It was after 10 pm on a cold, wet night in Yogyakarta. I badly needed something to eat. It had been hours since I had that inflight meal of chicken satay wrap. Thanks to the rain, my scheduled 2.5-hour flight had turned to a 6-hour journey instead.
The storm and heavy downpour had made it impossible for the plane to land in Yogya's Bandara. After circling in the air for over 45 minutes, the flight had to backtrack and stop at Surabaya for over an hour, to refuel and wait for the storm to clear.
I call that crazy weather. The locals, however, regard the rainy Chinese New Year days as a lucky omen. Well, that was what Andi cheerfully told me – and this, after having to wait at the airport an additional 4 hours for me to arrive, having to exchange his good shoes for wet, squeaky flip-flops, and getting drenched as he ran in the rain to get the car.
That rainy night was my first time ever in Prawirotaman and the city of Yogya; and my first solo sojourn abroad. I was very hungry but not keen on walking out too far from the guesthouse. And so I asked the lady at the lobby if I could get some food sent to the room. Hah, unfortunately for me they only served breakfast.
So, I went out to the porch. The elderly guard hurriedly handed me an umbrella. The rain had softened down to a slight drizzle by then.
I walked slowly contemplating what to do next. As I looked across the narrow street. I could see bright lights coming from what appeared to be a cafe opposite the guest house.
I squinted my eyes to read the signage. Money Laundry? Well, not exactly your run-of-the-mill name for an eatery – I thought. From where I was, the place didn't look as dodgy as it sounded. So I decided it was the best bet in that kind of weather and time of night.
I crossed the street and entered the cafe quickly, eager to escape the damp and dark. Its entrance reminded me of the anjung (porch) of a traditional Malay house. Wide and airy, with no walls. 2 poles stood vertically to the left and right of the wooden steps.
The place was brightly lit. Over to the right, a long rectangular table with several high stools stood facing the street. The cafe's wooded interior and distressed pastel colored furniture heightened its rustic vintage look and feel.
Money Laundry was practically deserted except for 3 men sitting casually in the corner. They smoked and chatted loudly in a mixture of English, Indonesian and smatterings of Korean. There were several bottles of the homegrown Bintang Beer (Star Beer) on their table.
A lone waiter-cum-bartender stood at the bar, doing nothing. Several menu booklets lay stacked on the counter. Behind the bar I saw a shelf lined with clear tall glasses, big circular jars; tiny espresso cups and large coffee mugs. Tucked in between the glass jars an unlikely find, a shiny white ceramic maneki-neko (the welcome cat), it’s left paw moving up and down, beckoning at me.
I smiled at the waiter as I sat down at the square table facing him. From beneath his thick mustache, he smiled back. He reached for the menu and quickly walked over to get my order.
The menu items were as equally interesting as the cafe's name. The menu was basically a jumble of nationalities – including even sushi and sashimi as part of the list. And this despite the cafe being not the slightest bit Japanese but for the maneki-neko.
At this place with its quirky strange name, I had a mug of the most delicious cafe americano. And I ordered the cheapest snacks - the garlic bread. It was toasty, salty and tasty.
I kept sneezing as I ate the garlic bread, and wondered why, until I realized later (after finishing almost half of contents) that the rim of the plate had been sprinkled generously with white pepper.
From Part 1:
Disheartened, I looked to my right. Across the small one foot lane, an elderly man with thick graying mustache sat resting on a chair, cooling himself with a paper fan. He was heavy-set and wore a white cotton undershirt with long black pants. Behind him, through the opened door, I could see stacks of books piled up to the ceiling of the narrow shop.
I looked up at the signage. It said Haziq and Mohi, Rare Book Sellers - in English and Arabic.
My frustration evaporated. Oh love, I have arrived.
I was so excited that I was just one step short of waving to the man. From across the lane, I smiled at him like I had known him from before (well, I had seen him on You Tube) and he stared back me with a blank face. Some quick seconds later, I remembered that we hadn't met before and he had no idea who I was.
"Namaste, I'm so glad we finally found this shop. Are you Mr Bafanna?" I asked the man, while pointing to the signage on the door.
"Yes, yes..." He said as he got up, still with a serious look on his face.
"Are you looking for any books in particular?" He asked and gestured Vee and I to sit down. There were two empty chairs by the door.
The bookshop was small and narrow. The wooden sliding door was opened and from where we sat, I could see two long rows of books lined parallel to each other, from the front door right through the back.
The shop looked old and dusty; the smell of old books filled the air. It was dark inside, except for a lone bulb hanging in the middle of the dim room and slivers of sunlight shining in from the back and front doors.
Right then, a boy of about seven or eight years old appeared. He wore a dark sleeveless t-shirt and a pair of worn out jeans.
"This is my assistant, Imran." Vee and I smiled at the boy, and he smiled back.
We told Mr Bafanna that we found out about his bookshop from the internet. And that one of the main reasons for coming to the Old City was to look for Haziq and Mohi. I told him that we had almost given up because we thought we had lost our way.
Mr Bafanna smiled and said people often lose their way looking for the place. He asked Vee and I which part of India we came from.
"We're from Malaysia. And this is our last day in Hyderabad actually. So, we're very happy to be able to meet you before we leave tonight, " Vee said.
"You are from Malaysia? And you came looking for this shop based on what you read on the internet?" He asked sounding pleasantly surprised and touched.
Mr Bafanna asked for our names. When I told him my name is Fiza, he said that Fiza in Urdu means "atmosphere". I smiled and said yes, while nodding my head.
Hearing my answer, Mr Bafanna looked a bit more excited than before. He asked me if I spoke Urdu. I told him that I don't speak Urdu but a Pakistani friend told me what Fiza meant in Urdu some years back.
He then asked me if I could speak Arabic. I told him I don't except for a few basic phrases, but I could read Arabic scripts well. He smiled, nodded and said that was good.
Feeling that the ice had been broken, I asked if we could take a look around. He said we were most welcomed to go inside.
Vee and I went in. Imran had already walked out of the shop before we entered, to make room for us, I guess. The walking space between the two rows of books allowed only one person to pass through at one time.
We discovered more rows of books behind that front row of books on the right. It was amazing to see hundreds, if not thousands of books stored in such a small space.
There weren't any bookshelves around - just books and manuscripts stacked on top of one another right from the floor and up to the ceiling. Some of the books were tied together, I suppose they were different volumes of the same publication.
We took our time admiring the collections of books. They came in various languages - English, Urdu, Persian - to name a few that I can identify.
Once we emerged from that sea or rather the cave of books, Mr Bafanna pulled a stool and sat in between Vee and I. He shared that he got into the bookshop business just after graduating from university. His uncle who owned the shop wanted to move to the Middle East and so, he took over the business. To date, Haziq and Mohi had been in operations for over 30 years.
I asked him about William Dalrymple. Mr Bafanna's face lit up and he told us that Dalrymple bought a lot of manuscripts and books in Persian when he came. Those were his main references for his book "The White Mughal".
"Do you have a copy of the White Mughal?" I asked Mr Bafanna.
He kept quiet for a while and looked like he was trying to remember something. I imagine he was going through the pieces of card catalogs in his mind. You know, the library index cards kept in rows of small drawers in alphabetically order back in the day...
Then Mr Bafanna said he might have a copy and went back into the shop. Vee asked if he had any books by Shakespeare.
After a few minutes, he came back with two books. He apologized that he had ran out of "The White Mughal" and only had "The Last Mughal". He handed the book to me. It was thick and I contemplated about buying it and the likelihood of having excess baggage.
At the same time, I was totally enamored by the other book "The Untold Charminar: Writings on Hyderabad", a collection of essays on Hyderabad edited by Syeda Imam.
While Vee and I sat perusing the books, we heard Mr Bafanna made a call. He asked the person on the other end about books by Shakespeare. After what sounded like negotiations, he came back out.
"I am sorry, my friend is lazy. He doesn't want to look for the books. I don't understand these people..." Vee and I laughed and said it was okay.
Just then, I remembered that we were out of cash. I asked Mr Bafanna if there were any money changer nearby. He said yes, and called Imran to do something. And off Imran ran out into the lane.
In a couple of minutes, a man in his early fifties came riding on a motorbike. Mr Bafanna told me that the money changer was near but not really a walking distance. He told me to go with the man on his motorbike.
Vee and I exchanged quick looks. Vee knew very well that I only trust my father on a motorbike, period. And now, I had to ride a motorbike with a stranger; without any helmets, and probably ride the bike sidesaddle!
We didn't say anything - Vee laughed at my pained look. And off I went on my motorbike ride (side saddled, to be exact)...
When we got back to Haziq and Mohi with the rupees, I thanked the man in my best Hindi, "Bhaisaab, bahut shukria" (Brother, thank you very much) and awkwardly tried to give him some money for his time. But he politely refused and said in Hindi that Mr Bafanna is his friend.
Funnily, on that last day in Hyderabad, I learnt an important lesson on sidesaddle riding. Apparently if you're riding pillion and sidesaddle, you get on the bike by stepping on the footrest (there is only one). It would give you the leverage to reach the seat in a more ladylike manner. The operative word is ladylike.
And on that last day in Hyderabad, I had the chance to meet Mr AM Bafanna, a man who understood the wealth of knowledge contained in those old yellowing pages and who had dedicated his life to books; I also got to visit the place frequented by one of my favorite authors and I bought a very interesting book that has since proven to be a delicious read over and over again.
That was a good day.
The sweltering Indian summer was testing my patience, especially after the slow journey down the claustrophobic and dingy stairways of Charminar.
Once out in the piazza, a man introduced himself to us as a government official for Hyderabad tourism. He had short, neatly combed hair and wore a striped white shirt that looked formal enough. The one proof of his occupation was an ID card that hang on a lanyard around his neck which he quickly showed us when he introduced himself.
And so, we asked him where Mahboob Chowk was.
"Madam, why are you wanting to go to Hen Market? I take you other place..."
Ignoring his question, Vee asked him for directions to a legit money-changer. We had both ran out of rupees and were in desperate need of some cash.
Our guide told us to follow him. We were slightly hesitant at first, but then seeing that Laad Bazaar was bustling with people, and plus there were 2 of us, we decided to go ahead and follow his lead.
About two minutes down the street, we found ourselves standing in front of a pearl jewelry shop. The guide told us that this was a government approved shop and that they gave good discounts.
Knowing that we've been had, we politely refused to browse through the display of pearl jewelry. Vee (always the more patient one) reminded him of the money changer. Only then he started talking about currency conversion to the shopkeeper.
I could feel my crankiness went up a notch as Vee and I stood outside the pearl jewelry shop while our self-proclaimed guide negotiated the value of rupees over dollars with the shopkeeper.
After a few minutes, amid the persistent coaxing to purchase some pearl souvenirs and the conversion rate quoted way higher than what we got in Malaysia, I lost my patience. We left them with a bland thank you.
Standing somewhat lost in the mid of the bazaar, Vee finally pulled me towards the direction showed earlier by a young security guard of Charminar.
"Mahboob Chowk? Ha...Hen Market, you follow Laad Bazaar," said the young security guard, pointing down to the street below, as we stood near the Charminar's balcony which faced the bangles market.
Bangles of a million colors sparkled under the sun as Vee and I walked silently through the bazaar. The first line of shops sold bangles, accessories and clothes. Slowly, we maneuvered our way among men, women, children, speeding autos and motorbikes. Things were in frenzy as everyone went about their business of buying and selling.
In between the bangle stalls, we could see vendors selling big, fat, ripe mangoes. The mangoes look so succulent and juicy, Vee was adamant to get them later even if that was our last day in Hyderabad.
As we walked, Vee took out her shawl and started to cover her head from the heat. I could feel perspiration trailing down my spine. I told Vee that we would try look for "Haziq and Mohi" just till the end of the road. If we still couldn't find it then, we'd get an auto ride back to the hotel and pack our things.
"Haziq and Mohi" is a secondhand and antiquarian bookstore located in the Old City of Hyderabad. Being book lovers, we always made it a point to look for a bookstore or two, every time we visit India. The older or more quaint the bookstore was, the more appealing it would be to us.
We had found several articles on the internet citing Haziq and Mohi. However, none of them actually provided the exact details of its whereabouts other than - after the Laad Bazaar, near Mahboob Chowk, or in the vicinity of Charminar.
And interestingly, almost all of the writings on Haziq and Mohi mentioned how inconspicuous and unassuming its exterior was. That one could have walked by it and not noticed the bookstore at all. There was no fancy signboard highlighting this treasure trove of rare books sought by librarians, scholars, book collectors and authors from all over.
I guessed that was why most of the stories we had read about Haziq and Mohi kind of themed around book lovers actually stumbling upon the place by chance while buying something else.
William Dalrymple, for example, found the bookstore as he was walking around in search of a Bidri box, a souvenir for his family. The boy who provided him directions had taken him instead to Haziq and Mohi. Dalrymple ended up buying 400 pounds worth of books there which was used as reference and material for his best selling 2002 book "The White Mughals".
Despite the short incident with the guide, I was thrilled actually to be looking for Haziq and Mohi on foot. Vee and I concluded a long time ago that the 3 best ways to experience India was on foot, by train and from an auto rickshaw.
"Look! Murgi Chowk! I've forgotten that Murgi means chicken in Hindi, so this must be the Hen Chowk..." Vee cried out excitedly and pointed to a sign across the street.
We grinned at each other, happy that we were finally heading somewhere. We crossed the street into Murgi Chowk. Merchandises on displayed changed from colorful array of clothes to gray and silver hardware and home appliances.
After a while, rows of narrow, wooded bookshops began to appear replacing the hardware stores. At that moment, the walk under the hot sun was finally began to feel worth it.
In one of the articles we read, the writer said that he had found Haziq and Mohi after asking directions from an Achar seller. Before that, he had tried asking other bookstores but they didn't know where the shop was. Well, either they were trying to eliminate competition or Haziq and Mohi was that obscure.
After a while, we came to a junction. We didn't notice any achar shop anywhere, so we decided to give it a shot and asked the nearest bookstore. Upon mentioning Haziq and Mohi, the book wallah quickly pointed us to a particular direction. And I thought to myself - well, that was easy...
We followed the book wallah's direction. On the right side we saw a mosque. Next to it was an old white building labeled Mahboob Chowk Beef Market. I figured we must be close.
After some time, we had nowhere else to go except to turn into a narrow inner lane. The row of bookstores had ended. All I could see then were shops selling antiquities and dried fruits. If we went straight ahead, we would be back at the main road, the opposite to the book wallah's direction. Suddenly, it felt that we had come to a dead end.
This search for Haziq and Mohi had taken Vee and I almost an hour. We were crunch for time as we needed to get our things packed. I let out a heavy sigh as I thought of abandoning this trail taken by Dalrymple.
Disheartened, I looked to my right. Across the small one foot lane, an elderly man with thick graying mustache sat resting on a chair, fanning himself with a paper fan. He was heavy-set and wore a white cotton undershirt with long black pants. Behind him, through the opened door, I could see stacks of books piled up to the ceiling of the narrow shop.
I looked up at the signage. It said Haziq and Mohi, Rare Book Sellers - in English and Arabic.
My frustration evaporated. Oh love, I have arrived.
I grew up on a hefty diet of Hindi movies and songs, thanks to my father.
Back in the day when a journey by car from Johor (Peninsular Malaysia's southern-most state) to Perlis (Peninsular Malaysia's northern-most state) took a good 12 hours, Hindi songs were the trusted traveling companion.
On those trips back to visit my grandparents, the family would be lulled by the likes of Lata Mangeshkar and Mohammed Rafi - all from Abah's endless cassette collection.
So I guess it is only normal to grow up having a certain bias towards the colorful world of the Bollywood movies, their music and songs. In fact, my first ever travel outside of Malaysia was to India (specifically to Goa - in search of Dil Chahta Hai).
And in that first time in India, that once upon a time, we decided to watch Devdas in Mumbai.
None of us speak Hindi. But all of us had watched Devdas in Kuala Lumpur earlier (with subtitles, of course) and knew the story well. So, choosing Devdas to watch in Mumbai meant we would still be able to enjoy the movie even without English subtitles (just in case). And true enough, there weren't any.
Devdas is an epic movie based on the novella of the same name by the renowned Bengali writer, Saratchandra Chattopadhyay. The 2002 version was the third time the novella was made into a Hindi movie. This time around, it was directed by Sanjay Leela Bhansali.
Personally, I didn't mind watching it again for the beautiful cinematography and grandiose setting (Sanjay Leela Bhansali's signature style) that evoked both the splendor and decadence of old-world Kolkata. And of course, for the compelling acting of Shah Rukh Khan, Aishwarya Rai and Madhuri Dixit.
How did it go? It was an interesting and entertaining experience - all 3-hours of it! And I have 2 words to describe the whole episode - intermission, and interaction.
Bollywood movies are usually about 3 hours long, so they would normally have intermissions midway of the screening. It's basically a break (about 10 minutes or so) after the first half of the movie. At this point, the screening stops and everyone go out of the theater.
For the movie goers, the intermission is the opportune time for bio breaks - without having to miss any parts of the story (because that would suck).
From the movie-makers point of view, the intermission breaks up the mounting emotional hyperbole of a story - I may be wrong here, but I guess, an intermission is supposed to control us from getting too emotional? I guess that is needed once you get engrossed in Indian cinema.
And of course, intermissions mean more buying of popcorn and beverages!
Not sure if it is the norm (as we only watched 1 movie in India), but that particular experience was pretty interactive! While no one stood up, no dancing happened, and no one talked back to the movie - there were a lot of clapping and singing aloud to the songs.
I quite enjoyed it when folks started humming to "Silsila Ye Chahat Ka", clapped to the more fast beat songs and when we echoed "Maar Dala..." @ "I am killed..." to Chandramukhi's heartfelt profession of love towards Devdas.
This direct interaction with the story happened throughout the movie. I wondered if those folks in the cinema with us had actually watched the movie a few times before, seeing that they appeared to know the lyrics well!
I confess, watching Devdas in Mumbai left me with a lasting impression of the Indian cinema and its cinema goers. That was way back in 2002, and I wonder how the experience is right now, in the era of smart phones and Whats App?
I will be traveling to Chennai in a couple of weeks and I hope to catch Lingaa (if it is still showing) - am curious to see how folks react to the great Rajinikanth.
So, in your next India trip, do watch a local movie in the local cinema!
dove-shaped shortbread, and shiroi koibito
a sudden longing to gaze upon your tall poplar trees
- an omiyage of bundled joy
Hato sabur (French - sable) is shortbread in the shape of a dove (Japanese - hato) - a famous confectionery that is originally from Kamakura. Why the dove shape?
Shiroi Koibito, literally translated as "White Lover", refers to a chocolate-sandwich cookie, from Sapporo. What you see in the photo above is the white chocolate Shiroi Koibito.
Omiyage means memento, souvenir or gift in Japanese.
Driving from Chennai to Pondicherry - we witness the generosity of colors that is India. Houses that look like cupcakes-with-white-frosting, large advertisements on walls everywhere, decorated trucks on the Tamil Nadu highway - nothing is ever quiet about the colors there.
Of them all, the decorated trucks are the most striking. From end to end, the trucks are illustrated with vibrant motifs and hand-painted decorative fonts. Some trucks are even more heavily accessorized with large images, bright silk tassels, colorful garlands, posters and stickers.
The vibrant motifs come in many themes. You can see the Indian flag, religious symbols, deities, animals (e.g. tiger, bird, cow), flowers, and vernacular Indian patterns - adorning the trucks from front to back.
Slogans, mantras, advice, poetry (in the local language and sometimes in English) are expressed in decorative fonts. Most can be found at the back of the trucks, making them interesting "back-side" reading materials on long journeys!
A common element at the back of the trucks is the variation of that single, common directive/request "Horn Please". Some examples are "Sound Horn" and "Blow Horn OK".
Each truck's deco is unique. Each, is its own psychedelic painting on wheels. And if a painting is a reflection of an artist's thoughts and feelings - profiling a trucker based on the bright, colorful and at times, ostentatious deco on his truck, is just inevitable.
We Two, Ours One - I saw this written in English at the back of a truck.
"What does that mean?" I asked Vee.
"I think it's India's family planning tagline. But isn't it We Two, Ours Two...?" She mused.
Then, she asked Raj (our driver) in Tamil.
"They changed it to We Two, Ours One. Only then, people would stop at three!"
LOL! The things we can learn from a truck's "back-side"...
In Pondicherry I got up around 5:30 am (India time) to perform Fajr (the first of 5 prayers Muslims perform throughout the day). It was an hour earlier to the time I would normally perform fajr in Malaysia, and at the same time it was 2.5 hours later! Kind of amusing when you think of the time difference.
As I completed my prayers, I could smell a light waft of fragrance in the hotel room. I wondered if the folks at Atithi (our hotel in Pondicherry) performed the same morning puja Hindus do at home, at the hotel - the smoke from the incense traveling through the building with positive energy.
I asked Vee that question. She said, "Yes, most likely."
After breakfast, Raj drove us to the Sri Aurobindo Ashram. Everyone there was barefooted (we need to take off our shoes once we enter the vicinity of the ashram) and most were dressed in either white or grey cotton.
Some there were curious tourists like Vee and I. Others came specifically to perform homage to the late Sri Aurobindo and Mother. The place was quiet except for low whispers and soft movements of cotton as folks move around the area.
The ashram has the same neat and structured quality characteristics of buildings in the French Quarters. The whole ashram is painted in light gray with thick white borders at the edge of the walls.
The grayness of the wall is contrasted by pots of colorful marigolds, dahlias, bougainvilleas and many more flowers unknown to me, which were lined neatly in rows against the wall. We were not allowed to take any photographs there.
After exploring the ashram, and still barefooted, Vee and I walked over to the Manakula Vinayagar Temple just about 10 seconds across the paved street.
Vee went in to pray. I lingered outside, admiring the prayer wares and flowers sold at the row of wooden stalls near the temple's entrance. There, you can get something from small figurines of Lord Ganesha to pestle and mortar of varying sizes.
Our next stop was the Basilica of the Sacred Heart of Jesus (a church of more than 100 years old). I sat in the pew as quietly as possible so as not to disturb the air of reverence. On the walls were colorful stained glass panels, depicting the life of Jesus Christ.
Not long after we arrived, a bus filled with college students stopped in front of the Basilica. The teenagers entered the building in twos; first the male students, followed by the female students.
Outside, we saw Raj at the rosaries and crucifixes kiosk. He bought 2 rosaries, a long one with the color of jade and a short one, with red and black beads.
"Are you Christian?" Vee asked him.
"No, I'm Hindu. I bought these for my youngest son. He has a liking for crucifixes."
Raj hung the rosaries by the car's rear view mirror. The next day, the rear view mirror broke and fell. For the rest of our journey, the rosaries garlanded the statue of Lord Ganesha on the dashboard. What amazing companionship.
From the Basilica, he drove us to Auroville (the experimental township designed for the attainment of Divine Consciousness). It was about 30 minutes drive through the other end of the Tamil Quarters.
Every few minutes, in between the shops, nestled either a Hindu Temple, a Christian Church or a Muslim Mosque - some big, some small - mostly just a few hundred meters away from each other.
As we drove pass the Muslim area (here I could see more ladies dressed in hijab and long black robes), Raj told us that he too lives in a Muslim area in Chennai. During Ramadhan (the Muslim fasting month), his village's mosque would usually prepare sweet porridge for breaking of fast. Everyone could take the porridge.
"What is her name?" Raj asked Vee in Tamil while he looked at me through the mirror.
"Fiza..." She answered.
"Fiza? That is not a common Muslim name. Usually, Muslim ladies would have names like Fathimah, Zainab, or Khadija."
Vee translated what he said to me. I laughed.
India has had its share of religious conflicts and tensions - what with its many religions - Hinduism, Sikhism, Islam, Christianity, Judaism, Buddhism, Jainism, etc. But on that day in Pondicherry, I was humbled to see different faiths breathing, living and flourishing side-by-side.
O mankind, indeed We have created you from a single (pair) of a male and a female
and made you into nations and tribes, so that you may know each other
(not that you may despise each other)
Al Hujrat 49:13
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!
Safiza is a Travel Blogger, Common Reader, Book Hoarder, Art and Nescafe Tarik Lover.