Every time I go to Matunga hunting for food, I have an adventure.
And by every time I mean twice.
The first time I was with 3 women who refused to ask for directions but cackled a lot. We didn’t even need a car. We could have just made our way on some broomsticks. Anyway, that is not a story I want to tell right now.
This story is Matunga version 2.0
Subtle, south Indian, laced with gunpowder.
Cafe Madras opened in 1940.
I moved to Bombay in 1998 and it took me 14 years to make my way to the place which serves the best Udipi food in the city.
Now, Bandra to Matunga isn’t the most scenic of routes. Infact it is the polar opposite of anything even remotely scenic. I kept imagining giant metal scorpions taking over the road and killing us all.
Maybe it was the heat.
Anyway, once in Matunga, Bombay’s old world beauty takes complete control of all senses. Big houses surrounded by even bigger trees, smooth roads, ayurvedic medical supply centres, sunlight trickling in through dense greenery, camouflaging the 34 degrees, a random cow, some breeze, people hanging out in their balconies. It’s a picture postcard aching to happen.
It was Yudhishtar’s idea that we come here for lunch. We walked up to Cafe Madras and were asked to wait our turn for a table and just as we were being seated Yudhishtar had to make a call, so I figured I’d go ahead anyway.
Cafe Madras is always packed, so everyone has to share tables. I was taken to a table and seated in front of a gentleman who was slaying the waiter verbally. He must have been about 80. Wearing a blue t-shirt, a green hat and a scowl. I didn’t look at him directly but I was listening to every word he was saying. The waiter hadn’t got him a spoon in time and now, from the sound of it, he had to die for his mistake. I sat there, diving my head into the menu, avoiding eye contact and judging furiously. Yudhishtar finished his phone call and joined me. He looked at blue t-shirt, then at me, gave me a big smile and sat down. I guess he knew.
We didn’t take too much time deciding what we wanted to eat. Two of everything usually works. The food came and it was nothing short of spectacular. Making good sambar is an art. Making good sambar in Bombay is a miracle. And the sambar I ate that day? Miraculous.
We were midway through our meal when our table sharing companion asked for coffee. At this point he also looked up straight at us and Yudhishtar decided to be polite and make some conversation.
“Do you come here often?”
“Yes. I do.” he said with a smile, which threw me off.
“Oh ok. So you must really like the food.”
“I like their coffee. They make great filter coffee”
“Oh yeah? How long have you been coming here for?”
“Since my college days. Sometimes I come here twice a day.”
I couldn’t just sit there and stare, so I added my bit
“This is my first time here.”
He turned to look at me and said that I should probably meet him when I come to Cafe Madras for the 100th time. I said I would look for him when I did.
That was it. The ice was broken. We spoke. A lot. Usual stuff. Bombay, food, weather. He finished his coffee and said he had to head home. We said goodbye and he left. Yudhishtar and I went on to have a discussion about whether drinking lassi right before coffee would make us spontaneously explode. We hadn’t really come to a conclusion when I felt a tap on my shoulder. It was Mr. Rege. “Julie…”
I said “Yes?” He said “Tell me, when you come back for the 100th time, will this fellow be tagging along?” and there was a quick wink. I burst into a smile and then put on a serious face and told him that I would make sure that I got rid of Yudhishtar when I returned, to which Yudhishtar nodded furiously. And then Mr.Rege was gone. I don’t think I stopped smiling for a while. I had done a super job of judging a book by it’s cover when Mr. Rege was channeling Mr. Hyde a while back. And why not?! I had no idea that he’d been coming to this place since before most of the staff had been born, that Cafe Madras was as much a part of his everyday life as it was of the owners, that he did have a right to lose his cool if he so pleased…. and also because he wore a green hat.
Mr. Rege lit up my afternoon. That’s the beauty of accidental meetings. They sneak up on you when you least expect them, like most good things in life, and they leave you with high resolution memories. I don’t know how long it’s going to take me to go to Cafe Madras a hundred times, but I do know that I’m going there for lunch tomorrow. And I’m going to keep my fingers crossed.