“Have you ever been on an adventure?” A kind of stupid question, is it not? Of course, you have. Just like the one that I am about to describe. The only problem is the absence of a living, breathing protagonist. I should not expect that you, the reader, will connect with someone so unlike you. However, I am of the opinion that without my protagonist, none of you would have been here. Well, there are three parts to this adventure that will convince you of my opinion, or so I hope. Our story begins on a rainy evening, atop a stove.
Boiling in the oil were onion pakodas and at the table were 4 eager children and 4 more adults. The rainy evening had rendered them incapable of venturing out. It always rained like this in the city and of the time that I am talking about, a little rain flooded the streets. It was impossible to go out, dangerous to play and perfect for the pakodas. The onion pakodas had these really crispy covering of golden brown gram flour batter (besan) and accompaniments were abound- ketchup, chat masala, coriander chutney and some just liked it plain and simple.
The 4 children had this one boy who loved ketchup and another one who hated it while the two remaining were okay with it. But, being children raised in the same household, they were sharing a plate of pakodas. The coriander chutney was on a territorial war with the chat masala, the ketchup and the onslaught of the pakodas was altering the course of this war. You could even see a reflection of this war at the table as well “ketchup lover” vs “ketchup hater” mediated by “Okay with ketchup and others”.
The adults saw this game every day, either with the pakodas or with the chaat they would occasionally get or the other snacks that these kids would sit with each day. They never got tired of the fighting but could always be smirking about how territorial one would get and how mature the other was and finally, how they would resolve their differences at the end of the gobbling session. There were no amounts of messes that could linger beyond that table or no other messes that could creep into that place. The table was this weird chasm of excitement, an attack on all your senses.
These days they live separately and assemble sometimes at the same table to have the pakodas. Now they have a sense of the war and use separate bowls for the ketchup and chutney. You don’t see them fighting either but enjoying what they used to with the same gusto. They make pakodas of their own too but there is something about that table, those pakodas and the company that they think of; even while sharing them with their new mates. And no, neither the pakodas nor the people nor the table is our protagonist. Keep looking!
What draws you to a city? The people? Freedom? Opportunities? I guess, circumstances. And there was this “New boy in the city”! One look and a seasoned eye like yours could tell you that this boy was “as green as they come”. He had just started work there at this really “cool place” with really “cool people”. He was working with a girl, the “sarcastic snap sister” who could shred you with retorts you couldn’t respond to. But this oddly meek and mighty pair did get along. How though?
On a late evening, “new boy” and “snappy” were pushing for a deadline. It was cold that day and they were tired, cold and hungry. “Snappy” was a veteran in the city and knew where they could grab a quick bite near the office and offered to drop “new boy” home after dinner. They reached this continental place, sat down and asked for the menu.
As they looked at some familiar and unfamiliar dishes beneath the waiter’s dull and wistful stare, they said “Penne Alfredo?” together! “Snappy” smiled and ordered a Cabernet Sauvignon to go with it. They sat and had a few more cheesy treats with “Snappy” and discovered their love for filter coffee in dilapidated canteens playing old Hindi songs on pleasant days. They had coffee breaks together for a while before they went their separate ways.
All these years later, “new boy” and “snappy” share the same ping-pong relationship. They work in different offices but when they talk, they are what that evening had made them- friends. They sometimes talk for hours and sometimes not for months but they know what they may have the next time they meet.
She had come after work for a simple date after an exciting supermarket trip. They lived for the simple stuff back then- a supermarket trip, a dinner you couldn’t really call dinner but they enjoyed it, more so than the traditional evening meal. They were “spice lover” and “sour queen”! The former believes that no food is complete without a hot feeling in your tongue and the latter is who you would call the perfect chaat lover.
This one day after work, they had planned their date at a bhel shop close to their place. She had discovered this gem who met both their requirements- both spicy and sour that leaves you salivating while they prepare it for you. The anticipation was tantalising, as the expectation of the taste lingered on their mouth while they waited for their bhel.
They were excited trying this shop together for the first time. You could see their eyes bulge as they saw the onion chopped with exquisite finesse and mixed with juice of a squeezed lemon as “sour queen” asked for a bit more, then the green chilli paste which “spice lover” couldn’t have enough of.
When they got the bhel in that traditional conical paper container, they put those spoons in and scooped up their delight. They had a laugh or two, asked the chaatwala about how long he had been doing this and such other mundane details while enjoying an extraordinary treat that they had missed for several months. They share many more such delights today, “spice lover” and “sour queen” have learned to complement their taste palates in the things they make and eat.
I have just one confession here. This quest I took you on- of finding our protagonist- I intended you to taste it, feel it and live it. Your quest, I was hoping, would be one of discoveries and nostalgia but in the process, I never imagined that I may have to take such a trip down memory lane as well. However, what I can tell you is that I cannot introduce our protagonist, even now. To do so would be to reduce the feeling it has invoked in me. These stories are more than incidents, they are experiences which I remember, relive and cherish.
The protagonist, therefore, is hard to put in words. How do you define a feeling which the dictionary has failed to define? But the next time you share a story about your favourite restaurant or that vendor you never failed to visit, look for that connection that elates you and your companion as they become a part of your story and you would have found our lead!
Content and Author - Arpan Golechha
Illustrations - Toshi Singh (_toshisingh_)