It was a rainy evening and I had decided that I didn’t want to sit indoors. I stepped out in the drizzle wearing my suede leather shoes. It is a shame that these are so prone to stains from water. It is weird how I usually end up taking them out mostly on rainy days.
I took the metro and reached Moolchand metro station. I was alone and there were a bunch of people feasting on the famous paranthas. I knew I couldn’t squeeze myself in, pushing against the crowd – to get myself a parantha. Although, wading through crowds is a very Indian thing, I was reluctant to go through all that trouble for once.
We love a bit of chaos in our lives. Which is perhaps what our food represents. A soft dough bread covering mashed potatoes with a side of tangy chutney and crispy onions; a dollop of butter that travels with a sizzling sound on the hot parantha turning the whole thing into an explosion of flavours. And of course the creamy lassi on the side to wash it all down. Families and groups had appointed their feistiest members to procure their platters of paranthas. Alpha men and women were battling it out for their families. If an intelligent alien life was watching us at that very moment, the running narrative would be of our struggle as a species to procure food.
I did miss my college friends at that moment a little. Such food experiences are best enjoyed in large groups. But then I have chosen this life. I reminded myself that I do not function well in large groups. There is a lot of politicking and it is surprisingly boring. At times and places like these when you need one person to hold the plate, one to pay and one to procure extra chutney, I simply eat elsewhere. Deciding to come at a later time to the parantha shop, I drifted away.
Actually eating alone is as un-Indian as small talk. For us, it is much better to have great conversations with either perfect strangers or loved ones. Anything in between, anything formal – is a waste of time. I walked in the drizzle and wondered if I should have taken a friend out for this small session of street food exploration.
So I made my way toward a neglected corner shop that sold kathi rolls. I order one Double Egg Roll and stood in the drizzle as the man prepared the roll. I was watching the dance of the egg with the dough, slowly turning golden brown on that large pan. It is always a deeply satisfying sight to watch a kathi roll being prepared. The egg sticking to the bread – the whole thing beautifully being tossed on the pan and eventually coming together. I have always found the sights like these to be mesmerizing.
It began pouring suddenly and the stools and tables placed in the open were pulled under the shade. The traffic thinned and people huddled up at the street-side food joints. A sardarji on his scooter appeared from the mist of raindrops and came to the kathi roll joint. He had a grey, long beard and a kind face. There was a childish innocence in his eyes. I thought he had stopped to avoid getting wet in the rain and stood aside. He asked the shopkeeper for a polythene bag and then put the smaller bag he was holding inside the new, bigger bag. I watched him and then as he looked at me – I looked away.
Living in a metropolitan city, I have been conditioned to believe that it isn’t very polite to look at people and make eye contact when you don’t know them. The city awkwardness has a different threshold. Small town India is very up-in-your-business that way. I looked back at him and he was smiling at me. I smiled back. The India was alive.
‘I was eating at the Langar at the Gurudwara,’ he said. ‘And the Kadhi Chawal was good so got it packed for my family.’ I nodded. I hadn’t asked for any of this information but he was telling me anyway. I remembered how this was the most Indian thing to do. I had been missing this for a while. We, as a people, talk without context and talk to anyone.
He continued, ‘It was raining so, I thought I’d take a polythene bag from here. It is always better to use two polythene bags. It won’t leak but why take chance?’ I nodded. I wanted to say something back but I hadn’t done this in long time. I wondered how strange it would be for me to talk to someone like this. To talk to someone like you’ve known them forever – like you and him are one family – I think it is a heartwarming thing that some humans do.
The rest of us, stand like me, burying their eyes in their smartphones – eating alone at cafeterias and restaurants and wondering how others make friends so easily.
The sardarji didn’t have to think about all that. He didn’t even need my replies. He just knew that there is a person standing by his side and he would understand stuff like langar, good food, gurudwara prasad, family, kadhi-chawal and he talked to me with not a single care in the world. I asked about his family and he showed me the picture of his beautiful daughters and told me about their studies. He seemed to be a very proud father. Opening up to perfect strangers with a childlike innocence is something of a dying art these days. Especially when there is this looming fear of being taken advantage of. I looked down and saw that my shoes were all soaked. I didn’t care.
I talked to him about my career and ambitions. He gave me great advice. He talked about perseverance. And in that very moment, in that rain, in front of that street food cart, I wasn’t alone anymore. And this is the way with India. We have people who care. We laugh with our hearts and we share freely.
Here is hoping there are more sardarjis on scooters turning this world into one giant family – one lonely Kathi Roll eater at a time.
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