Back home, I lived my life in a series of small, seemingly insignificant traditions. Every day, I’d have my own, apparently ‘absurd’ bowl of yogurt and raspberry jam for dessert after a plate full of curry and rice for lunch. Every two months, my mother and I would indulge in a tub of tender coconut ice cream and bawl our eyes out to Mamma Mia as Meryl Streep sang great arias and Pierce Brosnan mewled in vain for her love. Every year, the both of us would pull out our blazing, burnished copper pots and plonk them on the stove, fill them up with milk and sugar and slivered almonds and sticky dried figs and bubble up a 45-litre batch of sheer korma for seemingly everyone in town to celebrate Eid. These traditions kept me grounded in life and gave me something to look forward to every day when I got sick of watching people eat potato chips for lunch at school or roam idly around town on weekend nights while their parents languished and howled for their children back at home. These simple acts kept me happy, and it just so happened that, one random, meaningless night in the grand scheme of things, my father came up with a another one.
The movie-of-the-evening at home had just cut to black, the echo of the triumphant credits still ringing derisively in our ears, but not quite as loudly as the growls of our stomachs. The atmosphere was subdued; where exactly could six people dine, at the night of a bank holiday, when every single restaurant was closed and almost all the chefs in Bombay were asleep in their beds/passed out on the street (yes, that happens, take it from someone who’s seen five merry line cooks singing the National Anthem down a highway at 1am in the morning)?
It happened in a single heartbeat: A spark lit deep in the depths of my father’s liquid, dark eyes, reflecting his ravenous thoughts. A grin crept across his face as memories began swirling gleefully in his brain, and he quickly ushered his wife, son, best friend, and best friend’s wife and son into his car before slamming his foot on the gas and carting us off into the night, leaving the TV on back home (much to my amusement and my mother’s chagrin).
When we walked out of the car, it was in a different world altogether; a world filled with too much smoke and too much ambient noise and too much life - Ramadan, the holy month of fasting, was just drawing to a close, which meant every street vendor in Bohri Mohalla on the far, shaded sided of Bombay (characterised by narrow, cobble-stoned gullies and little kids in Islamic garb shrieking joyfully at 2 am) had their stall open for business, ready to feed those who had abstained in a religious fervour for the past twenty nine days. The smell of meat fat and gristle and caramelized bones and an oozing, buttery marrow permeated the air and slicked the inside of my throat and nose like a slow swipe of butter across a warm piece of toast: melting, unctuous, glorious in every way.
My father was in ecstasy, shepherding us from stall to stall, greeting street-food cooks like old friends with hugs and slaps on the back, distributing twists of soft-yeasty naan tinged with the smoke of the area and as crisp as the thinnest potato chip, for us to chow on. We finally settled on a small ‘dhaba’: clustered, slightly grimy, and definitely not for the faint of heart, there was nevertheless a certain life glowing in that small room as a young boy, no older than fifteen, served us plates of ‘gosht’ and ‘picchota’, both mutton curries that had been stewing and gelatinizing since 7 am as the meat braised and smothered and drowned in its own juices, unleashing a torrent of brash, spicy-yet-creamy flavors down my throat as my teeth slid into the first bite.
Next, it was chicken livers, satisfyingly yielding and gorgeously rich when fried and served on a bed of dark, fried/caramelised onions, followed by plate after plate of the most dazzling selection of kebabs, dressed up in swathes of mint and coriander snuffling around them, soaking up their flavorful liquids. Each had its own unique feature: the ‘reshmi’ melted ever-so-slowly across my tongue and cuddled my palate with a delicate, herbed piquancy, while the ‘tandoori’ sparkled with the combative clash of fiery Kashmiri chillies and cooling yogurt across my palate, and the ‘shammi’ toyed with the earthy muskiness of lentils and umami meatiness of slow-cooked lamb in my mouth.
It was quite the feat for my father to actually coax the five of us round-bellied individuals back out onto the road to waddle over to the main street: only the promise of a good dessert and a sleepy car ride back home got us to our feet. We clambered back out, gossiping and chatting and chuckling derisively, adding our joyful noises fueled by the blessing of good food to the cacophony of that wonderful night. Cars screeched in the distance and the general hubbub swelled audibly as we strolled over to a withered old man straddling a gigantic, frying-spider in the middle of the road, swiping it across a swimming-pool sized wok of oil, in which sun-struck, golden ‘malpuas’ - sweet, deep fried fritters tinged with rose and cinnamon and custard - fried maliciously. We each received one in a plate, sliced into gargantuan triangles and dripping sticky, sugary syrup across our greedy palms, and I can still recall the ghosts of that heavenly dessert unleashing its flavors in an oily, saccharine starburst and nearly short-circuiting my overexposed palate to this day.
We made this a tradition too. Every year, the six of us cloistered ourselves in a car and drove down to Bohri Mohalla for a night of reckless abandon of health standards, lack of any sanitation whatsoever, and sheer, gastronomical nirvana. Every year, I remember sharing a seat with my best friend and staring at my parents being goofballs and pelting each other with bits of naan and having a grin wider than a clown’s plastered across my face as I relished more mutton curry. Every time I remember those days, my mind swims with the ghosts of my past, making me feel closer to my family even though we’re 7722 miles away from each other. And, as I write this piece, it’s suddenly dawning upon me that, someday when I go back to the streets where the children play games at two am and meat simmers and boils in its own juices, my eyes will light up and a grin quite identical to my father’s may just creep across my face as Eid draws nearer and nearer.