Saturday, May 26, 2012

Juhu Beach - A Kaleidoscope

A visit to Bombay is incomplete without a trip to the famous Juhu Beach. The silver sand, the crystal clear blue water of the sea, the cool breeze, the dimly-lit skyline, the coconut palms' silhouette - dream on. You won't find any of these on the famous Juhu Beach.

Oh, hell! Then why does it find a place on your itinerary?

Well, here's the reason. You find all the above-mentioned on any beach in the world. But, Juhu Beach is DIFFERENT.

It's actually a famously infamous beach. Famous for its bhelpuris and chaats and infamous for its dirt, grime and crowd.

If you are a traveller looking for a pristine beach, far from the hustle and bustle of the city, stay away from Juhu Beach. This is definitely not the place for you. This beach is for the insanely normal people.  For people who are interested in vivid colors and complex patterns. For people who enjoy being normal in an absolute state of madness. For people who love watching people. For people who love crowds. 

And the best time to be here is when the sun goes down. That's the time when the foodstalls open their shutters to give out the aroma of steaming hot pao bhajis and mouthwatering chaats. As the night gets younger the place starts attracting more people, giving the beach a look like some kind of a Mass Exodus is waiting to happen.

The beach is a also an unavoidable part of one's travel itinerary because it is a feast for your senses. 

Amidst the cacophony of persistent hawkers, traffic horns, computerized horoscope machines and roaring waves, from somewhere in the distance, one hears the distinctive sound of a flute. And while your auditory sense indulges in the pleasure of the melody, your olfactory senses are participating in a tug of war - aroma of hot pao bhaji and tava pulao v/s fragrance of fresh jasmine.

And the food outlets...a visual treat!

They resemble a psychedelic painting, with the now-here-now-gone potato patties, the mountains of sev and peanuts peeping through the display cabinets, the bottled color syrup, the neatly-folded paan platter with a generous coating of silver paper and the colorful little umbrellas perching merrily on the floods, amongst other things. 

This is the one and only beach in the world where people come, not to enjoy the sun, sand and water, but the food :)

"Extraordinary claims need extraordinary evidence".

This country is run by Gods. No, I am not kidding. I mean every word I say. Don't sneer at me. I know what you are thinking...

Look around you and you'll spot Gods everywhere in this country. Trees, hollows, bridges, caves temples and outside public toilets. You just need to look for them and who knows what you find. Like this one...

We had stopped for an ice cream to relieve ourselves of the sweltering heat on a Sunday afternoon at Malabar Hill. Suddenly we saw God. This time he was residing in the hollow of an old tree. 

Then there is this one...looked more like a ghetto.

My friend and I were on a photographic trek to Tungareshwar. This was some time in mid August when the mountain plateau is resplendent with verdancy all around. On our way we saw this shop that looked like a congregation of Indian Gods and Goddesses.

A few steps more and we saw yet another evidence of God...this time he had a caretaker too.

Now you know why I said that this country is run by GODS. This is not the end. It is just a beginning of a series of godly evidence.

Chai tales from India

(Warning: This is a long post. Please feel free to sip some tea while you read this or you may feel exhausted by the time you finish with the post.)

Hospitality in my country begins with thanda ya garam. That's hot or cold
Most people opt for the former one - hot.  Now, 'hot' can further be classified into tea or coffee. The most likely choice being tea. No, we are not done, yet. There's more, with the next question being  - with or without, i.e., with sugar or without sugar. That's it! No more classification unless you belong to a section of the society which savours tea in the most perfect manner by smelling, swirling and feeling - making good use of their palates and olfactory senses. They would then describe the tea in its purest form and describe the taste as plain, tippy or woody (there's apparently more to it, but since I don't belong to the 'connoisseur' category, let me hold my tongue).

In India tea is a popular beverage that finds it's significance in a non-discriminating manner amongst the rich and poor. You will find people from all classes standing at the same thela across the road sipping the same tea served in the same kind of glass. The price also remains the same. 

If Juliet from Romeo and Juliet was born in India she would have done away with the rose in her famous lines. Instead it would be:
"What's in a name? That which we call a chai
By any other name would taste as sweet..."

That's true! We are like this only. You may call it tea. But for us, it's what we are, it's our identity. You will be amazed at how the different states in this country have managed to create its own variant of the chai. The basic recipe stays the same - boil water, add tea dust or leaves, sugar for sweetness and milk. What changes are the add-ons. Get the basic recipe right (which, trust me is no rocket science) and create your own special-tea.  

I think I have rambled a lot. Now let the tea do some talking. So, we are off on a journey to tea-land. And my genes, my senses and my prejudices are pushing me hard to start with the busy and plucky city of Mumbai. This city is a teapot of cultures and living here has introduced me to the different variants of that hawt, humble beverage called tea. Oh, did I tell you that we have our own terms of endearment for this beverage???

Paani kam*  is best found in Irani cafes and is generally enjoyed with a plate of brun or gutli pao - hard bun, crispy on the outside and soft inside, very very unique to the city of Mumbai. The perfect combination is a cup of paani kam with brun smeared with a generous serving of maska (butter) or mixed fruit jam. This treat, let me remind you once again, is unique to Irani cafes which are slowly bidding goodbye to the Mumbai landscape.
Paani kam  at Cafe City

Then there is the cutting chai.. Easily and readily available at your local thapri chaiwallah.  The name is not suggestive of the special tea leaves or the special milk used in the tea. It only means 'half tea', which means "please don't fill the whole glass, I won't be able to drink it". Cutting chai is popular with people from all sections of the society. You have a chaiwallah who stations himself on a busy street attracting people from all walks of life. It's one place where the labourer, the CEO, the medical representative, the beggar, the banker, the artist and the cabbie share a common space connected by a glass of cutting chai.

Masala chai is tea made with milk, sugar, water and a few aromatic spices like ginger, cardamom and cloves. Sometimes herbs are also added. 

Black tea and green tea do not require any introductions from me as the names say it all. But hey, hold on before you rejoice thinking that you know everything. We have our desi versions of these too. If you travel to the misty mountains of Kashmir you will be treated  to a cup of kahwah - a traditional Kashmiri drink made by boiling green tea leaves with a few aromatic strands of zaffran (saffron), cinnamon bark and cardamom.  And if they really like you they may add a few rose petals too. For the sweetness bit, either sugar or honey is added to the drink, topped with some crushed nuts.

If you decide to travel down south, to the northern part of Kerala, more popular as Malabar, you will be treated to a glass of black tea. Beware! You may mistake it for someone's name when the host calls out for a suleimani*. But what comes out of the kitchen is a glass of freshly brewed black tea with sugar and a dash of lime. The suleimani often finds company with the traditional Malabari biriyani as it is believed to aid digestion. 

Call it cutting*paani kam* or without, tea is tea.  Chai toh chai hain bhai! Ek cutting dena bhai. Ek paani kam. Ek masala. Ek without.
(One cutting please. One less water. One masala. One without.)

All expressions for the same thing...chai. Tea. The beverage that starts working on the Indian from the moment he opens his eyes to a new morning.

While in some cultures the tea finds itself a place in high class social events, here, in India it's a great leveller.

*The term paani kam literally mean 'less water'. Here, the tea will be made with a generous amount of milk and less water.
* Suleimani is served in Hyderabad too.

P.S. If you think I am done with my post on tea, you are mistaken. I am exhausted and I need a break. Off to have some Mallu chai. See you after a break with more tea-posts :)