5. Blessings and Curses
6. The Alpha Male
7. Goa Magic
NEVER HAVING EATEN BENGALI FOOD anywhere except The Calcutta Club, one has nothing to compare this quaint little restaurant in Oshiwara with, but what one can tell you is that Bengali cuisine is now one of the few one can seek comfort in without having to think. There aren’t many restaurants in Andheri that offer a soothing dining (or lunching) experience, and you know when you walk into the small place that you immediately want to be seated; the framed black-and-white pictures of old Calcutta are there to make Bengalis homesick, but they also charm you, the non-Bengali person, and as you wonder what it must be like to have been there, lived there, known that world, your eyes fall on Satyajit Ray smoking a pipe while playing a piano and on a poster of one of his movies starring Uttam Kumar and on a still from an Utpal Dutt film and suddenly it is no longer just about the food.
BUT IT IS THE FOOD for which you go back to The Calcutta Club, either to try a spicy gravy with the laccha paratha because you decided last time that next time you’d steer clear of mustard-based curries, or to eat the shukto (the delightful mixed vegetable curry) with a luchi (puri in Hindi and Gujarati) or four, or to wash down the vegetarian starters with countless glasses of aam poro shorbot (aam panna in Hindi, baflo in Gujarati) or to avoid the overrated alu posto (cooked with poppy seeds, they say, but it’s puri bhaji and that’s all it is). Yeah, most of the vegetarian dishes are vegan, and the loochees (poorees) are fried in oil and Bengalis use a lot of mustard, so you can have a cruelty-free heart attack at the age of 40. Everything about The Calcutta Club feels authentic, and one is amazed to sense it without knowing anything about the food or the culture beyond that much space, and the restaurant is adored by Bengalis who are amused at how much you appreciate it and by other non-Bengalis who never seem to mind going back to “that nice Bengali place.”
IT ISN’T UNTIL YOU GO VEGAN that you realize how dependent on nonhuman animals we humans are. How much we take from them – everything; how we exploit them – in every way; and how we don’t even think about how many lives are taken because we can’t (or don’t want to) look beyond meat, eggs and dairy – as if those are the ‘food’ items that we really want to taste and “can’t live without”.
It so happens that the first not-so-cheap restaurant you visit after going vegan is one you’ve been to quite a few times before, but as an unawakened non-vegan who wasn’t concerned at all what went into your food, as long as it was tasty, not too unhealthy; you considered yourself not a herbivore, not an omnivore, not a carnivore, but a vore – an eater. An eater of all… an eater of everything.
And now you’re looking at the menu, and you’re halfway through the pitcher of beer but you still haven’t been able to decide on what you’d like to eat. There’s absolutely nothing for you. So you order a vegetarian burger and you ask them to veganize it: cheese nahi chahiye, paneer nahi chahiye, butter nahi chahiye… The burger that comes is a shit patty between two buns. You can’t have it with the mayonnaise because it isn’t fucking vegan. The pitcher of beer is now over.
Let’s have the bruschetta, you say. Veganized. “Cheese nahi chahiye.” It arrives stillborn. It’s a fucking flop, and you’re disappointed but not surprised. See, there’s nothing to do in a situation like this, so you call for another pitcher and wonder if you should have whisky as the main course. But you’re with friends – vegetarians – who are forgoing cheese and other dairy items because you’re with them. How sweet of them.
Let’s call for pasta, someone says. They veganize it for you. “Inn ko cheese nahi pasand,” or “Inn ko dairy se allergy hai,” they tell the waiter, who isn’t surprised anymore. But the pudfucker returns grinning with parmesan on the fucking pasta as if he’s done you a huge fucking favour.
This happens every time. There’s a Mexican restaurant, and there’s one that serves finger-licking good north Indian food, and there’s a place famous for its Gujarati thali. The restaurant changes, the food changes, but the story remains the same.
BEFORE YOU GO VEGAN you’re filled with anxiety: how will you not have ghee on the roti and in your rice, how will you live without butter in a lot of things, what about dahi, buttermilk, paneer, lassi, and honey (which you never really cared much about) – all those things that always seemed harmless. The worry is mainly about the diet, because you’ll give those leather shoes away, you won’t buy leather belts again, you’ll throw the wallet away, who wears silk anyway… but how are you not going to eat a fucking pizza? What about your morning chai? Ice cream? Fuck.
And we haven’t even started talking about not eating animals, but “meat, fish and poultry” were forbidden for some of us, and that’s what makes it even worse. You thought you were an ethical vegetarian, but it hits you like a ton of bricks that there’s nothing ethical about vegetarianism; you cease to be an ‘ethical’ vegetarian when you become aware of what happens to the animals we don’t love as pets, the ones we don’t think of as ‘cute.’ This is when you see the light and awaken.
That’s when your anxiety and sense of loss turn into disgust and hatred for mankind. That’s when you stop thinking of veganism as giving up things you’ve always loved and couldn’t imagine living without, and start seeing it as boycotting animal products completely. That’s when you make a promise to yourself that you will never again pay another human to cause pain and suffering to any being that wants nothing to do with you. That’s when you go from being the person posing with the leg of an animal to one who tells others “What the fuck are you doing?” That’s when you know that Jainism isn’t a cruelty-free lifestyle, and that being a vegetarian isn’t enough. Egg whites are used to give your naan and others breads their firmness; your potato fries have natural beef flavouring. Breads aren’t Jain, fries aren’t vegetarian.
But if the nicest, kindest and most amazing of us refuse to end this cycle and continue to participate in unnecessary violence against animals for the sake of our own pleasure or convenience, you certainly can’t expect an establishment that exists solely to make profit to know how to cook food that doesn’t involve the exploitation of animals or was made without making someone who never knew what it’s like to be happy and free cry and suffer and die helplessly.
UNTIL LAST YEAR I used to frequent Purepur Kolhapur for spicy Kolhapuri cuisine, but since they have nothing I’ll eat now, I visit a vegetarian restaurant in the same lane for authentic Maharashtrian fare. There’s no way I’m going to write about the nearly 30 (yeah, thirty) accidentally vegan dishes Mee Marathi serves, because I’m fucking lazy and also because I’m yet to try all of them, but I can tell you that the food is clean, nutritious and tasty as hell. Hell, you’ll even get zunka bhakar – the dish the Shiv Sena falsely promised to fill every
Mumbaikar’s Bombayite’s stomach with – and it is quite filling, I must say, even though I end up stuffing myself with other stuff all the time. TIP: Don’t order any thali, for it’s sure to have several dairy-based items, and don’t eat pav – it’s not vegan. If you’re in Vile Parle East and looking for reasonably priced vegan food, go to Mee Marathi.
Shop No. 5, Alpha Apartment, Shri Paleshwar Road, Vile Parle East, Mumbai Phone: 02226134636
It was perfect – I thought I’d found the perfect bar: a small cozy place in Vile Parle East, with tasteful décor and nearly impeccable service – and I couldn’t believe what I’d walked into. Everything was neat and tidy, just the way I like it when I’m not at home, and the owner was smiling as he answered my questions. For the next few weeks Kabeela Bar & Kitchen was my second home, my secret place to which I’d escape after office hours with a book, to eat and drink and read undisturbed until the head waiter Ramesh, a stocky and pleasant fellow, wanted to know what I’d like next.
The food always came according to Ramesh’s suggestions, which were of course based on my dietary preferences. The Dragon Pom Pom was a hit with me, as was the creamy Achari Mushroom. One can nurse a drink while eating but one can’t linger over food while drinking, so I’d finish the pom poms and the mushrooms in a few minutes, and register the flavours in my brain before rinsing my mouth with a large sip of my drink and getting back to the book.
The last time I was there, drinking on an empty stomach because I wanted a heavy dinner towards the end of the session, I was two drinks down. Now there are three drinks I blindly order at any bar: Blender’s Pride Reserve, Signature Premier, and Antiquity Blue. It so happened that the third drink that was poured for me didn’t taste like any of them, and in fact, reminded me of poorer times. As I realized why it felt like I knew it so well, I looked up and said to Ramesh, ‘Royal Stag. You’ve given me someone else’s drink.’
Ramesh knows better than to argue with me, so after I nodded when he asked if I was sure, he sent the drink back with my waiter and followed him to the bar. This time the drink that came was Antiquity Blue, my comfort whisky. Now I wanted to sit back and forget about the silly mistake, but the manager, Suresh, a tall, hefty, mustached man, came to my table, told Ramesh to handle the family section further inside, and stood there smiling at me. It was time for dinner and I called for the Thai Green Curry, which Kabeela Bar & Kitchen makes exceptionally well, and it’s much better than their red one.
I was in a great mood, having finished a big portion of the first nonfiction I was enjoying in a long time, and I’d knocked back six whiskies and was waiting for the food to appear.
What the waiter brought wasn’t one of my three. I looked for Suresh but he wasn’t around, and I was relieved to see Ramesh back in the outer section, and I asked him what kind of joke this was. He gave me a sorry smile and said, ‘This isn’t right either, is it?’ and took it away.
A young waiter who had served me on a few occasions asked me, ‘Kya hua, sir?’ but I didn’t bother to answer him. He then bent forward and told me this was the sort of thing that went on when the owner wasn’t around. At Suresh’s behest, patrons would either be charged for more drinks than they’d had or be served drinks much cheaper than the brands they’d ordered.
Most people are too drunk to notice they’ve been billed for seven pegs instead of five, and sometimes they’re too proud to check the bill in front of others. And most people can’t tell an Imperial Blue from a Scotch after two large pegs. I’m no whisky connoisseur, but I’m not even most people.
I refused to start eating without a Blender’s Pride Reserve; I insisted that Suresh come out of hiding and show up at my table and tell me why he thought it was a good idea to test my tasting skills; Suresh showed up to apologise and say the food and drinks were on the house.
But pay the bill I did, and as Suresh gawked on, I slipped the waiter a fifty, handed Ramesh the biggest tip he’d ever seen, and walked out of Kabeela Bar & Kitchen for the last time.