This was our last day in India. 4 hours of pacing up and down Usman Road - and after going through a hundred or more pieces of sari, it was time for a break.
There are several eateries just across BKR Grand Hotel, where we stayed. We entered one, satisfied with its overall cleanliness and sat down. It was a small diner and we were the only patrons at the time.
An elderly man came to take our order. Vee and I discussed quickly the merits of snacks over a full meal, and finally decided on the thali. Our third and last thali meal in India (sigh).
At the end of the diner, I could see 2 men (in their late fifties) hunched over a table, busy preparing something.
Then, in the usual legendary speed (refer Thali Tales 1), the thali trays arrived!
Our server was tall with thick well-trimmed graying mustache. He was attentive and polite as he placed the trays and got us our bottled water. Once he was sure that we had everything we needed, he moved away.
He did not disappear totally though. Instead, he stood in vigilance a few tables away. He provided Vee and I ample personal space to eat without feeling observed, yet, within sight for any help needed.
After the first thali meal, it had become a habit for me to count my dish bowls before eating. Altogether, there were 8 bowls (including the dessert), 1 papadum, a generous amount of white rice and a piece of roti (the Indian flat bread) - another hearty meal!
Vee started to eat. As for me, I took out my camera, and turned my tray to this direction and that to get a better angle of my thali tray. After a few attempts, I still could not get a good view of the rice beneath the roti. So, I moved the roti slightly to display the rice.
I aimed my camera on the thali again. Still unsatisfied, I just sat still for a few seconds. Come on, how difficult is it to shoot a photo of a tray of food, anyway?
Suddenly, from behind my lense, I saw my roti moved. In the swiftness of the South Indian server, our server had taken matters into his own hands, literally!
In my shock, I heard Vee chuckled.
I looked up. The server had a satisfied smile on his face. I smiled back and said, "Nanri." Thank you.
And he moved back to his guard post.
"I hope he washed his hands..." I whispered softly to Vee.
We spent half the morning in Auroville. It was quite some walk to view the Matrimandir. As Raj drove us back to town, I heard he mentioned the word "sapte" to Vee. This was one of the few Tamil words I know - it means eat!
"He asked what we have in mind for lunch today, veg or non-veg?" Vee translated.
So Raj dropped us off at Hotel Surguru, about 10 minutes away from Atithi Hotel (where we stayed). We told him not to wait. It would be good to do some walking after the potentially heavy lunch.
The restaurant is located at the hotel's basement. We had to go down some flights of stairs and into a dimly lit area before we could see the restaurant.
One thing worth noting is that the restaurant is friendly for people with mobility issues as it has got a stair lift. In fact, while we went down the stairs, the restaurant staff was helping an elderly lady to use the stair lift.
Hotel Surguru's restaurant is a full vegetarian restaurant with air-conditioning. A server dressed in a black and white uniform brought us the menu. He was young, maybe in his early twenties.
Apparently, the restaurant is famous for its dosas. But it was lunch, so we ordered thali again - our second thali in two days! And just like in Saravana Bhavan, we did not have to wait long before our young server returned with 2 shiny trays.
Compared to the hilarious experience of "12 dishes and more" from the day before, the number of bowls at Hotel Surguru was boring and harmless - only 9 dishes plus papadum!
Yet, as if to make up for its lesser number of dishes, we were each served with a piece of roti (flat bread), and a bowl of tomato rice on top of the white rice!
Our server came back with the rice, and scooped a considerable amount into our trays.
"How do you say sikit in Tamil?" I asked Vee. Sikit is the colloquial term for "a little bit" in the Malay Language.
She replied, "Konjam..."
Our server overheard the dialogue. He grinned at me before leaving us to our food.
The meal was delightful, and we ate quietly. Our hunger gave no room for trivial conversations.
As the rice began to clear, our server came back.
He gestured to me, pointing to the rice bowl in his hand.
I smiled, shook my head slightly. I was feeling full.
Not satisfied with silent exchange of sign languages, he said with a grin, "Konjam?"
I laughed, "No, no konjam..."
He wobbled his head slightly and smiled.
Our flight to Chennai was delayed slightly in KLIA. Even with the inflight breakfast of chapatti and curry, I was hungry again, by the time we arrived in Chennai.
Almost 30 minutes en route to Pondicherry, Raj (our driver) asked if we wanted to stop by Kanchipuram, a Tamil Nadu town famous for its hand woven silk saris. In Tamil, he told Vee that we needed to detour slightly and would reach Kanchipuram around 1 pm.
"Hey, we'll have lunch before shopping for saris, right?" I asked Vee anxiously.
"Definitely, lunch before saris...!"
Raj brought us to Saravana Bhavan, a famous vegetarian restaurant chain that specializes in South Indian cuisines.
We got out of the car, and just stood not moving for a few seconds. After hours of being in a plane and then the car, we took some seconds to get acclimatized to being on vacation, and standing on Indian soil.
Our hungry bellies guided us into the restaurant. We ended up in a dining hall swarmed with hungry-looking office workers out for lunch!
Lucky for us, there were 2 empty seats at a 6-seater table already occupied by 4 other people, right at the very end of the hall. As we sat down, none of our neighbors bothered looking up, so engrossed they were with lunch.
We were served our welcome drink - some orange and honey dew concoction. Vee spoke Tamil to our server, a lanky fellow in an all white uniform and spotting the typical thick mustache of a South Indian man.
She then turned to me with a grin and said, "Apparently there is a special thali today. They've got ice cream and stuff. Shall we have that?"
I looked over to the neighbors, "Yeah, sounds good! And hot coffee as well!"
Vee requested for the coffee to be served while we eat. In India, folks generally drink their coffee later, after their meal. Alas, we Malaysians have no such rules. We drink our coffee anytime - before, while and after meals.
In less than 5 minutes, our server came back with 2 trays. I counted the smaller tin bowls of dishes arranged neatly in the round tray. Altogether, there were 12!
Not an expert on thalis, but to take a wild guess (and some quick questions to Vee), I think we had:
Out of nowhere, a woman came and started putting rice on my tray. Luckily, I managed to stop her from putting the third scoop of rice!
As she exited, another server appeared. He had a longish container in one hand, and a ladle in another. Not a word, no eye contact. He scooped some ghee and poured it onto our rice.
And right on cue, our super-server returned with 2 cups of piping hot coffee. With quick ease, he poured the coffee into the bigger bowl to mix it and make it slightly cooler to drink. Services rendered, he left.
With that, the serving relay came to an end. We finally had some "intermission" to marvel over the the impressive showcase of serving efficiency - and laughed at ourselves!
With ghee poured onto rice, and hands washed at the Hand Wash, it was time to savor our South Indian thali of 12 dishes and more...
What a great opening to our Indian adventure!
We sat at the non air-conditioned area of the restaurant. Our "special limited" thali meals and filter coffee for 2 totaled up to Rs. 264.00 - delectable, flavorful, hearty and affordable!
There was only one other couple there when we entered the dining area of Maison Perumal. We stood at the entrance for a few seconds, scanning the overall arrangements of tables, trying to decide where best to sit.
The skylight area looked airy, green and tempting, but we were concerned of possible mosquito attacks as the day was getting dark. In the end, practicality trumped aesthetics, we avoided the skylight area and sat instead where there were roof and bright lights.
Things were pretty quiet in the dining area, except for the soft whispers of the patrons. Strangely, the kitchen behind us was quiet as well. After a couple of minutes, a man came out from the kitchen and walked over to us, smiling.
He was dressed in the Indian male traditional attire, the dhoti kurta. Specifically, he wore a light grey kurta over a white dhoti. He looked pretty young, maybe in his early twenties. He is thin and small built with short hair. He has sharp features, almond shaped eyes and a thin mustache. His name is Bijay, and he has the most pleasant smile.
Vee asked him something in Tamil. He spoke back in English, not really answering her question. Twice this happened. After that, we continued our communication solely in English.
For dinner, there is a special set meal that the Chef had prepared. The details of the meal were written on a chalk board held upright on a standee. Bijay moved the board towards us so we could see the menu clearly, and he explained the dishes one-by-one.
We heard fireworks out on the street. It was the same as the night before. We wondered if the fireworks were meant to celebrate the coming of Thaipusam.
When Bijay came to serve our drinks, Vee asked him about the fireworks. With a smile, he answered, "Sorry madam, I'm not sure if the firework is for which festival. I am actually from Nepal. " Okay, that answered why his name is spelled the way it is, and why he spoke English to Vee's Tamil.
It was amusing observing Bijay at work. Every time some new guests came in, he would turn the menu board towards their direction, and began the same ritual of explaining the set meal.
In his kurta and dhoti, he made me think of a school teacher explaining some science diagram to the students (not that teachers in Pondy are dressed that way, I think not...)
As we waited for our order, more guests walked into the dining area, mostly Europeans. Strangely enough, Bijay was the only server around. He walked swiftly in and out of the kitchen - explaining the menu, taking orders, serving dishes, pouring wine, moving chairs, getting the bill - basically tending to all our dinner needs.
What was striking about this Bijay of Maison Perumal was his ever smiling face. I think it is difficult to talk and smile at the same time, all the time. But for Bijay, the smile never left his face.
As he moved back and forth, from the kitchen to the dining area or to the front hall where bills are calculated and printed, back to the dining area and the kitchen, he was all smiles. He looked tired at times, but the smile was never gone from his face.
Bijay was busy with the other guests when we were about to leave. I couldn't do the typical touristy thing of getting a photo of him, to remember his pleasant smiling face by. But all in all, Bijay and Maison Perumal made our short trip memorable.
The next time I am in Pondy, I will try to stay in this heritage hotel and experience its beautiful architecture and hospitality and maybe talk more with Bijay.
Safiza is a Travel Blogger, Common Reader, Book Hoarder, Art and Nescafe Tarik Lover.