In the earliest hours, the baritone drone of Radio National would lead me to my mum’s dark room, lit only by the neon red display of her clock radio. ‘Mum? Are you awake?’ I’d yell-whisper at her exhausted sleeping form. ‘Mum? I can’t sleep,’ I’d persist. ‘Go back to your bed, lie down and try.’ she’d murmur patiently, digging deeper under the covers. ‘I already did that.’ No reply, no movement. ‘Ok mum,’ in my loudest whisper, ’I’ll try again. Goodnight.’ I’d creep back to my room, hitting every creaking floorboard along the way, lie down and instantly fall fast asleep.
Mum has given me years of constancy, my love of Radio National, the snort when I laugh hard and blue eyes where my brother’s are brown. She is loyal, generous, silly, hard working and compassionate, and cries easily at the plight of those whose position is less fortunate than her own. She is the worthy woman I hope to be. She also once tripped me in front of a horde of commuters at Wynyard train station and still laughs until she cries when picturing my mortified face.
After a lifetime of fairytales and bedtime stories about India, we finally travel to the subcontinent together. I picture my parents lives in the tiny, four centimetre square black and white photographs I treasure: long hair, white pyjamas, rocky landscapes and earnest Indian friends. The reality is much like I imagined, only in hyper-colour, and forty years later everyone has a mobile phone.
Hungry in Hyderabad, we take a tip from two locals and plunge into the city for the region’s specialty: Biryani. After the toff of the two nixes Barwarchi restaurant for being ‘unhygienic’, we head instead to Paradise. Proud ‘since 1953’, the circular, celestial establishment is penned in by a typically gridlocked ring road and a high fence. We pass the lazy security pat-down, file inside and are seated in a booth, not directly by the window but with a view out to the car park where our driver is nodding off in the heat.
In our beige seats, at our brown clothed table, in a room full of smartly dressed men, we peruse the red menu. Our gently patronising waiter stops us from over-ordering and together we settle on paneer Manchurian (210 INR), chicken garlic kebab (262 INR) and chicken Biryani (220 INR). Roughly thirteen Australian bucks for the lot. The Indo-Chinese paneer is fried and slicked in soy sauce, garlic, ginger and shallot, the cheese losing any pretense of subtlety with a great whack of green chili. I’m giddy with the excitement of place and time and food and mum, so play my favourite game of untimely reflection between bites. ‘Remember that time we ate paneer Manchurian in Hyderabad?’
The chicken arrives and one bite ends the game that can’t be won. Mum’s wide-eyed delight mirrors my own, our pleasure greater for being shared. The halal meat is delicate, tender, sweetly garlicky and cooked tandoor style in a milky-tart yoghurt sauce; I want to yell in someone’s face that this is the best chicken I’ve ever eaten. I refrain as the Biryani is delivered. Fluffy, fragrant basmati rice is heaped on to our plates, cumin and cardamom making their presence known before the first bite. Then, after that first bite, tens more come in quick succession. We pick over the thickly spiced chicken thigh, a close second to its garlic predecessor, then fall back, stuffed and ecstatic.
In the early hours of the next day, mum and I leave Hyderabad as the drone of the Islamic call to worship is broadcast from mosques across the old city. With 30 years behind me, and always 32 between us, I understand that paradise can be found with Allah, God, Krishna or Buddha, or maybe even in a Hyderabad Biryani restaurant. I’m not bothered where you find yours, but my paradise will be wherever my mum is. And we’ll be listening to Radio National.