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Painful pleasures

Manjula Padmanabhan | Updated on January 22, 2018 Published on August 28, 2015

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The original idea of camping out in the open for one night has mutated into an open-ended road trip. Birk knows people who own a farm in Vermont. He suggests that we go visit them and spend some time on the farm. It takes about six hours to get there from Elsewhere but we’re in no hurry. No bosses await our return, no jobs are in jeopardy. All three of us are living off tiny nest eggs in one form or another. We’re not rich, but we can afford a modest excursion so long as we pool our resources and share double rooms in small motels.

We run out of our original stock of sandwiches, beer, fruit and tortilla chips by the end of the first day. The ready-made salads and cold meats we buy from grocery stores in the small towns we pass through sustain us on the road and we share everything we eat with Punky. But by evening every day, Birk begins talking about his hungry Viking ancestors while clutching his belly. So we get takeaway pizzas every night until the thought of yet another slab of garlic-scented gloop from a small-town eatery has us clutching our bellies.

Things are looking bleak by the end of our fifth day on the road. We have just pulled into our motel for the night when Bins notices that in the nearby strip-mall there’s a restaurant called The Nut-Raja. Its logo looks like a Taj Mahal with a peeled onion for its central dome and cutlery in place of the minarets. “Maybe they will serve Indian food?” he says. Sure enough: the moment we push open the outer door, spicy fragrances leap out and embrace us like a litter of steamy puppies.

Bins practically bursts into flame with excitement. “Mmmmhhhhhhh!” he inhales, waving his long sensitive nose in the air. “Rasam! Sambar! Chutney! Ah-hahaha. We will never leave this town,” he declares. “We will stay here forever!” The restaurant serves not merely Indian, but specifically South Indian food including non-vegetarian specialties from Chettinad. Birk is curious and a little nervous. He’s eaten Indian food before but only the zero-watt versions that most restaurants in the West serve. “We Vikings aren’t used to chillies,” he says, bravely, “but we’re willing to try!”

It’s a self-service joint, so we pile our plates, choose a booth in the main dining hall and settle down. The paper place-mats have a graphic of all 43 US Presidents on it. There’s obviously a large population of South Asians in the area because the place is packed with ladies in nylon saris and children with oil-slicked hair. There are quite a few non-South Asians too. The atmosphere is mildly festive, even though it’s just an ordinary day. Bins shows Birk how to use his fingers to eat idlis and soon all three of us are glowing with interior heat. “I’m in pain,” says Birk, as tears mingle with the sweat on his cheeks, “but in a good way!” Bins nods with his eyes closed. Too happy to speak.

Manjula Padmanabhan , author and artist, writes of her life in the fictional town of Elsewhere, US, in this weekly column

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Published on August 28, 2015
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