November 18, 2017
Mog tuzo kitlo ashelo, Titloi labonk nam maka, Portun hanv zolmon yetholom, Moga mhunn apounk tuka. Dulcine bai’s alarm went off at 5.30 on a Saturday morning. She woke up, said her prayers and, after a quick routine of morning ablutions, sat down with a cup of futi kaapi. Switching on the television, she tuned in to Sanjeev Kapoor’s cookery show. Never in the last 30 years had she missed the morning telecast.
Dulcine Aranha was a nanny by profession and a home-cook by passion. She had been living in Dubai for the past 30 years with an influential Emirati family, the Al-Nuaimis, raising their children for 2 consecutive generations. Currently, she was looking after Jamal Al-Nuaimi’s kids. 7, 9, 12 and 14-years old, Jamal’s children adored Dulcine. She had raised Jamal and his siblings too, and was no less than a family member.
Every afternoon, after school, the children rushed to Dulcine’s humble accommodation attached to the family villa, eager to listen to her culinary adventures. She would tell them about the tiffin service she had briefly run in Mangalore and her dreams to start a lunch home someday. They loved gathering around her as she cooked, nibbling on raw mango slivers and playing with ridge gourd peels, immersed in the magic of stories and aromatic Mangalorean creations like sheera, thoushyachen maandas, kori roti, kadle ani sanna, bangade bafat and sungta ani kuvalyachi kadi. Dulcine loved children and didn’t mind indulging them. On rare occasions, she let them taste her dishes if they promised not to tell baba.
Dulcine came to Dubai in 1987. It was the first time she had ever left her home town, Bidryan, except the one occasion when she and her husband had made a trip to Mumbai, then Bombay. What a holiday that had been! The city wasn’t crowded or polluted then, and the newlyweds had enjoyed sightseeing and devouring the many street foods. Dulcine had particularly enjoyed the ferry ride by the Gateway. Even as a child she had a fascination for water and played with her friends in the piringitalen behind their house.
November 16, 1987. Dulcine had kept the receiver down, in shock. Doctor Tholpadi, Bidryan’s top heart-specialist, had just shared some bad news with her. Dulcine’s husband would have to undergo a bypass surgery because he had 3 major blocks in his heart. The operation would cost 50,000 rupees and this had simply been out of Dulcine’s budget. Lately, her husband had been too ill to work and his hospital bills had swiped out their meagre savings. Dulcine had been juggling her hospital visits with a humble tiffin service she had started in their neighbourhood to make ends meet. A frazzled Dulcine had picked up the phone and called her brother, Peter D’Souza, who lived in Dubai. He ran a small-time electronics business there and she had hoped he would help her out.
“Pondra hazaar most zaale, Dulcine,” he had said. “Bhavoji chi bolaiki bari nastana tuvent aathan kaam karunk podtelen. Itlo dudhoo tun maka kashen paatin deetalain?” Dulcine had been determined to save her husband’s life because she loved him too much to lose him. “Aun tuzo ek naya paiso paatin dovarchina, aun tuka mujhe utar ditaan,” she had assured her brother who, seeing her persistence and grit, was deeply touched.
“Aven tuka angaa ek kaam polailyar, tun yetelain gi?” he had further enquired. It had been a tough call. Though brave, Dulcine had spent most of her life in Mangalore and had been apprehensive to move overseas, alone. How would she manage? What if something went wrong while she lived there? Would her family support her? And who would take care of her husband while she was away? A swarm of questions had plagued her mind and she had broken down. Sobbing profusely, she had called upon Mother Mary. “Saibin mayen, maakaa aadhaar di, maakaa waat dakai.”
“Bhiyenakai, Dulcine,” her brother had consoled her. “Tun angaa ye. Kashein thain raavon kai zaunchya bari na. Ani tashen aami asaan, ne? Saglen samaa zatelen.” And just like that, Dulcine had become a Dubaigaar. After arranging for someone to take care of her husband, she had flown to the Middle East to dream of a better present and future for herself and her husband, and about a month after relocating, she had landed a job with the Al-Nuaimis.
September 27, 2016. Dulcine was removing a potli of taarle from the freezer when her phone rang. Mog tuzo kitlo ashelo, Titloi labonk nam maka, Portun hanv zolmon yetholom, Moga mhunn apounk tuka. Her lips broke into a smile. In fact, they did every time she would hear her ring tone or alarm. Dulcine’s husband had often sung this song for her during their courtship days and even after they had gotten married. It had been years since she had first met him and yet the memories were fresh in her mind. They had decided to meet at her favourite restaurant around the corner in Bidryan. Always bustling with diners, Padiwals’ served the best vegetarian food in Bidryan. Dulcine fondly recalled the aroma of goli baajis. They had ordered two plates of goli bajjis with flavourful coconut chutney and kaapi. After chatting for what might have been hours, they had left, holding hands. He had dropped her on his cycle that evening. Marriages were truly made in heaven. Dulcine smiled weakly at the idea of heaven. She hoped that one day she would meet him again there.
“Hello. Yes, saib. Give me 10 minutes and I’ll be there, saib.” It was Jamal Al-Nuaimi and he wanted to speak to her about something important. She quickly draped a sari, tied her hair in a bun and headed towards the villa. “What could saib want to speak to me about,” she wondered.
“Dulcine, as you know, you’re turning 60 this year and it’s time for you to retire,” said Jamal in a gentle but serious tone. Dulcine felt a sledgehammer hit her chest. Beads of sweat formed on her forehead and her ears flushed hot. Dubai had been her home for the last three decades and though she missed Mangalore terribly, the thought of moving back scared her. Besides, her job was her only source of income. “Yes, saib,” she replied, “I know.”
“But we like you very much and so, we don’t want to let you go,” Jamal continued. Dulcine’s eyes widened and for a minute she wondered if she had heard him correctly. “We have decided to extend your visa through a special arrangement. Also, we have an exciting proposition for you. Do you want to know what it is?”
“A business offer, Dulcine! There is a proposition from an Indian businessman. He has a small shop in Deira Dubai, which he is looking to rent, and he wants to start a restaurant there. What do you have to say about that?”
“I don’t understand, saib. How can I help?”
“Dulcine, you are an amazing home-cook. Our children have told us about your dreams of opening a lunch home and how delicious your food is. We would like to offer you a chance to explore your talent. Are you willing to?”
An embarrassed Dulcine enquired between forced smiles, “They told you that they’ve eaten my food?”
“Yes! Don’t worry, we are not angry. We trust you and know that you will not let anything bad happen to our children.
You treat them like they were your own.” Dulcine didn’t have kids. She and her husband had decided not to have babies after Dulcine’s miscarriage 3 years into their marriage. “Thank you very much, saib. I am so happy to hear your kind words. How will I ever repay your goodness?”
“There is no need to thank me, Dulcine. You’ve been loyal to us and have touched our hearts with your hard work, passion and kindness. It’s just our small way of showing our gratitude.”
Dulcine ran to her room as fast as her legs would carry her and called her brother. “Dattu, tun pateaonso naai aaz kaalen zaalen mhunon.”
“Kaalen zaalen, Dulcina. Phoilen ulay, maagir haas,” Peter told his sister who could far from contain her excitement as she recounted that morning’s adventure. Peter was ecstatic. Finally, his sister was reaping the rewards of her labour. She had a very difficult life and deserved all the happiness in the world. True that he had taken care of her to the best of his abilities and supported her financially and emotionally. But she had found her way out of her misery with courage and determination. In life, no matter how many people may help us pack our bags, in the end we must walk alone. Dulcine had done so with honesty and finally, today, she had reached a milestone. “Meena, baatli kaad. It’s time to celebrate!” said Peter. Looking at his wife’s puzzled, annoyed face, he continued, “Salvation has come to this house today, Meena bai.”
The next day, Dulcine accompanied Jamal to Deira Dubai. When they reached the site, Pallikaran Jacob, the businessman, was already there waiting for them. They shook hands and Jamal introduced Dulcine to Jacob. After a brief exchange of pleasantries, it was time for business. “Let’s go in?” enquired Jacob. The shop was old and had to be renovated. But even through the broken ceiling and chipping walls, Dulcine saw promise. She mentally drew a floor plan; an open kitchen for diners to see how their food is cooked and a cross-ventilated, well-lit minimalistic interior to make diners feel at home. Dulcine was lost in her own thoughts when Jacob interrupted her reverie. “So, what do you think?” he asked. Jamal had stepped out for a phone call and Dulcine found herself alone with Jacob.
“It’s lovely!” she said.
“We know we want to run a restaurant here but we’re still not sure what type of food we will serve,” continued Jacob
“Why don’t you start a lunch home for the worker class?” suggested an excited Dulcine. “If we serve affordable meals, we will attract the scores of labourers from Deira and Bur Dubai. Moreover, we will be giving poor people an access to home cooked meals.”
“Excellent idea, Dulcine!” said Jamal. He had just returned after his phone call and overheard the conversation. Jacob seconded Jamal’s opinion and that was the beginning of ‘Dulcine’s Diner.’
The next 2 months were hard work. Contracts were signed, action plans formulated and workers hired to make the dream a reality. ‘Dulcine’s Diner’ would co-incidentally open its doors on 16th November 2016 – the same day almost 30 years ago when she had received that fateful phone call about her husband’s operation. Life had truly come full circle for Dulcine.
Day in and day out, Dulcine hung around the site and worked on her new menu. She had been appointed as head chef. The name of the restaurant was Jamal’s idea and Jacob didn’t mind as long as the venture made profits. The lunch home was not just her namesake but also her dream and Dulcine was determined to make it a success.
Finally, the day arrived. Tantalising the senses of the passers-by, an aroma of freshly ground chillies and spices wafted from the kitchen, across the diner and onto the footpath. The specials of the day were – Breakfast: pathrade, mutlin ani chutney, sajjige; Lunch: aape, kube ani boblyachi kadi, cabbage miryapito, koromb, lonchen; Snacks: kalailo fou, goli bajji; Dinner: thambden sheeth, sungta ani deeviso guzo, aalsande thel piyao, koromb, lonchen. All the ingredients had been carefully selected by Dulcine and flown in from her beloved Mangalore to lend the dishes authentic flavour. The brigade in the kitchen had been trained by Dulcine with the help of a professional chef and the waiting staff had been well instructed. Hungry labourers made a bee-line outside the lunch home. There were diners from many Asian countries including India, Pakistan, Bangladesh and Sri Lanka. Word spread and by late afternoon Arabs as well as European tourists flocked the lunch home. The prices were slightly more at Dulcine’s Diner compared to other small time food joints in the vicinity and the flavours, predominantly South Indian but the diners didn’t seem to mind because everything was cooked with love and a homely touch. A lively kitchen and front of house backed by a range of delicious, unique flavours ensured that the lunch home’s opening was a grand success.
November 2017. “Ajmal, you need to add some more black pepper in this.” It’s 5.45am and in the next 15 minutes, Dulcine’s Diner will open its doors for breakfast. The aroma of curry leaves seasoned with mustard and roasted coconut fills the room. The tables and chairs are set and lights and air conditioners, turned on. A frail, old lady alternates between overseeing the front of house and guiding the brigade in the kitchen like a conductor animating an orchestra. In the background, a familiar tune plays hoping to serenade diners and beckon passers-by to stop by for a meal. “Mog tuzo kitlo ashelo, Titloi labonk nam maka, Portun hanv zolmon yetholom, Moga mhunn apounk tuka.”
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