If pure love is that which sets your heart on fire, which makes you sit up late at night sleepless and panting, then I can say that what I feel for Bedouin Sher e Bengal is that only.
Pure heart-burning passion.
Over the years, I have had the privilege of visiting many places and sampling a wide variety of cuisines. But nothing, and I mean nothing, packs the emotional impact of a mouthful of food cooked in the kitchens of Bedouin. I don’t care if people say that the biriyani of Arsalan is better or that Shiraz is the best for Mughlai food. Maybe they are right. Who knows? It’s like all the sensuous writhings of a Sunny Leone count for nought, explicit as they are, on an emotional scale, in front of Raveena Tandon’s “Tip Tip Barsa Pani” just because the latter touches me in a more personal way.
So don’t even argue.
Because you see, when I put a morsel from Bedouin into my mouth, I am not just having “food”. I am connecting via a gustatory bridge to times and tastes gone by.
I won’t waste your time with history, of how there once used to be a place called Bedwin (yes I know) and how Bedouin opened as its properly-spelt competitor with an almost identical menu. I however will tell you about the times I used to walk by the store, on the way back from school or en route to tuitions when the delightful smell from the tava where chaap was being made (they kept it at the door) and the subtle notes of hot oil, would seduce me, like the song of the sirens. Though Bedouin was not expensive, (this was the 90s when restaurants still had to cater to the middle-class), money as a student was not readily available and neither was parental consent. One couldn’t simply have dinner like that. And so, I passed by Bedouin, with a few longing glances, dreaming of the day I would have money of my own and no permission to seek, when I would be free, free, free at last.
Little did I know that sugar, cholesterol, calories, and all their assorted minions were laughing quietly to themselves, making as they always do, plans of their own.
I guess people eat out more now than they used to. (I hear once a week) They say “Western culture”. But they say that for everything nowadays. It was not very often that we went to Bedouin, perhaps once every three months. Most times these visits were necessitated by the hired help not showing up, which while no doubt the cause of general household consternation, brought for me the proverbial silver lining, in the form of mutton biriyani (chicken if it was Thursday, that being the designated rest-day for goats), and if I had been a good boy, a side-order of reshmi chicken or sometimes, the even more luxuriant, reshmi chicken butter masala. And on the topic of being a good boy, the standard treat for acceptable results was at Bedouin too.
Once a year, Bedouin would have their biriyani promotions. A pack of biriyani for Rs 23. I know I am kind of sounding Babbarian here (Babbarain: the tendency to understate the price of food, in order to appear cool), but that’s really what they used to charge. Those evenings, Bedouin would be transformed into a cauldron of, sweat, heat, noise, sizzle, with the general feeling of disorientation being exacerbated by an auditory assault of random shouts (“Where is my biriyani?”, “I have been standing here for an hour and that man who came after me got his packet” and the “Dada, can you just move to the side, you are hogging the fan.” (There was one industrial strength standing fan in the waiting area for take-out) ) and the rapid scraping of the bottom of the steel handa by the harried employee, as he tried vainly to keep up with the white squares of paper piling up to the side.
My most pleasant memories of Bedouin are however when we used to dine there, Baba, Ma and me. That was a special occasion, usually when we had been out in the evening for Puja shopping or on some other mundane adventure, and it had gotten too late. Bedouin’s dine-in was upstairs, and you had to ascend a narrow, somewhat creaky set of stairs to get up there. But once you made the climb, your faith was rewarded. The air-conditioner was turned well-up and the sauf was generously sprinkled with sugar minicubes (unlike in some places that shall remain nameless). Since this was a family outing, I took the opportunity to over-order, knowing well, that the extra food would be “parceled”. For these occasions, I would order the sinfully sumptuous but competitively-priced Kabuli Naan and Bedouin’s signature dish, the Bedouin special Lababdar, which was as rich as Bill Gates and needed a PVC-lined intestine to digest properly, that is if you were brave enough to finish it off at one sitting.
Which I was.
It’s strange what I remember, so many years later, of those dinners. The rustle of shopping bags, Baba and Ma’s voice, the pleasant knot of hunger at the base of the stomach, and then the waiter coming with the plate of biriyani, a plateau of yellow-and-white, formed by turning upside down whatever it was that held it, and then finally the burning fullness of having eaten too much, and being barely able to raise myself up from the chair.
Then I went to the US for my studies, and even though I was now living on a diet of Junior Whoppers and ranch sauce (and do I regret that now), Bedouin was never far from my mind. Every time I went back to Calcutta, biriyani and kababs from Bedouin would be one of the first three (if not the first) meal that I would have on home-soil. (I still maintain this discipline). On one of these India trips, I came to know that Bedouin had shifted, and expanded. They were now housed in a three (or was it four) stories building on Rashbehari, opposite Basanti Devi college. They had separated their Chinese/Continental/Bengali and Mughlai sections in to different floors and made the “Sher” of “Sher-e-Bengal” more central to their brand. In that, they now have angry stuffed tigers sitting at the bottom of the stairs, telling prospective customers that they will be in for a roaring time.
Stepping into Bedouin (I only patronize the Mughlai section, which I believe is their core competency) now, is like entering a time-warp. The guard at the gate doing “salute” has not changed. Neither have the men taking orders behind the counter. A few more grey hairs maybe, but otherwise they even look the same. The food tastes the same. And remarkably, the prices have almost stayed the same, (as in extremely reasonable in comparison to everything else.) In an age where I find most change disquieting, it’s this timelessness about Bedouin that I find extremely comforting, like wearing an old friendly pair of jeans.
Why is this all so important?
Because you see, growing up, I never had a lot of friends. I didn’t go to drunken parties (had not touched alcohol before grad school in the US), I didn’t organize para pujos. Or go on Dil Chahta Hai like trips.
All I had were books, Bollywood, cricket.
Hence, most of my pleasant memories are around these things.
Dilwale Dulhania Le Jayenge. Sachin at Sharjah. Byomkesh Bakshi. Bedouin.
The next time I will go to India, it will be special. This time I will have my daughter with me, and I shall surely take her along, if for nothing else, but to say hello to the stuffed tigers. She will be too young to understand how amazing they are. Nor will she be able to enjoy the taste of the food.
I realize of course, not without a bit of sadness, that even as she grows older, she might never ever understand.
Because she will not have grown up here.
For her, Bedouin will be just another restaurant, just another crazy thing her old man says is awesome.
But if, years later, she ever wants to discover her roots, find out what is it that made her father the way he was, then she would be advised to come here to Bedouin, make her way up the stairs, order the full menu, and savor each bite.
And maybe, just maybe, she will feel the love.