Photo Representative and Courtesy of Talking Street

I first met him during a pre-monsoon shower. The winds had picked up and excited I had stepped out of home to watch dust blowing over the streets. It is a beautiful moment to watch when people forget their worries and become focused on their next step, managing their clothes and belongings, hurrying to a shelter or home. Only children continue to play, adapting to the winds, unwilling to return home.

He stood outside a South Indian tiffin joint with his panipuri basket – the puris, the tamarind mint water, and potato mix. From his looks I knew he was from somewhere north of India. A Upite or Bihari. An outsider to a community of predominant Telugus. An outsider by language and class.

I went up to him and asked for a plate of panipuri. He looked at me surprised and then went about his task. As I gulped his panipuris (and they were delicious, one of the best I had in South), we talked. He told me about his business will suffer when the monsoons arrive. People are afraid to have panipuris during rains because of the water, he said.

The rain started falling and he moved his basket under a shade. I continued gulping a second plate. A plate that suffered the winds, bespattered by raindrops, standing by a man, who was so delighted that he offered variations of the prep.

Thereafter I started to stop by his shop every few days. Sometimes he tells me about how the traffic police harass him, sometimes about how he misses home and the fights that his brothers have over some land. And the difference of women in his village and those here in the city. And that he can’t marry yet and the dowry offered was too little. I listen and watch him bristle– a short caramel-brown guy with a drooping moustache and boycut pitch-black hair. I know what it is to be an outsider.

He has become bold enough to experiment dishes with me. He wants to start a chat corner and have a menu printed. And would I try his dahi papdi. And the special aloo chaat. I don’t say no to food.

The other day when I stopped by his basket, he ordered other men to make space for me. They moved hurriedly as if a VIP had arrived. I smiled quietly. Sometimes I am the first to eat from his basket for the day. He prays before he opens his basket, asks me to check the taste of the water, and then starts to serve. I usually pay him Rs 21 on such occasions. I like the ritual of “bouni” and of the many people, I would rather he have a successful business for the day.

As a child, I hardly ever ate out. While my brother knew where to buy puchkaa, aloo kabli and aloor dam, I began experimenting with other foods only after 16. And mostly in friends’ homes. In their mothers and grandmothers’ kitchens.

At long last I have my favourite panipuriwala, my claim to an asset, in a transient world of ephemeral interests. And my panipuriwala knows exactly how I like my panipuris – keep changing the taste 😊.