Eating by the side of the road

Sometimes I feel we are living in a bubble. For the well to do in India, everything is taken care of. Doors are opened for you, rooms are cleaned, food appears on the table- almost magically.  You are aware that outside this realm there are people who go hungry but you avert your eyes when they knock on the windows of your car, hoping fervently or feebly as may be your mood, that they will go away. The women who come to work in the house, tell me about their lives sometimes, about open sewers or husbands and sons who do not work, leaving the burden of running the house on them. I listen but do not want to listen too much. I have been instructed by neighbors and friends that “they” can sometimes make up these stories to gather sympathy. I think though that no matter whether these stories are fabricated or not, their lives must resemble their stories.

I ate Pani Puri from a road side vendor two days ago. I had stepped out of the car into the monsoon rains to buy decorations for the house. It was the littlest one’s birthday. Outside that store, a man stood next to his cart selling what I consider one of the most delicious North Indian snacks ever. Fried, puffed balls of wheat stuffed with beans and mashed potatoes which you dip in sweet and spicy tamarind water. You open your mouth as wide as you can and you pop one in, letting all the flavors wash together in a deliciousness that must be eaten to be understood.  In Kolkata, during the UEA writing workshop, I desisted from eating with the others on such outings because I was aware that coming from abroad, such a venture could only lead to a regrettable gastronomical disaster.

pani puri

What prompted me to eat this now? I think it was out of fatigue or boredom of living in the bubble. Fifteen years ago when I did a graduate program in Pondicherry, my classmates and I would head out after classes to forage for food and the food vendor outside the university was our favorite haunt. Maybe it was nostalgia? Maybe it was a test. If it was a reality check, I failed miserably. I spent most of that night and  yesterday drinking massive amount of electrolytes and in misery. My stomach was in a turmoil and I could almost hear it asking me in a state of disbelief, ” WHAT WERE YOU THINKING?”

“What were you thinking?” the four year old’s birthday gathering asked me too. I had no fitting reply other than “I like pani puri?” muttered feebly. “No one, not even us who have lived here our whole lives would eat pani puri off a road side vendor especially in the monsoons.” they all said. “Sniff” is what I said in response. Pani means water. “Imagine the tamarind water made of rain water, tap water and…”  here they would trail off and I sniffed some more.

What I did not tell anyone is that I was almost glad it happened. I needed to step out of my bubble, it will just have to be a little more informed here on. The way to experience a country, the way to perhaps even live cannot be in a bubble. By the way, that pani puri was the best I have eaten- ever.

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