Saturday, November 12, 2016

Bite-Sized Thoughts: Biryani

Biriyani: Indian mixed rice dish with its origins among the muslims of the Indian subcontinent. It is popular throughout the subcontinent and among the diaspora from the region. It is generally made with spices, rice and meat. Wikepedia.

I don't really remember the first biriyani I ever ate, but do remember it was contraband. I was living with my grandparents, my mum and my then-baby brother, and we had a shrine in our house. So non-vegetarian food could not be brought in. I believe it was Eid, and a lot of my grandfather's patients would offer biriyani which had to be turned away. One particular lady was especially persistent and made the smart move of appealing to the ever-hungry grandchild. I remember Karthyani, our house-help, smuggling in the large banana-leaf wrapped parcel. Gorgeous, masala-ed chicken biriyani that scented the entire room when it was opened.  And I sat in the outside kitchen and ate it. I have no idea what it tasted like. In fact, I am pretty sure it didn't taste as great as it smelled. But I still remember its orangey spiced glow in the dim light of the kerosene lamp, and the feeling of getting a very special, forbidden treat.

It was during my M.A studies that biriyani transformed from special treat to staple diet. Being in Hyderabad had something to do with it. The traditional Hyderabadi Biriyani, in my opinion, is tame and limpid in comparison to the tawny thalapakkatu biriyani of Chennai, or the bright and feisty achari biriyani of Delhi, or the deceptively delicate Malabar/ Thalassery biriyani. It was the other, more primal Hyderabadi biriyani--the kalyani-- that appealed to me. She was the raunchy, foul-mouthed, full-bodied heroine of the biriyani scene-- hot, dynamic, and usually way more than one person can handle. The proprietors of the Superstar, a local eatery, had perfected the kalyani biriyani to create an unforgettable palate experience.  Sorry for the digression, but it needed to be said. However, the best M.A biriyani memory starred a far more docile protagonist. Hyderabad House supplied a non-descript but tasty Hyderabadi biriyani. The biriyani was a gentle and comforting fare, and had rescued us from hunger on multiple occasions. You see, HH delivered affordable food long after other establishments decided to call it a day. It is one such occasion that comes to mind whenever I think of the beloved dish.

Second semester at Uni was a companionable pandemonium. For starters, the university was renovating the hostels. Consequently we were living with construction noise 24/7 and opening windows turned your living quarters into the first half of  'Interstellar'.  In a Hyderabad summer, this meant we were being baked alive in our rooms. Secondly, we thought we had finally figured out the cafeteria system, and foolishly bitten off more than we can chew. The general chaos of a full course load was heightened by one particular course 'The Early Cantos of Ezra Pound' taught by the amazing but exacting Prof.R (It literally cost a batchmate her right arm to finish the course. And she still did not receive an O grade). Those who had avoided this Scylla fell to the Charybdis of another course titled 'Aesthetics', whose succinct title should have given them a clue. In six months, we had picnicked at the edge of despair, practiced echoes in the gaping void, and had had staring matches with the abyss. And all this had made us closer. Misery loves company, after all.

During the month of the submissions, the hostel took on the appearance of a post-apocalyptic, art film.  The entire floor had taken to working in the relatively cooler corridors. Consequently, if you walked in, you would see rows of bleary eyed, haggard women hunched over laptops between piles of books and laundry wracks, stirring only to slap away mosquitoes or shoo away the errant dog. Sleep-deprivation was compounded by round the clock construction work, bloodthirsty mosquitoes, and the fevered knowledge that the deadline was fast approaching (and in some cases, too long past to pretend a technical glitch with emails). We lost track of meals, surroundings-- never time, because that slipped from between our typing fingers too quickly.

One step away from a psychotic break, someone had the sense to suggest food. By then of course the mess had shut its doors. What place would deliver at this time? Hyderabad House! Let's eat biriyani tonight! This baton of hope was passed along with the tube of odomos to each student in the corridor. Miraculously, a phone with balance, charge, and network was located! A mass order was placed and our flagging spirits gained some buoyancy. We typed furiously on our term papers counting the minutes and the word count.
No man had ever received as warm a welcome as that surprised delivery man. Cheers and cries of appreciation filled the air. The biriyani is here! The biriyani is here! As the delivery man stumbled off in a pink haze of female gratitude, we proceeded to distribute the bounty. And the unthinkable happened.
Two packets were missing.

Note to anyone who values their good health: Never enrage a hungry woman.

The miraculous phone was retrieved from where it had been tossed in happiness. Angry fingers jabbed out the number and people took turns berating/lecturing/ guilt tripping/ abusing the receiver until he finally begged them to stop so that he could deliver the biriyanis again. In a great show of solidarity, no one ate until the missing biriyanis arrived. An outsider might ask, why didn't you just share. No. There is a principal to these things. It's like the Alexander the Great and the bowl of water story. Besides, who shares biriyani, dude!

When all the parcels finally arrived, we made the delivery man wait, gave him a lecture as well and then sent him off. Biriyanis in hand, we gathered together in a reasonably cooler room, planted ourselves in whatever space was available and opened our fragrant parcels. An uncharacteristic silence fell upon the group as each of us savoured our individual treats.

Like that once upon a time biriyani, I don't remember how this one tasted either. But I remember the image of all of us sitting on the floor, shadows under our eyes, books all around and smiles on our faces. We were so happy with our small mercies.We were  so young, so ready, so sure that all it took was hard work, and that all we needed was a plate of hot food at the end of the day.

Some guy said, "In small measures life may perfect be.". I think he meant plates.

1 comment:

Materialmom said...

I wouldn't be surprised if the delivery man did not get depressed and decide to end his life.
Nicely written with a hint of sadness at the end.