Wednesday, September 21, 2011

Mumbai diary 4: That Boy from Udupi Hotel

Times of India carried an article "Mumbai loosing its taste for Udupi"

For those who do not know what is a Udupi hotels here is a brief introduction.
Udupi is a town in Karnataka , a state in South India. It is known for its religious center ( it is one of the places from astha matha-s or eight sacred centers of Hinduism ) and also for its cuisine. Udupi cuisine is primarily a vegetarian cuisine and quintessentially south Indian cuisine of India. Udupi hotels mushroomed in Mumbai in early sixties with influx of south Indians migrating to Mumabi for jobs. Very soon cuisine became popular among all sections of people. Today these hotels are ubiquitous landmark of Mumbai's land scape.

It will not be wrong to suggest Udupi hotels were the desi versions of fast food joints in India. in short MacDonalds of India. But comparison to MacDonald stops here. Because unlike the junk food MacDonalds serve, Udupi hotels dish out nutritious menu, with quick service and at a reasonable price. Every Mumbaiker will vouch how they have survived in Mumbai during their struggling days mainly becasue of these hotels.

A major number of Udupi hotels are in the Sion and Matunga area in Mumbai; where there is a concentration of south Indian population. One can identify a Udupi hotel by its decor, which captures the 70s era of Bombay. First thing one notices as one enters the hotel is the a huge statue of a God mostly of Krishna, freshly garlanded and placed right at the entrance of the hotel where generally hotel manager sits. Smell of fragrant essence mixed with food aroma, specially Samabar creates a peculiar south Indian temple ambiance . Hotel decor has a liberal use of white marble on the floor or as well on side walls. In India marble stone is generally used in the temples as it is considered "pure". Lighting and a false ceiling makes the space more cramped. This claustrophobic feel is further enhanced by the tightly packed rows of benches to accommodate maximum number of customers in the hotel at any given time. Every nook and corner of the tiny space of the hotel is efficiently utilized. In short Udupi restaurants created an ambiance of "food temples".

Udupi menus are vegetarian , a diet preferred by majority Indians. Breakfast menu is mostly Idli Sambar, dosa and upama, integrated with local breakfast menu's like poha and misal . A meal menu consisted of Indian bread, three vegetable mostly of south Indian flavor, ,butter milk, pickle, salad, chutney, fried papad, rice, sambar, rasam and a sweet dish mostly payasam or sheera. But if you are not interested in "thali" as they call for a meal in India other Indian cuisine mostly Punjabi cuisine such as aloo mutter, chole puri, veg kolhapuri etc. etc. are also available to meet your vegetarian taste. And then you had evening menu of Somosa, batata vada, bhel etc along with south Indian coffee.

Udupi hotels owners have perfected the art of pan Indian cuisine to generate an urban Indian taste. Mumbai's gastronomical history cannot be complete without Udupi cuisine. And every Mumbaiker will have his or her own Udupi hotel memoir to talk about.

After reading news I decided to visit My Udupi hotel which had supported me in my good and bad times. I have fond memories of this hotel as I spent many years discussing my projects , ideas and even had heated arguments over a cup of tea with my friends, and with my adviser. It is the same hotel I treated my jury after I was awarded my doctoral degree. It is the same hotel I cried with a friend when she told me she has been diagnosed with cancer. It is the same hotel I fought with my dear friend and parted ways. It is the same hotel where I patiently listened to my friend's poetry. Memories, Good . Bad . Ugly.

As I walk in today, I can see hotel is still doing brisk business. It is lunch hour and crowded with customers. The signs of degeneration is apparent. Decor has not been upgraded for last ten years, benches are cracked, wall paint has faded and cutlery looks jaded. As I look around,
I see the waiter boy and smile. He comes forward and helps me to find seat. He is the same boy whom I used to see decade ago. He must have been 18 year old that time. Today he must be 28, a married man with kids. "I am sorry you will have to share it with another customer today becasue this is busy hour", he apologizes. I just smile. "what would you like to have?" he asks with care and concern after he sees I am seated comfortably. "Idli vada with south Indian coffee" I say. He smiles with a familiar look as if he knew what I was going to order, and disappeared in the kitchen.

We know each other for last many years but neither I ,nor he knows each others name. I am a customer and he is waiter boy. He looks same , thin, tall fair and always with a smile. He has started graying a bit , but has same energy and enthusiasm of serving people. I always felt he liked his job. I always appreciated his professionalism.

But today I doubt if his smile is genuine ? Is he really happy doing what he is doing? or is it sheer job ethics which makes him smile to make his customer comfortable? Ten years he is working as a waiter boy. Taking orders, serving dishes. Smiling. Does he really like is job as I thought.

The boy appears with my order. He has brought my Idli wada dunked in sambar. Yes that's way I like it. He still remembers my taste. I feel guilty for doubting his genuineness. He makes sure he has served me well and asks if I need any extra chutney. I decline thanking him. As I pay my bill he asks "was everything ok?". "yes, yes" I say it with fake smile. I have no heart to disappoint him, but things have certianly changed. Food does not taste the same. Nor does the coffee. Even the bill does not look cheap any longer. I pay him a handsome tip. He looks little amused, but I am not.
I am not sure if I am going to step in again.
I am not sure if it is the food or memories will bring me back again.

Mumbai is certianly loosing its taste of Udupi. Is it the sign of city is changing its skin?

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