By Chanchal Thapa
Two years ago my usually laid-back uncle decided to buy a new smart-phone. So, he took me along as a ‘tech support’. It was late in the afternoon and in the circular Mirik Bazaar, we did a semi-circle and inevitably, landed at Bablu Da’s shop. There weren’t many shopping options back then. So, while my uncle was going crazy with the home button, camera testing, bluetooth, et al, I was trying to find the correct level of smartness that was required of the phones for my uncle’s age. That was two years ago. Now, he is a Zen master.
We wrapped up the shopping, paid the bills and started to complete rest of the circle. I wasn’t hungry but my uncle asked if I wanted something to eat. Tech-support are humans after all. I said ok, lets have some momo. I had already decided where I wanted to eat.
As I neared the eatery, I was a bit apprehensive, wondering whether it was open for business. Since the past few months, whenever I passed by, its old, fading, light green windows would be barricaded with old wood planks. The only entrance, that low hanging light green wooden door would be tightly shut. Therefore, that fateful day as I approached the eatery, I saw that half of its windows were open and the door too. Excitedly, I rushed inside. The warm smell of freshly kneaded dough, steamed with the mince-meat inside filled my nostrils. As I passed by the kitchen, the house-help, who is an immigrant worker, looked at me.
“momo cha?” I asked.
“cha…tara dokan baan garnu ateko.”
I quickly gave my order and went to sit at the nearest table. I looked around. Two tables away from me was seated a man. I won’t call him old because age wasn’t a factor I could measure him with. He had a certain sophistication in his manners and looks that belonged to a bygone age. Dev Anand’s age maybe. He was seated calmly, probably awaiting his order and slowly combing his white moustache while looking outside the window. He had a golf cap on his head and the most outrageous looking, mercury tainted aviator glasses on.
His dumplings arrived. Four puffy meat filled yellowish looking dumplings, steaming hot, served on an stainless steel quarter plate. A bowl of soup arrived a little later. He then, resting his left elbow on the old, colourless wooden table, scooped half a tea-spoon of salt from the salt container, put it into his bowl of soup, swirled around with his spoon, poured some achar into his plate, dunked his dumpling into the achar and took a gentle bite. Then he looked up at me. I looked towards the kitchen door for my set of dumplings.
We were old customers, me and him. Most of the time I have eaten alone out here; nobody seems to visit, certainly not the younger lot. But it has loyal customers, like us, I guess, who come Sunday Shopping from the bustee and tea gardens and pay a quick visit and leave quietly. Time has forgotten this place. It looks the same as it used to when I used to frequent this place as a school kid. Four steaming dumplings served on an aluminium quarter plate for rupees five. Those aluminium quarter plates were still around till some years ago. Now the dumplings costs rupees thirty a plate for the same four.
I looked at him again, he was onto his second dumpling, looking out the window as he was chewing on it, some thought churning on his mind. A toy for his grandson, perhaps.
By the time my dumplings arrived, he had finished his. He took out a fresh looking note of rupees hundred, twirled his moustache a couple of times and waited for the house-help to come and collect the plates and the money as well. Over the years, this young girl, who is probably from Islampur or some such area from where house-helps were of great demand during the 90s, has grafted herself as a very reliable staff to the, now old, Tibetan lady who runs this little eatery, which I find admirable. She conducts the day to day business besides cooking and serving, all on her own and she keeps a perky appearance at all times.
Some days ago, I was in the bazaar and went to visit again and to my horror, I saw that the front face of the eatery had been barricaded from the public with black tarpaulin sheets and some kind of construction work was going on. My heart sank. I couldn’t go any where near it. I looked on helplessly from a distance, then turned around and left.
Death of another old eatery, I muttered between my clenched teeth. And its happening all over Darjeeling. Old establishments being swamped by swanky ones as most people anoint themselves as foodies, gourmet lovers, food aficionados, eating over-priced food over marbled tables, having sitcom inspired conversations about some cuisine the size of a ping pong ball, while an old matron shuts down her eatery somewhere in one corner of the hills.
Chanchal Thapa is an independent filmmaker, a dreamer and a true blue vagabond from Mirik