Sunday, May 30, 2010

Autonson Soup - I

A lot of things happened since my last post. I shifted back to India, spent a little time in Delhi and Hyderabad, then took up a job teaching law in a university in Cuttack, Orissa. And each of these places has contributed to my sprawling backlog of foodie adventures I want to write about but cannot for lack of time. Cuttack also joins Hyderabad, Bangalore, Istanbul, Kota Bharu (Malaysia) and Tanjung Pinang (Indonesia) in the list of places I've visited recently, but not written about so far.

Cuttack as a city is difficult to characterise. "Moribund" describes it well. I'd say this moribund-ness itself derives from a curious reluctance to identify with either the past or the future. And to this can be attributed many of its unique, often contradictory characteristics. For example, it claims continuous inhabitation for upwards of a thousand years. Looks like it too, particularly those spooky, winding lanes in the heart of the city. But nobody seems talk about the secrets they hold, the events they witnessed over the ages. If the city's denizens are passionate about its lore, they sure don't let outsiders like us know.

Yet their tepidness towards the past is just that, tepid. Cities like Delhi exhibit what I once described as a "strange, savage violence perpetrated by the present on its own mute past." But then Delhi is a city on the move. Protected buildings and ruins are viewed mostly as impediments to unbridled construction, to be circumvented through creeping encroachment and bribery. That is, vestiges of its past amount to little more than hindrances to its frenzied, unregulated future growth. None of all this apply to Cuttack. It does not treat its past with hostility and resentment, at least overtly. Nor does it perceive itself as a "happening" city; that title was ceded to neighbouring Bhubaneswar a long time ago. Bhubaneswar boasts all that one can wish for in a metropolis - malls, multiplexes, multinational fast-food outlets. Cuttack's concessions to glamour stop with a Big Bazaar and a solitary Cafe Coffee Day outlet (housed in the same complex, incidentally).

Cuttack's inhabitants are exceptionally nice. Within weeks of our moving to our present house, the landlady more or less adopted us. From occasional cups of tea sent up, to spontaneous "Join us for lunch!" invitations; now we are regarded as an integral part of the family for all ceremonies organised within the extended clan. The exception: tradesmen and especially auto drivers - among the surliest I've encountered anywhere. Even this is of a singular nature. The Delhi shopkeeper regards you as an impediment and nuisance; he could have served so many customers and made so much money if only he didn't have to attend to your imbecilic queries. So he shouts at you. His Cuttack counterpart's rudeness is not impelled by any such misbegotten entrepreneurial spirit. This guy is indifferent to sales and customer goodwill alike. Possibly both interfere with his contemplation of the infinite.

Similarly, the Delhi auto driver is out to rook you for all he can get. So the bargaining begins. He first demands a preposterous amount (the feeler, to see how new to the city - hence gullible - you are); you explode in indignation ("Dude, I'm local!"); he wilts a bit, bleats on about how difficult it is to earn a living these days ("Do you know how much rent the owner charges from me these days?"); you stand firm ("Look, if you don't belt up I'm looking for another auto"); and finally you arrive at a figure you both think reasonable, which could be anything between 10% and 40% over and above the metered fare. This holds true of most other cities - Hyderabad, Bangalore (auto drivers follow the meter more closely, but now and then they ask for something extra), even Bhubaneswar.

In Cuttack, the process runs in this fashion: You hail a free auto; he stops (invariably at least twenty yards ahead); you run up to him; he quotes his usual preposterous fare; you point out he's demanding more than twice the "correct fare" (i.e. what you usually pay - till date I've never seen a Cuttack auto with a meter installed); so he haughtily turns away and drives off, while you keep standing there feeling slightly stupid. This process repeats itself about five times. The sixth either quotes the "correct fare" first time off, or proves to be more reasonable in his expectations. You quickly come to a bargain and set off with him, having wasted about half an hour - sometimes more - on this silly charade. Even though Cuttack auto fares are at least at par with, if not more than, what you get in larger and more prosperous cities.Come to think of it, I've never managed to find out what happens to the auto-walas who drive away. Do they regularly manage to snare dupes willing to pay such inflated fares? Unlikely, given that Cuttack is not exactly the richest of cities. So is it that they don't need to earn a living, or at least feel the need to do so?

What I have described above might help make sense of two features I found deeply characteristic of the Cuttack food scene. The first is a general paucity of eateries. To be sure they do exist, but not anywhere as thickly clustered as they do in other cities. Take the area our university is situated, a nameless stretch along the Mahanadi between Chahata and Gora Kabar so devoid of landmarks and other reference points it's impossible to direct autowalas to it. One cannot get within a kilometre and a half anything resembling a square meal. The nearest tea-shop is at least a kilometre away, so is the nearest provision store. The stretch, by the way, is utterly beautiful. In any other city, it would have been clogged with chaiwalas, chaatwalas, and other junk-food sellers. Thankfully this has not happened, and the stretch has retained its pristine beauty so far.

Even areas that ought to sustain greater demand (such as Ravenshaw University or the railway station), contain far fewer eateries than one would expect. Fewer, and drab. That is the second characteristic, a lack of variety. Exceptions exist: Royal serves a mean 'Stick Kabab' (more or less what we in Delhi refer to as Chicken Tikka); then I have seen a place advertising authentic Oriya cuisine. But by and large, Cuttack's eateries can be classified into three categories. Close to the top of the pile lie a bunch of nondescript family-style restaurants. All have rickety air-conditioning, and a more or less standardised multi-cuisine menu - some Mughlai items, some Chinese items, a few (not many, only one or two) typical Oriya dishes like Dalma and Mutton Kassa. Then come nondescript dhabas and other low-budget places. They range in size and decrepitude, but they are all marred by hygiene issues. And rude service. Nonetheless, they make for an interesting alternative because their food is better and much more varied.

The third type comprises what can be considered fast-food outlets. If dhabas operate from hovels, these These operate out of anything from push-carts to bamboo-and-tarpaulin shacks to proper shops. But regardless of these differences, they have near-identical menus with very little variation in prices. A half-plate of chicken chowmein sells in the range of twenty Rupees (usually seventeen or eighteen), chicken rolls for fifteen (single-egg) to twenty (double-egg). The marginally larger establishments extend to things like chicken pakora and chilli chicken (anything between fifty to sixty for a full plate). That's it.

[Continued in Part II]


swapnilmunde said...

My friend Swapnil Munde would love your blog.