(Kulcha is a type of bread served with a chickpeas curry or chana masala, Chhole kulchey is a common Delhi street food.)
After two years of sitting at home and watching endless hours of daily soaps, Rafiq got bored and decided he wanted to study further. His father patiently listened to him and then rented a shop for him. A shop so that he had somewhere to go. They came from an influential family so money was no problem for them. ‘For whom is all this money?’ his father used to answer to everyone who complained about his laziness. His father’s indifference had felt like a free ticket to snuggle up to the sofa cushions and munch on fistfuls of potato chips. But then when his father asked him to start working, he felt betrayed. For years, he had spent afternoons napping and now suddenly he was supposed to go sit in a shop in Lajpat Nagar and watch listlessly as his employees showed sarees to unnecessarily excited ladies.
‘Zari, Chiffon, Silk… who cares?’ he would think to himself as customers lined up and asked for varieties in colours and patterns. One afternoon, an elderly aunty felt the fabric and asked for the final price for the thirtieth time. ‘I cannot do this anymore,’ he mumbled. He asked Ravi, his help, to take care of the shop and stepped out. There was a plump middle-aged man shouting animatedly at a rickshaw puller. Suddenly there was a lull once the rickshaw puller replied in a tone that ill-suited his frame and stature; and what followed was violence. The fat man literally pulled no punches. The rickshaw puller fell down on the ground and many people came running to help. To help the man beat up the insubordinate rickshaw guy, of course. The poor had to be taught a lesson to never raise their head – that was the general idea. But the man assured them that he needed no help and would let them know if their kicks and punches are required. It was apparently the matter that the rickshaw was parked outside his shop. Rafiq wondered how people could be so passionate about a mere shop. ‘Weren’t there better things in the world? Like food?’
He walked up to a Kulchawala under a Banyan tree and asked him to prepare a plate. The kulchawala did not seem like someone the fat man could have beaten up. He seemed to take great pride in his work. The bespectacled man seemed to be educated. Not because of the glasses but because of the way he talked. His help also seemed to respect him way too much for a street cart vendor. The boy would quickly warm the kulcha bread on the pan and place it on the plate as if careful not to disturb the rhythm of the kulchawala. Yes, there was a rhythm on the cart. The man whipped out plates from under the cart and the kid would chop onions and pour chutney over them. The man would place dollops of chuntney-onion mix on the plates. Meanwhile the kid would warm the kulchas. The man would pour the ladle of chana masala on the plates hand them to the customers. The kid would throw the kulchas over the plates just then and the rhythm was maintained. The kulchawala took a ladle and gave the curry a quick stir before pouring it out on a paper plate. Rafiq was handed the plate and then after a second, warm kulchas were slapped on the plate. Plop!
Rafiq observed this well-oiled machinery and wondered why the man was so passionate about kulchas. They were just kulchas. But then as he tasted the food, he realized that although the passion did not improve the taste yet, there was an importance in the mere act of eating it. He felt like it was a life lesson being doled out on his plate. ‘Take pride in what you do,’ read the imaginary slip inside his fortune kulcha. He looked around. A bicycle leaned against the wall behind the cart. It perhaps belonged to the kid. A paan-vendor sat near the cart with a shop of his own. In that moment he saw how everyone belonged to the place they had taken in the market and the jobs they did. He decided to pay more attention in his shop. The spiritual connection he had with the kulchawala was mostly one-sided but he kept going to the cart each afternoon. The kulchawala would smile on seeing him and get the plate ready in a jiffy.
One day, he went to the corner near the tree. There was no bicycle leaning against the community park wall and the paan shop also had fewer customers. He asked a rickshaw puller if he had any idea about the kulchawala. ‘He didn’t come today, sahib,’ said the rickshaw puller. ‘Any idea what happened?’ he asked. ‘Who cares about a kulchawala, sahib,’ the man replied. Rafiq observed the man’s face. It was the face of repression and years of hardening. He turned around and went back to his shop. Ravi had brought some samosas from the nearby shop. He ate them and thought about the kulchas.
The next day he went back to the same corner near the tree. There was no kulcha cart. He asked the paan wala. And the paan wala shrugged. ‘Do we have a way to find out where he is?’ Rafiq asked. ‘Who cares about these street vendors, sahib,’ the paan wala said. ‘They are one day here and gone the next.’
Rafiq came back and ate nothing that day. The next day he again found that the kulcha cart was missing. So he went asking around. He asked the fruit seller and the cobbler and the mobile cover seller. The man who stood with handkerchiefs and socks in the markets, selling them as if he were selling national secrets, said in his hushed voice,’I think I saw his wife the other day. She was purchasing medicines from that shop around the corner.’
Rafiq went up to the drug store and asked if someone had an idea about the kulchawala. He felt it was turning into an unnecessary investigation but he wanted to know if the kulchawala was OK. In his mind, the kulchawala was much more than a street food vendor. ‘You are a great soul sir,’ said the shop owner. ‘Otherwise who worries about these people in a city like Delhi. They are a dime a dozen.’
A small man with a round nose suddenly appeared from behind a shelf. ‘Sir, I know that woman. She works in a shop in Nehru Nagar. She had come here to buy medicines for her husband. I knew her from my previous job so she told me about her husband’s pneumonia.’ Rafiq had finally caught the trail. He noted down the address the small man gave him and took an auto to the Nehru Nagar shop in the hope of finding her there. The small man said to his boss that it was wonderful to see a man like that otherwise who cares a damn about…
In a cafeteria in Nehru Nagar, a weary-eyed woman sat mopping her brow. Her job was to clear the food trays and clean the table after the customers had eaten, littered and left. She sat with an eagle -like gaze fixed on the crowd. ‘I wanted to ask about the woman whose husband sells kulchas,’ Rafiq said politely. She sprang up from the stool she was anyway not supposed to be sitting on. ‘My husband sells kulchas sir. Why? What happened?’
Rafiq took her address and then asked if the husband was in the house or a hospital. He then learned that they did not have enough money to admit him to a hospital so, they were taking care of him in the house itself. He said that he would be more than happy to bear the expenses and the woman felt the hair on her arms stand up. She wondered if an angel had visited her. She then requested for a break from work and they took an auto to their house. As Rafiq entered the locality, a stench filled his lungs. The uncovered sewage line made him feel sick. He took care not to make a face.
As they entered the house, they saw a man lying on the bed and two little kids sitting near the bed on two separate makeshift stools. As the bulb was switched on, Rafiq saw the face of the man. It was not the man he was looking for. They offered him a chair and he sat down with a thunk. After sitting there for a while and saying nothing, he stood up and called for an auto. They reached a nearby private hospital. He then dug in his wallet and took out five thousand rupees. He placed it in the hands of the woman. ‘This should take care of the medicines and a day or two’s stay,’ he said as the woman stood with folded hands. ‘Let me know if you need more.’
After he had left, one of the kids came to the woman and asked her who the man was. ‘Must have been an angel, beta. Otherwise here in Delhi, who cares about a kulchawala?’