A Reasonable Repast
It was a pleasant yet cool Pune evening as I walked down the street at a steady pace while I enjoyed the gusts of wind blowing across my cheek. Despite being in the midst of July, the Pune weather was holding out quite sturdily and the rain level were modest compared to that of Mumbai. This landlocked city provides an array of experiences, and has the feel of a small town, yet is surprisingly busy and bustling. The people are great; they are fun-loving, friendly and seem to be genuinely enjoying their lives. My grandfather, for example is one of the happiest souls I know, and his enormous grin greets me every time I visit him in this wonderful city.
Yet, despite the laid-back nature of the place, the locals know this place like the back of their own palms, knowing the best ways to get their daily chores done at the earliest, keeping an eye out for the best deals every now and then. The best place need not be the fanciest and light can be found even in the darkest of alleys.
A sparkling example of that efficient cunning is in Selvan Bhaiya. This short, portly man from Madurai with his balding scalp covered by his trademark cap has been a guardian like figure to me for over a decade. His post may be that of a chauffeur,but he is so much more than that. Our household’s Man Friday, all generally unsolvable problems have been solved by him in profitable and smart ways and despite his short build, he offers a calming presence during times of crisis. A person I’d generally share a laugh with, I have seen this man become extremely straightforward and shrewd to get a task done. This quality of his has always amazed me and his well-rounded personality embodies the streetsmart value I was talking about above.
Walking with me in the cool Pune breeze in his unique swagger, Selvan Bhaiya was feeling equally hungry as I was, if not more. After walking around for about fifteen minutes, we could not find a single place which fit our agenda – We had two hundred rupees for a meal for the two of us. Despondent and dejected, we were about to head back and eat a tasteless leftover meal when a cheeky smile lit up my partner’s face.
He immediately turned around, told me to follow him and strutted of in the direction from which we came. Clueless about his actions, I knew enough about the man to trust his instincts and I followed him on his mysterious path. Around two minutes on our path, the man suddenly came to a halt and announced that we had arrived at our restaurant for the night.
I was shellshocked. Surely, he was joking. He had just stopped in front of a small,dirty set up which had only two tables, each surrounded by four plastic chairs. I looked above the roof to find a sign which would give me some information on this place. It took me few seconds to make out the name of the place from the blackened and torn signboard. The “restaurant’s” name was Southin Cafe. An ordinary me would have protested against this place, but in that moment, in the scathing hunger, I followed suit and we sat down at one of the two tables.
Too hungry to open the menu and pick an item, we picked our dishes from the “Special Items” menu displayed on a poster above the cashier’s counter. I ordered an Egg Curry and a full portion rice for us to share.
I geared myself up for a long, agonizing wait for the food to come by observing my whereabouts. This hole in the wall joint had dust accumulated in practically every corner I glanced upon. The kitchen was an open ended counter right behind us where we saw food being made in large quantities and in a rather rustic fashion. The food was being served by a lean, bare chested man who was screaming orders while running around frantically up and down a narrow staircase which would probably lead to a second level with more seating arrangements.
My keen observation was cut off in an instant by the clanging of metal dishes on the table in front of me. Our food had arrived and in record time! It had been barely five minutes as I had been seated at this humble eatery and my food had already come!! A huge wave of relief flooded over me as my agitated stomach calmed down at the sight of the two boiled eggs, submerged in a sea of thick red gravy.
As I tore apart the dish onto my plate of rice, a small glance on the opposite side of the table showed Selvan Bhaiya doing the same thing. I smiled to myself as I dug into the dish for the first time. The flavours erupted in my mouth as my taste buds were hit with an extremely spicy flavour, followed by an insanely calming presence of tomato in the dish. The two flavours really complimented each other and I was pleasantly surprised by the quality of the dish. The eggs were hard boiled, and luckily, I preferred them that way. All the interesting tastes came together to make a really tasty dish.
The food was over as fast as it was delivered. I grinned at Selvan Bhaiya and gave a hearty handshake for the wonderful meal. Despite lacking the finesse of a high quality restaurant or hotel, it was one of the most satisfying meals I had in a long time. The meal was so heavy and filling, that we were rooted to the spot and were unable (and unwilling) to move
Finally, we somehow dragged ourselves out of our chairs and walked at a lazy pace to the cashier’s small counter to ask for the bill. While Selvan Bhaiya fed on a spoon of Saunf, I pulled out our two hundred Rupee note and presented it to the cashier. He looked at me, and then at Selvan Bhaiya and they both burst out laughing. I was bewildered at this sudden outburst and had no idea what was going on. (Selvan Bhaiya later went on to tell me that he is a regular customer at that place, and he goes there whenever he visits Pune.)
The cashier passed me the bill which was scribbled on a piece of white paper. The total came to….ninety rupees!!!! I was stunned as the man returned more than half of my original sum back. The meal was so wholesome and tasty, and in such a generous quantity! It was definitely worth the price, perhaps even more!! I thanked my stars for Selvan Bhaiya and this experience as I walked back into the Pune breeze, still clutching the paper bill in disbelief.