Many years ago, my mother took my sister and me to sample the iftar fare along Sachapir Street and Taboot Street in Pune. We feasted on hot mutton samosas on a cold wintry evening. The smoke from the charcoal ovens lent a romance to the air that exists only in the deep recesses of my mind. Every stall was a wonder and our appetite was insatiable. Sadly, I do not remember whether we visited these stalls when I was in school or college. I do not remember whether we went back to the stalls the next year. I just remember the samosas, the taste, and the thrill of unearthing a new delight at the next stall.
This year, my sister took me to the iftar in Bangalore. She regaled me with stories over her indulgence of the chicken biryani, for every day of the one month of the iftar at Frazer Town last year. It took me back to my memory of the iftar in Pune and I accompanied her with great anticipation.
We first visited the stalls in Koramangala. I did not remember such colors from the iftar stalls in Pune- chicken in bright red, bright green, bright orange, all dressed up, ready to be cooked over fiery charcoal. There was meat of all kinds to savour – chicken, mutton, camel, beef, and venison. The shammi kebabs were already sizzling over the grills. Lights bent out of shape through the smoke that was billowing around us.
We started off with the kheema roti, moved onto Banarsi chicken, chicken fry, and shammi kebab. They all looked delectable, but did not match up in their taste. Later, we came across a Thallasery stall and sampled their sweet dishes. We had a rice dumpling filled with coconut (it was like a modak, minus the jaggery) and a fried banana stuffed with coconut. Finally, we had stumbled upon some deliciousness. Impressed, we got home chicken biryani from the stall, and it was a major let down.
After a few weeks, we decided to try out the stalls on Mosque Road in Frazer Town. While I was photographing the stalls, three Muslim boys approached me and asked me whether I am Muslim. I wanted to tell them that I am not religious, but believed in the power of the universe. I did not know a word for this, and I did not know how to explain it to an eight-year-old boy who had just stepped out of a mosque. I simply smiled and said, “No”.
The stalls stretched the length of Mosque road, and spilled onto MM Road. Lingering too long at a stall resulted in calls of, “Madam! Come! Shammi kebab! Kaleji! Biryani!”. Beggars hounded the people, and they were shooed away in return.
My sister and I inspected several stalls and once again settled on shammi kebabs and biryani. Here too, the food looked attractive, but the taste did not match up to my memory. My sister was more disappointed, because she could not find a biryani that equaled in taste to the biryani that she had last year. Later, I compared notes with my friends and they said that they found the food to be marvelous.
Probably, the novelty of the first experience creates an imprint that is impossible for future experiences to surpass, or even come close. Perhaps, it is the pursuit of a memory that ruins moments that are occurring in the present. Possibly, I had created a memory and given it a larger than life stature, or simply, my taste buds no longer found the iftar dishes appetising. Around me, people were sinking their teeth into the meat, relishing the flavor, and all I could feel was an absence of the food that I had had in Pune, many winters ago.