Monday, April 20, 2009

The Streethawkers Of Chandni Chowk

It's a summer afternoon in Chandni Chowk and you don't want to venture into the drafts of sauna heat. You are ten years old and are lying on your stomach, on a huge teakwood poster bed, reading Eric Ambler's Cause For Alarm. The window to your left is open but covered with a wet khus curtain to convert hot air into cool breeze. It's neither too bright nor too dark. Just enough light to read by.

Swinging your legs in the air as you read, you suddenly hear a street hawker. He sings, "Peelay ras ganney ka!" Then comes the subheading yelled in a loud rustic voice..."Peelay thanda meetha ras wala!" He is selling sugarcane juice. Driven by curiosity, you rush to the window, lift the khus curtain a wee bit and peer down the narrow alley. There he is. A copperish brown man with a yellowed white saafa (head turban) standing next to his compact wooden press, the juice extractor, which he has stationed on the opposite building's porch. A pile of sugarcane lies next to him. Even as you watch, he cups his hand to his mouth and sends another marketing call resounding down the alley.

You drift back to your reading. It's getting closer to evening. Then you hear another call from down the lane. "Faalsey! Khhattey meethey faalsey!" Back to the window, peeking from behind the lifted curtain. There is this stocky man in a striped pyjama and white knee-length half-sleeved shirt. His ware is stocked in large leafy cones in a wicker basket and it is your favourite fruit: small, purple-maroon berry-like fruits, tangy and sweet at the same time. Irresistibly exotic for a Bombay lad like you... you don't ever get to see these in Bombay! You hastily slip on your Bata slippers, gather a few coins from the aala (a small alcove in the wall) and dash down the stairs, with your grand mom yelling indignantly after you, "Where are you going?!" But you are already down, next to the grinning vendor, buying two annas' worth of faalsey. Then you amble up the stairs slowly, picking one faalsa at a time, popping it in your mouth, relishing the fountain of taste that explodes with each lick, and then as the fruit flesh depletes you bite to get at the comparatively neutral tasting seed. You have finished half the faalsey in your leaf cone by the time you reach home.

Now it's late evening. You find it peculiar that your grandparents have dinner by seven... you are used to having dinner only after ten back home in Mumbai. But you have a voracious appetite and you can handle a largish meal any time of the day. As you dig into the puris and subzi, you hear a call from the street."Chholey! Chholey! Chat patey chholey!" You look up sheepishly at your grandmom. She scowls, but you can cleverly make out a lining of indulgence in the scowl. Sure enough, she reaches into her anti, the folds that hold up her sari, extracts a few coins and hands them to you. You are off like a hare... slipping on Hawaii slippers, leaping down darkish stairs, out in the small street. There at the nukkad (street corner) under the street lamp is the chholey-wala. (And you can swear that to this day you haven't tasted better chholey). So there you are next to him, greedy and impatient, thrusting the coins in his hands, asking for the dona full of spicy, steaming hot chholey so you can get back to having them with your puris. And having procured them, you scramble back upstairs, triumphant, grinning as if you have just bagged a continent.

And your grandparents, and your mom, and your uncle and aunt, still at dinner, are all stifling smiles at your easy satiation.