Postcard from Jabalpur

by Manjiri Indurkar 0

I grew up in a city called Jabalpur. If you don’t know about it, I don’t blame you. If you know it only because your train passed through it once and you stepped out to buy some water or maybe a samosa, it is perfectly acceptable that that is the only thing you have to say about it. You had better places to be. Writing about cities that don’t matter has always been a hard task. What do you say about the places where nothing happens? Where people are waiting for their turn to escape to a better life. Where there is absolutely nothing exceptional and when there is it is ignored. I ran away from Jabalpur the first opportunity I got. Ran to Delhi and built a new life for myself. Like most tier-two city kids, I knew Jabalpur could not contain my aspirations. I believed that the city itself was stale, had no interest in growth or in being exposed to the new and strange. And that the people who stayed in Jabalpur were content with this moribund state.

In the ten years that mark my absence from this city, things have ‘changed’, though the people have not. This realization dawned on me when on my last visit I noticed a slew of small eateries which I was informed had just opened. My eyes popped cartoonishly out of their sockets when I spotted a bakery unironically named ‘Sugar Daddy’. I was told by friends that it had gained quite a reputation over the past few months and was encouraged to try their pastries.

When I was growing up, the idea of eating out had not caught on. My parents’ generation seldom went to restaurants, however small or humble. Aside from those who had inherited wealth, most of India was poor and still decades away from the effects of economic liberalization and the benefits of pay commissions. The first time my mother ate at a restaurant was after her marriage, while my father’s experience of restaurants was limited to dhabas where he and his friends ate thalis that cost two rupees per person. Even these outings were infrequent. Mostly he made rotis and basic sabzis for himself when he lived alone because the idea of eating out felt exorbitant and hardly ever crossed his mind.

Leaving these habits behind was not easy for my parents, so we ate out only on select occasions like wedding anniversaries or birthdays. As the markets opened up and television became part of our staple diet, we were exposed to eating out as an accepted and desirable mode of celebration and what we now call lifestyle. If we could afford it, why would we not go out? Why should the woman of the house cook thrice a day every day? And the children deserved an outing.

The restaurants we went to served north Indian food and were named Swastik, Navneeta, Rupali, and Sonali. None of these places served alcohol, and all of them boasted about being “pure veg”. This set them apart from the places where the young people of the town gathered. In my late-teens and undergrad days the places I went to with friends, like a still popular Chinese joint called ‘Clock Tower’, were avoided by devout Hindus. Clock Tower wasn’t just not “pure veg”, the rumour was that it served pork. And then there was a restaurant called ‘Traffic Jam’ that had pizzas and burgers on the menu. Mostly though, eating out meant either going to one of the many outlets of the Indian Coffee House, or just going to the Chaupati, the seaside.

When I left this city, this is where the ‘restaurant scene’ was at. Whenever I used to visit my parents, my trips would not last more than a week long and most of the time would be spent visiting relatives and eating home-cooked meals. Imagine my surprise then when I returned to Jabalpur a couple of years ago to finish writing a book and discovered that the city, like me, had grown up. Jabalpur now had a Grandma’s Kitchen that served continental and Mexican food. It now offered Chicago, New York, and California pizzas. It now had specific restaurants for Belgian waffles and pancakes. It had a Baskin Robbins. You could find a Wok & More that served khow suey, even if it came with paneer marinated in some Indo-Chinese sauce. And you could find Thai curries and Tibetan soups and, at your own risk, momos.

The more I looked the more I became interested in the names of some of these new restaurants—places that aspired to be 21st century, that wanted to attract a younger crowd that spoke English and had grown up on American cinema and television. Places that wanted to share in the success of such restaurants in metropolitan cities. Even before OTT platforms became a thing, shows like Masterchef Australia were popular with younger people. My generation and the ones that followed were exposed to shows like Friends and Gilmore Girls. Growing up in Jabalpur, chai was what most of us drank, like in most of north India. Coffee was for special occasions. When a guest said they didn’t drink tea, Baba would press with “chai nahi toh Nescafe le lo?” He said it almost as if he were bragging. Friends, of course, made coffee unfathomably glamorous for my generation. The show single-handedly changed our choice of beverage.

But, as writer Shoiab Danyal pointed out in an essay, “changing our choice of caffeinated beverage amounts to no more than swapping a British import for an American one. Before the Raj, nobody in India drank tea. For a long time, it was an elite drink. Yet now chai is intrinsic to large parts of India. That Friends could dislodge chai, at least among the Anglophones, is another telling marker of its deep influence.” When the first CCD opened in the city, I and my Friends flocked to it regularly, hoping to replicate Central Perk Café. This is to say that the American lifestyle, its attitude, its fashions, its food and beverages were already part of our daily vocabulary. It was only a matter of time before Jabalpur itself made the mental migration its youth had already made and sought the amenities of Indian metropolises and Western cities.

Which is why we now have fast food joints with names like ‘Bun In A Million’. It isn’t that we didn’t have burgers in Jabalpur before, but our burgers were more ‘desi’ in their look and feel, were served with fries in your average north Indian restaurants as part of their ‘multi cuisine’ offerings for the younger demographic. While Jabalpur still does not have a Starbucks, it is aware enough to offer you a ‘Stardrinks’, with a simulacrum of the Starbucks lady stuck neatly on its logo. Stardrinks serves coffee but proudly calls itself a ‘tharra’, a reference to desi liquor, and is a regular haunt for young people looking for alcohol and pizza.

In a 2017 essay, Sohini Chattopadhyay wrote “Kaira, Shyra, Akira, Kia, Tia, Sia. Shanaya. These are Bollywood’s cool new names, broadly classified into the ‘ya’ or ‘ra’ nomenclature. The Poojas, Nishas, Anjalis and Nehas of the 1990s are déclassé. These new names carry an unmistakable aspiration to be global. They are unrooted to place, community or any kind of identity except class. They are almost never longer than three syllables and easy to pronounce. They float on coolness and lightness.”

If the emergence of these restaurants in Jabalpur in the past few years tells us anything, then it is that global capitalism always comes with class anxieties. What does it mean to name your pizzeria ‘Fuego’ when the people ordering the pizza don’t know what the word means? What does it mean to name your restaurant ‘Sugar Daddy’, when even you, the person who named it, aren’t necessarily aware of the implication? To borrow Sohini’s point, these restaurant names too float on coolness and lightness, and have an unmistakable aspiration to be global. It is why the quality of education, employment, and the city infrastructure might not have changed much but the branding of this smart city has.

When I first moved to Delhi, it was a huge cultural shift for me but I pretended like it wasn’t. The pizzas were better there and came with thin crusts and cheese burst options. There were big and famous-for-years Italian restaurants like The Big Chill that were so expensive that it took me a few years to gather the courage to visit them. I didn’t know what churros were. I didn’t know what a Bao was. I hadn’t tasted any Thai curries. I hadn’t even thought of Burma and Vietnam as places whose food I’d ever try, never mind love and crave. But that shift happened for me as my cultural class moved upwards.

This upward mobility has gripped my hometown—which is why Grandma’s Kitchen serves nothing that my grandma would have made or had even heard of. In Jabalpur you can now get everything you can get in Delhi, but it doesn’t taste the same. My first outing during the entire lockdown period was with a friend to a café called ‘The New Yorker’ with no reference to the magazine. A cardboard cutout of the Statue of Liberty greeted me. The cafe was mostly empty but that felt more like the doing of the pandemic. Otherwise, it seemed likely to be the sort of place where Jabalpur’s college kids would hang out with their friends and eat all the things my generation could never have dreamed would be available in this city. It didn’t matter if the food was not ‘authentic’ or even that good.

When I was little, every other Sunday, Baba used to bring home poha-jalebi, and/or samosa for breakfast. I loved the poha-jalebi so much that upon moving to Delhi one of the first things I did was to find a place that served MP-style poha and jalebi. I wanted to find familiarity in everything that was new. As I was browsing through the Sugar Daddy menu, I saw a dessert called ‘Taco Jalebi’ and I thought that it sounded exactly like the kind of thing one should find here. This dessert sounded like a good marriage of innovation and aspiration and so I ordered it. It was a flattened jalebi in the shape of a taco loaded with the kind of cream that sticks to insides of your mouth, and a sad, lonely cherry on top. Not unpleasantly, it tasted like the city—mild, sweet, familiar, and clinging to its past.

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