Long ago an old man loved a mermaid. And she loved him back. They met on the shores of an island. I should call it The Island for there were no other islands. And you could address them as The Old Man and The Mermaid for there were no other. The Old Man lived on the dry island and The Mermaid lived in the waters.
They met on the shores of The Island. She with fire in her watery eyes and earth in her hands. He with youth in his hair and baby-softness in his nails. He had stumbled-fallen onto the shores and accidentally touched the pleasant water lapping on the breast of life. Mesmerized, he stayed, hands dipped still in the water, sipping in the surprising sensation. The sand fell off his arms, and rolled on the ground beneath him and the wind blew untouched. Now something held, gingerly to the hair on his arms, a droplet of water or an outburst of joy.
He met her one early morning as he released his arms from its watery connection. She was half emerging from water, her eyes full of wonder at his sight, wanting to touch the earth of his being. She was as surprised to see him as he had been when he first felt water and realized what it was—the magic of knowing another world, the portal to impossibility, of return to the innocence.
In her world, everything mashed up with the other, all intertwined, there was no one separate. Water lingered on bodies, on dreams and desires and possibilities. And through that lingering, all bodies stayed interconnected, always. No one could get rid of water, or of that connection. She hadn’t even imagined the possibility. Such was the world of The Mermaid and the world of fish.
And yet here, there he was, the one who walked detached. How the water on his arms dried out, dripping droplets disappearing into the wind. How he lifted his leg as he walked, how the ground separated at each stride, how the sand and air forgot his presence in moments. He was so magically free.
He ignited new elements in her life—like fire. She felt fire in her eyes, in her belly. Fire burnt a dream home at the sand shore of time. Fire made her dislike her ancestry. And yet, underneath she still sought a connection.
The Old Man was also intrigued by The Mermaid. Her watery depths excited him. Her moist skin calmed him. She was a dreamy cloud that traced a rainbow in the sky.
He wondered if they both could fly away together.
Freedom was still delirious. Freedom was still the idiom through which he connected with her. Culture is not easy to shake off. No, not even love dismantles it.
She had surveyed The Island where he lived. The Island was white - white sand to be precise. But if you looked closely you would see that it was not sand. It was an island of white shells, each shell once a home of a love story—of how the inhabitants twirled and spun and made love in the air and in the water. The stories carved memories on the engravings of the shell as if to emboss eternality on the shore. They said: “I loved once so deeply.” As if in those shells love refused to die, refused to be forgotten.
If you came to this island, you would wonder if love could ever ‘break-up.’ Isn’t it true that inhabitants may vacate their shells, but the stories live forever? These stories sprinkle over the shores of time, sometimes shining under the sun or blushing under the moon, waiting to be picked up, caressed and possessed. Stories have life of their own. Stories make love. Stories wait to be loved.
And if you came to this island and walked, you would know how it hurts—the shells probing and pricking your soles. As though the agony of each story lay calcified on the edges of each shell.
Come, pause, bend and pick up a seashell. Hold and look. This island of millions of seashells. Waiting to be read. Do you see your shell?
It was here The Old Man loved The Mermaid with fire in her watery eyes. And she loved him back—the man with the youthful hair rumbling on a collapsing skin. An odd couple they were - he with his white flowing beard and she a half-fish. But then there could be no other on The Island.
We love those who are not us—who have reached where we want to reach, or those who show us new possibilities, or make our dreams possible. And we think love completes the circle—a kiss conjoining possibilities, dreams, bridging us to where we want to be.
But a kiss ends.
The only place they could meet was the shores - he kneeled on the sand, bent over the waves, and she would emerge in spurts from the water, now talking, now sinking, now wishing he could swim with her to high seas. And he now wishing she could walk with him hand-in-hand on the Island. The rising dreams, the cruising desires, and the agony of wanting more.
Here they made love in whispers, twirling and knitting a story. On eternal love, on complete acceptance, on soulmates, on life together.
Or on how romance is mushy. Of the sunsets and darkness. Of how time is a volcano, erupting ashes of moments into windows of stories.
Or on how this, this moment is real. And the footprint was once. I breathed.
The Old Man loved the Mermaid. And she him. That is true. That much is true.
“You are cute.”
“What is cute in me?”
“The way your eyes moisten when you see me.” Smiling. (Does my white hair bother her?)
Laughing. Fingers clasped. (Does my fish body bother him?) “I love you.”
The sea ebbs and surges and ebbs.
I met him at Ajmer Sharif. I saw him somewhere in the crowd in a dark-blue kurta and a skull cap, standing in silent prayer. He was tall - very tall and heavy and soft. Maybe in his late twenties. His face at once a gentle man and a child. His smile intoxicating in its detachment.
He uttered silently: “Bismillah-ir-Rahman-ir-Rahim.”
He seemed to have the heart, the harmony, the serenity and sincerity to utter those words. I stood watching him, wondering how so young a man could come to this moment in life.
Ahem, I must be honest. I did not see him in Ajmer Sharif. I kind of saw him on Facebook. It was a picture he’d posted with the prayer.
And I must introduce myself to you - I am the spirit of love stories. I dwell in them, passing through the narratives, to witness the landscape of lovers, and then to lay the fabric they weaved before you.
The picture interested me and I began to tunnel my way into his life. Now it feels as if I’d always first seen him at Ajmer Sharif. And then in Pushkar. And then in Bhopal. And then around the world.
I must confess I loved his chant: “Want what you have. Want what you have.” I had to know who he was. And I had to know his love story or stories.
What I witnessed I share with you.
The Asthmatic Child
Summer heat sneaks up from the gap between the feet squeezing through bodies, smudging sides, swaying through human and animal hair, and emerging to snarl over streets and alleys of Sadar Bazaar, Delhi. There it crushes into the air breathed out—from nostrils, from smoked-out lungs, whiffed out from perfumed skins and gutka-coated teeth, from stray dogs and birds feeding on garbage, from vehicles parked nearby, from air-conditioners in upscale shops, from the metal polish and still-remnant dyes, and from the sunburnt slippers on sale. A heat tornado forms plucking spirits from bodies, scattering notes from wallets. Yet people walk on, mill into this area, with their bags and their hopes. Yet people bring wares to sell, everyday as inevitably as one pulls out a chair to sit. You may wonder - how can one shop, haggle in this heat? But they do, feet next to another pair of feet, shoulder over shoulder for the clothes and footwear and household utensils. Trying this shoe on and that slipper, feeling this fabric and checking out that top.
“This sandal feels a bit tight. Show me a bigger size.”
“Didi, wearing it will loosen the edges. This is ok.”
“Hmm…I want to try a bigger size. This very style.”
“I can show you in black.”
“Why? Why not in this brown?”
“Nahin hain, Didi. Black also looks good.”
“I don’t want black. I am looking for brown.”
“Your feet size is big. In the front, very wide. Very difficult to find.”
Silence. The feet sitting awkwardly, deformed on the tarred road. Any possibility of turning into a swan ebbs. Some of us are born as plain ducks to mother ducks—stuck in the birth of our being. Ducks don’t fuss. Black or uncomfortable brown.
“Show me that sandal again!”
“Yeh lijiye, Didi.”
And when the haggling and shopping pauses, the lemon soda arrives. And the food from the Pandit dhaba. Colours ablaze, fragrance awaft and heat sizzling in spurts. Mutton korma, veg thali, pav bhaji, jalebi, thandai, kheer, fruit juice. In any season, you will find similar platters available. Beneath this heat, the humans of Sadar Bazar somehow maintain homeostasis in food.
In winter, when smog grips the city, the humans continue their ardor for new clothes and utensils. Now grey, now heavy with cold-coated air, now settling on mufflers and sweaters, the air still squishes by, now blending on the ground and seeping into underground spaces. Winter clothing makes its appearance. The haggling continues.
More tea is drunk. The soda beats a quiet retreat waiting for the night to be over. The ice-cream still survives. So do the fruit juices.
Above, whether winter or summer or the elusive rain, telephone wires and cables cross, and intersect humanity with history. One pauses in this maze and wonders: the myriad roads people have taken to reach here - from villages to cities, from being middlemen to Gods to being middlemen of urban greed. And of the women who accompanied or pushed or pulled these possibilities. And the children who tumbled along or tumbled in later.
Here some decades back, an asthmatic child was born to a joint family of immigrant Himachali Brahmins. The family had a shop in Sadar Bazar and had over time painstakingly built a single-level house in a nook. Here the old patriarch and his wife lived with three adult children and their families. The child had been named as Zehen.
The family were erstwhile priests of Kolar village in Sirmour District in Himachal Pradesh. At the edges of the villages, stood an ancient Bhadrakali temple, the deity of the village. River Yamuna gurgled not far from where they had lived and the verses from Guru Granth Sahib intonated with the peals of the temple bells.
The village had some 500 odd families. Everyone knew everyone and the hills smiled and eased around. If the grandfather had stayed back, Zehen would have grown up chuckling in the meadows, breathing easy in the soft breeze with his brothers and sisters.
But that was not to be. As people in this village began to leave for factories and work in cities, the number of those who needed priests to facilitate this and the afterlife dwindled. Then the priests uprooted and descended into Delhi as metamorphosed traders. They learnt a new profession—of setting up shop and selling goods. To haggle, fight, and protect their turf.
Zehen’s grandfather had come almost half-century ago to Sadar Bazaar. The three sons followed after their father. But they did not have the natural ability to sell. That required changing of a mindset. From walking in the village as always-respected elders, pausing as the villagers stooped to take their blessings, to the now urban sprawl and its seething equality, a new culture bellowed—Sell smart, sell plenty and earn respect.
The family struggled. The joint family held together by its poverty, bound by the need to weather one storm after another, and the helplessness as children rolled in with their own dreams on earth. The wives were the new entrants, the only beings that kneaded the family culture, blending in salt of their histories and tastes. Each time, a woman came in and the subset of a family was formed, the mammoth called joint family swayed as it rose on its feet to make space. Until it swayed too much.
The house got a second floor built and Zehen’s parents moved in there. The main kitchen was still on the ground floor. And the family still mostly ate downstairs. In the living room, in the courtyard and on the stairs, the children skipped and played. Sometimes they sat around a window, giggled, and shared stories.
The house stood on the edge of the hot alleys of Sadar Bazar, at the confluence of where the fumes of jalebi mixed with mutton korma. Just outside, butchers chopped meat, hacking pieces as blood and flesh spluttered in the air. Inside, the family avoided garlic and onion on specific days. The vegetarian Pandit house in a butcher lane.
To this family, Zehen was born—coughing and wheezing. Every other day the child would seize, whimper and almost collapse. Every other day, the mother would rise in panic and rush to AIIMS hospital. Every other day, a fiery dance with death, a race against time, a prayer that never ceased. As if Maa Bhadrakali from the grandfather’s village had decided to pay a visit and hang around as an extended unwanted guest. Or maybe she didn’t want them to forget her, forget the fierceness of loss—of land, of livelihood, of history. And through that give the blessing of a realization—of how exuberant life can be, how delightful living is, and how utterly magical the beauty of breathing…even, slow, always.
“The child is seizing again,” Dadi whispered gently from the corner.
Brinda breathed deep. Once again she must rise and take the child to an emergency room. How her body wracked in anxiety and exhaustion. “Find an auto,” she yelled to someone. Someone found a rickshaw. The same routine. She would rush in. The nurses would know her. The child would be nebulized. He would breathe. She would pick him up, wrapped in her tired arms and return. Her body would stay tense and turid. She wouldn’t relax for years.
Brinda came from the Land of the Saints in Punjab. Little rivulets came alive in monsoon and streamed through the land. Stories of the great and the worshipped rumbled. There was health and wealth around - not much, but enough. Just enough.
She was the only daughter to her parents, both Partition survivors. As children, her father and mother both had trekked a long way from Pakistan, down to relatives in Punjab. Her mother’s family told stories of survival. Her father’s family never spoke. After a brief spell in the army, her father became a farmer and a homeopath. Brinda’s mother weaved new stories of home.
As Zehen’s poor health continued, Brinda withdrew to her parents. For two years, Brinda stayed away from her husband, marked by the scars of having a sick child, at a home that had ceased to feel home anymore. Her body continued to wrack up in tension and anxiety.
“Where is your husband?”
“In Delhi. He has work there.”
“Then why are you not with him?” Face screwing up in fake pity.
“My son is sick. He is undergoing treatment.”
Face screwing up further in pity. “Oh Beta, all will be well soon.”
The child slept peacefully today. The child is playing. The child ate well today. Look at his smile! He has put on weight. He likes it here.
Happiness seeping into a certain loneliness. I will wear bangles today. And the sky-blue kurta. Have I grown old?
“Mummy!” He is alive.
Zehen was happy at his maternal grandparents’ home, enjoying the easy air, the care of his grandparents, the gentleness of life. His ideas took flight. His playmates became varied.
His mother fretted when he played in the rivulets and returned home drenched. His mother fretted when he ate strange fruits and when he coughed. Sweat on his brows made her anxious and a scream of joy made her heart pound. She counted his rice and his rotis. She hovered around his plate. Her own body stayed knotted up, unable to breathe easy, always scampering for a moment’s peace.
Zehen, on the other hand, grew up in the winds.
“Zehen, are you listening?”
In a distance a grey shrike calls. How he nods his head now and then throws his head back in the mating dance! The monsoon clouds are clearing. A rainbow makes a faint appearance.
He felt so light. In his mind, the child took to flight.
Leaping off the ground, kicking a boundary wall, propelled to a window sill of a tall building. From there he lunged and grabbed the rainbow colour bars on the horizon and played till the sun set and his shoulders hurt. Then let go and joined a not- very- organized flock of doves. The dove leader cocked her head and glared at him with her beady eyes. He grinned back and she thought he was okay. Together they swung and slid the white sky and together they descended. He saw a lake and so dropped, scratching the water surface, and with a swoosh, emerged coloured and now a kingfisher. Now waiting to catch a fish.
“Zehen, are you listening?”
The child recovered. And returned to life in Sadar Bazar. To breathe and to be choked at a different level. He was four years old now.
Meanwhile, Brinda’s body never relaxed.
One more child, yet another boy. Both alive. Still Brinda’s body had not eased out. Asthma had come to rest in her muscles and every now and then it would seize and rage. As if when triggered, the muscles unwound like a rubber band, unstoppable in their fury, helpless in its outburst.
“Uh oh. I have dirtied my shirt.” Zehen looked around in panic. “Where is Dadi?”
Something about the dirt, the tear, the break, the fall never sat right. Nor did the ice-creams and the soft drinks and the ice-golas. And the street food. And maybe blowing of balloons?
Brinda raged. Her hands pounding the boy to a daze. Some unknown voice in her head screamed: ‘No more asthma. Never again.’
Dadi rushed in on time. As usual. Zehen collapsed to safety behind her.
“Stop! Why do you beat the child so badly? What if he is paralyzed?”
“I don’t know. Oh, I don’t know,” Brinda fell down crying.
Somewhere somehow Zehen understood.
That his asthma had moved bodies. That he had been freed and she was still left knotted in a past, still seizing.
Later in the day, Zehen knew he would sneak in an ice- cream with Dadi or maybe a lick of the gola. Which one should he have today—the kalakhatta or the orange? Or maybe a stick ice-cream?
Dadi was Dadi—greying hair, a body that celebrated birthing a continuity, skin shriveled but tough, a pair of eyes grown kind through detachment. Her children were grown up and married and had their own. She was done. Now she watched over like a Banyan tree—with shade, love and nurturing. Zehen hung around her. She was his savior. And she liked that he thought so.
Zehen sometimes accompanied Dadi when she went to the market, his little hand lost in her palm as he chattered happily about what he wanted and what he disliked.
“Dadi, aaj gola kayenge na?”
Dadi smiles. “Dekhte hain.”
“Nahin, Dadi. Aaj gola kayenge! Promise Dadi, promise?”
“Let us go first.” Dadi gives a mischievous smile. Zehen knows that smile too well. Today once again they will share a secret.
Dada was there too. In that house. Somewhere amongst the transactions and the merchandise. Tiling a path that said money mattered. You can’t ignore tiles you know. They shine, they beam, they say, ‘you must be here.’
Papa was also there. Somewhere amongst the transactions and the merchandise. Sometimes tiling the path. Sometimes thinking of Brinda. They moved out when Zehen was in middle school to a home of their own.
But that was after Stuti died.
Sweet, easy, she was the spring in the house at Sadar Bazar. While chatter spilled unendingly outside, and poverty crept around hidden but always-present inside, her tinkling laughter warmed his heart. Little sisters, vulnerable and sometimes sick, evoke maternal qualities in older brothers. Ten-year-old Zehen felt that way towards Stuti. She was one-and-a-half years younger to him. Together they played. Together they shared stories. Best friends of sorts.
Every day when he returned home from school, he would see her chuckling face, her flower-print frocks bouncing as she ran down crying, “Bhaiya, aaj school mein…” And then there would be days when he would return to find her sick, with asthma.
Yes, asthma ran in the family. Seizing the air, the little body wrecked in spasms, whimpering for a breath. He would stand by helpless, hoping the medicine would ease the agony soon.
There is something about seeing someone you love suffer. You get closer to them. You cherish their laughter more, savor the moments of joy a tad more. Zehen became more and more protective of Stuti, adoring her silly jokes and unending anecdotes, loving her attention to all that he shared.
And they were most excited during their birthdays. Zehen feverishly searched for the perfect gift for her and she made cards with her own hands for him, scribbled with happy messages. Sometimes we don’t need a big party, a large gathering, and many gifts to feel cherished. Sometimes we just need to see joy in another’s face.
“Chhoti, idhar aa. Dekh tere liye kya laya hun.”
Zehen threw back his head and laughed. “I will show you later.”
How miserable Stuti looked! “No, Bhaiya. Now. Show me now! Not fair. Not fair.”
She jumped on him, tried to snatch the little paper bag he carried. The laughing continued followed by shrieks.
“Oh Bhaiya…I wanted this clip so badly.” A red hair clip on black cascading hair. Her glowing large eyes beneath the locks, happiness beaming over.
“Mummy, dekho! Dekho what bhaiyaa bought for me!”
How the red clip on the black hair made rounds in the home, how joy danced that afternoon.
There were other cousins too. Together, they were a unit of their own. Their own rules, codes of conduct, and whom to listen and not. They lived a parallel world to the adults, negotiating their lives and dreams with this other group. Today a gola, tomorrow a Cricket bat, some other day a nice sneaker or maybe a watch. And sometime later what they wanted to study and where they wanted to work and whom they wanted to marry. The parallel world negotiated life.
Outside, when alleys were empty, the kids took over and played Cricket. Sometimes they played gilli-danda. And discussed their games long afterwards.
“Arey, Neeraj aaj aaya nahin?”
“Class mein fail ho gaya. Uski mummy khelne nahin degi.”
“Uff…lekin uske paas extra ball hain. Jao puchke leke aao.”
“Aunty will scold. Kuch bol degi. Mein nahin jata.”
“Then what about the ball?”
The roads were dotted with Bajaj scooters. Cars were far and few in between. The kids fought to pillion-ride on the scooters. Zehen became adept in timing his neighbor’s trip to the office and back, and to the market, and to the many errands, and would show up right on time as the neighbor whirred the machine to life. The neighbor, in turn, became adept in changing his timing or dragging his bike quietly down the road to escape.
A society where boundaries didn’t exist strictly and yet remained as lightly pencilled lines waiting to be filled up. And the children who smudged those lines eventually grew up. To cars.
Zehen’s younger brother, Viraj, followed his older brother around. He learnt Cricket from him and whom to make friends with and how. And how to be at school. But Viraj was quiet, reserved. Unlike his brother, who often had been the epicenter of earthquakes, Viraj stayed soft and gentle like a river valley—so normal that it didn’t matter.
Rivers carry their own wisdom. Silent and intense.
The cousins and siblings played with each other till they began to find friends outside. But even then, events fostered deep ties.
Like when one day Zehen came home to find Stuti very sick.
“Mummy, why are there so many people around?”
Brinda replied softly, “Chhoti is sick.”
But Stuti had been sick before. Why so many people? Relatives lining up the walls and the corridors. A deadly silence, eyes looking away, shoulders hunched. Filling the veranda, the living room, and the little room where Stuti lay.
He threw his schoolbag down and slowly walked to her room.
Stuti was sleeping, gentle and easy on the sheets, her white frock with purple flower prints looking ethereal. He walked in gingerly and held her hand. Her tiny fingers curled up against his palms, her little chest heaved. “Chhoti… Chhoti…”
Nothing stirred in the room. The little room with its oppressive ceiling, a window that had no light, a bed that reeked history, sat frozen. Only her chest heaved every now and then. He wondered what to do. “Maybe I should let her sleep.”
And she slept. The frolicking little girl had wandered too deep and lost her way. The portals had closed down. Leaving him here, while she was still lost somewhere beyond.
Stuti and Zehen were joined by asthma. They both knew what it was to be seized and become frantic for air. They both knew what it was to be choked. Zehen lived, she died.
Long after she was consigned to the flames, and the room wiped clean of her fragrance, and corridors emptied of her laughter, Zehen kept vigil for her on her birthday. Still searching frantically for the perfect gift, yearning her shrieks of delight, he created rituals around the day, deciding who could be part of it or not.
As if being able to attend her birthday party was a rite of passage to his heart. As if being absent meant you had exited Zehen’s life.
Not long after, Zehen’s parents moved out of the joint family home to Piramal Vihar. Sadar Bazar stayed back, stirring gravy to memories, blending spices sometimes into the hot air, and sometimes dripping cold on the road. A childhood ended. Asthma changed form.
The family moved to an apartment in Piramal Vihar. Far from the milling crowds, of bodies heaving together, far from masala fumes to a quiet
Delhi suburb. Here the smells came from the kitchens: “Looks like she is making her heavenly rajma again.”
“Now what is that Banerjee lady cooking and what spices does she add?”
“That lady is passionate about baking—what did she make today, such smells.”
Here the smells came when garbage wasn’t picked up, or when the body of a dog killed in an accident rotted, or when puppies playing with a bloody sanitary napkin and tore open the cover — no, there were no smells.
Here roads were often taken over by boys for Cricket in the evenings. And sometimes children pooled into neighborhood parks. They rode around in their cycles and shrieked as they turned corners. Here vegetable vendors wheeled in carts selling karela and lauki and fresh palak. And small roadside shops sold fruits.
Take a rickshaw from here to another corner of this neighborhood and the roads turn into streets. The streets boom with branded outlets, slowly easing out home-grown shops. Reebok and Adidas sit cockily while a Bata mutters in a distance. The Nokia store stands in steely elegance snobbishly in the main corner. You need to be sure that you want a Nokia to enter the exclusive store. Here buildings were razed to the ground to make way for the mall. Many laborers worked day and night, carrying one glass frame after another to erect a fairyland of goods. And how many of them then never brought their wives and kids to see the wonder they created.
Here elegant restaurants foxtrot the posh streets. Here you must make reservations to eat. In these restaurants you will be reminded of how middle-class you really are. Here you will wish you wore better clothes, that you need to upgrade your shoes and purse, and that you are not fine enough. And you will look around for the naturally rich folks, guffawing at times, with strong perfumes rising in the air, the only people to laugh easy. While the rest stay glued to their menu cards and how much each meal costs and what total cost will come to and can I ask Papa if I can order this. After all, Mummy will object.
The distance from here to a Reebok store is short. The distance from all elegant restaurants to branded outlets is small. Interlocked in the same desire, they mesh into a grid, hovering over everything—life, love, livelihood. You enter the grid, you will have to complete the circuit to exit.
Beneath this grid are the wannabe shops and eateries. Shops that hope to become branded someday, eateries that hope to become landmarks. Clothing shops with favorite customers, sales girls and boys who know what you want, salespersons bereft of dreams beyond a promotion and a better pay. Eateries that open “grandly” and have discounts in the first month when the suburb descends and then become dirty, the menu card folding on sides, the walls smudging with sometimes spilt gravy, sometimes with heat, attendants whose uniform increasingly look worn-out. An old look coats over a dream. The everyday struggle takes its toll. Fights increase at home. The drinking too.
There is, of course, an occasional eatery that has no interest in becoming a wannabe. I will sell only pav bhaji, ten varieties of pav bhaji. And fruit juices and lassis. Attendants don’t care if you wait in line. Order fast. Get your food. As you half-chew half-swallow cheese pav bhaji with custom fried pav, from the corner of your eyes you can see the waiting customers, eagerly hoping you would finish. You look away and try to focus on food. We found a seat. Order, eat, chat, and don’t notice. Grape juice. Mango lassi. Did you try baked pav bhaji? Hey, we were lucky to find a seat here. How the crowds create an assurance of popularity that food is “great” here.
In a corner, the Momo shop is visited by a select few. In whispers, the word spreads.
“Not many people. But the momos are authentic. I ordered three plates yesterday. I can make a whole lunch out there.”
“Which one? The one near to that AKP? It looks shady. Dirty.”
“Haha. It is not fancy. But clean. And real food. Not many know it.”
The foodies’ secret hideout. Here everyone knows everyone. Everyone must know everyone if you claim to be a foodie. Smiles, head tips of acknowledgement, moving around tables—here you have an identity. Here you join a club. Here your membership card comes with either refinement of palate or your ability to forcefully debate on this eatery or that restaurant.
Here you don’t dress up. Chappals or worn-out shoes is better. Here you don’t take your girlfriend on your first date. Here you take her when she is special and you are ready to let her into your life. Here you sweat and drool. Here it is okay to be heavy. Here it is important to talk loud. Here you celebrate. Here you forget.
Living amongst the elegant restaurants, upcoming eateries and hidden joints, are out-there open street vendors. Defying cultural compartments, they pull the elegant out of the chambers and make foodie comb for the ideal plate in the mix. In an easy twist of a golgappa or dahi papdi chat, they flatten class and direct desire. Sure, the picky-very-clean lady may make awesome panipuri at home, but the street food needs the ambience of street— the unstructured state of landscape, the unsure seating or standing, the little community that forms around the vendor dispersing in moments, the relation that develops with vendor over a period of time—he knows how much spice or sweet you like in your golgappas. A relationship that is delicious and makes the customer feel special and powerful. After all, good food is not merely how well styled or who cooked it but the relationships that hover around it, the memories it awakens, the identity it carves – “he knows where to get good pav bhaji or the best paan in town.”
Thus they co-exist—creating new cultures of money and then dismantling them, straddling multiple worlds simultaneously. But they each are caught in the blur of desire, pivoted on the same issues—clothes, footwear, food, bags, gadgets, vehicles.
A smog of desire, choking spirit into an asthmatic daze.