I shove hair out of my face to see where I’m going along the road. The black face-muffler that reaches up almost to my eyes, poking at the lower lashes, is fumbling my sight. The fickle hairs –they’ve never allowed me a thing as a good hair day-add to the horse vision. In my efforts to return the unruly waves back in place, the tiny transparent cover dangling from my fingers with the packed 10rs boiling-hot masala chai presses against my mufflered-face : an instant burn. Almost.
Across the road, next to Chinese Corner, the vadapav-poha-breadbajji counter and the indulgent after-class 10am crowd call to me. My breakfast would be waiting at the hostel. “It’s probably sticky oily Poori today”. Well the heart wants what it wants.
Of course my Indian heart’s been trained well with the co-ordinates of the lakshmanarekha of wants, lying at 2 inches from safe Vadapav.
The first time I went to the counter, I had to muster up all my mental strength to walk to the outside-counter chettan and say, “Bhaiyya ek vadapav”, playing out in my head all the horrors that awaited my HealthyForAWeekAfterBeingTaxedAlmostToDeathByInfectionsInflictedByYoursTruly stomach. In hindsight, a series of poor choices had by then taught me not every infection ends in hospitalization/death, unlike I/my super-anxious Amma had led me to believe.
After the brazenly overpriced (and blatantly bland) dosa at Sagar Ratna (Rs.167 including taxes but you can probably still sue if something happens to you), the 20rupay Vadapav was savior of the stomach and soul and precious notes.
I stop on my tracks to cross. Something brushes against my jeans at the back of my knees, I turn right and I turn left to find a black dog with his white-patched tail, watching the traffic to our right with quiet poise, unmindful of the Homo sapien next to him. I smile. My eyes (the only visible part of my face) smile along. An
old uncle appooppan on his scooter next to Chinese Corner smiles.
The traffic clears in 5 seconds, I turn to see if my fellow-crosser approves – he takes a step forward – and we walk to the other side together. Another human exchange of smiles and twinkling eyes later, my road companion- the object of our joint fascination – still oblivious of it all walks away.
It’s a good morning.
After doling out yellow rice-like poha to 5 customers at once, the busy outside-Counter chettan with his back to the crowd attends to me, “Aur aapko?”
“Ek Vadapao bhaiyya,” I say, letting the pav become a pao. That’s how Himanshi says it, her full lips housing beautiful teeth within curling up to converge to a close. Almost. Making you (=me) anticipate a boiled egg. Or a boiled egg with fillings. Pao.
He grabs hold of a pao (a squarish mini bread/bun with baked brown sides – I’m loling at my definition) from its cover on the counter, looking freshly baked and warm (it’s not, from experience). He carves a side and halves it, leaving one end still attached, revealing the white bread inside.
He stains the white with a tiny circle of red, the fiery seeds and flakes awaiting you on their chilli bed. It’ll probably be a little hot, but liquid fire extinguisher in my purple Milton bottle awaits too.
Another chettan behind the counter is chaya adikkaling – because I don’t think beating tea (in long unbroken brown streams) is quite the right expression. And no air of pleasantly overpowering spicy richness hits my nose – of thick fibrous ginger strands and crushed cardamom and hocuspocus and of course a bucket of water added to a vessel of boiling milk – the story of a tiny adorable cover dangling from my fingers.
He picks up a vada filled with potato goodness, places it between the bun halves, hands it over to me on the tiny round silver plate after pouring on its side some green chutney with white paneer shavings, the chutney I hated when I first had it, asking instead for the sweet red. Silly old me.
Making my way out of the immediate crowd, I squish the two buns together so it flattens, so my mouth can accommodate it. Dip and bite. Dip and bite. It’s over in 5. The chain interrupted by calls for more green chutney. How times changed, silly old me.
The heat hits. I pay the 20, as inside chettan hands over to outside chettan a tray of newly deep-fried vadas filled with potato goodness.
Like golden-brown muffins from overworked Anina’s oven. Like Tessa’s Nikita chechi’s love&butter cinnabuns.
Or not. But Oh what I wouldn’t give to live a life full of those. But it’s time to chill the burn from the heart’s wants.
I grin as I hear Amma in my head, “Avidunnum ividunnum oronnu kazhichitt infection!”. Past the push-carts dotting the sides. Guavas. Apples. Oranges. Greenish purplish thingies.
“Kithna bhaiyya?” How much?
“Satthar rupay kilo”.
Hiding my inadequate Hindi that’s ignorant of what satthar means – never reveal that you don’t know Hindi, or they’ll cheat – (We like to think they cheat us anyway).
“Bees ke dedo,” another dude says. For 20rs.
“Arre, bees ke do hi milega”.
2 for 20 -__- Sheri va povam. I leave with my packed-and-adored tea and my satiated tummy.
The overly priced EVERYTHING (except heart’s wants) don’t bother today though (cos it’s a good morning), nor persistent queues at random places directing to hitherto-neglected banks that nobody noticed until Modi demonetised currency, as Love you Zindagi plays in my head.
And I’m walking the thronging roads and glancing past photocopy and bookshops arranged back-to-back and stepping from pavement to road to pavement, but really, I could be hugging the hard-to-spot and probably chori-laden trees, playing kabbadi on the non-existent beach, or flying a kite thoughIknowNotHow along the shore, because incongruous bits make up your (= mine, though probably yours too) whole.
But incongruous bits of happy is still happy.
There’s a girl eating chaat on Aggarwal sweets’ high table outside, and I set a mental reminder to return for their pani puri in the evening.
“Kya khoob ye Jodi hai teri meri” – what a lovely pair we make, you and me, Pani puri. The gastric juice in my stomach blushes at the prospects. I can almost hear Pazham pori accusing, “I rhymed with the lyrics too, you know”.
What a nice morning. Random people smile back at smiling eyes on foot. There’s a driverless swift deZire parked next to an empty rickshaw opposite the dry latrine. Look at the fairness of the world on this fair morning (the muffler lets no smells in) – swift deZires and rickshaws relieving their ways to ease, together.
The cute Punjabi guy outside the reading room smiles at you (no not you, me), at smiling eyes.
The neat gridded roads, the electric post that’s a brilliantly entangled mess of thick wired loops in all sides at the top, the well-swept concrete, the clothes hanging in balconies swaying in the cool early-winter breeze, the still-on Diwali lights, the orange streetlamps lit since last night, family gardens on scanty ground behind walls of homes shooting flowering trees into the sky. And the nonchalant dog on a parked car sitting up with half of his pink tongue out from a shut mouth, eyes closed and fully savoring in the sun, cocooning in the warmth of it, raising his head to the chorus “love you zindagiiiiiii”.
The last turn to my narrow hostel street with cars parked on either sides. An Indica from the opposite direction, and a scooter following it- I move to the side, behind the siderow of parked cars. I can see smiling eyes reflecting on its rear glass – I puff my cheeks and raise my brows, in the reflection the eyes swell but the muffler hiding the puffed-cheeks don’t.
I receive a sudden jerky bump against my lower half – the car right infront wasn’t parked after all – Bollywood music stops playing. A reflex of “AYYO” escapes through the muffler, the car on the left swipes past, the scooter uncle chuckles out loud. I get out of the way to the middle of the road.
A leash goes off.
Oh WOW – no indicators, no lights, no horns. Or perhaps I hadn’t noticed. Perhaps, yet that’s no way to reverse your car. When an elated soul is making faces at your rear? No wonder they say people are stupid. They who? They whoever, since when do you backanswer?
Chuckling at a poor soul hit mercilessly by a car. BUMPED INTO? SAME THING. Cynicism takes over like an obedient hawk, repositioning on its briefly empty spot.
What if it ran me over? Of course he’d still chuckle at it. And then they’ll watch as I bleed to death. I wasn’t silly, I was right, the old red-chutney-loving cynical me.
With a defiant look (that shows only in non-smiling eyes still) I walk. Amidst the Cruel cruel world of reverse-takers and chuckling scooters and smile-destroyers, its muffler-wielding blood-boiling victim of terminal bumps, and vanquisher of premature death.
The vanquisher of premature death soon enters my hostel, makes the entry, and sees my breakfast-loyal to me and to me alone in this cruel cruel world -waiting. Sticky oily poori, I’m sure.
A cylindrical package wrapped in aluminium foil, and a dark-brown curry to accompany. Oh.
OHHH. Something vacates a recently occupied seat.
I should really watch where I’m walking – the world isn’t all that bad you know, the car had hardly touched me. Mountains out of molehills. With a smile, I take off the muffler, grab hold of my breakfast and proceed to my room.
Putt-kadala gets too much credit in my stories, I know.