Monday, March 22, 2010

Cinnamon Powder - I

I had been thinking of writing a series on people whom I have had the chance to meet and interact with and who have left an impression on me. These are stories of everyday life but I am reminded of these people from time to time. And since they keep coming back to me, I thought of sharing their stories and mine too.

The reason I wanted to call this series ‘Cinnamon Powder’ was because having shared some moments of my life with these people has added that extra flavor à la adding a sprinkling of cinnamon powder to a dish and thus, adding that extra hint of magical flavor. I hope it finds an echo in you.

Khan Market waale Sardarji

I was introduced to the world of cars by one of my uncles and this was furthered by my father. Uncle B stayed with us for a very long time and had a definite influence on me and my sister’s choice of books, music, and cars. He would bring home car magazines and we would spend hours leafing through the glossy pages looking at pictures of Mercedes, Alfa Romeos, BMWs, Ferraris, and Lamborghinis. Looking at them and weaving dreams around them…

I had never known a time when my family didn’t have a car and have very fond memories of the first car I ever knew – the Ambassador. Well, having said that, we would take the car for its maintenance or repairs to a particular mechanic in the Khan Market area. I know that the name conjures up images of beautiful, well-lit shops selling the best of best in that markedly understated sophisticated sense and how could it possibly have a car repair shop there!! Well, I allude to a place opposite Khan Market, a piece of land owned by Khushwant Singh’s family, I believe. This car repair shop was in the alleys behind a charitable hospital run by the gurudwara trust.

In this grime filled, blackened alley with its various sounds of spanners and welding instruments was a small garage turned into a small shack by Sardarji. We would always find Sardarji there and he would ask after the health of my grandfather, my Uncle B, his family and we would do the same. Dad would ask about his family and his sons. After this was done, he would ask Dad to start the car and leave it on for some time, while he heard the engine of the dear old Amby purr. Within less than five minutes of listening to this sound, he would say what was wrong with the car and why it was giving us trouble. That was all!! And he was always right about the problem. He was like a doctor who feels the patient’s pulse and can guess on what is bothering the patient. Sardarji was exactly like that – he would listen to the sound of the engine and then tell us what the problem was with Amby. Then, he would ask for some tools to be brought forth by some of the young assistants who always milled around him or else would step into his shack where we would be sitting. In that shack, he had an ancient faded green refrigerator which he used as an almirah for his tools. J. From there, he would take the appropriate tools and get on with working on the car. There were times when the bottom of the car needed to be examined or repaired. I remember even at the age of 60 or more, Sardarji would do this task himself. I was always amazed with his knowledge and his dexterity. I would watch spell bound as he would pull at something, tighten something, add some oil somewhere, and then wipe his hands on a rag and then ask Dad to start the car. The look on his face when the engine would roar to life was that of immense satisfaction and pleasure. Now comes my favorite part. :-)

After the work was done, it would be time to savor the tea that Sardarji would offer to all the people present there at that time. Sardarji would make this tea himself and it remains one of the best teas I’ve ever had. This tea making process was an elaborate procedure, which started by giving money to one of the youngsters there to get milk – full cream milk. Then, he would light his stove in the very same shack which housed odds and ends, car parts, the green refrigerator, another refrigerator for cold water, a table fan, some papers, and chairs fashioned out of old car seats. All the things in this shack were in the same shade of grey – covered with the grease and grime of auto parts. The stove would be lit and a huge degchi would be placed on it. Sardarji would then cut open the packets of full cream milk and pour them into the degchi. Yes – it was tea made with full cream milk and no water! He would then cover the degchi and let the milk boil. From a shelf, he would pull out a small newspaper pudiya and would then place this on top of the degchi. Then, using a stone, he would proceed to crush the contents of this pudiya – chhoti elaichi, laung, kali mirch (just a few), and maybe some other spices. Once, this was done, he would put in the crushed spice powder into the boiling milk, add lots of sugar, and add lots of chai patti, which was a mixture of leaf tea and tea granules. While he was doing this, a small crowd of little children would gather around him. People who worked in other similar auto parts shops in the same alley would also come over. Everyone would gather around the small shack. The conversation would include the weather, the political situation in the country, and of course cars. In that area, there were times when one could spot a vintage car or two that had come there for Sardarji’s expert treatment. Sardarji would himself pour out the tea into glasses for all the people present there. No matter how many people were there, they would all get tea.

The taste of the tea would be sweetened further by the love of this old, mild mechanic. The evening would become mellow; the heat of the May sun would begin to diminish, the sound of prayers would drift in from a nearby gurudwara, and the aroma of the sweet tea would fill the air, and the conversations would become a slow humming of sounds.