Outside the Jogendranagar station, Vivek, Fayyaz and I were greeted with the perfect storm of honking, deafening, clashing traffic, swirling winds lifting dust off the streets and pushing it onto our faces, and an onrush of rickshaw-pullers and rickshaw drivers beckoning us to go with them for highly inflated rates. Fayyaz and Vivek acted as if they had seen this plenty of times as they nonchalantly evaded the chaos and crossed the street miraculously avoiding multiple potentially debilitating traffic accidents. As I gingerly stumbled across the street, clinging on to dear life, I could see the “What’s this, amateur hour?” expressions scribbled in bold letters on their faces.
Both of them had booked the same hotel in the city because they believed it was the only hotel worth staying at if you weren’t a millionaire. Since I didn’t have a place to stay, I followed them to the Central Guest House, where a flight of stairs led past the doors of a bank to dank and narrow corridors leading to small and dingy rooms lit by lone, weary light bulbs and furnished with squat toilets. Fayyaz and Vivek happily took the squat toilet rooms that they snagged for 250 Rs.
I was going to walk out and find another, more cheerful place to stay but just as I was about to do so, one of the attendants asked me to follow him upstairs and have a look at a “luxury” room. The luxuries here were a tubelight, a small wooden shelf to keep your things, a western commode whose flush was broken and instead of the 10 foot by 4 rooms below, a more spacious 10 foot by 6 area to live in. These additional amenities cost a 150 Rs. more and with some bargaining help from Fayyaz, I got the room rate down to 350.
We were all pretty hungry by the time we freshened up and dumped our bags in the room. Vivek was a vegetarian and much to Fayyaz’s disappointment, he suggested we go to one of the only vegetarian places he found affordably edible in the city, a sterile food court type restaurant on the top floor of a clothes mall. Fayyaz had now become so attached to Vivek that he joined us regardless of his misgivings about having to eat vegetarian food at the end of a long journey.
Vivek, who considered himself a connoisseur of the multifarious items available at the different counters, insisted on placing all our orders. When our orders arrived, Fayyaz and I exchanged knowing glances, perhaps because we were thinking the same thing i.e. how in the hell were we going to eat any of the food put before us on the table. We stared helplessly at the plates of leaky chaat, greasy, borderline nauseating thalis, pizza dosa, a revoltingly buttery paneer tikka masala and a bowl of jeera rice sprinkled with a generous amount of oil. We hadn’t eaten anything for over 8 hours but even our hunger pangs chose not to trouble us anymore having had a look at the food that was meant to satisfy them.
Vivek, though, was singularly untroubled by this sight and went about his business of demolishing one plate after the other with the ferocity of a lion lunching on its prey after a successful hunt. Fayyaz and I took turns at gentle nibbles of bits of edible portions of a naan here, some dal there, a bit of papad. After a while, Fayyaz had enough of this and pretended to be busy on a phone call and vanished. Vivek was so busy gorging on the food that he didn’t realise Fayyaz had left until 10 minutes later. When I had seen that stuff land on the table, I felt guilty for all the food that would go wasted, fears that turned out to be entirely irrational as I watched Vivek devour every artery-clogging dish he had ordered.
Once he had wiped all the oil off his fingers and his face and Fayyaz had returned from his imaginary phone call and a clandestine street food meal, Vivek wondered if we were game for dessert and coffee. He was gone before we could say no after which Fayyaz turned to me and wondered how Vivek hadn’t collapsed of a heart attack yet. Our gluttonous acquaintance then arrived with 2 plates of gulab jamun, one of rosogulla and 3 cups of coffee, coffee that was so bad it tasted like a hot cup of citrine gruel. I took it with me on the pretext of going to the washroom and dumped it in the dustbin when no one was looking.
As if this exhausting meal and the exertions of the day hadn’t been enough, Vivek now wanted to go watch a movie. The only ones playing in Agartala that day were Tera Intezaar starring Arbaaz Khan and Sunny Leone and Firangi starring the most popular and hence over-rated comedian in India, Kapil Sharma. I would have been happy to see neither and gone to my room to sleep but just the memory of the 10 x 6 room that awaited me made want to spend more time outdoors. Vivek and Fayyaz were partial towards Tera Intezaar because as Fayyaz, looking longingly at the Sunny Leone poster said, “Unhe dekhne toh hum chaand tak bhi jaa sakte hain.” (I could even go to the moon to see her) Both were highly disappointed when the guy at the ticket counter informed them that they had to cancel the show because of low occupancy.
Vivek and Fayyaz were quite crestfallen to hear this and had no option but to go for the alternative. I was extremely hungry because I hadn’t eaten anything at the food court and I got myself a big plate of nachos, a cup of coffee and a large tub of popcorn. When Vivek saw this he said, “You’re still hungry after eating so much? You should take care of your health. Eating so much food is not good for you.” I resisted the temptation to slap his face.
Before the film began, Fayyaz told me he was quite a fan of Kapil Sharma’s show and he hoped the film would be in a similar vein of nonsense humour. But, alas, like perhaps many a Kapil Sharma fan in the world, he was distressed to find that this was his comedy idol’s attempt at “sensible cinema”. Set in the pre-Independence era, the film plodded along with one unfunny scene after the other where the only goal appeared to have been to show that this dude, who headlined the silliest of talk shows in the world, could also “act”. 30 minutes into the film, I could hear loud stereophonic droning noises, one from the left and one from the right. Vivek and Fayyaz had snored off to deep sleep. It was midnight hour and there was no reason for me to continue watching that drivel. So I walked back to my 10 by 6 at the Central Guest House to sleep off the hectic day.
“Hey, how you doin’?”, squeaked a voice from behind me as I turned a corner on a random stroll through Jonker street.
“Me?”, I asked the lady who posed the query.
“Doing fine. How’re you?”
“It’s a hot day. You wanna try some sweets?”
If it was India, I would have moved on but since I was in Melaka, I was curious to know what she was selling. It was a tiny little shop with a couple of chairs put up outside and boxes of sweets piled all over the place. The woman who called me out and ran the shop was dressed in a bright red floral skirt and had layers of plastic surgery and make-up on her face to cover the wrinkles and her age.
“I knew you like sweets because you’re from India,” she said.
“How do you know I’m from India? I could also be Malay or Pakistani.”
“Because you carry your bag on one shoulder. Malay would never do that because he know he would get robbed by bikers. Anyway, come sit. Taste some of this.”
She opened a large enamel bowl filled with a thick, gooey, jelly-like substance, carefully ran a spoon in to pluck the smallest amount possible and gave me what was easily the tiniest portion of a dessert I’ve ever been offered. It tasted mildly sweet, a bit eggy, with a hint of saltiness. It was weird but as soon as I was done consuming it, I hankered for more.
“How do you like it?”, she asked.
“Interesting, although I’ll need to taste some more to know if I want to buy it.”
“Some more? It’s expensive, lah. One spoon 30 dollars. A full box 2000 dollars. You have money?”
“Never mind then. What is it anyway?”
“It’s called Bird’s Nest, one of the most expensive delicacy from China.”
“Oh, interesting. What’s it made of?”
I wish I hadn’t asked because what I heard had the effect of making me want to throw up right away.
“Bird saliva”, she said casually, like it was the most normal thing in the world. “Take it to your family, lah. It’s precious and rare. You don’t get it in India.”
“It’s too expensive”, I said.
“Only 50$ for this one box. Not expensive. It’s diluted.”
“I don’t have that kind of money and I don’t plan to be in India for a few months. How do they get the saliva anyway? Someone stands under trees while the birds spit?”
“No, lah”, she said, laughing, “We have a factory where birds make nests. I can take you if you want.”
“I think I’m okay not seeing that. Is there any place nearby where you get a good dessert that doesn’t cost 2000$ and isn’t made of bird saliva?”
“You want to eat dessert?”, she asked, looking at me as if it was the most ridiculous notion in the world.
“Yeah, dessert would be good.”
“Give me a minute”, she said and then hollered at a fat kid who was playing a couple of blocks away. She gave him some instructions in Chinese and then turned to me and said, ”Okay, let’s go.”
She took me to a place called Jonker 88, a claustrophobic cafe set in an old Chinese shophouse. The atmosphere was remarkably old-fashioned with quaint pictures of old Melaka and Chinese artwork adorning the walls, shelves packed with ornamental trinkets, little Chinese dolls and toys stacked on a mirrored gallery and a few wooden stools and tables packed close in a tiny space. It was packed to the gills with people slurping laksa bowls and cooling themselves off with icy desserts.
We had to wait in a queue to place our orders and when Yue Xi, for that was the name of the Bird’s Nest lady, saw that the Australian couple in front of us was taking an inordinately long time to decide, she took matters into her own hands and told them she could order for them if they wished. Bowled over by her confidence, they relented. Xi invited them to eat with us and when they agreed, she ordered four different things in super quick time. The people making our dessert were equally quick as big globs of ice were shoved into a machine to be shaved and then transferred onto bowls where they added the ingredients as per our orders.
We carried our four large bowls of cendol, Malaysia’s favorite dessert, to the only vacant table we could find, right below large red and blue frames of Mandarin calligraphy. Cendol is essentially shaved ice, gula melaka (a local variety of palm sugar), santan (coconut milk), a sprinkling of flavoured syrups and sometimes green rice noodles and durian. I thought the durian version was too sweet but there was one bowl with peanuts and jelly and an assortments of tangy syrups that was absolutely fantastic.
I learnt a few things about Yue Xi from the conversation the Australians had with her. They had been to China the previous year and wondered if she too came from China. She did, but her family left the country during the volatile period in the 60s to take refuge in the town of Ipoh in Malaysia. She had a tough childhood when her parents worked around the clock, working in a tin mining factory during the day and selling noodles in the market at night. But they pulled through and eventually moved to Melaka when one of her cousins had the enterprising idea of harvesting swiftlets for the much sought-after birds-nest delicacies in China. She then went on to explain the entire laborious process of extracting the raw material and processing it to make it ready for consumption, information that I could have done without because it made even the amazing cendol bowls on the table feel unappetizing.
Just as I was stopping the cynic in me from wondering if this entire conversation was a marketing pitch, Yue Xi snapped in her trademark squeaky tone, “I can take you to see the factory if you want. And then you can come to my shop and see if you want to buy some to take home.” The Australians sounded very excited by the idea and said they would love to go. She looked at me sardonically and asked, “You still don’t wanna go?” I was absolutely sure, I said.