Travels in India — 11
Of course I am food obsessed, but at least it’s a subject everyone can relate to.
The technique of eating in India is a skill to be acquired. And it’s not as straight forward as you would think. Just like our mothers go to such trouble to train us in keeping our elbows in, holding our cutlery correctly and how to manipulate food neatly with the different tools, Indian children learn how to use their fingers correctly from a very young age.
They also learn something else equally important. Eating is strictly with your right hand only. The left hand is for toilet ablutions (this is a fairly universal rule that I am familiar with from my time in Arabic countries). This golden rule was the answer when I asked Krupan why she had nail polish only on her left hand and Porathama why only one hand’s nails were long and elegant while the other’s was kept short. Even in eating houses when I have observed men wash afterwards, they often wash their right separately under the tap, not bringing them together. I conclude from this, amongst other things, that they must think me a disgusting human tearing at my dosai with both hands (I assure you, tearing up a pancake-like dish with only one hand is a skill in itself).
Having lived among families for several days I have been able to observe eating styles at close quarters. As with using cutlery, the style seems to be the same, regardless of the hands I’m watching. The fingers of the hand are generally kept straight and the hand resembles a pecking bird as it ranges over the rice and sauce, mixing and gathering a choice mouthful together. No amount of observation has helped me master the key trick yet. The gathered mouthful is squeezed into a tight wad by the thumb pressing into the straight fingers and when lifted to the mouth, the thumb pushes the ball into the mouth. I can do the thumb bit, but my rice flies everywhere as it refuses to stick together in that squashed little ball. If I use more sauce it gets sloppy, if not enough, it falls apart.
I have never been an elegant eater, but I am feeling it more keenly under these unfamiliar circumstances. Even more so when I see a young child quickly finish up a plate while I’m still mucking around (or I get a spoon offered along with a pitying look). I have also read that licking or sucking one’s fingers after the meal is a definite faux pas. Thank goodness Indian people are so kind and tolerant, is all I can say!
The other night while waiting for the train I was sitting next to a threesome who were having their last meal before the journey. The mother stood by while her son, after finishing his own plate, started to help his niece get a wriggle on. I watched as he gathered up gobs of rice into meatball size chunks and popped them into the three-year-old’s waiting mouth. Unlike most little western children I’ve observed she had a tolerance for very large mouthfuls. I’m not saying the two are related, but she was a little roly-poly of a child and had a delightful little pudding face.
After an overnight train journey I arrive in Trivandrum (this is the short name for Thiruvananthapuram — shall we just say Triv for the duration?) and my first and only thought is to shower twenty four hours of sweat and grime from my body and hair; this will be quickly followed by giving my toxic clothes to the dhobi wallah.
Three buckets of hot water later (which were hand delivered and cost 5 RS each), my skin can breathe again and I am thinking breakfast. Lonely Planet mentions the Indian Coffee House which is very near the Greenland Lodge where I am staying. This place is about to become the highlight of my stay in Triv.
The place is easily spotted. It is a tall rust red tower resembling a dove cot. The place is literally a hive of activity with the nattily dressed waiters buzzing around the front desk collecting bills and racing to the kitchen. Passing here I walk up the circular ramp. The stone booths rise like steps on the outside perimeter and are denoted by large numbers on the walls. As I walk up I am passed by three waiters holding aloft trays of eight glasses of water, ten plates of dosai and six trembling cups of tea. I have risen to table eleven before I find one being wiped down from the last occupant (a post-prandial perambulation establishes there are 32 altogether).
The menu lists poached eggs — hurrah! I immediately recall that I used to have poached eggs on a regular basis when staying in Cochi. I order these with extra toast and butter and the set coffee. I can’t quite remember what ‘set’ means, just that I always ordered that too. The only moment of uncertainty I have is when I imagine myself trying to eat poached eggs with my fingers. Surely not…
My meal arrives altogether along with the appropriate cutlery. The eggs are joined together on a de-crusted piece of toast and are deliciously runny, as they should be. They are also bright, bright yellow: something that would come as a shock to the average city person at home. But the best of all: the set coffee arrives in a large pot and the waiter sets down around it a jug of hot milk, a sugar bowl and a cup and saucer. You little ripper.
The eggs are quickly devoured and the pot contains about three cups. This coffee also makes me realise I have been drinking a lot of powdered product up till now, which has been skilfully shrouded by sugar saturation. The set coffee allows me to choose how much sugar I have, and sadly, I still put a little in, having been weaned back onto the blasted stuff. I can only hope back home my drinks will seem different enough that I can go back to being sugarless, as well as back to black tea.
One of the obvious things to do when in Triv (I now realise) is to go to the beach at Kovalum, about 13km away. This realisation is thanks to every auto rickshaw driver asking me if I want to go there. I guess it’s no good pointing to my white skin and shrugging my shoulders, as all tourists would seem equally white to them. Instead, I spent my day strolling up MG Road (I think every Indian town has one of these — Mahatma Ghandi Road, of course) and spent several pleasant hours browsing in bookshops. My favourite shop had a few lads sitting around in front of the counter with one playing a guitar. They seemed simply to be visiting friends of the shop owner and the music felt Spanish in style. Whatever it was, it was lilting and gentle, like water running over stones; a perfect accompaniment to browsing books and repelling the clamour from outside. At one point when I’d dragged my browsing stool close by, the lad playing stopped, out of self consciousness I think; I immediately turned around and begged him to continue. This produced a great reaction among his friends and naturally I had to applaud when the next piece ended.
The browsing was a success in that it filled a few hours with highly pleasurable escapism; but I also managed to walk out of each shop without a purchase — Hai Ram! A miracle! While I am still wading through Thoreau’s Walden it would be better not to have an easier distraction, but also I didn’t find anything tempting enough. The only book I seriously considered was Julian Barne’s Sense of an Ending that won the latest Man Booker, but the two copies on the shelf were a bit battered and grubby. This is often the case with Indian books, but I guess one can’t complain when they are a third of the price you’d pay at home. I’ll save my book purchasing for my favourite bookshop on Fort Cochi where I know there is a little stool waiting to support my posterior for many a long air conditioned hour.
But in the meantime, the Indian Coffee House awaits.
© Alicia Thompson 2012