Bombay felt different this time. I recognised it less; missed what it used to be. It was more blasé, less grateful and few had the time for a heartfelt smile. Coffee now costs Rs. 200 at a fancy deli and three girls on a night out wear more bling than a jewellery shop can hold. OK, I exaggerate a little, but only a little. I have nothing against change. The need for change made me change homes and I am probably being very selfish expecting a city to stay the same while I travel the world looking for something different. Still – just this once, I longed for a day when meeting for chai took us to Bastani café and dessert was fresh strawberries and cream at Bachelor’s.
I was definitely not going to get this in Bombay. A request for Brittania’s chicken berry pulao was answered with watermelon and feta salad at a home store’s overpriced café; the average cost of a birthday present was in five figures; and everybody I spoke to was ready to get out of the city.
I did too. I went to Delhi – a city where I spent nearly every childhood summer. Delhi is by no means any more “real” than Bombay has not become, but I knew that cocooned in the home of my family here I would have the time to remember everything I loved about growing up in India. Time almost stands still in the Suri household. It immediately feels like the summer of 1988 and I am once again part of some of the most honest and loving relationships I know. We also all still love food above most things.
We start with chaat (of course): Papdi chaat, dahi bhalla, alu tikis, gol gappa, chhola bhatura and paneer tikki at Shah Jahan Road, Bengali Market, Vasant Vihar A Block Market with old Bollywood songs providing the perpetual soundtrack to our chaat expeditions. My grandfather introduced me to Delhi chaat – my comfort food.
And then I went to Amritsar. Indian food cooked outside this city pales in comparison to the unbelievable deliciousness produced by the kitchens of this ancient city of India. Once I saw the real foodies of Amritsar I was ashamed to call myself one. You have honestly not eaten good Indian food until you’ve dined in Amritsar.
Guided by a fantastic Amritsari, my whirlwind trip started with a “light” breakfast of chhola bhhatura (and you can’t eat just one). We break for jutti and bangle shopping and then get back to business. My only request that I eat where normal people eat everyday. Alu tikki (Rs 7) and chaat (Rs 5) at Brijwasi is followed closely by stuffed kulchas (Rs 10) at Chungi Road and gulab jamuns (Rs 2) at Sharma Sweets. I spent sunset at the Indo-Pak border with over a thousand patriots on either side of the border who came there to feel a little extra patriotic that day.
My final day in Amritsar began with a meal like none I have ever, nor will ever experience anywhere else in the world. The langar at Harmandir Sahib (community kitchen at the Golden Temple) is the greatest equaliser I have witnessed. The massive kitchen is open 24/7 and feeds free vegetarian meals to almost 1,00,000 people each day (going up to 7,00,000 over the weekends). The kitchen is staffed by devotees who ask for nothing in return except the opportunity to serve and the meals are gratefully accepted by people of all religions, castes and gender. This was a revolutionary concept in the 16th century and in my opinion still is a marvel in a world so consumed with materialism that it allows social status to dictate most interactions.
I probably sound slightly ABCD and to be honest I did feel like an outsider who’s idea of India was shamefully restricted. I allowed the new face of a city cloud my memories of an entire country. But as I ate among strangers, I felt relief. This is also India, it is still home. Simple. So nice.