India, Mysore

Breakfast With Friends – A Short Story

March 8, 2019


We’ll eat where you eat. Local, cheap food is good, we tell our driver, with the confidence of travellers who have spent countless months in India, eating at all manner of food outlets. He tells us of an idli place in a house just outside of Mysore where each idli costs 1 rupee. We say let’s do it.

We stroll into the bright orange front room of a house. All seats at the table are taken up by hungry locals who eye us up with curiosity more than anything. The owner notices us and makes a mental note to assemble us a plate each. We head into the adjoining purple room and take a seat at the long bench. It’s ok? Shafi asks. It’s very good, we reply.

Tom asks me if I think we need to tell them no butter, no ghee. I say, when have you ever seen butter on idli? He says true and we don’t mention anything.

The doorway frames a couple of people who are clearly trying to work out our story. Two women walk into what is obviously their regular breakfast spot and start giggling as soon as they see us, out of surprise I assume.

The people in the doorway begin to take a few not so inconspicuous photos. Something we often do in India, so we don’t mind.  We shift up the bench to make room for the two gigglers and I briefly consider that it would be quite hard for me to get up from the table, should I need to, as I’m pretty wedged in.

Within about 5 minutes, the boss brings us each a plate with a whopping 8 pieces of idli and a large puddle of coconut chutney with a dollop of butter sat in the middle like a lump of melty gold.  We look at each other and then break off a piece of idli to push the butter to the side of the plate. We will both eat round that bit.

The boss returns with a jug of water.  No cups because you’re expected to sky it. I can’t sky water and that’s not because I haven’t tried in the past.

We each take our first bite of the idli and chutney, a traditional south Indian breakfast dish which, I must add we have both eaten a hundred times before. Within seconds it’s clear that we are both experiencing the same fireball sensation in our mouths. How is it this hot? I ask Tom with my eyes. I don’t even know, I think he says. Water isn’t an option, unless we want to make matters worse, so we both wait for the extreme burning to pass. I think to myself that the lining of my empty stomach will not thank me for this. However, it hasn’t made me cough so it can’t be that bad.

Everyone is watching us, so it’s just as well we didn’t make a scene.

We continue to finger our way through breakfast, dipping chunks of piping hot, soft idli into the white sea of coconut sauce. And then, crunch. My unsuspecting molars clamp down onto something which shatters between them. At this stage I’m not sure what it is, the extent of the mess in my mouth or how to play it without drawing even more attention to myself.

I slowly and tentatively separate my lower and upper jaw and delicately allow my tongue to explore the scene of the incident. I suspect it’s probably some grit from the rice flour, but I can’t be sure without having a route around with my finger. I’m extremely aware that at present I have no way of rinsing my mouth out, or in fact no way of getting water into my mouth without potentially choking myself. Saliva levels are still pretty minimal at this point so no need to panic. I shove a finger into the area and scoop out some of the offending matter. It’s clear and it glistens. Glass. A little more alarming than grit, but the deed is done and now and I just need to get rid of it.

Digging around in my mouth has garnered some attention from Shafi and the stranger sitting opposite him. He looks at the disgusting mix of glass and chewed up idli I have smeared across my hand for inspection. Glass, I say. Glass? he says. Yes, glass, I say with a smile, feeling obligated to reassure him that this is not an issue and that I can take anything India has to throw at me, sharp objects in my food included. To my surprise Shafi reaches over and collects some of the evidence from my hand, to see from himself. He shows the man opposite and neither of them seem grossed out handling what is essentially slime from my mouth. I can only pick out the word glass from what they are saying in the local language of Kannada.  They talk for a bit and then Shafi tells me that the man says they don’t use any glass here. I smile and under my breath ask Tom how the man thinks this glass got into my mouth.  Tom says to Shafi, how does the man think the glass got in her mouth? This question is not understood by either of the two men.

By now I have not swallowed for quite some time and it suddenly alarms me that despite my best efforts, soon the shards of glass in my mouth will begin to float in my repulsive saliva and idli filled mouth and I will lose total control of their whereabouts. I need water. We need to go to the car, I gargle to Tom, still fairly calm.  After some shuffling about we’re able to break away from the bench and with at least 24 eyes on us we begin to make a hasty exit. Suddenly there’s a huge thud followed by a loud gasp and a collective ooh. I look back to see Tom clutching his head and immediately realise he has misjudged the height of the doorway in his rush to help me cleanse my mouth. He seems OK and I make plans to check on him as soon as I’ve spat out this mouthful of dangerous objects.

The car is out the front of the house and when I’m finally able to swish water between my teeth, I look for a spot to spit it out where I won’t be observed. There isn’t one and we are already this morning’s entertainment, so why not let everyone see me gob all over the place too. What harm can it do?

I do gob all over the place, around four times. Then I check that Tom is alright. He says he might have a concussion, but he’s exaggerating.  For the second time, we saunter into the house, smiling an oh no it’s nothing, smile.

We sit back down at our seats, Tom seeing stars, me wondering whether any bits of glass could have gone down my throat and trying to work out whether that could cause any serious health implications. I wonder how big a piece of glass you would need to swallow for it to tear open any of your vital organs. Then I remember Tom telling me he knew someone who ate lightbulbs when he lived in Bath and I figure, although I couldn’t remember what happened to that guy, there probably wasn’t anything for me to worry about. My mind thoughts try to pull me back into the worry zone, but I focus on eating the rest of my breakfast in protest of all that has challenged my level of easygoingness in India. No problem, I tell Shafi. I wonder if he washed his hand.

We ask for the bill. It’s 120 rupees. I divide that by 24 in my head and it definitely doesn’t add up to 1, but we pay anyway and head off on our merry way.


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