I'm standing in the doorway of my front room and I can’t get across to the window for the mass of detritus. On further examination, I don’t really want to chance it either. It looks like the remnants of a scrum down and there are unmistakable signs of serious late night revelry.
Although I have a piece of Mumbai's pricier floor space currently moonlighting as a landing stage for Lieutenant Kilgore, my mind is on more pressing matters. I’m thirsty and dealing with a hell of a headache. Most of all however, I’m desperate for food and I have a specific and sensational craving for Heinz Baked Beans.
Food cravings happen. They can strike at any time and for any food and you can't often shake it till you've satisfied the urge.But, when insatiable food cravings happen in a country like India you regularly find yourself up both the proverbial and literal (on some occasions) shit creek.
Given that I’ve already peeled back the fridge door to find absolutely nothing of edible value - four moldy plums and a jar of marmalade to be precise – I turn to the cupboards in vain hope that lying at the back is a forgotten tin of Heinz’s best haricot stewed in rich, sugary tomato sauce. I find nothing but tea bags, magi noodles and a few dozen condiments and my head sinks. At this point I know that - hangover or no hangover - I will have to go outside.
In India ‘outside’ is where anything can happen and nothing is guaranteed. Outside could be wet or dry. Outside could be hot or cold. There could be bustling traffic, or the serene flow of a herd of cows or goats. There will be street dogs and stray cats, that's for sure, and fruit sellers and shoe shiners that will test your sensory capacity to the maximum. India deals in the sensory: smells, sights and sounds are its currency . Other, bigger questions you want answers to, however, like ‘will I be able to find what I’m looking for?’ can never be answered in advance. That is the challenge of the outside.
Patience, persistence and will power have become personal slogans for my food adventures. Others like disaster, disappointment and distress are bywords as a result.
For example, relatively simple things such as mayonnaise and strawberry jam are available. Chocolate spread, tuna, cheese and hams can also be found, but all of them at some cost. No two shops stock the same items and no one shop seems to have the same item more than once. Often they have an item one week and then never again. Twice I’ve come up trumps with kettle chips and thrice I’ve uncovered imported kit-kats, only to have them both disappear without a trace the week after.
Things like Big Macs and Quarter Pounders are firmly within the realms of fantasy. After all, a beef eater is, broadly speaking, 'persona non grata' in a country which lays claim to the world's only fully vegetarian McDonalds. Out-of-reach food is therefore treacherous to dwell upon given the rarity of its presence. Pork sausages and Danish bacon are the winners here for most desired food item, closely followed by Branston Pickle. A steak or proper full English can only be found once you've parted with significant sums at a five-star hotel…only to find out the beef was made from buffalo and the sausages from chicken. And therein lies the craver’s dilemma: it’s all one great big unknown.
An average food shop will take you to four or five different stores on a road in order to get every item on your list. In some cases ‘luxury’ purchases like sausages and bacon require a taxi and a treasure map. Lesser items such as brie or brown sauce require significant time allocation.
Even when you grasp that notion, there is a plethora of ways you can get linguistically confused. The local Hindi-accented English often demands that you mumble phrases to be understood, rather than use full dictive verse. ‘Lilavati Hospital’ is therefore pronounced ‘lilati ‘ospital’. Carter Road, oddly, becomes 'Carton Rod'. Even simple pronunciations such as ‘Bandra’ or ‘Marine Drive’ require a flourishing roll of the ‘r’ to be fully understood.
Moreover, the number ‘two’ is so often mixed up with the number ‘three’ that my rapport with the lady upstairs in apartment 301 has become rock solid over these last few months. Also, in many Indian dialects the ‘w’ sound does not exist, for which they substitute in a ‘v’ pronunciation. Thus, ‘witch’ becomes ‘vitch’, ‘vegetarian’ becomes ‘wegetarian’, ‘Weetabix’ becomes ‘Veetabix’ and so on… the results is that most discussions I hold on the street level HAVE to be made in a significantly Hindi-accented drawl to get anywhere.
The food item in question, Heinz baked beans, is notoriously elusive and will require every ounce of my street nouse to find them. Sometimes they crop up in one shop, only to find a tin two weeks later at the other end of the road. Other times, different brands appear for no explanation at previous Heinz hotspots. No consistency. No pattern. Just a random distribution of baked beans, impossible to predict.
As my hunt begins in earnest, I single out the store across the road as my first port of call. Its 8.50am, 31 degrees celsius and it’s raining aggressively... the devil’s trilemma for the hungover soul, and I haven’t even crossed the road yet.
As a pedestrian, there's no way you can cross the street horizontally unless you close your eyes and run. Even then that’s suicidal as you're likely to end up splattered over a school bus, or a Honda Civic. No, you HAVE to go diagonally. Or at least position diagonally so you've got the ability to use your sidestep. This requires significant agility, or downright balls to accomplish at times. Conviction is essential.
Simple Jedi powers can work in India when deployed correctly. Or at least the Obi Kenobi 'these aren't the droids you're looks for' type does. The key with the Jedi traffic move is to turn to the oncoming vehicle and thrust out your arm - palm jutting out towards the car - with enough confidence so as to bring the driver to a grinding halt. This is a priceless tool, particularly if you cannot find a suitable gap in the slow moving traffic. Once again, conviction is essential.
The shop owner tells me assuredly that he has no baked beans. I search the usual shelf and then check any nook or cranny around it. Nothing. Due to the volume of business that has existed between us on a regular basis, I believe him. I ask where else I can go. He nonchalantly throws his arm horizontally and points in a non-specific direction down the road. I take this to mean the next available shop, and in true Crystal Maze-like fashion, I scurry back onto the road.
When I join the river of water and human traffic back on the road I am wedged between an ancient looking woman pushing an empty cart and a man on a horse. ‘Personal space’ here is an expensive commodity, or more probably a myth, and horses are, as Sherlock Holmes rightly says, dangerous at both ends, so I do my best to keep clear of this rickety steed by hovering close to the woman. As we get pushed closer to a herd of cattle flowing in the other direction I realise am so tightly wedged in I have little other option but to just go with the flow.
The vehicular traffic waits patiently as the cattle wallow around in mid-morning traffic. One at the back uses the pavement as a toilet. Another enjoys some cardboard as he veers lackadaisically into oncoming cars. At this point, the Lone Ranger to my right bucks his horse and gallops up the road, narrowly avoiding two street dogs, both of whom decide to give chase. The kerfuffle startles a group of chickens, one of which takes flight directly at the masticating heifer. I know cows are easily startled and I begin to mentally brace for an impact.
As the cows part, and the low-flying chicken bursts clear of the mayhem, this opens a gap for the lead-footed Civic driver to put the pedal to the metal and speed off after the horse and two dogs. In a bizarre moment Crystal Maze and Wacky Races cross paths for a split second in my mind.
Having now been thoroughly soaked by a 30-second torrential downpour, I leave the woman and her kart and enter shop number two. Immediately all the workers cease their activities and eye me suspiciously for four to five seconds before re-engaging. Dingy lights and sparse shelves do not make my search for beans any more encouraging as I scan the goods. A buzz of four or five people are all trying to buy rice at the same time at the counter and I have no choice but to force my way to the front.
'Baked beans!’ I shout.
Once more the entire shop falls into silence. The small craggy-faced woman on my left stares at me in disbelief, holding her rice. I look at her and she back off cautiously. The rowdier of the group, a young boy of sixteen or seventeen then attempts to thrust his payment onto the counter - a wad of scruffy looking ten rupee notes - and begins to shout again so I repeat, only this time in my best Hinglish accent.
'Bek bins, boss!'
The silence tells me that I will not find nourishment here, and is confirmed shortly after by a shake of the head from the owner.
I almost get squeezed between a van carrying chickens and a man on a brakeless bicyle as I re-enter the fray. This time however, I manage to roll round the front wheel and keep my footing sufficiently to hail a rickshaw with the Jedi palm. I look the driver in the eyes in an attempt to gauge whether he is of the ‘Michael Schumacher’ or ‘Demolition Derby’ school of driving. I’m not convinced so I grab hold of the handle bar in front of me and hold on. It becomes immediately clear - to my relief - he is a diligent student of both. I could write a paper on the mentality of a rickshaw driver, but being confined to 2,000 words, I only have enough for a summary of methods.
They always set off at pace, masterly avoiding all potholes and simultaneously deploying the horn at everything that moves. In the same instance he may either field a call on his mobile, or fix the windscreen wiper. Both of which he does negotiating a busy crossroad. It could have been a tyre change and it wouldn’t have mattered. The speed with which the driver can size up a gap and judge both his and the oncoming traffic’s speed leaves me flabbergasted to this day. I am yet to see one crash in 30 months, such is the mastery of the great Indian Rickshaw driver.
After four minutes of racing I arrive at the local market in one piece. I immediately try shops three, four and five at the top of the hill, conducting a thorough and careful review of the shelves , all to no avail. disaster, disappointment and distress all race through my thoughts, as I can’t help feeling that today will not be my day.
Towards the end of the road, at the last big shop, I know my luck will not carry me through. The shop owner proudly tells me he has everything, including baked beans, only to disappear and re-emerge with three cans on Brylcreem. When he finally realises that I haven’t slogged up here for hair products he looks truly crastfallen. I have reached the end of the market, uncovered every shelf and turned over most boxes in monsoon rain and I have been beaten.
I admit defeat there and then. I traipse slowly back home down the hill. The Lone Ranger and the two dogs race past as I near my house, followed by the van full of chickens. There is neither a cow or Civic in sight but I hardly care. I don’t have my baked beans. As I slide back into the mess of a house its 9.30am and I’m dirty, wet, sweaty and somewhat depressed. In the kitchen I hear my housemate rustling around. As I walk in he looks up at me.
‘Fancy some beans on toast?’
Henry Burrows has lived in Mumbai since 2011 working for a specialist consultancy. When he's not investigating corporations, he's usually hunting down rare food stuffs or playing speed scrabble.