Airports can feel desolate even when filled with people, and though I spent a not inconsequential amount of my childhood happily exploring the liminal space between security and the jetbridge, I was not particularly enthused to be winding my way through customs at 3 am in a New Delhi airport rendered unrecognizably bereft of the jostling masses I'd learned to draw a certain Pavlovian comfort from by a pandemic that was (and is) swiftly steamrolling the very idea of normalcy into submission with a jackhammer.
I had three more hours to wait until a flight took me to Bombay -- on business, but nowhere else felt like home even after 7 years away. As I walked aimlessly through the deserted terminal, I opened up my phone and idly pulled up Indian political news, which was characteristically depressing even ignoring COVID-19. I put the phone away and decided to distract myself with food.
The only thing open at that hour was a self-service restaurant with different counters serving different kinds of Indian food -- North Indian, South Indian, Biriyani, and Chaat. The whole operation was called Taste of India, or something suitably generic in that vein. Despite a dozen staff members hanging around the other stalls, only the South Indian counter was open. I'm half Tamil, and I ate South Indian food for breakfast almost every day growing up. New Delhi is solidly in the North, and northerners are not renowned for their ability to make South Indian food, but I figured that whatever they gave me would suffice to heal the damage caused by the freshly-inflicted American airplane food experience.
I walked up to the South Indian counter and was pleasantly surprised to find that the menu contained not just the selection of ordinary Idlis -- fermented rice cakes -- and Dosas -- savoury crepes made of rice and lentil -- that you'd find at South Indian restaurants catering to people from other places, but rarer delicacies like the rice noodle dish Idiappam, the massive, flat Thatte Idli -- a specialty of Karnataka usually served covered in fiery red chutney or podi, the ground lentil and spice mix that goes by the street name gunpowder -- and Aapam -- a fermented rice batter and coconut milk pancake whose wide divergence from dosa you'll have to take on faith if you've never eaten one. I excitedly asked the man running the counter for an order of Thatte Idli and chai. He looked me up and down, then gazed right into my eyes as if trying to divine the contents of my soul. Abruptly breaking eye contact, he looked up at the menu and said "Chai toh nahin hai, aur thatte idli order nahin karna chahiye" -- there's no tea, and you shouldn't order the Thatte Idli.
Being denied tea in New Delhi is like being denied sand in the middle of the Saudi Arabian desert -- it feels like a wilful denial of not just your request, but of reality itself. The airport might be bereft of people, but for it to be stripped of tea, the life-force of the north, was a bridge too far even amidst the strangeness that has bloomed in the time of corona.
Frustrated, I asked "Kya aap bana nahin sakte hain" -- can't you make some? There was not a single other customer around, and I had time to spare. He tilted his head a fraction to the right and responded "Hamara specialty nahin hai sir, " -- it's not our specialty -- "toh maza nahin aayega". Maza aayega is curious Hindi phrase -- literally translated, it says fun (maza) will come (aayega). Its real meaning is something halfway between "you'll have fun" and "you'll enjoy it" spoken with a childlike gleam in the eye of the speaker. Add a nahin (no) in between, and you get the opposite, the sense that fun that was out there for the taking has somehow evaporated just as you were about to drink it in. These are sacred phrases, intended to be invoked only when one has confidence in one's diagnosis of the maza quotient of something.
What's more, he had me on cultural correctness: the drink of the South is strong filter coffee, which he proceeded to offer me with the guarantee of it being "ekdam mast", which roughly means that its consumption guarantees maza. I begrudgingly accepted this compromise, then swiftly opened negotiations on the main event.
"Thatte idli kyun nahin order karoon?" -- why shouldn't I order the Thatte idli, I asked. "Saab," -- I'd graduated from sir to boss -- " maza nahin aayega".
I sighed. Only in India would I find someone actively trying to dissuade me from buying food from his stall. I imagined that he didn't want to put in whatever effort was required for the thatte idli, and instead wanted to steer me to something simpler. I was determined to beat the man at his own game, so I proceeded to ask for Aapam and Idiappam. Pat came his response: "Sir, yeh sab nahin order karo" -- don't order this stuff -- "meh keh raha hoon na, maza nahin aayega" -- I'm telling you, that maza you're looking for just ain't there. I decided to probe further. "Maza kyun nahin aayega" -- why won't I get any maza?
The man looked at me, then looked rapidly to his left and his right, his eyes sweeping the joint like a seasoned intelligence operative. He then leaned forward and whispered conspiratially "sir, yeh sab frozen maal hai". Maal is slang for items, and it usually connotes something illicit or counterfeit in some way -- he was telling me these items were all frozen, and he opened up the freezer behind him to prove it. "Micro me garam karte hain, aur poora flavour gayab ho jaata hai" -- we heat this stuff up in the microwave, and the flavour just disappears.
I've never changed my mind about someone as quickly and completely as I did about him in that instant. He wasn't trying to save himself work -- this man, paid less in a day than a microwave-happy Starbucks employee in the US gets paid in an hour, stuck in an international airport in the midst of a pandemic, was creating more work for himself and his colleagues to save me from an unsatisfying breakfast.
Chastened, I asked "Fresh me sabse accha kya milega" -- what's the best fresh item I can get? He stared right into my eyes, as if re-evaluating his previous assessment of the very essence of my being based on recent evidence, then proclaimed "Mysore masala dosa ekdam mast hai". The Mysore masala dosa, a classic of South Indian restaurants everywhere, features a spiced potato mixture wrapped in a thin, savoury rice-and-lentil pancake that has been smeared with a delicious spicy red paste that is the specialty of the city of Mysore.
I love the Mysore flavour, but I don't like potatoes in my dosa, so I asked instead for a Mysore saada dosa, a 'plain' dosa with only the spicy paste inside. The man looked at me with something resembling pity, having come to the realization that he would have no choice but to save me from myself once more. "Phir tel ke sivay makhan ke saath banau" -- should I make it in butter instead of oil? Before I had a chance to answer and doom myself further, he wisely punched in the order and reached out his hand for payment, repeating authoritatively "Mysore saada dosa, makhan ke saath" -- a plain Mysore dosa with butter.
Seeing that the negotiations had been successfully concluded, one of the men loitering around the North Indian stall joined the maza man behind the counter and donned an apron bearing a garish rendition of the establishment's name -- The Delicacies of our Desh or something to that effect. Barely waiting for the dosa griddle to heat up, he drizzled on some oil and dumped a small metal bowl of gloopy batter onto the surface. As he used one hand to trace out concentric circles with the bowl, turning the batter into an uneven dosa on the still-lukewarm griddle, he used his other hand to rip open the plastic covering of a bowl of spiced potatoes.
The scent of the potatoes hit the merchant of maza like a gunshot -- I saw his mouth turn into a determined frown as he realized that he would once again have to take my fate into his own hands. In one stride he leapt to the griddle, pushing aside the aproned would-be dosa maker, who was in the process of dispensing a copious amount of oil onto the crackling batter, and quickly scraped the would-be dosa onto a plate. In a low voice, he said to the aproned man, "Maine mysore saada bola tha, makhan ke saath" -- I said a plain Mysore dosa, with butter, not oil! Waving his hands just above the griddle, he said with urgency "Yeh toh garam bhi nahin hai" -- this isn't even hot. Decisively, but not rudely, he shoved the plate into the hands of the aproned wonder and said "Tum hi kha lo" -- you eat this.
Waving the other man away, my saviour, the protector of the sacred maza, measured out a fresh bowl of batter. Tenderly, he turned the gloopy dollop into a perfectly formed dosa, forgoing the ceremonial oil dousing in favour of a spoon of pearly white butter. He then took a heaping spoonful of red Mysore paste and vigorously rubbed it onto the dosa's surface.
He took a step back and caught my gaze, smiling broadly, then used the spatula to roll the magnificent crepe into a cylinder and onto a plate with a few deft flicks of his wrist. With a gleam in his eye, he handed me the plate and said "Ab maza aayega, sir". Still in awe at this display, I stumbled over my thanks -- "Bahut... bahut shukriya, ji" -- and walked to a table.
As I attempted to sanitise the surface ineffectually with my handkerchief, I marvelled at the fact that even here, in an airport during a pandemic, trapped in a soulless corporate multi-cuisine concept called The Spices of Hindustan or something of that nature, the spirit of India, that gleam in the eye of the old cobbler who fixed my favourite years-old shoes under a long-gone Banyan tree, the motor mechanic who taught me how to build an engine when I took one of his apart, the carpenter who showed me how to carve, my latest guardian angel, who wouldn't let me leave a single molecule of maza on the plate, and countless others who owed me nothing but gave me everything they had, perfect strangers who made their lives harder to make mine better -- that spirit lives on, a spark of life unceasing in its quest to light the fire of a maza-filled future that it might never see, but would never give up on.
Meanwhile, back at the South Indian counter, a woman attempted to order an Aapam. "Ma'am, Aapam nahin order karna chahiye". I smiled to myself as I tore into one of the best Mysore saada dosas I've ever eaten. Maza aa gaya.
. . .
Soham Sankaran is not dead yet, and the universe has compounded this error by allowing him to be CEO of Pashi, a Y Combinator-backed startup building software for manufacturing.
Soham can be contacted at (his first name) [at] soh.am.
You can read more of his writing at soh.am/writes, follow him on twitter @sohamsankaran, and get new writing via email by subscribing below.