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The kindness of strangers

Sunil Rajagopal | Updated on April 18, 2021

Food friends: While driving Hussain suddenly asked, “Chai piyoge?”   -  ILLUSTRATION: SUNIL RAJAGOPAL

Love for food sparks an unusual friendship between a visitor and an auto driver in Hyderabad’s colourful lanes

* I think he missed the legendary ghee-less Bhatkal biryani whose onion rich recipe he described in loving detail

* We passed a bakery and I told him about Kochi’s egg puffs — mutta pups for those initiated to the cult

* We soon got our steaming, rose scented tea in glass cups

***

This is not a story of heroes rising to the occasion or great sacrifices to save lives. It’s just commonplace kindness.

Not long ago, I was roaming around Hyderabad, biryani-hunting, when I met Hussain who was in his early 60s — hefty with a fluffy white beard and a rumbling baritone. Hussain was an auto driver. We got talking and he agreed to take me to his favourite biryani place in town and show me some interesting places en route, that may not be on a tourist map. Hussain was from Bhatkal on the Kanara coast of Karnataka. He missed the sea and his brothers. And I think he missed the legendary ghee-less Bhatkal biryani whose onion rich recipe he described in loving detail. There is something about the biryani which makes it find a place in so many hearts...

Said an old man wise

Of fine grain rice

In fragrant spice

With soft meat bites

And sweet onion fries;

This dish has no price!

We passed a bakery and I told him about Kochi’s egg puffs — mutta pups for those initiated to the cult. A commonplace delicacy that somehow cannot be found in Delhi’s many expensive patisseries. If you have not tried one, you are missing a lot in life. As a boy, it was this one treat for which errant coins were saved — and spent during hungry walks back from school.

Hussain showed me around an old Shia Ashurkhana or mourning house, under a tree burdened with shiny dupattas and faded hoardings. Snarling tigers prowled the old white-washed walls. We went to a nondescript Balaji temple where hawkers sold flowers and tangy raw mango slices sprinkled with chilli powder. I saw an old man — working on lac bangles in a dark wooden-shuttered room with only a single yellow bulb — who did not like to be photographed.

I’d been here for five days and had tried a new biryani every night. The well-known ones — which now have outlets at the airport or on the way there — are disappointments, the flavours traded for packaging and uniqueness for franchisee stores. Hussain wondered if I would mind a hole-in-the-wall shop, because that was where his favourite biryani was. I said I was game to take any road that led me to good biryani.

Top of the world: Hussain ordered Esfahani or rose scented tea named after the beautiful Iranian city Esfahan   -  SUNIL RAJAGOPAL

 

While he was driving me around, he suddenly asked, “Chai piyoge”? I gladly said yes. Hussain parked beside a broken wall under a tangle of wires and we strolled through a narrow, dimly lit lane to a dingy Iranian café on a nameless corner. I would not have been able to find my way there again. He spoke to the man at the counter and paid for the tea, waving away my protests, as we sat down on blue wooden benches in a plain tube-lit hall. We soon got our steaming, rose scented tea in glass cups. Esfahani, apparently. Esfahan, that fabled Iranian city so beautiful that it is said to be “half the world”!

And then, the waiter returned to plonk a steel plate down on our desk. I was about to say we didn’t order anything else when I saw the two unmistakable mutta pups on it — baked, flaky golden brown, folded blobs of buttery goodness and, inside, half a boiled egg in a nest of spiced onions. When I looked up, only Hussain’s benign smile was more beautiful.

Sunil Rajagopal is an amateur birder and photographer based in Delhi

Published on April 18, 2021

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