That December, Madras had one of its harshest winters. Some days, the weather dropped down to as low as 27 degrees celsius. Schools shut down, offices decided to open late, and the earmuff sellers at T.Nagar were all but sold out. Women all over the city switched their allegiances from talcum powder to moisturiser, some even managing to find Snow cream at the fancy shops. The men, meanwhile, were finding that they could no longer show off their legs by folding their dhotis up, and were queuing up to buy modest thermal leggings from Naidu Hall (purveyor of fine lingerie).
Given such inclement weather, it was even more surprising that Boochi mama was sweating when he arrived at our house in Mylapore. His cheeks were flushed, his eyes bloodshot, and the sweat had drenched and wilted his famous ear hair so that it seemed to frame his head within giant quotation marks.
“What matter, pa?”, my dad asked.
Boochi mama sighed and told us his sorry tale. Life, he said, had become difficult ever since he had agreed to his daughter Lalli marrying a Punjabi boy called Chintu.
But now, the unthinkable had happened. The boy had gone on and shamed him in front of the entire Tambrahm community, by posting the following question on Facebook: “Where in Madras I can get authentic, large dosa like we are heving in North?”. There were 20 likes, 30 comments, and at least 3 public shares. Boochi mama was distraught.
Now, I empathised with Boochi mama, I really did. See, there are a few things you should never, ever discuss with friends and family: politics, religion, Justice Katju, and dosas.
Firstly, there is the whole Cauvery issue. Essentially, when this fragrant river of sambar, chunky yet full of sharp character, flows from the state of Tamil Nadu to the state of Karnataka, it undergoes a startling transformation. It rushes over rocks of jaggery and acquires sweetness and colour, and, in a subtle coup, smoothens out its texture so it is worthy of any Soup Nazi south of the Vindhyas.
Secondly, there is the lack of political consensus on what the perfect texture of a dosa should be. Should it melt in your mouth, like the legendary dosas of the Mylari hotel in Mysore? These aspire to a gentle touch, and are served with a gloopy masala that teases as much as it compliments. You could easily have two of these dosas without thinking. Or sixteen. Or should a dosa be super crisp? I was eight years old when I ordered a rocket dosa in a small canteen in Madurai. I was warned against it by my well-meaning family members, but that only steadied my resolve. Two servers were needed to carry the golden roll, and when it was laid down at our table, it stretched across the aisles and into my NRI-childhood dreams. Now, critics claim that this type of dosa is all sound and fury, signifying nothing, but many a youngster will attest to the allure of its confidence, and that surge of love that you feel even as it inflicts mild paper cuts on the inside of your cheeks. Somewhere in the middle lie the dosas of the quaint Vidyarthi Bhavan in Bangalore. These are thick, prosperous dosas pan-fried to perfection. Their crisp exterior hides a petal-soft interior made of up of a million bubbles of ghee. Naturally, it is served only with chutney so as to not overshadow its genius.
But life was bearable when all you had to do was choose between these classic varieties. But what really troubles me is the challenge posed by these dosa carts that dot the garden city of Bangalore. My curiosity got the better of me one day when a “99 Veraity Bombay Dosa” cart was wheeled in to a street next to mine. So I headed there, and, with some trepidation, choose a paneer masala dosa. My dosa was served expertly rolled up and chopped into bite-sized pieces, with a liberal garnish of Bangalore street dust. I am not ashamed to confess this here in print, but it was absolutely delicious (the dosa, not the dust).
See, here’s the thing. Dosa carts hold up a ghee-stained mirror to society. There are those of us who are early adopters, and then there are the pragmatists and finally the laggards. The kind of dosa you order says a lot about you. So what if it is a Maggi dosa with extra mozzarella?