India: Weekend Outings: I'm in the neighborhood(s)

(Written Sunday evening at Mumbai airport, where the internet was too slow to post)

The same weekend of the cricket match I got up and did my usual Saturday morning routine of run, shower, eat, and sit in the lobby for emailing and reading the news.  It was my one and only Saturday morning this go-around with nowhere to be and, for once, I honestly enjoyed it.  Part of that was due to a random encounter with a guy who graduated from Duke the same year I graduated from UVa.  We got to talking as both of us sat in the lobby reading our iPads and, as we later discovered, were jointly waiting for housekeeping to finishing their morning rounds upstairs.   Three hours rapidly passed while we discussed college life in the south (ACC!), business school antics, our supportive spouses, and our general love of travel but mutual loathing of weekends abroad.

“But you’re in a new city.  There must be so much to see and do!  How could you be bored?” ask our friends.  To which we both proclaimed, “You can only see the local Statue of Liberty so many times!”

Yet, despite my almost 20 weekends in India, this trip presented me with a couple of opportunities to see something new.  A handful of train rides north took me to leafier corners of the city and lunches at my coworkers’ homes.  The Sunday after Doha I journeyed to an area called Goregoan (Gore-ay-gow-un), which is about a 45 minute ride north, to have lunch at Shilpa's.   

Everyone was SHOCKED I rode in the 2nd class compartments.  Um, they're no different than the 1st class.
Quick funny side story: Shilpa's domestic help came to clean up after we finished eating.  In the kitchen, she whispered to Shilpa, "She looks like a gori!" (Hindi slang for "white girl") To which Shilpa replied, "Um, yeah, she is a white girl.  She's from America and is here for lunch."  The woman appeared very surprised and Shilpa has a wicked sense of humor so I don't think she bothered to clarify that I didn't come to India just for lunch, however delicious it may be. 

Hills in Goregaon.
Then today I took a train to the end of the line at Borivali for another immensely satisfying traditional Indian meal.  Before lunch we needed to do some last-minute shopping for my family so we wandered the market for spices and Indian cookware, then headed to Purvashri's house for lunch.  The food was terrific and seeing alternative skylines –with trees and hills! – was refreshing in the same way that heading out into the country for a Sunday drive feels liberating.

The best smelling place in India? Open-air markets.

Spice shop

Flower stall

Flower chains being made on the train, then to be sold at the flower stall.
Green parks in Borivali.
Recall that I am fortunate to have three hospitable coworkers and I’ve only mentioned visiting two of them.  That’s because the third office mate hosted me at his house back in June.  Instead of revisiting his neighborhood, he instructed me to meet him at the Matunga Road station for a quick bite to eat.  Going there meant departing out of Victoria Terminus instead of Churchgate Station, so already I was game.  New train line, new chaos to sort through!  In a weird way for my closure-loving self, I had a smile on my face when I approached the station on my last Saturday in India.  This was also where I wandered, admittedly with a good degree of fright, on my first Saturday in India.  Here I was, two years later, walking around like I owned the place.  Ha!

Anyway, I take the train and meet Chinmay on the platform.  We walk about 100 paces away from the tracks and traipse up a set of stairs in an old but sturdy building.  He warns me that this is not going to be a typical lunch place and I respond right away saying, “Good! And stop worrying about me!”  Insert Indian head bobble here.

 It’s warm inside but not unbearable and there are large groups of families milling about.  Chinmay presses ahead to what looks like a hostess stand that is covered with colored tickets.  A quick exchange of some cash and metal tokens tells me we’re ready to sit down and eat.  We move to the left side of the dining hall – the all-you-can-eat side, evidently – and select a table against the wall.  All tables have chairs on only one side.  This leads to a somewhat theatrical environment where the diners all face one another while the servers dash around in the middle with the food.

The all-you-can-eat side.
Not thirty seconds after we sit down do a couple of banana leaves show up.  I’m told I need to take my thumb and press down on the center vein of the leaf to fully flatten what will become my lunch platter.  Next, one guy comes by with condiments and the main veg dishes.  Then another guy brings rotis and he is followed by the first guy, who now has cups of water and buttermilk to drink during your meal.  Lastly, another guy brings two types of dal and curd (yogurt).  Ready, feast!  Though I abstained from the room temp buttermilk –blech.
Here comes the pumpkin, just in time for Thanksgiving!

I chow down on all the veg piles, which are cabbage, pumpkin in a coconut sauce, and potato.  The pumpkin was outrageously good and something I hadn’t eaten before.  Many scoops of that stuff ended up on my banana leaf!

At some point you then ask for the rice course and in comes another huge platter of food.  I’m excited for the rice-and-dal-smooshing course and get to mixing things up while Chinmay pauses to give me a short history lesson. (Incidentally, I like eating with Chinmay, especially in India, because we’re both left-handed and therefore don’t get in each other’s way when pinching bites of food.) 

These types of restaurants sprung up in Mumbai in the late 1920s when there was a surge of factory work and therefore bachelors.  The diner set-up allowed single men a fast and affordable place to eat before or after work.  It’s no frills, it’s run as efficiently as a factory, and the food is comforting.  In later years, these restaurants became a mainstay of family meals out on Sundays. 

After about 30 minutes of gorging, we decide we’re finished and now we should clean up after ourselves.  To do so, you push all uneaten food to the center of the leaf, then fold down the top third, then fold up the bottom third.  Now fold left third in and then right third.  Boom!  Clean table and some leftovers for the cows on the street.   There are some moments where Indian simplicity strikes me as genius and this was one of them.  Farm to table and back to farm. 

The host is prompting us to take our lingering conversation elsewhere so others can sit down for lunch.  We oblige, wash our hands at the communal sink, then head out of the dining hall.  An instructive sign tells you how to take care of yourself now that your stomach is ready to explode.  Read up; this stuff is hilarious. 

We go against the sage advice and take a brief walk around the neighborhood.  The weekend markets are alive here, too, and Chinmay points out a pile of banana leaves.  We know where those will end up!  

I then return to the Matunga Central Railways station and ride to South Mumbai so I can get a start on my Christmas shopping.  We part ways at the train platform and off I go for yet more Indian adventures.

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