Dispatch from an e-rickshaw

There is nothing exotic about a woman riding a battery-run rickshaw on Delhi’s roads; except it is relatively new, and definitely extraordinary. But we take time to accept new things – don’t we? – lost as we are in our little bubbles, stretching them to infinity as if it’s a day job. Especially some gentlemen – including myself, once upon a time – who may not prefer to hop onto a rickshaw being driven by a woman.

I didn’t interview or casually ask them, “Dude, what’s your problem? What is this inherent, compulsive aversion to it?” I just asked myself, and here’s the answer I got: What if she rams the vehicle into a pedestrian or a car or bike? But, she is a woman, why trouble her by overloading her rickshaw? A man would be more responsible and alert. So on and so forth.

And yet, when I sat behind her, with two women and another boy, my supercilious masculine notions got a quick, thorough beating – and happily so. For one, she was more involved and energetic than her male counterparts. And it seemed to me that she was having a lot of fun, being at the wheel, as she hollered to passengers while navigating through the chaotic streets of west Delhi.

But I did ask her, “So, what’s their problem?”

“Sometimes, one in a hundred is one of those,” she said, making it sound like spotting a minor defective piece in a large stock you would buy from a shop. “They may not be allowing their women to go out of the house.” She said she had been doing this job for the past two years. That was all she said before I got off and a group of women grabbed seats in her rickshaw. There was no time either to ask about her life or pose one of those questions – how are you feeling, being a woman, riding a rickshaw? Does your family allow it? What does your husband, if you’re married that is, say? And how do the male drivers “treat” you? The need for such questions did not arise.

In 2012, a Chennai-based news website wrote about Kohinoor, Delhi’s first woman electric rickshaw driver. These emission-free vehicles were introduced in 2010 in a city that is now the world’s most polluted. A minimum of 10 rupees is charged from passengers as against an auto rickshaw that would ask four times more for the same distance. Kohinoor, who was previously working at a school with a salary of 5,000 rupees, said she hoped to double her earnings in her new profession.

Last month, around 30 e-rickshaws were flagged off from Madipur, close to my house in west Delhi. These vehicles are equipped with GPRS and CCTV cameras. The women drivers have been trained in traffic rules, road safety and martial arts for six months. The smart rickshaws, as they are called, have been financed by India’s first women’s bank Bharatiya Mahila Bank.

When I think of the anonymous driver who dropped me home that evening, I also think of the gross magnitude of assumptions we have about life. I also think of a senior colleague – sorry sir, bitching about you on a public platform, but I will also keep you anonymous – who once gave me an unsolicited cricket update. Would he do the same to a female colleague? Why would he assume I follow cricket?

When in Punjabi Bagh, dig into Indonesia’s Gado Gado salad

Once a settlement colony after India’s partition in 1947, Punjabi Bagh is now a thriving locality of ridiculously ostentatious display of wealth, power and consumerism. So, it’s oxymoronic to have an austere Indonesian salad in an area many would visit for butter chicken, kebab or sharaab.

The Club Road, for example, is a hotchpotch of houses, gyms, restaurants, bars, cafes, departmental stores, tandoor kiosks, flower shops, coffee shops, and chemist shops. There’s a big jogger’s park. And there is The Punjabi Bagh Club. The road also accommodates west Delhi’s rowdy car and bike owners, who actually belong in the back seat or the prison cell.

So one fine evening, I shed my anti-Punjabi Bagh bias, and went to Starbucks with a friend, who was visiting from south Delhi. Inside, the noise of traffic was effectively blocked, with people on the street looking like mute robots.

After a cold beverage, we walked around – I found myself tour-guiding my friend through Punjabi Bagh. He did seem fascinated by the chaos, a sharp contrast to the sleepy lanes of Chittaranjan Park, his home.

Screengrab of Backyard cafe from Zomato website (https://www.zomato.com/ncr/the-backyard-punjabi-bagh-new-delhi)

We finally decided to grab a table at Backyard café, as per my sister’s recommendation. She also suggested Gastropub, a few metres ahead, which sounded more about a medical problem than food.

We ordered two virgin mojitos, a vegetarian manchow soup and a quirky-sounding Gado Gado salad. It’s a popular Indonesian eat, made of steamed vegetables and peanut sauce.

I relished every bit of it. It’s a simple, yet filling salad that thankfully didn’t come with a pungent dressing, a staple ingredient in salads these days. And it turned out to be a full meal for me.

“This is a mega salad that has its roots in Sundanese cooking and has now become the typical street food of Jakarta in Indonesia. Gado-gado means medley or potpourri, which refers to all the different seasonal veggies and ingredients that are used. Tossed with the most incredible peanut dressing, and served with something crunchy on the side, such as prawn crackers, it’s a winning combination,” writes chef James Oliver in his blog. You should check out his recipe too.

If you like salads and food that’s not spicy and don’t mind a mildly sweet taste, you must give it a try. It can be easily prepared at home. You could also add rice, eggs, cooked tofu or tempe.

Delhi’s Ritwik Sarkar makes it once every two months or so. He learnt the recipe when he moved to Indonesia in 2008 to take up a new job. After four years he returned to India with a fondness for the salad. He also got married to an Indonesian girl, who helped him “hone” his Gado Gado skills.

Being a Bengali, who’re known for their food and rapacious appetite, has Ritwik ever added the local flavour to Gado Gado? “I have never tried to add Bengali flavour to Gado Gado. But now that you told me, I may try it. Perhaps adding a tinge of mustard oil to the peanut sauce dressing,”

That sounds lip-smacking. I have had the mustard curry fish at City of Joy in CR Park and it’s a refreshing break from the staple daal, sabzi or butter chicken. I look for forward to Ritwik’s Bengali-Indonesian salad, which we will call — Godo Godo.

A spicy debut at Delhi’s Potbelly Café

If you have a pot belly and hate spicy food, chances are you’re on the right path to lose some extra kilos. But there’s one condition – you would have to visit The Potbelly Rooftop Café in south Delhi’s Shahpur Jat area.

Apparently famous for serving Bihari cuisine, the café makes food that is uniformly spicy. The curries are indistinct and have a certain sameness cooked into them. And mind you, I have had better litti chokha, three years ago at the National Book Fair in old Delhi.

I have been debating with friends and colleagues whether Bihari food should be spicy or not and I get different answers from all of them, including some who belong to Patna. “There’s probably nothing called Bihari food as such, except litti chokha or some snack like that. The food isn’t supposed to be very spicy and usually isn’t very different from what we eat here in Delhi,” one of them, who chose to remain anonymous, told me.

But chances are if you cringe at the taste of that little bit extra salt in your food, you would go back home on an empty stomach – just what your nutritionist ordered you to do. Isn’t it? Or, you’d go to sleep with some Apple lemonade and sweet lassi rolling in your bowels, like I did. I also topped it with a homemade ladoo before brushing my teeth. Thank god for mother’s obsession with making sweets at home!

So, here’s what ALL we ordered –

*Baggia basket – rice flour stuffed with spiced channa dal tempered with spices, served tomato chokha and coriander chutney

*Litti chokha – wheat balls stuffed with sattu (spiced gram flour), channa dal, aubergine and potato mash

*Mutton chaamp – thick gravy served with rice and boondi raita

*Madhubani thali – traditional aloo-chana dal sabzi with sattu pooris, onion pooris, oil pickle, teesi chutney and aubergine raita

*Bhojpuri thali – paneer and potato vegetable stew with sattu pooris, onion pooori, pickle, teesi chutney and aubergine

The restaurant is mostly indoors, where we sat. The rooftop section overlooks the Asiad village. There is no alcohol to serve.

Here’s the restaurant in pictures –

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On my way back, as I hailed an auto-rickshaw, I saw these shadows converging on a wall. It made for an interesting photo, I thought.

But my evening began with something more colourful – before it turned spicy – with a walk through the narrow lanes of the Shahpur Jat village, which has many boutiques such as these –

Media Talk – Rohtak rape vs Delhi polls

On Feb. 7, a side bar of an English newspaper published the story of a mentally unstable woman who was brutalised, raped and murdered in Haryana. The lead was Delhi’s elections – a tight contest between Aam Admi Party’s Arvind Kejriwal and his challenger Kiran Bedi, the chief ministerial candidate for the BJP.

Why a gruesome rape story had to be relegated to the sidelines in the press, anyone looking for news beyond the dance of democracy would ask. After all, the race to the Delhi elections, as with most electoral processes, comprised of nothing but political gimmicks, barbs directed at each other and controversies that would even exhaust a dedicated newspaper reader.

“It’s rape coverage fatigue,” a friend, who also happens to be a new editor with foreign media, said could be the reason behind the story being mostly ignored in the press.

Probably it is fatigue. But the details, despite serving as a reminder of the Nirbhaya case, are unreadable. The woman’s body was found without key organs, and various objects – including a 16 cm-long stick – were inserted into her vagina.

Is it hard to believe that the details didn’t shake a journalist out of his or her fatigue?

But there is still time to locate her family, find out what exactly happened to her and the kind of life she led. She was mentally challenged.

Last month, journalist Arunabh Saikia did just that. In newslaundry.com, he pieced together the story of a three-year-old girl, who was “kidnapped, raped and dumped in a slum” in Delhi. U.S. President Barack Obama was to arrive in the city in less than 24 hours then, he added. Next morning, the rape story managed to find a little spot in the papers.

Saikia visited the hospital, where the girl’s father told him she hadn’t eaten anything since “that day,” except had some milk.

“I hope she eats the porridge,” the man said, standing outside ward No. 5 of the All India Institute of Medical Sciences (AIIMS) in Delhi.

Rohtak is anything but far from Delhi.

This weekend, ‘Diggin’ in south Delhi

This weekend, ‘Diggin’ in south Delhi

Last December, before heading to a house party on New Year’s eve, I visited Diggin Café for a quick snack. Sitting at the edge of a sleepy and posh residential area, it’s a large, leafy and seemingly remote hangout in the heart of south Delhi, and right outside Gargi College. There’s no parking scarcity, as with most Delhi bazaars, probably because the café is virtually unknown.

At Diggin, you have many seating options to explore – you can sit outside, on wooden benches surrounded by trees and flower pots. In winter, they keep firewood as well. You can also sit inside, by bookshelves and a gamut of sinful confectioneries. The ceiling is high, dotted with hanging light bulbs; and the ambience warm and welcoming.

You could also grab a seat outside, on the first floor that is somewhat shaded by hanging baskets. The furniture is largely wooden, complimenting the raw brick walls. Inside, a large tangerine tree, painted on a white wall, greets you. The curtains are white too, partially covering dark brown window sills.

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(Pictures by Ankush Arora)

I tried a hearty vegetarian garden burger and an equally filling sandwich that kept me going until after the clock struck 12 a.m. Both the snacks were served with French fries and a small portion of salad. In the end, I had a few cups of Darjeeling tea with honey. (Full menu here)

But mostly, “ambience” is all that this place has, and that’s we’re looking for these days, isn’t it? After all, it isn’t rocket science to prepare oozing snacks, with some veggies and chicken pieces.

If I were to visit the café again, which is highly likely, I would order a pan seared fresh fish, served with “tangy lime sauce…green beans, fennel, almond and citrus orange salad.”

Go there if you are bored of all the places you go to or if you like pastas, pizzas and bruschettas or won’t mind a glass or two of thick, flavoured smoothies or milkshakes. It is open until 11 p.m. and doesn’t serve alcohol. Free home delivery option is also available, according to Zomato.

And if you don’t like any of these, there’s a Haldiram’s-like restaurant next door to cater to your desi taste buds.

(Writing by Ankush Arora; feature image courtesy of Diggin website)