When an American, a Canadian and a South African unanimously recommend Sethji’s
for a good home-cooked North Indian meal in Bangalore – a city you are more of a newcomer to, than them – you listen. And then you try to locate the very popular place (the recommendation is backed up by your brother in law and a few friends) – but ideally not when there’s a power cut in the area and it’s 8PM and dark. Because if you do, you will go around in a few circles in Indira Nagar before you’re pointed towards it by a shopkeeper with an air of incredulity that you walked down that street twice and did not see Sethji’s. Everyone knows Sethji’s!Then you finally notice it – the faint flickering neon sign on what looks like someone’s house, opposite a temple, that announces this modest but famous mecca for home-cooked food and …er…what’s that – art gallery
It’s your turn to be incredulous now, especially because this is the first view of the er – gallery …and restaurant that greets you.
But you have no idea, do you? The place looks like a house from the outside, because it is a house. The living room and courtyards double up as the restaurant – a modest affair with plastic tables and chairs and plastic water jugs and a stack of steel tumblers. And the owner of Sethji’s clearly has things beyond food on his mind – the walls of the courtyard are the owner’s personal ‘gallery’ – I suspect the ‘art work’ is done by someone in the family (or the owner himself) but I couldn’t find out on this trip.
The moment you sit down on one of the tables outside, a waiter appears with a laminated piece of paper – the menu. You ask for a bottle of mineral water and he almost laughs and then shakes his head – no mineral water here, please help yourself to the filtered water in the plastic jug. The menu is simple – a choice of several stuffed paranthas (Indian pancake-style bread) with a modest choice of accompaniments. If you have a larger appetite, you could order a full thali (platter). You recall that the salted lassi (buttermilk) was a big part of the recommendations but your tummy is yet to settle down to Bangalore, so you desist. You order a couple of paranthas and wait.
You look around a bit more and notice the psychedelic ceiling. You’re beginning to get used to this.
Or so you think. Because then you notice the shai’ri (urdu poetry) in English script on the walls, making your amazement peak!
The cursive inscription on the left reads:
“Mein beqraar dil ka fasaana likhun to kya
Dil ka naheen hai koye thikaana likhun to kya”
How do I write the story of my restless heart/
This heart is a wanderer with no destination, what do I write of it?
Ahem.. Profound. Clearly the owner is an indulgent soul – there is also a corner of the courtyard dedicated to ‘mehfils‘ (gatherings around music or poetry performances).
Before it can all sink in, your food arrives – an affair as simple as it gets. An unassuming parantha in a steel plate with an accompaniment of curd in a small steel bowl. You dig in – the parantha is not the best you’ve had but it satiates your craving for that homemade taste – something you’d be hard-pressed to find in most eateries in India. There are no napkins or paper towels to wipe your slightly greasy fingers on – and after the mineral water, you’re hesitant to ask. You look around and figure out why.
When there’s a psychedelic blue washbasin right next to the ‘mehfil‘ area, why would you need a napkin? Really, now.
As we polish off our simple yet delicious meal, we realise just how popular this quirky little place is – customers stream in – young couples, lone guys clearly arriving straight from work, foreign expats, even families. And as randomly thown together as this place seems at first glance, it seems to grow on you – all strange art, mushy poetry, plastic furniture, psychedelic ceiling and washbasin of it. The meal barely makes a scratch on your pocket, and very strangely, you find yourself wanting to come back even before you’ve left.
Somehow it is only in India that you’ll find such an incredibly quirky place that is so popular yet so bordering on the bizarre. Perhaps that is one of the reasons why we call it Incredible India. Ah, India. It’s good to be back.