All in the search of food

Mumbai is at a standstill despite the ruling party saying that it would ensure that it was business as usual. For those who believed the government and made their way to work without a dabba, half the day was a long search for food.

It is called the "City that never sleeps", yet Mumbai was caught dozing off during the day today, after the bellicose call by our netas for a 'Bharat Bandh'.

Yesterday, Maharashtra chief minister Ashok Chavan said that there wasn't going to be any bandh-like situation. Hearing that, I ventured out to my work place (after all, I work for a media organisation) at Shivaji Park in Dadar, the heart of Mumbai's right-wing Shiv Sena and its breakaway faction, the Maharashtra Navnirman Sena (MNS). However, once I stepped outside from my home, there wasn't a sign of the promises Mr Chavan had made.

This is the new Mumbai for you. A few years ago, Mumbaikars took pride in defying bandh calls and even the fury of nature to make their way to office. Commercial establishments and hawkers strived to remain open; but not anymore. Mumbai no longer needs to be forcibly shut down by rampaging mobs. Even on my way to work, it was evident that neither malls and shop-owners, nor the hawkers on the street were taking any chances. They had simply taken the day off. Even the legendry dabbawallahs were off today.

Around noon, it was clear that we would have to go out and hunt for food in the concrete jungle. The streets were deserted as autos, taxis and fleet cabs decided to stay off the roads. Shops and restaurants were closed. Even the road-side hawkers who supply Mumbai's countless migrants-from labour to executives-with every imaginable variety of street food were missing. Yet, you did see the occasional motorcyclist or car passing by. The police seemed to be everywhere, patiently waiting for any signs of protest or trouble. Only the mobile chaiwalas on their cycles, selling hot tea and peddling cigarettes, still dared to roam the streets.

Mumbai is a melting pot of culture and ethnicities, and this is reflected in the incredible range of its street foods and restaurants.  You can go eat a tandoori from a Punjabi dhabba or grab Maharashtra's famous vada pav. You could have some road side idlis and vada sambar, or even have some delicious pani puri. Such has been Mumbai's free enterprise.

As I set out, the hunger pangs were gnawing. There were others who didn't even have a tiffin with them, so I as pretty sure it was in their head too. As mentioned earlier not a single store was open and the vada pav or pani puri stalls were also shut. We needed FOOD!

Our first stop was at our corner vada pav wallah; he wasn't there. The stall was nicely covered with a cloth to protect it from the rain. I then made my way to Kirti College to have its famous vada pav; however, I was halted by a fellow hunter in search for food who informed me that "Kirti is also closed". By now it was beginning to dawn on me that the vada pav walah lobby had to stay shut since it owed its allegiance to Shiv Sena which controls Mumbai's municipal corporation-in other words, their legal hawking licences or hafta payments. In a flash, I recalled that all the junka bhakar and vada pav stalls mushroomed in the Sena's regime. It explained the loyalty factor as well.

So I was still without food. Right next to our office, there is an Udupi restaurant, at which I am a regular. Although its shutters were closed, I decided to try the back door and test my persuasion skills. Moneylife employees have given this place good business in the past, but it didn't relent. Once we entered the kitchen, the entire eatery was dark and you could see the workers squatting inside. One of them recognised me and said, "Saab, kya hua." I tried to look famished. Even if he gave us sandwiches, we would have been grateful. However, even in the dark I realised the answer was going to be 'no'. there were only there to safeguard the restaurant while their own dal-chawal was going to be brought from outside.
Disappointment loomed on our faces and we realised our search would be longer. We saw some youngsters trying to persuade the vada pav walah to fry a batch, but he said he wouldn't because he had no pav (buns). Finally someone told us of a place where we could get some 'tiffins'. He even took me there (towards Mahim) on his outdated Bajaj scooty, but again no luck; the owner said she only had food for two and we go to another place called the 'Canteen'. By now, I had certainly lost any hope of getting any food for my colleagues and me.

Having no choice, I went ahead. The biker was a nice guy who only spoke Marathi. He said, "You should get burji pav." I was uncertain. So, I asked him where the canteen was. He said it was at Sena Bhavan. Now, I was completely certain that we wouldn't get any food. Sena Bhavan has been the Saniks headquarters for ages. The likely thought of getting food on a bandh day like this was ludicrous. But the canteen was open. The canteen was nearly 70 steps away from the Sena headquarters and there was this South Indian guy making hot kheema and bhurji pav. His shanty was covered by a tree but it was still visible. I wasn't the only one there; there were others too who were in search of food, even some cops. So I quickly told him to pack seven plates of bhurji pav, paid for it and went back to the office with the deliciously tikka stuff.

The irony was that while most shops were closed out of fear, this South Indian hawker, whose shanty was a stone's throw away from Sena Bhavan, dared to remain open. Thank you, bhurji walah.

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