We have a white Christmas in Lucknow, by which I mean fog blankets the city. Lucknow might be only 0.58% Christian, but the malls are filled with Santas and tall, tottering Christmas trees. Christchurch is beautifully lit up, and just about every store has tacky little Santa decorations and balloons.
My hometown – and indeed the entire country – is a melting pot that cheerfully celebrates every holiday without undue regard for religion. There are 21 holidays a year in India, or more, depending on which state you live in – the most of any country in the world. Great for schoolkids – you get a day or two off every month. Except, I seem to remember going to school on Saturdays. Yep – only the second Saturday of every month is a holiday. That kind of sucks. But I suppose they have to catch up with the curriculum somehow.
Today I navigated the narrow, cow-dung-spattered galis (lanes) of the old neighborhood I grew up in, dodging cows and two-wheelers, to eat chaat at Moti Mahal, a local resto. How to describe chaat? It is impossible, but I will try. It is a varied collection of spicy street food that ranges from crispy potato croquettes to round, hollow crisps filled with flavored water, chutney and chickpeas. But much tastier than that sounds. One of my favorites is mathra, crispy patties made of dried peas and served with lemon, chutney or yogurt. And after all that, I finished off with kulfi, a traditional Indian ice cream.
On my way back, I passed Universal, the bookstore I haunted as a kid. In those days, it doubled as a lending library – much more affordable for the likes of me. There was nothing I loved better than going home clutching a freshly borrowed book or superhero comic. Sometimes I even had a chicken frankie from Rovers as a special treat. I used to hide in the upstairs bedroom of my grandmother’s house to eat the frankie and read my book. Non-vegetarian food was not allowed in the house – not even eggs – and my great-grandmother, may she RIP, would have been terribly upset.
Rovers is still doing business, but I haven’t gone there in decades. I don’t want to try the frankie and find it wanting. I prefer the memory of the taste: the outer egg-and-flour, the inner spicy chicken. I wonder what she would think of me, that ten-year-old reading in tube-lit solitude, her face and hands sticky, her mouth on fire, one ear open for inquisitive great-grandmothers with rigid dietary principles. I like to think she will find me at least partially acceptable. Maybe she will give me a 50% approval rating. Much the rating I would give a Rover’s frankie, if I tried it now.