Where I live, a good Indian restaurant is as much of a rarity as a good Kumar Sanu song. And South Indian? Fuggedaboutit! So it was with much fanfare that a local version of Udipi, that brand name synonymous with lip-smacking South Indian food, was opened in the area. I don’t know about lip-smacking, but compared to the sambhar at a local Punjabi place that tasted like Chicken Makhani sans chicken plus sambhar powder, the Udipi version was easily forgiven for its own failure to comply with standards set by its predecessors back home.
Me? I love meat. I grew up on a healthy diet of Mom’s Beef Olathal (fried shredded beef decked with fried coconut…and fried) & Kerala Chicken Curry (chicken pieces doing the backstroke in a pool of coconut oil). But then, having grown up in Madras, I have more of the Pattan in me. Which means, if someone were to tempt me with a plate of Annapoorna Nei Roast & their heavenly sambhar, and a plate of Chettinad Chicken, I’d ravish the dosai in a heartbeat. (Awww…Chetti Kutti, don’t be sad. You know Daddy will ravish you next, unless of course there was a plate of Adai-Avial or Aapam-Avial in the platter.)
Which explains why I make at least 3-4 trips a week to this Udipi place. Plus, it’s only a convenient 5 minute drive from where I work. Who am I kidding? My lazy-ass would never drive anywhere. So I exploit the vegetarian yearnings of a Chennai-based colleague and plant myself in his passenger seat everyday at 11:45am. And as the first batch of idlis are loaded into the trays at Udipi, we inhale the aroma of these rice-paste-shaped-like-UFOs (as explained to a gora friend) and begin our session of gluttony.
So what the clucking duck has my sambhar fetish got to do with Desi Muzak, right? Very little actually. Consider it an intro gone awry.
Well, I had no idea what Muzak was, until an American friend of mine pointed out that my ring tone sounded a lot like Muzak. When I asked him if that was street lingo for “Awesome Music”, he laughed in my face and went onto explain the sordid history behind Muzak. About how much it was hated. About how much he hated it. About how his cats hated it. I soaked in all the information and told him he was a fool to label my awesome Ilaiyaraja ring tone, Muzak. He whatevered me, and left.
Which got me thinking. (It hurt, but I persisted) Why would anyone hate gentle, bland arrangements of popular music designed for play in shopping malls, grocery stores so much? Agreed, it’s not the best music, but why would 17% of people regard piped music as “the thing they most detest about modern life”?
It was my third week at Udipi when a series of disturbing events threw a wrench in my afternoon revelry . The symptoms were mysterious at first. For starters, I realized that at around 12:30pm I would have this inexplicable urge to puke all over my plate. After this, my head would go all woozy and as my fingers clawed on the table, the sambar & chutney would flow into the pongal and a vulgar psychedelic display of “south indian food gone wild” would unfold before my eyes. I’d rather not describe what followed. After all, kids read my blog. So anyway, I replayed this scene in my head every night. I even thought of writing things on post-its like Leonard Shelby. But I didn’t, even though I did pay off an overdue phone bill, thanks to a previous post-it. It was all very unnerving. And mysterious.
Truth be told…the daily dose of the (kids, go back to Spongebob now) fucking Desi version of Muzak was getting to me. Popular Hindi music designed for play in Indian restaurants as horrible instrumentals. I realized that I’ve never been to an Indian restaurant this often before. I’m sure I’ve had to listen to similar crap, but had never experienced the detrimental effects of frequent exposure. And the reason for the 12:30 puke-up call, was this horrible, horrible rendition of Tum Paas Aaye from Kuch Kuch Hota Hain, played on a damn shehnai. Can you imagine that? A god-awful song played on an instrument that I most associate with sobering, day-long Doordarshan recitals while the nation mourned the loss of another leader.
So on my 15th consecutive day of mind-bending deja-vu, I called the man-in-charge and complained. Rather, whined. “Why O Why?”, I asked. And how did they manage to time the KKHH so perfectly? Did they think I ate too much? I tipped 0.89%, didn’t I? The man just smiled, which then transformed into a hearty laugh, “Ha Ha Ha, Sir. We have a 10CD changer and it starts playing first thing in the morning. So by the time you get here, I guess it’s the Hindi instrumental CD that comes on”. “Would you please, for heaven’s sake, start from disc3 tomorrow. In fact, any disc but 1. Please.”, I begged. I’d have fallen on my knees had he refused. But knowing a regular customer when he saw one, he nodded understandingly. Hand signals were made, a few men hurried to a CD player and in a few seconds, the sound of the shehnai ceased. And glory be to God, I’ve never had to listen to it since.
So, who sings along now as I stuff spoonfuls of Bisibela Baath into my system, you ask? I don’t know if you’ve heard of this singer. Goes by the name Bhimsen Joshi. Apparently some Hindustani Classical kingpin, who incidentally sounds so much better than a shehnai.
I’ll give him a month.