fried rice. Everything was delicious - the best food that I have had in ages. I dug into the food and water and Pepsi, completely putting aside any concern for insects or the open air kitchen or the fact that I could hardly see what I was eating or the crazy Bollywood music or the firecrackers booming behind me.

Yes, firecrackers. Trumpets, trombones, big white lanterns in a procession, white horses, men in red uniforms and big turbans playing drums, people's hands emerging from the jubilant crowd and poking the air to the beat of a song -- all for Gaurav and Gunjan's wedding. To top it all off, the firecrackers were going off in the sky, on the road, all over the place, explosions and smoke and the whole works.

Everyone here was least bothered. Please pass the fish sticks.

After a hearty dinner we had something they called 'sof' - lots of tiny little colourful beads that left a minty fresh taste in the mouth. 'Don't drink milk now,' warned the landlady, 'you shouldn't drink milk after eating non-vegetarian food.. it'll give you white spots on your neck!'

We drove around then looking for 'paan' - which I found out only later was betel leaf. There are all kinds of variations of paan, though the most popular one has areca nut and tobacco in it -- ours were sweet so no tobacco (I think). I looked at it hesitantly, it was almost three inches long and a neatly wrapped triangle of betel leaf - what was in it I was not sure, and was not sure I wanted to know. It was the 'meeta' variation however, which means sweet. 'Just put the whole thing in your mouth,' said a housemate, 'and chew'. It didn't look very chew-friendly, I thought. I mean, it was wrapped in a leaf.

But I managed to bite off 3/4th of it and, I don't know how to describe it to you. At first it was like.. putting a sugar-cane tree in your mouth. Wikipedia says the stuff in it is 'an addictive and euphoria-inducing formulation with adverse health effects'. An excess of sugary water gushed out of it, it was basically like gulping down a bucket of diluted syrup, it did give a rush but not a particularly 'euphoric' one. It was weird and interesting, and even kind of gross. Instead of spitting this stuff out like I've seen ordinary betel chewers do, however, they said I was supposed to swallow it all. So I had to actually eat this leaf full of weird. Unpleasant. Parts of it tasted like detergent, and parts like cinnamon, and parts like, well, LEAF. I am definitely not cut out to be a herbivore.

They played loud Punjabi music in the car on the way back and I got my Punjabi on, poking the air with my fingers with as much zeal as I could muster. We wound up in the park in a circle where I was made to sing the only Hindi song I learnt the lyrics to and I sang it off-key too.

Could those firecrackers have exploded in my face as we crossed over from Sethi's? Possibly. Did I unknowingly drink Pepsi รก la bugs in that semi-darkness? It's very probable. Am I going to have digestion problems? I don't know but I never say never.
But hey, when in Rome... 

No comments:

Post a Comment