The Modern Café can be seen this way or it cannot. It has transplanted its black and white tiles floors, a cursive sign that says Quality Satisfaction straight from a 1940s diner. But down the street a man with a cart is cooking samosas in a giant wok of oil. So, the dirty tables and inflexible menu aren’t so bad. Vanity lights border and perpetually illuminate a shrine in the back. This fast-food joint faces the Sree Vesudev, and we eat there every morning. Each day a new batch of customer stares, the wait staff aloof, though, after the first time, their rapid movements ensuring us quick food, if not what we wanted. Every day we run into the problem of ordering. Nearly half of the items listed on the menu are not available, plugging our adventurous tastes.
At this point three waiters have surrounded our table trying to resolve the problem that is us.
I will have the aloo paneer and roti.
Just No. Expectant stares. The other waiters disperse without a word.
In America, the wait staff would be fawning with apology for being out of this type of cheese, that kind of liquor, offering suggestions for similar dishes. Here, you’ve got to bring your own back-ups, decisions; a varied appetite for a spit-fire, two-word response to It is not possible.
After six attempts, we down grade to plain dosas. The waiter oscillates his head and then walks away. We wait to see if he meant yes or no.
Soon, he arrives back with the huge crepe-like flakes. The dosa is still good, but its a forced food misadventure. When we ask Satish, our graduate assistant at the university, about the deceptive menus he explains that dining out is still a novelty act for most Indians. Few customers result in fewer choices and some ingredients are seasonal anyway. The menus anticipate a cosmopolitan business but settle for the unvaried diet of the small regulars crowd.
On the last day, as we are rummaging for rupees and ordering mineral waters for the train ride home, I see the warning. Written above the door in English black block letters spell incorrectly beneath the Telegu script: WE ARE NOT RESPONSIBLE FOR YOUR BELONGING. Don’t I know it, India.