Sunday, September 21, 2008

Pani-Puri and Paan at Southall

Saturday, September 20, 2008
Hounslow and Southall

My day began on the Piccadilly line headed for Hounslow East to see my Dad's cousin, Sybil, whom I remember with great affection as having given me a memorable time when I arrived in London for the very first time 22 years ago. She lived then in a sprawling home called 'Wheelspin' in Guildford, Surrey. Alas, asthma, lack of exercise and dependence on a nebulizer has reduced her to a couch potato who spends her days staring at a TV screen and swallowing the soap operas (though, not necessarily, digesting them) and the competitive reality shows. Some things never change--she still watches Coronation Street and it was deja-vu for me all over again watching her watch the goings-on on the UK's longest-running soap. Craving now for company, she kept worrying me to spend a weekend with her but I had, regretfully, to inform her that my weekends are all spoken for. Tomorrow I head for Brighton, the weekend after for Liverpool, the weekend following that to Barcelona, so I was glad I made the time to see her today.

Her ex-husband Joel picked me up at the Tube station and drove me, first to a gigantic Tesco from where I ended up purchasing some desserts as the prices were so laughably cheap compared to the the arm and leg prices I've been paying for all groceries at Marks and Spenser Simply Food and Sainsburys. And to my astonishment, I discovered that they sell packets of idli-sambar-chutney and masala dosa in the Tesco Freezer section! And at very reasonable prices too for Hounslow is London's Little India! Joel picked up two packets and I feasted that afternoon on lunch in their 3-bedroom flat.

When we had caught up with family news on both sides--Sybil inquired after my family members in Bombay and I learned about all my distant relatives here in the US--she returned to her soaps while Joel followed the horse-racing at Eyre in Scotland, placing long-distance bets on horses that did not bring him any moolah at all. It seems he spends his days playing the horses and his nights at the poker table where he is quite an ace. The many poker trophies he has won at competitions attest to his expertise as a card sharp.

In the evening, after he had served me a mean upkari--studded with dal and mustard seeds and flavored with green chilli--Joel drove me to Southall, the Punjabi stronghold of London since the 1950s and allowed me to soak in the ethnic atmosphere of this colorful quarter. Rhinestone studded salwar-khameez suits, gold bridal jewelery, spices and condiments in the grocery stores, sweetmeats galore (fresh jalebis being fried on the streets were soaked in concentrated sugar syrup and sold straight off the boiling vat to salivating customers) and street food in the form of North Indian chaat was everywhere. I felt as if I was on the streets of Bandra, Bombay, as we stood and relished plates of pani puri made with just the right sweet-sour-spicy-salt combination, then soothed our burning tongues with the jalebis. I nipped into the grocery store (Tutu Cash and Carry) and bought some spices at prices that would put the English grocery stores out of business and some sauces (chilli sauce, soy sauce). Then, just when we were headed back to our car, Joel spied the paanwalla and wanted to treat me to a mouthful of betel nuts wrapped in two betel leaves. Having never acquired a taste for paan, I declined, but he got himself a sweet paan for a pound, then drove me back to Hounslow from where I jumped into a train that was full of new arrivals from Heathrow headed into London--some jetlagged and travel-weary, others chattering nineteen to the dozen obviously excited to be in London.

I recalled the feeling I had one month ago while on the same train and thought to myself--so much has happened since I arrived and yet, it is so hard to believe that a month has passed already! Time has certainly flown and I have done nothing substantial yet.

Got home exactly an hour later to find that my Anglo-Indian contacts are slowly responding to my initial queries. I have begun to set appointments to see them and tomorrow shall be meeting Marina Stubbs in Brighton.

No comments: