Sunday, 24 March 2013

Ah Nasik

Why more tourists don't come here, I don't know.  I never see another white face or hear another language spoken when I'm here.

Nasik is the 4th holiest place in India and in a place like India with temples and palaces, monuments and sacred rivers around every corner - that's saying a lot.

In the morning, the Holy Godavari river glints like a mirror.  The wailing women in saris of blazing color, stand by the edge of the river, their doubles reflected in the river.  Families come here after the death of a family member.  Men sit and wait to have their heads shaved with only one special lock left in the middle of the back of their heads.  They are dressed all in white: white dhoti (the Gandhi, diaper-like garment) and white shawl draped around their otherwise naked upper body, and do strange rituals with rice balls, roots and twigs.

The temple bell clangs.  Priests utter incantations.  Women gather water from the sacred river in their cupped palms and offer prayers.  Burning incense fills the area as men walk into the river and submerge themselves and women walk slowly down a few steps into the oily water in their saris and dribble water over each other's heads. 

In the evening there is arti.  People come, buy little baskets of flowers with a candle in the center, light the candle and float the basket down the river.  Other people hold their baskets and circle them in wide arcs, led by the Hindu priest.

After evening arti, my rumbling stomach tells me its time to find food.  I decide to try the Manas Pure Veg Restaurant. 

I walk up the steps (there's no door) and enter.  The place is deserted.  Two men - one young, and one middle-aged, mustachioed man rush up to me. 

"Can I see your menu," I ask.

"Yes.  Yes," they both say.  Indians are prone to repeating things two times.  The older man indicates that I should walk to the back of the restaurant.  The younger man escorts me to a metal sink.

Do I look dirty, I wonder.

"Menu.  Menu," I say, now also getting in the habit of repeating things two times, as well as wagging my head side to side, as I mime holding a rectangular object that I've drawn in the air with my hands.

"Oh menu," he laughs and shares this joke with the other five young men who are not customers, but whose jobs I'm unable to ascertain, as they're just kind of hanging around doing nothing.

He gestures that I should sit at a booth and immediately brings me the ubiquitous metal glass of water that I won't drink because it comes from the tap.

"Menu," I remind him.

He scuttles off laughing and returns with a glossy six page menu.

Suddenly the restaurant fills with smoke.  Mr. Mustache parades through the restaurant carrying two half coconut shells from which great plumes of smoke pour out. I'm not sure if its incense as part of some evening puja, or if he's defogging the place for mosquitoes. The smell is terrifically strong and the place has gone so gray with smoke I can't see anything.   As my throat fills with the pungent stuff I grab my water bottle and take a huge gulp.

When the smoke finally clears I read the menu. When I look up, four young men, who I guess are employees, are leaning on the wall that surrounds my booth and staring at me.

"Hi guys," I say and smile.

They smile sheepishly and continue to stare at me until Mr. Mustache, the smoke distributor, shouts at them and they disperse.
 A young man in shorts and a t-shirt pours water on the floor from a metal pitcher, then squats down on the floor and wipes it with a dirty cloth.  He smiles up at me and happily continues his work.

The young man in jeans and yellow t-shirt who showed me to the sink, places a large and small metal plate in front of me.  When I move them, he returns and re-adjusts them to their original position.  Clearly, the smaller plate belongs on the right of the larger one and not the other way around.  Who knew?

A few minutes later he presents me with a medium-sized metal plate containing about three small red onions cut into halves, about six small lines cut into halves, and a small round metal bowl with a reddish-orange paste filled with slices of green things.

"What is this?" I ask.

"Yes. Yes," he says.  "You want juice?"

"No juice," I say, then point to the bowl of red paste.  "What's this?"

 His brows knit in concentration.  He looks into my eyes, then down at the plate. He tells me something in his language and smiles.

I put a tiny bit of it on my tongue.  Spicy hot. Salty. And incredibly strange.  I try a bit of the green bits.  Sour First sensation - I hate it and I"m sure my face is contorted with distaste.  But a second later an amazing thing happens.  I want more.  Each flavor is so clear and distinct, alive on a different part of my tongue. Hot.  Salty.  Sour.

The young ;man who was washing the floor returns in a pair of clean black jeans, a tan, button-down, rayon-looking shirt, and a dot of red paste in the middle of his forehead. Official waiter by night. Floor washer by day.

Periodically a young man wearing a cook's apron, and another two guys come over, lean on the wall, and watch me write in my journal.  Sometimes three other guys join them.  How many men work in this place and what in the world do they all do?

By now other families have filled other booths.  Drinking lassis.  Chatting.  Eating.

When I stand to leave, seven young men line up like a good-bye committee. They grin and wag their heads.

"Bye guys!" I say.

"Good-bye!" they sing out in unison like a scene in a Bollywood movie.    

I walk out into the street, doge the assault of motor vehicles, and make my way to Hotel Abhishek.

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