And pop goes the ball!
November 28, 2011
When i was a tiny tot, my ambitions went ding-dong from being a Rajdhani driver to parking my cane basket of golgappas on the roadside. Several decades and reality checks down, i am as content nursing a scotch inside a first class coup of Rajdhani as i am nudging my way through hungry neighbours who ring the golgappa seller near my house. Both — scotch and golgappas — are on top of the pecking order of my food chain; i love the honeydew taste of the yellow liquid and the tang of the minty tamarind water that elevates the potato-stuffed wheat crisps into a divine orbit.
The moment my Rajdhani reaches Bombay, the scotch remains the same, but Delhi’s golgappa becomes panipuri. When the train pulls into Howrah station, the panipuri metamorphoses into fuchka. Next week, i will be in Calcutta for a wedding, but before i dive headlong into the feasting, i will make it a point, as always, to say ‘hi’ to a friendly fuchka-wallah.
I won’t go into the fuchka-is-better-than-golgappa debate because the conclusion is foregone. I would, instead, quietly let you into the Life and Times of a Passionate Fuchka Eater — my wife Sharmi — and let her tell you how a love story in her early life bloomed on the roadsides of Calcutta.
I remember a minute incident that happened almost four years back when I came to Delhi the first time after marriage. I’ve always been fond of Delhi. As a teenager whenever we came here on vacation, I loved the greenery, the posh localities and the sprawling roads. But that did not prepare me for living here alone with my husband. I thought I would love it from day one. But surprisingly, Delhi wasn’t that amicable from the word go. It took almost eight months to get adjusted to the Capital.
During those six months, I continuously defended my home, Calcutta. No matter what her flaws were, I used to doggedly stick to saying, “But it has warmth. Delhi lacks the buzz after eight. Calcutta is still alive even at midnight.” Well, it took me some time to realise that Delhi has even more buzz than my little hometown. And warmth? Yes, if you start mingling with the right kind of people.
During one such event of a headstrong defence of my home city, I almost had a nasty altercation with an ex-colleague who tried to malign the reputation of Calcutta’s fuchka. Yes, I’m too much in love with it to like any other type from any other place. When I said, “Calcutta’s fuchkas are the best!” She retorted with a foolish, “Naah! It’s too sour. Delhi’s golgappas are tingly because of the right balance of sweetness and sour.” My ears were burning!
But, I zipped up my lip from hurling out whatever was going on in my head right then because firstly, she was a senior in office, and secondly I thought, what does a Delhi denizen know of the charms of the Calcutta fuchka! “Talk to the hand, you person with no taste,” were the words that kept rotating in my cranial chamber.
I don’t remember the first time I had the heavenly fuchkas of Calcutta. Perhaps, I fell in love with it as a toddler. Who knows? The crunchy hollow wheat breads stuffed with a spicy blob of potato mix and dipped in tamarind water. A wholesome snack that is tingly, aromatic and oh-so- delectable. I can go on and on singing paeans to the Calcutta fuchka.
My brother and I spent much of our childhood on the playground near my paternal grandmother’s house. Ever since I remember, there used to be three vendors sitting outside that playground every single day. One ice-cream seller always ready in his blue uniform, one chholey chaat seller who I remember was extraordinarily amiable and the third one was a lean fuchka vendor. I was never really fond of ice-creams. My brother loved a strawberry version that he demanded almost every day. The chholey chaat seller’s fare was too spicy for us children (Once I grew a bit older I realised that his fare was too good to be missed).
But despite the tender age, I gravitated towards the fuchkas. They looked exciting and tasted heavenly. My granny used to tell me that initially I cried because of the heavy dose of spice, but there was no stopping me from popping them into my mouth. They broke, the water and the potato popped out, but I never gave up. My relationship with fuchkas were forged right then.
While my brother had a fall out with this awesome snack owing to hygiene issues (let’s not even talk about that!), I continue to be faithful to it.
The great thing about Calcutta’s fuchkas is that they are available in every nook and cranny of the city. There are those poor vendors with their grimy clothes and tiny boxes and vessels, and there are those well-to-do ones with their gigantic fuchkas that are difficult to have at a go. There is one notable thing however. Fuchkas vendors never sell their snack in the day. Come evening, they all carry their mobile stalls at their designated spaces and station there till late into the night. When they go back home, their boxes are empty, the potatoes all gobbled and the tamarind water drunk by faithful clients like me.
I loved my shopping trips with my mum. And after a hectic but pleasurable retail therapy, the day would invariably end with fuchkas in Gariahat. Then there were those times when I would sneak out of the house with a bit of money to gobble fuchkas from the vendor who sat near my house. Right there near the bus stop, his tiny bulb shed light on his spicy ware as he dished out a delicious mix. There are stories like this galore…
The vendor near my childhood playground was not a very well-to do man. I do not see him anymore. Perhaps he is too old to carry on with his trade, or maybe he could not sustain this job due to hardships. There is a younger fellow who sells fuchkas from that spot now. I’ve tasted his snack once. They are not half as good…
While in college, my best friend and I ate fuchkas everyday! Now, they might taste blissful, but all that spice and tamarind can be a bit nasty to the tummy. But with young blood in our veins, we threw caution to the air. While my friend sometimes hesitated, I made it a ritual to go to Camac Street from Loreto College to have my fill during lunch recess. My mother still does not know that! She thinks my college lunches comprised of the tame chapati and vegetables that she packed for me in the morning. And, I’m not going to tell her that I forced that tiffin down my classmates’ throats so that I could feast on fuchkas.
The fuchkas sold at Camac Street, Russel Street and Lake was a tad different from what I grew up on. I firmly believed that fuchkas would be incomplete without tamarind water (a natural purgative). But here, the vendors substituted tamarind water with mint water (pudina). Anyways, this wasn’t bad either. In Delhi too, the water is made of crushed mint leaves, green chillies and spices.
When we had gone to Andamans, I was thrilled to bits discovering a lone fuchka seller near Cellular Jail. I implored my mum to buy me a plate. But it was so disappointing. The vendor filled the fuchkas with ghooghni before serving them. Preposterous!!
In Delhi too, fuchkas disappoint me. Not that I don’t have them. It’s after all much better to have a bad copy than not having it at all. True for fuchkas, at least. But here, they cut the boiled potatoes into cubes, rub some black salt on them, fill the fuchkas with them and serve them with mint water. Nothing like the tamarind infused, super spicy potato of the Calcutta fuchka, mashed immaculately with love…