Friday, November 26, 2010

Leaving India

In  my mind I had left India. The last day of driving around Mumbai, past squalid shacks that stretched on for miles (much more extensive than anything I have seen in South Africa), capped off with the vision of the 27-story Ambani tower, had given me enough to digest. At one billion dollars, the "mansion in the sky" is reportedly the most expensive private residence in the world. At night, it is illuminated to accentuate its jutting verandas and shaded recesses, their differently shaped and sized living spaces designed so that no two floors replicate one another.

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By the time I got to the airport, I was ready to leave this land of opposites. After passing through security, I marched directly to the Mugg and Bean and ordered a good old cheese and tomato sandwich on multigrain bread. Enough with the Indian food! As I munched, I was transported to a different place, a place which, if not necessarily happier, had more familiar contradictions and firmer ground from which to navigate them. I breathed a little easier reading the new John Irving novel, "Last Night in Twisted River," where the action was unfolding in New Hampshire and the cook at the logging camp was cooking Italian. "The Lost Flamingos of Bombay", purchased earlier in the day, would have to wait.

On board the 1:45am Delta flight to Amsterdam, the meal service was a brief one. I peeked under the aluminum cover of the tray. Staring back at me were: a baby dosa (about the size of a spring roll, snugly fitting vertically into the tray), a miniature mound of upma, and between them, a small dish of sambar, for dipping the dosa. "We're still here!" the South Indian breakfast trio seemed to say.

I blinked at them, not quite sure how to react. The upma seemed a bit darker than the one I had eaten in Pune. Was it in fact upma? In spite of everything, I began to reengage. "Excuse me," I queried the Indian woman sitting next to me, "what is this?" "It's masala upma", she replied.  "It's made from wheat. You can also have a plain upma, but this one is seasoned with garam masala. And this sambar, it's for dipping the dosa. A classic South Indian breakfast."

As I explained in my last post, I had become acquainted with two of these three. Learning to enjoy dosa and upma for breakfast had brought me some steps closer to understanding how life is lived in India. So far, the sambar has seemed too much to take in. But gradually, I am growing to embrace the whole Indian enchilada, with all its contradictions.

Dosa with sambar

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