This seemingly irrelevant nugget of information popped out of the recesses of my memory when my soapy hand chased a sinking lota last week in Belgaum, a place that occupies a disproportionate portion of my early memories.
Much had changed, of course, but I was surprised at how much had not. Belgaum is now Belagavi, but except for government forms and some Kannada zealots, the colloquial Belgaon (some highway signs obstinately stick to Belgaum) is common. Belgaum has always been a place of clashing Marathi and Kannada sub-nationalism. Its people, cultures, loyalties and politics are divided but in daily life many are bilingual and get along just fine.
When I lived there between 1973-75, the passions over Belgaum excited violence. Some of my parents’ Marathi-speaking friends—generous, caring folk who loved to feed visitors (one family always gave me a fried egg garnished with red chilli powder)—devoted their lives to “the struggle", to merge Belgaum with Maharashtra. My father was the police chief and Marathi-speaking people believed he was one of theirs. But he was also a fluent Kannada speaker and a member of Karnataka’s police cadre. His impartiality was soon evident.
I was only dimly aware of these tensions, occupied as I was in an idyllic childhood in this rainy, sylvan corner of the world. We lived in a draughty, sprawling colonial-era bungalow called Hulme Park, with high ceilings and grey stone or red sandstone floors. There were no showers, just the bucket and brass lota, and fat frogs shared the bathroom.
My brother, cousins and I spent summers in Belgaum in tree houses atop two massive banyan trees, rambled through gardens and banana plantations, wrote plays, charging our parents 25-paise entrance, saw movies at the Rex and Globe theatres and ate dosas at Hotel Milan, at the corner.
When I drove into Belgaum city following the GPS, I came to a traffic roundabout, clad in old banyan and rain trees, I recognized instantly. I knew the way from there to Hotel Milan. Would it and Rex theatre—where my cousins had seen Sholay three times in the summer of 1975—next door still be there?
Rex was gone. Milan was there, unchanged, including its old font. I felt a bit of my stomach flutter. I was returning after 45 years and I was tense because things in India tend to be torn down and rebuilt many times over in that time.
But there it was, Hulme Park. The gates were open, the forest of trees thicker than ever. I did not stop. I was due at Anand Works, the family bungalow of the wife’s college friend, Poornima, who had generously offered to host me for two nights despite never having met me—it was very Belgaum.
The moment I drove in through two flame-coloured gulmohars arching over the front gate, I felt transported back to old Belgaum and its lovely people. I was received by Vimal tai, who has been at Anand Works—so called because Poornima’s family once ran a little factory on the premises making foot valves for water pumps—since 1966. She reminded me of my aunts and seemed genuinely pleased to meet me, perhaps because there was someone in the otherwise silent house. Poornima’s mother had died recently, her presence still evident in her paintings, books and photographs of grandchildren.
In her last days, Poornima’s mother was assisted by Suraj and Renuka, a young couple. Renuka made me a memorable Belgaum-style spicy coconut chicken and Vimal tai, who only spoke Marathi and fussed around me like a kind mother hen, discussed the nuances of the recipe. With a tetchy dog named Rex gamboling at our heels, Renuka and I discussed the basics of the recipe, my version of which is below. The secret: fresh masala every time.
That evening, as I listened to the gong of the grandfather clock and an old fan whirring over the red sandstone floors, I had a bath in the long, spacious bathroom inhabited by a large lizard and settled down to Renuka’s chicken and Vimal tai’s sevaiyan, especially made for me.
When I left at 6am the next day, I was carrying the uppit, or upma, that Vimal tai made for me before the sun rose. Come back, she said, with your child and wife, whom she remembered as a teenager. I hope I do, to introduce them to the place and people who will, forever, stay in my mind’s eye.
RENUKA’S BELGAUM-STYLE CHICKEN
2 large onions, chopped fine
2 tomatoes, chopped fine
Whole spices: 1-inch piece cinnamon, 1 bay leaf, 2-3 tsp black peppercorn, 1 star anise, 2 tsp cumin seed, 3-4 dried red chillies, 1 piece mace, 5 green cardamom, 1 black cardamom
1 bunch coriander, washed and chopped
1-2 tsp red chilli powder
1 tsp turmeric powder
1/2 fresh coconut, scraped
2 tsp ginger-garlic paste (optional)
Salt to taste
6 tsp oil
In 4 tsp oil, fry three-fourths of the onions till golden brown. Add whole spices and sauté for 3 minutes. Add coconut and keep mixing until brown. Cool and grind to a paste with half the tomatoes, half the coriander and salt. Set aside. In a wok, fry the remaining onion and tomato in 2 tsp oil for 3-4 minutes. Add ginger-garlic, if using, and sauté. Add chilli and turmeric powder and mix well. Add chicken and spice paste. Add 1 cup water, mix well and cook on low flame until done. Dry off the water.
Our Daily Bread is a column on easy, inventive cooking. Samar Halarnkar is the author of The Married Man’s Guide To Creative Cooking—And Other Dubious Adventures.
Twitter - @samar11