Saturdays in my childhood were spent waking up to the sound of the dustbin lid being opened and closed repeatedly. Cupboards would be shut rhythmically as bowls and thalis (plates) were taken out to eat lukewarm puri-palya, vadas, sambhar and chutney, and waxed paper would float delicately to the bottom of the bucket. I have always associated South Indian breakfasts with weekends, the family seated around a dining table covered with the remnants of last night’s dinner, wearing pyjamas. My early school mornings were filled with buttered toast and jam that never lined my stomach in the comfortable way a puri did.
As a child, darshinis were always places that seemed to hide stories within their walls. I imagined that whole families of flies lived behind the neon boards advertising gobi manchurian next to kesri bath, and I believed that the strong men who armed themselves with plates of food secretly lived double lives as spies for a large breakfast making conglomerate.
There seemed to be so much romance hidden in masala dosas, filled with mystery that became less mysterious when packages were lazily unwrapped on late weekend mornings. But as I grew older, breakfast turned into a meal that was quickly shovelled down my throat as I ran after buses, dried sambhar caked under my nails.
It is now several years later, and I am in college. The Bollywood filminess of breakfast had long since disappeared, until I started to take notice of Udupi Upahar.
Udupi Upahar is a five-minute walk from college. I have never been to Udupi, and the smell of salt doesn’t punctuate the Richmond circle signal air the way I assume it does in Western Karnataka.
Located at the beginning of the Double Road intersection, Udupi Upahar is the kind of place one smells before they notice it staring right at them. The air always smells like filter coffee and “hotel sambhar”, strong enough to overpower the scent of cigarette smoke that lurks right outside it. It is like any other darshini that serves classic south Indian breakfast, as well as a variety of north Indian food, chaat, and milkshakes, ice cream, coffee and tea.
For some reason, two whole semesters go by, and my friends and I were never tempted by the various scents that wafted out of the open kitchen. When we finally decided to see whether the food tasted as good as it smelled, we ordered that day’s special: pineapple dosa and 3 glasses of coffee. The cashier looked at us with an expression of mild horror when we asked for the pineapple dosa, but silently handed us our change. His face said good luck; the dosa tasted like just Mum’s, (sans pineapple), the sambhar wasn’t as sweet as I’d have liked, the coffee was perfect.
As the days went by, stopping for coffee and the occasional vada became a habit. My girlfriends and I have come to know each other very well over tiny glasses of coffee. Conversation is a small price to pay for the large pimples that dot our foreheads like phases of the moon. D and I are very lucky – we somehow always manage to get an empty table. We speak in exaggerated English, one always asking the other to “proceed rapidly” to the nearest vacant spot while we hurriedly dig change out of our bags. The cashier has come to recognize us by face, and automatically hands us a slip for two coffees, every day. My friends and I spend our last few precious rupees on simple pleasures, and Saturday mornings now smell like the inside of a dingy classroom.
As a young adult, I no longer associate the flavours of South Indian breakfasts with the start of weekends. Dosas have forced me to come to terms with an expanding waistline (courtesy of all the stress eating and late-night deadlines), and coffee reminds me of the transition into adulthood.