Thought For The Day- Money can buy you everything. Dollars cannot.
I imagined this scene between me and my sis in the process of convincing her to shift to the US (an imaginary one of course).
I: Aaj mere paas Chipotle ka Mexican burrito hai. I have Alladin’s gyro. I have the Vietnamese pho. I have the Pad Thai noodles with the Thai red curry. I have the best of shrimps and scallops and salmon. Tumhare paas kya hai?
Sis: Mere paas phuchka waala hai.
Believe what you want to, but I have often woken up in the middle of the night craving for phuchkas. I have often fantasized about the large, round, crispy phuchkas in my biochemistry class, drawing patterns of them on my lecture slides. Naah, I have never had an affair with any of the phuchka waalas. Tell me, do you even need a condition to love phuchka?
Phuchka. Paani puri. Gol gappa. They are all the same things I am talking about. A very familiar scene outside most colleges (especially if they are girls’ colleges) would be hordes of girls and boys flocking near the phuchka waala. Koto korey? (how much?) Asking this is just a formality, for you know that you’ll have them in dozens no matter what the price is. Bhalo kore baniyo (make it tasty)…. Another unnecessary thing to say, as if he will put a little more filling of the potato, or give you a few extra helpings.
A lungi-clad man, the lungi itself dating back to the times of Akbar, and looked as if the last time it was washed was after Taj Mahal was built. You will often see him scratching his lungi (you know where) or scratching his unshaven cheeks when there are no customers around. Dad has told me many such stories to deter me from having roadside phuchkas due to hygiene issues. Hygiene be darned, it is funny how you know the basic tenets and commandments of hygiene, but the moment you see a phuchka waala, even the deadliest of diseases cannot deter you. He puts his hand inside the mountain of phuchkas covered with a plastic wrapper with a candle burning inside in the middle, stuffs some potato filling from God knows when, dips the phuchka into a pot filled with tamarind water with millions of germs of jaundice, cholera, and typhoid swimming in backstrokes and free style, and man, what I feel is best described as having a visual orgasm. Eating phuchkas is like…. err…. you know what. Once it starts, you just don’t want to stop.
Phuchkas are an essential ingredient for courtship. Like Rani Mukhherjee in Hum Tum, I am sure every woman dreams of a husband, chote chote bachche (little kids), Tommy (the dog), and all of them making a happy family sight eating roadside phuchka. “Phuchka khete jabe?” (Wanna go out and have some?)- a proposal like this would be enough to make anyone turn into Pavlov’s dogs. Even the sight, thought, or the smell of the phuchkas is enough to get you drooling. Ma had often tried to dissuade us, by buying the ready made mix and trying to make it at home. But there is something about standing by the roadside holding a dozen books, your legs being subject to constant mosquito bites, with not a drop of water to drink while your tongue hangs out due to the excess green chilly added (no matter how much you insist, jhaal kom deben- less spice please) and gulping puchkas one after another.
I used to especially cherish the last phuchka (called the phau), given for free, which would have extra lemon juice squeezed into it and without the khatta paani (tamarind water). If your taste buds have ever experienced heaven, this would be it. No matter how appealing home cooked food is, home made phuchka is nowhere close to the roadside phuchka from the lungi-baniyaan clad man. There is something amiss in the Haldiram’s paani puris. The moment you know that it is made under hygienic conditions with mineral water and people wearing hand gloves, the whole thing loses its taste. Who wants to sit properly and eat phuchka in a civil way when you are used to standing by the roadside, dropping half the tamarind water on your dress in the process of holding your books, your mouth stuffed with the phuchkas while you pop out your eyes when he asks you, “Aaro debo?” (You want more?). The worst wait is when friends stand in a huge circle around him, and he takes indefinite time to get back to you again. But then, most quit after some 8-10, and it is then that the excitement of eating uncountable phuchka starts. These days, we Bengalis have taken a leaf out of the north Indian books and have started to introduce phuchka stalls at the weddings as well. A clever strategy I think, ‘coz once you are stuffed with phucka, you can’t really gorge on the bhetki maach fries and the chicken biryani later.
Often there are rags-to-riches stories about some phuchka waala going to London or Paris and making it big. I wouldn’t be surprised if this was the case, for the prospects of the Indian fast food segment in foreign countries is vastly underutilized. Look at Seattle. The only place I have seen them serving phuchka is at the Indian stores. But then again, they serve you 5 tiny phuchkas the size of goat testicles with a little stale potato filling for $4 that tastes a week old. There, you have killed your desire to eat even before you had your chance. For me, I’d rather wait till I go back to India than have it here. You don’t want to have them in single digits. You want to have them as many as you want.
I haven’t met a single person who doesn’t like to eat, or even talk about phuchka. We Bengalis are famous in discussing food even more than we eat (which is also quite a lot). We often have this phuchka discussion of how many varieties of phuchka we have had. There are these huge cricket ball sized ones in Esplanade that would eventually cut your lips at the sides and your upper palate when you try to stuff them in your mouth. There was this place where they mashed small pieces of coconut, which in itself was a master stroke. At places, they gave you the option of having both tangy water and sweet water depending on what you liked. There was this place where they smashed alur chop (potato bonda) and used it as a filling. Personally, I am not in favor of huge phuchkas. They only kill the taste in this whole complexity of gulping them down your throat. Small, crispy, tangy, less jhaal, that is the way I like it. And man, I can gorge on them forever.
Phuchka is an element of bonding. It makes friendship strong. Like the tuition friends and the school friends and the college friends, I used to have this bunch of phuchka friends who would be available anytime I craved for some. You would see these couples bunking class and meeting surreptitiously, having phuchka near Science City or Victoria Memorial. Little joys of life, I would smile to myself. I am sure you have been gulping all this while because I myself have been salivating like one of those crazy Pavlovian dogs. So stop reading, go out, and gulp in a few dozen phuchkas. Forget about dirty hands and dirty water and typhoid and jaundice. Like my sister said when she was 3, “They are poor people, if all of us worried about hygiene, how would the poor man earn?” Valid point. Eat a few on behalf of me too. I shall derive the vicarious pleasure of having phuchkas from you. Trust me, every moan you make while you close your eyes and gorge on them is worth every rupee you spend.