For some months now, ever since his work became really demanding and I began to work more and more late nights, not to mention all the traveling, we began to realise that meeting each other and spending quality time together, or even getting together for a meal was becoming something rare and sometimes impossible for days at a stretch. Both of us had our own busy schedules outside of work too and trying to find time for our responsibilities at home was also eating into our rather precious moments together.
Just after the monsoons last year I had a brilliant idea. He works in Nariman Point as South as South Bombay can get and I go to Worli in the West and we both have to drive past Matunga in Central Mumbai to get to both destinations. Matunga to me means Venkateshwara Stores, the aroma of coffee powder, the fragrance of the flowers from the rows and rows of rose and jasmine garlands and of course Mani’s.
Why didn’t we meet on Saturdays ( since both of us work the sixth day of the week too) for break fast at Mani’s and catch up and exchange notes on the week’s happenings and enjoy a nice relaxed “date” with each other .
Mani’s Lunch Home established 1937, tucked in between Ruia College and Hindu Colony, beside the Matunga Gymkhana grounds under the cool, swaying leafy shade of the tall trees that have been there for ages.. One tiny little eating place that can seat maybe twelve inside but during peak hours has dozens and dozens of customers spilling out on the sidewalk and then some more being served in their cars by the curb side.
Seventy years of the world’s best Vadais , Dosais, Upma , Idlis, Adais and on special days Ulundu Dosai and Masala Vadai with the generous and never ending accompanying portions of Sambhar and Chutney that discerning aficionados of South Indian cuisine in Bombay have quietly but diligently been coming to eat regularly. Phew!! that was a long sentence but not longer than the line of customers waiting to find seating space. Never mind the cramped “inside room” space, the rickety little plastic stools outside nor the noise and bustle of the street nor even the ubiquitous parking attendant making a killing with his little book of parking chits .
So we started meeting at Mani’s on Saturday mornings. He would put aside his morning newspapers in his car and I my lap top in mine for this mid –way stop on our way to our respective offices and the charming ambience of old Matunga would take over. One of the eager, fresh faced boys, all of them, affectionately, Thambi to all, would come to take our orders and over the following weeks came to know it would be first an Upma for him then maybe a Vadai Sambhar and for me first the Vadai Sambhar and then a Rava Dosai – and of course Vadai Sambhar for both our drivers followed by a strong Kaapi without sugar for him and maybe a mosambi juice for me.
It was simply a brilliant idea this relaxed Saturday breakfast – oh so much better than my hurried and laboured chewing of toast at home washed down by juice. The Vadais crisp and the sambhar heavenly and the chutney divine; the Rava Dosai melting in your mouth, well, my mouth sorry.
It was not that we had never been to Mani’s before. My first visit there was more than thirty years ago, when I came to Bombay as a bride from Delhi. I soon realised that nothing had changed at Mani’s since then. Not the taste and size of the offerings nor the unlimited amount of Sambhar and Chutney and no, not even the price of the sumptuous feast.
All of what we ate and the packed stuff he would sweetly buy for me to take to work for my colleagues would not cost more than what two burghers or one pizza would cost – ALL of what we ate and packed to take away .
The first day we went there he showed me Pai’s Hospital, where he was born, right in front of Mani’s and immediately the place became even more precious and special!! And then once we walked after wards to the edge of the Gymkhana grounds to a small park where his mother would bring him to play in the evenings when he was a little boy. This place was getting to be magical. And of course my own sons had studied in Ruia College and Poddar College both just around the corner.
Soon we realised that we were not the only regulars at Mani’s on these special Saturday mornings. Other couples, some oh so much younger than us but as much lost in their own world as we were in ours , Matunga Mamas tucking in after their constitutional , hordes of excited , noisy , sweating young and aspiring cricketers in their what were once cricketing whites, their large vociferous coaches giving gyan and guidelines , students from Ruia and Poddar Colleges stopping by for cheap , nutritious nourishment in between lectures , painting contractors discussing the shade of pink the lady from Lal Bagh wanted for her balcony , the old lady whose driver would get her the plate of crisp Dosai in the car – the whole world came to Mani’s on Saturday mornings.
We began love it and look forward eagerly to these mornings if we have to miss it because one of us is traveling or for some other reason cannot make it then we wait eagerly for the next Saturday.
The other day I stopped by at Mani’s on my way back home to grab a quick bite as it was late and I knew I wouldn’t make it till I reached home which was at least an hour away. I knew he too once in a while stopped by to pick up something as a stop gap measure on his way home or for lunch the day his lunch was not packed at home. I wondered if both of us had the same thought that day and if we would run into each other.
Thambi came to the car and took my order and hung around for a couple of seconds looking around. Then he came back with my Dosai, shuffled his feet and continued to throw glances hither and thither. When he came again to take the plate and give me the bill I could see he was trying to initiate a conversation so when I gave him the money I asked him if all was well.
“Did the other “Aiyyah” (Sir) who lives here not come with you today Amma? “He asked. I said, “Which Aiyyah? I don’t know any Aiyyah who lives here.”
The “Aiyyah you come to meet in the mornings? Sometimes he comes also on his own and takes a packed Idli plate or Upma plate. He did not come to meet you today?” By the time he finished he was blushing and stammering …” No, never mind Amma, I only..Just like..That…thought …I , no , never mind ….” I sat there, a bit puzzled and confused till it hit me and this big grin spread across my face...oh my God he meant Venky!!! I could not wait to get home and tell my husband that Thambi (maybe not just him but the other Thambis too) thought we were this clandestine couple rendezvousing at their café on Saturday mornings!!!!!!!
Now Venky will just have to take me to Breakfast at Tiffany’s!!