Pav Bhaji on the Beach

 

PavBhaji

He stands on a platform. The smoke from the large tava shapes a spiced cloud around him. He doesn’t seem to notice it. I wait on the sidelines; wait for him to prepare my plate of pav-bhaji (bhaji being the curried mashed vegetables and pav the buttered buns), with extra pav.

I pull back my drenched hair and mop my face. Mumbai is living through a heat wave, and standing in a lane crammed with food stalls and sizzling woks doesn’t help.  A few feet away, the beach is busy.  At some point today all those people will stop by these food stalls too -the beach in Mumbai is known for its food rather than the grey, plastic crusted waters.

His spatula pounds the tava, mashing the already mashed vegetables. Between each pounding, he adds generous dollops of Amul butter; each addition is announced with a high-tone sizzle. I feel the calories gently pushing against my belt.

Once the bhaji, already partly prepared, is ready, he pushes it to the edge of the tava, freeing up the centre for the stack of pav – a set of four buns. He picks up the lot, sliced in between, and presses them onto a glob of melting butter.

When the bread, shiny with the additional weight and slightly crispy, is done, he scoops the bhaji, finely chopped onions, coriander and lemon quarters, as well as the toasted buns into the sectioned plate, and hands it over.

My hands are greedy as they stretch out for the plate.

I hurriedly sprinkle the chopped onions onto the bhaji and squeeze the bits of lemon. I mix the lot with a spoon – bits of orange-red specks fly about – I still have faded stains on my pink kurta. I tear the pav, small pieces, pile them with bhaji and gobble. There is no place for elegance here, just a good hearty meal.

A Window Frame along the Old Wing

Taj

I can taste the sea; the breeze is trapping grains of salt in my knotty hair. On the water, colourful fishing boats bob up and down, a bit more violently than the slow moving tourist ferries. Far off on the horizon, cruise liners and navy ships eye-ball each other, standing as still as a hot Mumbai afternoon.

It looks as it always has – regal grey stone, red roofing tiles, delicate lattice balconies, stained glass, white trim, and a flutter pigeons surrounding it. At the entrance a moustachioed guard welcomes visitors, his uniform is a crisp white, his turban is red.

The sun hits my eye, forcing me to squint, as I look for the cracks. I see none.

There’s a workman, maybe a carpenter, maybe a painter – a fixer of some sorts, at one of the windows. He has one foot on the window sill, and the other against the side frame, at a 45 degree angle. His clothes seem colourless, blending into the stone, but his hair is jet black against the white trim. I can’t see if he has a harness, but he works with the assurance of one.

It’s only when I pay (extra) close attention to his workspace that I can make out the new paint from the old. The difference is subtle, and will be lost in a few months of morning smog and a healthy monsoon – nature the great leveller, hiding scars and restoring colour.

When he hops back into the room and shuts the window, I try to trace the lines again, to find the restored window frame along the old wing. But it’s not easy. I find it, I lose it, I find it, I lose it. Soon my eyes hurt so I stop looking for it.

I had wondered if I’d sense a change, physical or emotional, or something entirely new and complex, but it’s how it always has been –the noise, the sea, the tourists, the crowds. The one visible difference, however, can be seen along the sidewalk, where vendors now sell miniature commandos – tiny moving plastic toy soldiers dressed in army fatigues; they crawl on their stomach, their bodies rubbing against the hard ground, their guns pointing towards a faceless enemy.