Before the pandemic, I made annual trips to my home town in India, but for three years, these were replaced by virtual chat sessions with friends and family. Occasionally, on a cold night in Melbourne, stuck in a strict lockdown and ordering pizza on my phone, it was the pizza I first had at Colonel’s when I was 13 that I’d miss the most.
I grew up in Indore, a small town in the heart of India. The town is sometimes called Mini Bombay because of its vibe: late-night street food, music spilling from the shops, salesmen offering tea and coffee to customers, art and craft exhibitions in the big town hall named after Gandhi.
But Indore wasn’t a Mumbai or a Delhi. Everything arrived after a trial run in the metro cities – Hollywood movies, the latest fashion and Western food.
Being centrally located, the city was influenced by traders, artists and academics from the rest of the country, who brought with them an array of cuisines.
Indore’s food evolved to include a local version of every possible popular dish from other states of India, be it dosa, the savoury pancake from the south, or rasagola, a delicious milk dessert from the east.
There were all-day food shops that served warm, stir-fried flattened rice called poha garnished with namkeen and fresh coriander. On the side would be piping hot jalebis, a sweet made of fermented flour fried and dipped in cardamom and sugar syrup.
Tourists would never miss a visit to the famous night food market held in the older precinct of the city, called Sarafa Bazaar, saraf meaning jeweller in Hindi. Once the shutters on the jewellery shops rolled down, all the street vendors with their savoury and sweet offerings set up little stalls. One had to park miles away to access the tiny streets of Sarafa Bazaar on foot. The animated calls of the vendors in high-pitched tones with descriptions of what was special about their samosa added to the whole experience.
When I was growing up, Indore had very little to offer when it came to international food. Colonel’s was one of the first fast-food joints that served Western snacks. Burgers, pizzas, noodles or soups – Colonel’s had it all. My father, a journalist, was well travelled and had tasted pizzas and burgers overseas. He knew Colonel’s would be a hit with my brother and me.
My only knowledge of American fast food was through comics and television. When Papa took us there for the first time around 1991, we were hooked. Once every few months, on a Sunday when Mum didn’t feel like cooking, Papa would take us to Colonel’s. We hung out for those Sundays.
In the selfish innocence of childhood, we never thought about why Mum didn’t come along on those trips, or what she ate for her dinner on her own. Probably it was leftover roti and curry. She said she didn’t like the cheesy pizzas. Many years later I wondered if this was her chance to have some time to herself.
Our family vehicle was a red Vespa. My brother, 8, would stand behind the handlebars with his knees bent so that Papa could see ahead, and I would be on the pillion. Papa drove slowly. The 15-minute ride would take him double the time. Coupled with the city’s bustling streets, pedestrians, cows and stray dogs, the ride always seemed longer. But we didn’t mind the gentle warmth of the smoky, dusty, sandalwood-laden wind against our faces, as Papa navigated through the disorganised traffic of Indore. We were just happy to visit our favourite place.
I would wear my only piece of fashionable clothing – a denim skirt – and try to copy the look of the teenagers on Beverly Hills, 90210, which I watched religiously on Friday nights, despite my mum’s misgivings about “Western culture”.
I think Mum had come once or twice with us on those Colonel’s trips, but we did not push her when she did not feel like it. As I grew older, it became difficult for all four of us to share a ride on the red Vespa. I started avoiding travelling with my mum and dad on the scooter out of embarrassment and fear I would be seen by one of my classmates.
My family were middle class by Indian standards, but I was sent to a school that included children from affluent families, as well as others like me. I was acutely aware of the class difference. Partying and celebrations were not a huge part of our childhood.
We didn’t have many clothes or toys. There was no cap on the books we could have, but it meant we could buy only two pairs of good clothes each year – one for our birthday and one for Diwali, the Hindu festival of lights. Summer holidays did not include a lot of travelling as a family other than to the house of my Nani (maternal grandmother) in Bhopal. We borrowed comics from our friends and played cards and Carrom with Mum every evening.
Being a journalist was a 24/7 job for Papa. He finally started taking Sunday evenings off when he became the chief editor of the local newspaper. When I would say that I wanted to be either a doctor or a journalist when I grew up, he would reply, “Journalism is not easy. Especially for women. Why don’t you become a doctor and then if you still want, you can become a journalist, too?”
He used to come home after the late edition of the paper was off the printing press, about 1am. In the morning when we left for school, he would be asleep. When we returned from school in late afternoon he would be gone. We hardly saw him Monday to Saturday.
That made the Sunday evening trips to Colonel’s even more special. The menu was a laminated sheet that sat behind a bottle of Tabasco and a paper napkin stand. The off-white walls bore a couple of framed prints from Hollywood movies. The tables were close. We could easily see what others had ordered. The place smelled of cheese, vinegar and tomato sauce, a concoction that has been imprinted in my olfactory memory.
We wanted to order the whole menu. Instead, our standard choice was a veg burger, a margherita pizza and two bowls of sweet-corn soup, all to share between the three of us. Papa would ask the waiter for pepper to sprinkle in the soup. His accent made the word sound like “paper”. I don’t recall our bill ever being more than 60 rupees (just over $1). It was significant. At a street cafe, one could get a cup of chai and a samosa for five rupees.
Many years and pizzas later, I learnt that the chef at Colonel’s was a Nepalese guy who had modified the pizzas and burgers to suit the Indori palate. He had done it well. Over the years, all the popular international fast-food chains popped up in Indore. But for us, Colonel’s remained the best pizza in the world, and we hung onto our treats with Papa on the red Vespa for as long as we could.
When we were adults, my brother and I left Indore. I moved to Australia and my brother moved to America. We forgot about Colonel’s. In the streets of Melbourne there was the smell of dough cooking in wood-fired ovens. It replaced the cheese and vinegar connected to my childhood ideas of Western wealth and glamour.
A few years ago, I was visiting Indore and was hit with a craving for the Colonel’s margherita. I asked Papa if Colonel’s was still around, half expecting a yes. “No,” he said. “They demolished the whole complex and built some shopping centre there. But I know of another pizza place that has just come up. They make real Italian pizzas. Let me take you there.”
I wanted to say no. But we did end up going to this place and while it was very good, I couldn’t quite get the same kick. We now have a car, Papa has a lot more time, and after visiting me in Melbourne, even Mum has started enjoying pizzas. But Colonel’s is gone.
This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on April 2, 2022 as "The food of childhood".
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