Just mention the word bajji to me or ask me to eat it, an army of thoughts marches over my mind. Not because these fried and stuffed Anaheim peppers are not meant for the weak-stomached. The name, just the name rakes up disturbing scenes. From that ensuing commotion, two faces appear before me – one a dark round one, slightly bearded and grave; the other with a pair of eyes trying to peer down your heart and with the expression of an actor or a clown, twisted with laughter or disdain. Punnam and Anji Babu. Two very different but scintillating individuals I made acquaintance of once upon a time in a city called Hyderabad. In a southern state of India. As the train pulled in to the station Hyderabad rose in front of me like a stark stony plateau. And so did Punnam. Actually what I thought to be the city was probably a fort in the distance or a temple. To me all that never seemed clear enough. Forts, temples, Osmania University, Birla Mandir. Something was always visible above the city on the canopy of the sky apart from the regular sun, clouds of dust or shrill birds with no names. At first glance, Punnam seemed to stand out among all this. Tall, burly, rather stony faced in the beginning, and imposing like a deep dark cloud cover.
Punnam I did not know at all earlier but was given his reference by an acquaintance from my university.
“Hyderabad is better than Delhi but they might think you are a northerner.”
“I can explain … ”
“No, no, my cousin will be there to help. Don’t hesitate.”
Being a northerner would create small problems. Small but irritating ones. I understood that. I wasn’t a northerner or a north Indian. And I was aware of the currents of the all-consuming southern political movement in 20th century India. But it never occurred to me to be careful on that account. Obviously after I encountered Punnam – meaning full moon – I was assured I wouldn’t have to worry at all. An engineer by education and thirty, he was looking for a job recently and didn’t mind helping a student from Delhi to find her footing in Hyderabad for two weeks.
“Did you have dinner on the train? We could get some dosas,” was his first full sentence after mute greetings as I descended on the platform and smiled at him, he looking at me with a stony demeanor. He held a biggish placard with my name in capital letters.
“Dosas would be great,” I said, eager to show I was not a northerner, then pointed to the placard: “I can see you got that!”
“Didn’t need it. You look like what my cousin described.” I dared not ask what his cousin might have pictured me for him. “Besides, most people in this train are local folks – you can easily tell,” his round dark face lightened up in a smile at last. I smiled again too.
Traveling light is useful I found out, especially when I had to ride on the back of Punnam’s motorbike and we decided to eat before Punnam took me to my destination.
Most restaurants were closed naturally at past nine then, so we made a stop at a curbside stall in a well-lighted place near the railway station. The vendor had two hot tawas going as he stirred the dosa mix and sprinkled drops of water on the iron implements, wiping his sweaty forehead with a cotton towel tucked under his hips. He spoke in Telegu, which evidently I did not understand and respond to. Punnam realized his role and quickly rattled off, perhaps without giving away that I was from the north (although not a northerner). The dosas were the best ones I have had in my entire life. This entire life anyway consisted of no sojourn into the southern parts of India.
“Osmania University? What’s the address?” Punnam munched his food. Like me probably he had nothing for dinner till that late hour.
“The university guest house. Here.”
He nodded, I know. He knew. A life long Hyderabadi. No wonder his cousin chose him to familiarize me to this place. I decided to thank my university friend soon for his benevolent gesture.
The guesthouse was dead like a tombstone. The lobby was well lighted, not visible from the main road, but there was no one at the reception desk. Punnam coughed loudly a couple of times in order to attract attention of anyone who might be there, then said a loud, “Hello!”
A man emerged from around the corridor, stepping sleepily, with bloodshot eyes. He mumbled at Punnam who became even more stony-faced and asked him a few questions in turn.
“He says the caretaker left a note saying someone from Delhi was expected.” He was the night shift guard here. There is a room ready he can open it up immediately.
“Oh good,” I said.
“No, that is not good,” Punnam’s English was a bit like talking to a thinking mirror – it said mostly the same words I uttered, with just a few added words more.
Punnam assessed the guard to be drunk. Besides, the guesthouse was in a secluded part of the university – the entire university anyway seemed to be on a secluded hilltop dotted with great stones and impenetrable shrubs. There seemed to be no other soul living inside that building. Hence, not good.
“Come let’s go home,” he summarized quickly.
I didn’t care to know or ask the route that we took, the neighborhoods that we passed by or the house that we entered, so tired and sleepy I was. Completely having surrendered to Punnam’s instructions, I remember waking up in a large sunny room with two kids by my side on a wide plush bed. Still sleepy, I watched Punnam tug at the little boys’ wrists, coaxing them to be up for school.
An hour later, I found the attached bathroom and came out freshened to find Punnam determinedly scooping out fluffy white orbs from a steaming plate. An old woman worked at the pots and pans at the kitchen sink and said something very urgently to him.
“Idlis for breakfast!” he announced looking up at me. “Our work-auntie is reminding me about the rice-and-lentil powder that must be eaten with it.”
I thought I was lucky to have all that. And ‘work-auntie’ touched me. Nice guy, this Punnam. Abundant daylight through the windows around the living room showed his burliness to be more of a hulkiness, his teeth sparkling white like water bubbles, his short wavy hair like a tight cap around his head and his earth-brown complexion blending with the must-be-eaten powder he served on my plate alongside the steaming rice cakes.
The two boys were already off to school, dressed, fed and dropped by their uncle Punnam. The parents, Punnam’s brother and sister-in-law, were away in the village to attend to some important family matters. Therefore, Punnam was not only the guide and protector of the woman from Delhi, but also of his little nephews.
I called up to thank my Delhi benefactor.
“Punnam is a gem,” his cousin my friend gushed. “After his girlfriend deserted him and married someone else last year he had become so wound up. I thought being around you might lighten him a bit, you know, in a friendly way.”
Instead of Osmania University guesthouse I shifted to another smaller one – meant for Hindi language students of Telugu University – quite near the Osmania campus where my conference was scheduled. And happily discovered there were six more participants in the same conference from different parts of the country. Madhavi from Chennai became my roommate. She told me of her impending marriage, showed me family photographs and laughed seeing me wearing only either black or white petticoats under my exquisite hand woven saris specially brought for the conference. In fact, most women participants noticed that aberration and when we all gathered during the tea break, peering at the scorching February sun outside – Hyderabad is notoriously hot right then through June – they giggled and confirmed that I wore black underneath red, green, magenta saris and white underneath cream, blue, lilac saris. Funny.
“Get yourself matching petticoats,” one advised gently. “You look so good in saris. Don’t let bad style spoil it.”
It was tough convincing them I will, I who mostly dressed in jeans.
Punnam came around now and then although I had reclaimed independence in mobility and association. He was indeed a nice fellow and an ice cream one evening or a little trip to the old city on his faithful motorbike did not hurt. Increasingly he looked less stony-faced and more animated. However, he regarded my guesthouse mates with aloof scrutiny. Madhavi he did not so much care (along with other female residents) to observe as he did Adnan – a forty something lecturer from Baroda in western India, Anji Babu – a thirty-year-old PhD candidate from Thiruchirapalli and Pramit Pandey, a masters student like me from Agra in northern India. Adnan was an avuncular figure, patient and comforting to everyone. Back from the conference every evening, he showered and relaxed on the verandah in spotless white kurta-pajamas reading the stale morning newspaper. Pramit would be off exploring the city most evenings. He had friends in this part and never got back before midnight, initially making the gateman grumble that it was a violation of the guesthouse rules to be out so long. Later he opened the gates without a fuss for I believe, he was handsomely tipped by the suave, smart Pramit. Anji Babu was probably the most interesting of the three men. Or I think that’s what Punnam made him out to be. For his medium height and moderate built – nothing special to say if you saw him up close – his face was unusually expressive. Two eyes shone like charcoal with icing on them. His smile was perhaps the most arresting of all features. He sang, playacted, mimicked and joked. He was the star in the group. Also, he drank. A lot. And threw tantrums.
The first time he did that, Punnam had come to drop me at the guesthouse. I had been gone to meet his brother and sister-in-law who were back from the village. They loved to hear that I liked Hyderabad and that I already learned to say “pappu” for daal in Telugu and phrases like “randi randi kuchandi — please come and sit down”.
“Pappu is a male name in the north,” I said gingerly.
“Yeah, they’d keep any name like that!”
My “Please come in, sit down” also generated much banter and merriment when transliterated into Hindi. They insisted I could come and stay with them. I told them how thankful I was for being allowed a night of rest while they were away, courtesy the thoughtful and kind Punnam. I dined with them, delicious things I didn’t have a name for, except obviously the pappu.
Après dinner, the gentlemanly Punnam dropped me at the guesthouse gate and heard a commotion inside. Anji Babu, drunk and boisterous, was addressing the gateman, just arrived for his nightly duties. Anji flaunted his well-built arms being shirtless in the warm February night. His conversation – Telugu or Tamil I could not tell – seemed to grow louder and rougher.
“Does he sound like trouble?” I asked Punnam.
“Like trouble,” the thinking mirror repeated, “You can’t be here.”
“I don’t mind staying here.”
He grimaced. “Don’t mind staying here?” and added, “ I don’t understand.”
I appreciated the mirror’s concern. And was amused by his mirror responses. But I convinced him no trouble would befall me from Anji. Until later.
I will digress here to speak about a few more ‘mirror responses’.
In different scenarios, such responses were prolific.
Scenario one: A trip to the mythical Yadagirigutta temple with Punnam.
A teenaged boy was selling flower garlands at the bottom of the hillock standing on a scenic road that connected Hyderabad with its twin city Secunderabad. He rattled off an instruction translated by Punnam thus: worshipping in this hilltop temple for forty continuous days would relieve anyone of very tough diseases.
“What tough diseases? Does he mean cancer, AIDS, Alzheimer’s?”
“Cancer, AIDS, Alzheimer’s,” Punnam repeated.
Although we were conversing in English, the boy understood the diseases mentioned and stuck out his tongue and caught his ears with both hands in an apologetic gesture.
“He is appalled. The very mention of cancer and AIDS makes these people cringe.”
Oh, glad to know that, I thought. What about the garland business then? How many can he convince just like that?
“How many can he convince like that? As many that come here.”
“Punnam I’m not convinced. I came here only because of touristy interest.”
“I’m not convinced,” he repeated after me. “I came here because of you.”
What did he mean? Lord knows. He rose like a mini hillock in front of me with that, as he strode up the hill to where Yadagirigutta smiled down on us in mid-morning sunshine.
I had been told three things I must try before leaving Hyderabad: Bajji, sojji and buttermilk. The first item was a fritter made from Anaheim peppers, the second was sweet semolina pudding oozing with clarified butter. Buttermilk was a hot favorite to maintain cool heads with the temperature rising outdoors. My loyal guide Punnam – who seemed out of the sorrow inflicted on him by his ex-girlfriend – took me on a culinary trip.
Seeing me ask for a fork and knife for the bajji his face flopped.
“You just bite into them.”
“Need to make sure the peppers don’t have seeds inside.”
“The peppers don’t have seeds inside,” the mirror mouthed.
“I don’t trust peppers Punnam.” I was a little harassed with the chaperoning.
“Just have sojji afterwards na…” he trailed off.
Of course, the sojji, a sweet dish, had the potential of rescuing people from bajji’s volcanic taste. But did I need to be told everything?
“Don’t trust peppers!’ He would still repeat after me, but with a kindness in his eyes. After all, I was not a Hyderabadi.
I was in the guesthouse for more than a week now. Anji had been up to his things every now and then but not so much in the open. One night, after amusing us by caricaturing south Indian film stars, the plump mustachioed lot, he begged us to stay up with him. It was late for both Madhavi and me.
“Okay, let Madhavi go. She is anyway getting married soon. But you stay.”
His logic wasn’t clear of course, as to why I should stay – just because I wasn’t looking to be married – while Adnan and Pramit were already headed towards their rooms.
“Let her alone.” Madhavi mildly reprimanded him.
That night Anji turned sentimental. It’s his own love story he wanted to tell us, he said. He needed an audience. He showed us a letter from his wife, the words “Anji” and “love” written all over the one-page missive. We were sorry it was getting late and we couldn’t stay.
Another night he started on the same vein. Drunk of course. How much he drank I had no idea. It seemed every evening on return from the conference he went straightaway to buy liquor first. He drank all through the evening, sometimes showed up at the guesthouse dinner, sometimes not. That night he was incoherent. We were chatting sitting in Adnan’s room. The man from Baroda spoke little, just smiled from time to time. All throughout Anji’s demonstration, he kept looking at him keenly. Later, pointing at the table clock he said, “Have to call in now.” Then looking at Anji he said cryptically, “In a week’s time, we’d all be gone. But you don’t go home alone Anji.” With that, he turned to me and threw a mischievous smile.
“What do you mean Adnan?” If there was some meaning there, I didn’t care for it. I got up to go.
Anji followed me till my room and when I pleaded with him to go back and not wake up Madhavi who was in early with a headache, he laid a finger on the hollow of my neck.
“Shush… It’s so soft.”
“Anji go to your room. I don’t want a scene.” I was afraid he’d try something else too. He didn’t.
“You’ve no idea,” that’s all he said and went back to his room. I kept this incident from the others.
At the conference next morning, he looked fresh and composed. He still continued to drink in the evenings but did not again accost me. Instead, he rattled some people on an outing. He wasn’t drunk then.
I made several friends and Hyderabad was gradually opening up to me with its tongue-tingling spices, balmy markets, strapping dark men with chiseled faces, well endowed women with fresh jasmine garlands in their hair, dusty streets and main thoroughfares with their fierce traffic, and centuries of history gently blowing in the incense-smelling breeze. Punnam appeared now and then. Although he refrained from intervening on seeing Anji drunk and quarreling with the gateman the other night, he made it quite clear that the guesthouse was no longer a nice place for me to stay. I didn’t tell him about Anji’s latest scrap with Sunil and his professor.
The latter were from a university in the state of Kerala. A group of us were out one evening visiting the historic Golconda Fort, colorful bangle markets in the old city, sampling the famous biriyani and mango lassi, and walking around a bright shopping area. I usually never dressed in a sari outside the conference. But Madhavi had requested me to wear one that evening. Both of us wore blue. She in powder blue, I in indigo. The Kerala professor was a friendly talkative man and he praised his student Sunil, his protégé, quite a lot.
“I not only have to get him a PhD, but also get him a bride,” Prof. Balaravi said, gently twirling his partly grayed moustache and patting his jet-black beard.
Past sixty at least, he resembled one of those ancient Indian sages depicted in calendars or roadside poster catering to the religious.
“Too bad no one is available,” Pramit quipped. “Besides, professor, you’d prefer a Kerala woman, right?”
Balaravi sighed dramatically, looked around at the milling shoppers eating, laughing. Then grabbing the ice cream cone from the six-feet tall but demure Sunil’s hands and giving it a determined lick he looked at me. Then pointed.
“Doesn’t have to be a Kerala girl. This sumathi here looks like one. Neelambari!”
His epithets embarrassed me. I understood them – a woman of good bearing and the lady in blue – all words from Sanskrit roots. Madhavi patted my shoulders. Everybody liked the joke at my expense. Well, I wasn’t angry or anything. Just taken aback.
“What? Did you say she is available?” This was Anji. He had been quiet all evening.
“My Sunil is a good man. Certainly a lady with good characteristics as this can make his life a heaven –”
Balaravi’s high-flowing address would have continued but for the fact that Anji leaped in front of him, nearly screaming, “Hey watch out”, and pulling himself up menacingly to the tall professor.
Madhavi quickly put a protective arm around me and in seconds Pramit, Adnan and other men in the group tried separating Anji from Balaravi. Sunil stood like a wet sheep not knowing what might be required of him. We came back to the guesthouse tired and bitter. Anji, not a drop of alcohol in his stomach that night, did not speak a word, instead went straight to his room. He presented a rather interesting paper the next day: Tamil Cilappatikaram: a comparison to Odyssey and Iliad of the West. Focused, enthused and thoroughly academically responsive he was.
Towards the end of our stay in Hyderabad, Madhavi and I began bonding well. I accompanied her on evening shopping sprees meant for her marriage. She bought saris, Hyderabadi lacquer bangles, Bidri vases and tableware as gifts for the family back home. Invited me to Chennai where the marriage was to take place four months later. A couple of times Punnam came looking for me and went back. I was out. During this time Punnam had completely discarded his stony face and appeared rather jubilant, at least the time I met him. He also became a little talkative – no longer just a mirror – and displayed flashes of volatility. Most of that last trait was directed at Anji Babu who he did not know well but already disliked.
“He drinks so much.”
Drinking wasn’t a virtue according to him, drinking in the manner of Anji.
“He was abusing the gateman the other night.” Apparently in choicest vulgarisms.
“Anji speaks Tamil … how do you understand what he said?”
“I had Tamil friends in the engineering college. Know them all,” he summed up with such hostile definitiveness (and no mirror responses) that I let the topic rest there.
On our last night at the guesthouse – most of us were to depart the next afternoon following the wrap-up session – we threw ourselves a little party. A few outsiders, like Punnam, were invited. Professor Balaravi and his protégé Sunil, who lived at the Osmania guesthouse, also joined us. Balaravi and Anji drank together like long-lost friends, pouring each other drinks. As usual the alcohol was procured clandestinely – it wasn’t allowed in the guesthouse – by our prolific colleague Anji Babu. He was drinking after a gap of days. He seemed relaxed. Sidelining all chatter about the conference to be over the next day, he was regaling Balaravi and Adnan about his love story. How he ran away with his beloved to make her his wife. Very Bollywood. Very bold. I think I even heard him mention riding a horse carriage. Amid rain and thunder. Her name was Amba. Anji and Amba were longtime lovers. Of different backgrounds – probably different castes, that factor which supposedly deeply permeates the Tamil society. He laughed, happy. Narrating his love story obviously was a curative effort.
Punnam had again withdrawn into his shell, speaking little, not drinking even a drop. Solemnly, he informed me he’d be at the railway station the next afternoon to see me off to Delhi.
“No Punnam, really don’t. I’m not alone. It’s fine.” I tried convincing him that his guardianship was formally over.
Anji heard that. He presumably was on a break from his storytelling. Refilling his scotch and ambling around.
“Don’t bother, I’m going to the station. Madhavi’s going too.” He spoke to Punnam.
“Madhavi’s going too?” Punnam the responding mirror had returned.
“Don’t you get it? I’m sending my wife a letter through Madhavi’s hands. I can see off both Madhavi and this friend of ours.”
“This friend of ours?” Interrogative mirror.
“Are you an idiot or what?”
“You are in idiot.” Assertive.
Anji made a gesture of helplessness. Surprisingly acting sober. Punnam, lucid enough sans much alcohol, glared at him. Adnan sensed things were about to turn awry and intercepted the not so illuminating conversation.
“Hey, both of you rest. I’ll go. Got to send a telegram to Baroda. Letting my folks know I’m planning to visit Bangalore, you know.”
“Bangalore,” Anji and Punnam said in unison – the ‘bang’ part of the word booming out.
The next day Madhavi and I boarded the same train because she was headed to a relative’s in Indore before returning to Chennai, her hometown. I would of course travel all the way up north, straight to Delhi, a longer but scenic train journey. The station, like all Indian stations was milling with people, talking, laughing, saying goodbye, crying, picking pockets, men brushing unknown rushing or waiting women on their butts or breasts, kids yelling and scampering, and beggars begging aggressively. Although northbound, trains to or from the south were usually clean, organized, and on time. Their bathrooms had the fittings intact, there was running water and no one peed on the floors. As a result these trains smelled quite okay too – of cleaning liquids and sanitary purifiers. Madhavi and I sat face to face, our small suitcases up on the luggage loft. We looked out of the window facing the station taking in the last whiff of Hyderabad. We had a sort of quick lunch at the wrap-up session, but it was past two-thirty and in our excitement we felt hungry. She was eyeing a stall selling soft drinks and potato chips. I was eyeing a boy vendor with fresh pepper bajjis on his makeshift wooden tray, carefully piled up on a sheet of aluminum foil, tucked on the sides by paper tissues to soak up the gut-clogging oil in which they were fried. I had been informed that these vendors usually have a set-up quite next to the stations where one person cleans and fries the Anaheim peppers and the other carries the freshly fried ones to the platform. Quite predictably, the bajjis are gone in minutes. The vendor then runs for the next batch and is back in no time spreading the crackly aroma in the normally stale station air.
“You want the bajjis?” Madhavi knew my new obsession.
“Well, I can … “
“No, I too will have some. Instead of chips. And how about some hot tea that woman is selling in earthen mugs?”
“They call them kullar in Delhi! Chai, ey chai!” I proceeded to call the woman.
“Bajjiwala, here! Pack us a dozen.” Madhavi waved through the window.
The bajji boy turned his head towards us, it seemed in slow motion, as if with three heads. No, it was two other heads that turned simultaneously at us with the vendor. Before even the vendor put his hands on his crispy fare, the other two heads, much taller than the boy, grew hands and reached out for the bajjis at the same time.
“Oh my god!” Madhavi said.
Anji and Punnam. They were at the station.
Their four hands grabbed the tails of fried peppers with a rapidity that confounded the vendor boy. One of the hands tossed a ten-buck note on the pile of peppers. The other quickly shoved the peppers in a paper bag.
“I paid first, hey boy take it,” one roared. I don’t know who it was.
“To hell with your money, I’ll get the girls my bajjis first,” the other swore.
At this point the little vendor started screaming, in anger or in fright. Naturally, he had no clue what was going on. Neither did we, although both Madhavi and I had guessed it all. The train gave a tug by then. The vendor was trying to prevent his livelihood from being sabotaged, while the station crowd suddenly saw the goings on.
“You wouldn’t give up? You … “
“And you wouldn’t, huh?”
The dialogues were more or less identical, tough to say who was saying what. Tamil or Telugu, I do not know till this day.
Horrified, we saw two hands reach out and smack each other. And then, one of them squashed a bajji in his hand and slapped it over the other’s eyes, seeds and all. I still couldn’t tell who did that to whom because the crowd now formed a ring around them, partly endorsing the quarrel, partly asking them to stop but not actively stopping the circus. Anji or Punnam, whoever got the pepper in his eyes, was howling like a half-slaughtered buffalo. The tea-woman had meanwhile forgotten to give us tea. The train was moving. Somebody blew a whistle, probably the railway police, if they did arrive so promptly against the usual slovenly speed of purpose any Indian security agency have.
“Oh my god,” Madhavi said again and gaped.
I wanted to laugh, really loudly. But I tried to respect her feeling. She saw my face was distorted with something hidden and started laughing herself. We rolled around as the train sped up.
“Let’s go get something to eat from the pantry.” I got up finally.
“No bajjis, please!” She still held her tummy.
I heard later that Punnam visited Delhi during the summer of my graduation. I did promise him an evening of ice cream while in Delhi but that did not materialize. He did not inquire after me. As for Anji, I never heard from him. I guess he and wife Amba lived happily ever after. Madhavi wrote me letters for months before she got absorbed into her married life. Adnan kept in touch for a while, never mentioning either Anji or Punnam. I never enjoyed bajjis again.
(2007– Some names and portions of this account are fictional while some are real.)