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Saturday April 27, 2013

Finding the real India

In India, a
roadside
stall is
properly a
roadside
stall – no
table-and-chair
setup
for the
customers. In India, a roadside stall is properly a roadside stall – no table-and-chair setup for the customers.

Think travelling is all about crossing out a checklist of famous landmarks and big attractions? This writer’s maiden visit to India reminds her that an unplanned slice of local experience may be just as rewarding.

MY first real sight-seeing experience in India took place in a cab ... I can just imagine the reactions of serious travellers.

They’d probably glare at me in silent outrage: You dare call yourself a traveller, Alex?

In my defence, I didn’t have a choice. An unexpected meeting had cropped up for a friend who was supposed to take me around. He would not take any nonsense about roughing it out (read: brave the town bus or auto-rickshaw) – considering it was officially my Day 2 in India – and chartered a taxi to squire me around Bangalore.

On the morning of my cab-driven tour, an SMS reminded me 15 minutes before the appointed time: “Thank you for choosing MERU. Cab: KAO3D4222. Subscriber: Rajaguru. MN. Visit www.merucabs.com.” Impressive!

“Sorry madam, I can listen but my English speaking is not very good,” were Mr Ramesh’s words as I entered the clean and spacious cab which turned up at my doorstep 10 minutes before time. Talk about conversation killer.

I sneaked a dismayed look in the mirror. My taxi driver was a stout fellow in a cream-coloured bush-jacket and pantsuit that resembled the uniform our Malaysian politicians were once so fond of wearing. The difference was, instead of a smarmy smile, he wore a severe expression more suitable to a funeral.

I tried not to let that unpromising start deflate my spirits. After all, my maiden trip to India was the culmination of 18 years of dreaming. For years, my BFF and I breathlessly kept tabs on India package tour promotions. My mum and I practically emptied Lord-Shiva-knows-how-many tissue boxes watching Bollywood tear-jerkers when I was growing up.

For years, I fantasised about the day I’d be drinking bru coffee in Mother India instead of a banana leaf restaurant.

We arrived at the last place in our itinerary. “Bull Temple madam.”

I dully nodded and got out. At the end of a packed morning that covered all the places recommended by a guidebook, I felt ready to write one myself. And yet, something was missing. I still didn’t get a sense of the “real” India.

In silence, Mr Ramesh walked me all the way to the bottom of the stairs leading up to the temple.

“Madam, I see you in half an hour, OK? I am going for snack.”

My ears cocked up. “Where?”

“A thindi.”

“What’s that?”

“A place for lunch, madam.”

“Can I go with you?”

A series of strange expressions danced on his face. I could see him having thoughts like, “The taxi driver manual didn’t have any chapter on Strange Foreign Women Who Fancy Themselves Serious Travellers” and “Will I get into trouble?”

For a brief moment, I thought he would refuse, but to my intense and surprised relief, he nodded wordlessly.

The thindi was just across the street next to the traffic light, a corner stall selling Indian snacks prepared on the spot. I recalled what my friend Shivanee had told me. “In India, when you say roadside stall, you literally mean roadside. It’s different from Malaysia where even in the warung, you have proper chairs and tables.”

Dozens were crammed into that tiny space: working men, ladies, housewives, waiting impatiently for their orders which were cooking in an open kitchen no bigger than 2ft by 5ft (less than 1sqm), at most. I walked into the heart of India’s street life, and took a deep breath.

The air was pungent with the aromas of freshly prepared coffee and bread. Two chaps were flipping bread on a hot griddle, two others ladling them on deep metal trays on a counter, while another was preparing coffee from a machine. Motorcycles, auto-rickshaws and cars roared past, flavouring the food with a generous sprinkle of dust and dirt. The patrons continued munching on, impervious and unperturbed. Standing, naturally.

Everybody seemed to hold a tiny thumb-height tumbler of hot liquid.

“Is that bru coffee?” I asked eagerly.

“No, this is filter coffee.”

“Good?”

“Very good.” Mr Ramesh punctuated this with an enthusiastic head waggle that reminded me of a dancer.

I launched into a series of questions about the characteristics of a filter coffee. Having been initiated into the pleasures of bru coffee in Malaysia, I longed to find out what a “very good” cup of coffee would taste like in good ole’ Motherland, but all the warnings I’d been indoctrinated about Indian food and Delhi belly were also as fresh as the milk being heated in the large vat nearby.

Then, Mr Ramesh’s face lit up, as if something clicked in his brain. “You try. I get one for you.”

Before I could say a word, my taxi driver – whom I had not even paid a cent – dashed off to order a coffee for his eccentric foreign charge. I took a tentative sip. It was rich, lusciously milky, amazingly aromatic, and terrifically evocative.

As the superlatives swam in my head and the warm liquid slipped down my throat, I smiled back at other locals who shared our steel table, grinning at me with open amusement. In that brief exchange, I sensed some kind of shift had taken place. Somehow, I now felt closer to the locals – like I was part of them.

Coffee always puts me in a better frame of mind. At least that’s what I think. Because after that, I seemed to be viewing India through a new lens. La dolce vita was queues of cows trooping languidly as though the street belonged to their grandfather, never mind peak hour; traffic policemen in quaint circular-shaped kiosks, directing traffic in the hive of traffic; city walls that blazed with vivid murals of Lord Shiva, Ganesh and Vishnu.

Even the laundromats made me smile with their chirpy taglines, “Fresh as a flower, in just an hour.”

This was the India I had come to see. Glancing at Mr Ramesh, I thought: Who needs a guidebook when the best source of information is here?

Alexandra Wong (www.bunnysprints.com) firmly believes that when travelling, on should go native.

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