May 7th – Artistic feats and street eats

 The palace that greeted our arrival to Mysore was something more of an enigma than we had originally realised. It was not quite the piece of Mughal architecture that it had seemed from several hundred feet away, but in fact a chaotic, tasteless hodgepodge of styles that became increasingly apparent as one crossed the ramparts, passed under the opulent front gates and crossed the grand approaching laws. Upon closer inspection, the entire placed seemed more akin to Brighton Pavillion than the Taj Mahal.

Mysore palace was built in 1912 by the then-Prince of the Kingdom of Mysore after his previous palace had burned down. Sensing an opportunity to update and contemporise his glamorous digs, the Prince added Russian domes, classical Greek pillars, dazzling gold ornaments, excessive amounts of gold leaf, stained glass windows and some enormous faux-Italianate murals depicting the various military exploits and developments of his Kingdom. None of these looked as if they had been pained any later than the 1930’s.

It certainly presented an artistic challenge to the more thoughtful visitor (and there were many visitors to be found); was it spectacular or phoney? One half of me felt that, whatever the strange amalgamation styles, it should be appreciated for its spectacle and effort, of which is clearly did not lack. The other half of me, however, couldn’t shake the feeling that it was really was Brighton Pavillion away from home- a sham and an imitation that didn’t know what the hell it was.

Ifelt both those feelings, however, rather than one or the other. After all, the previous temple that had stood on that site since the 14th century had burned down at the end of the 19th century, and this is what had sprung up in its place. So what might seem like the Mysore-eyesore should perhaps instead be viewed as a timepiece of Indian history, a statement about the state of the country into which it was spawned. In that respect, I think the palace was a vivid example of the strange fusion of infuences that India has experienced (endured, even) while attempting to remain its own culture. It’s just a shame there was so much gold leaf.

Mysore's palace illuminated at night

Mysore Palace by night.
-Mysore, India-

 ***

Later on we indulged in the endless choices of street food that Mysore had to offer. In the cooler air of the early evening, the wider avenues and busy alleyways that bisected them burst with evening diners sitting on upturned crates and plastic chairs whilst smoke, steam and sounds spilled out of the hotplates and spitting woks. One particular speciality of the city was the Mysore Dosa, which is an adaptation of the regular Masala Dosa. At least, that is the official line- the reality is that the Mysore Dosa is ubiquitous across India, probably because they were done here first.

They are certainly done here best. The batter is especially light and bubbly, the potato curry especially soft, warm and spiced. The real joy is watching the expert chef ladle out the white batter onto a vast, black, greasy hotplate the size of a large office desk. He would then swirl the batter outward with the flat bottom of his ladle to the size of a large vinyl record. The batter of ground rice and flour quickly bubbles up and expands as smoke skirts of the edges of the pancake. With the wide, flat spatula, the chef then expertly swept under the pancake and flipped it over with a deft jar of the wrist, revealing the crisp, golden-brown vortex that has been sizzling underneath. While the underside bubbles away, he reached into the vat next to him and pulled out a handful of turmeric-yellow potato curry. He rapidly tossed this from one hand to another like cricket-ball until, after a second or two, he placed it gingerly in the centre of the brown swirl. With the spatula, he would then curl one edge of the pancake up and around the potato, before doing the same to the other edges around the other side to produce a brown, scroll-like object, which he then flipped over and flattened with a soft pressure from the spatula to seal the pancake.

The sublime experience of tucking into this culinary delight whilst stood amongst the chatter and streetlights is enough to distract even the most hygiene-conscious diner from the dirty state of the hands of the chef who had just cooked your dinner. The bugs are worth it for the street food in Mysore.

Street food is not all that is on offer. While the original pleasures of the juice bar are all over the city, today we discovered a new contraption to tempt our money. The object in question resembled an old Victorian hand-washer with a large wheel turned by hand. Instead of a burly housewife, though, there was invariably a skinny, pre-adolescent boy manning these objects; instead of a pile of dirty washing, there was an enormous stack of what appeared to be bamboo cane in large pile. For the princely sum of 2 rupees, a friend of the child would run around the back of the machine with armful of these bamboo canes and jam them, three-apiece, into the teeth-claws at the back of the machine while his partner set about priming the pump around the front. Quickly, a lime green juice flows from the fibres pressed within, down a chute and into a small glass at the bottom. After what looks like shameful amount of straining from the small child, the glass is full.

The drink is flat, sweet and somewhat refreshing, if a little warm. I wanted another to really hit the spot, but it seemed like such hard work for a cheap and not-all-that-satisfying reward. In order to assuage my guilt at wanting another, Alec and I instructed the two small kids to change places with us, Alec taking the back end and I having a go on the pump. It was very, very stiff. The assembled crowd fall about shrieking and laughing at my pantomime show at pretending not to be able to move the pump. But only I’m not really pretending to struggle- it was actually bloody hard work. We eventually managed a glass and we shared it.

***

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