The Bollywood crazy family that we are, a recent phone conversation with my sister in Calcutta went like this, “Aaj mere paas Chipotle ka Mexican burrito hai, Vietnamese pho hai, gyro hai, Pad Thai noodles with Thai curry hai. Aur tumhare paas kya hai?”
Confidently, she said, “Mere paas phuchka waala hai”. **
It was a closed case. She had won.
Think what you may, I have often woken up in the middle of the night craving for phuchkas. I have often fantasized about the round, crispy phuchkas in my biochemistry classes, drawing patterns of them on my lecture slides. No, I have never had an affair with any of the phuchka waalas of Calcutta. The love for phuchka is one of those loves that is unconditional.
Phuchka. Paani Puri. Gol Gappa. Call it what you may. A very familiar scene outside most colleges (especially girls’ colleges) would be hordes of girls and boys flocking to the phuchka waala. “Koto korey?” (How much?) Asking this is a mere formality, for you know that you will have them in dozens no matter what he charges you. “Bhalo kore baniyo” (make it tasty) is another redundant instruction one never fails to ask.
Our phuchka waala is a lungi-clad man with dark blue and green stripes on the lungi. The lungi itself dates back to the times of Akbar, and it looks like both our phuchka waala and the lungi could do with a wash. You will often see him scratching his lungi or his unshaven cheeks with a bored look when there are no customers around. Baba has often told me such stories to deter me from having roadside phuchkas. Hygiene be darned, it is funny how the basic commandments of hygiene you have practiced all your life escape you the moment you spot a phuchka waala. The phuchka waala puts his hand inside the mountain of phuchkas covered with a plastic wrapper while a candle burns in the middle of his wicker basket of phuchka paraphernalia. He stuffs some potato filling from God knows where, dips the phuchka into an earthen pot of tamarind water with millions of germs of jaundice, cholera, and typhoid swimming backstroke and free style. You wait there drooling until you have put the first phuchka in your mouth, and congratulations, you have just had an orgasm inside your mouth !!
Phuchkas are an essential ingredient for courtship. Every woman who is fond of movies like Hum Tum (2004) dreams of a husband, chote chote bachche (little kids), and Tommy (the dog) making a happy family sight eating roadside phuchka. “Phuchka khete jaabe?” (Want to have some phuchka?) - A proposal like this would turn anyone into Pavlov’s dogs. Ma had often tried to dissuade us, by buying readymade mix and making it at home. But there is something about standing by the roadside balancing your books or shopping loot, a hundred mosquitoes feasting on blood from the exposed skin on your legs, with not a drop of water to drink while your tongue hangs out due to a green chilly overdose (no matter how much you insist, “Jhaal kom deben”- less spice please !) and gulping puchkas one after another. I especially love the last phuchka (called the “phau”), given for free, which would have extra lime juice squeezed into it. If your taste buds have ever experienced heaven, this would be it. No matter how appealing homemade food is, it is nowhere close to the roadside phuchka from the lungi-baniyaan clad man who hands you a damp and dirty twenty rupee note and some coins as change.
There is something amiss in the Haldiram’s paani puris. You have killed the joy of having them the moment you introduce hygienic conditions, mineral water, an air conditioned seating arrangement, and preparers wearing gloves into the equation. Who wants to sit and eat phuchka in a civil way when you are used to standing by the roadside, dropping half the tamarind water on your clothes, 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 an age get round to you again. However, the real excitement starts when most quit after eating 4-5 phuchkas, and now you have the phuchka waala’s undivided attention. Bengalis nowadays have taken a leaf out of the North Indian books, introducing phuchka stalls in weddings, which gives some stiff competition to the Bhetki maacher fry (Bhetki fish fry) and the Mutton Biryani on the menu.
One often hears tales about some random phuchka waala striking gold when his phuchkas were liked so much by some foreigner that he flew the poor man to Germany, Japan, or wherever he lives, and the phuchka waala became a millionaire overnight. I would not be surprised if this happens, for the potential market of Indian fast food in most foreign countries is vastly unexploited (perhaps barring bigger cities like New York and the bay area in California). The only place you get phuchkas in Seattle, they serve you a measly five tiny phuchkas the size of goat testicles with little potato filling for an exorbitant amount. I actually wait until I go back to Calcutta to have my share of double digit phuchkas for breakfast, lunch, and dinner. It is totally worth the wait.
I have rarely met someone who does not like to eat, or even talk about phuchka. We Bengali people are infamous for discussing food even more than we eat (which is also quite a lot). We often have discussions on how many varieties of phuchka we have had. There are these huge cricket ball sized ones in Esplanade that would cut your lips at the sides and your upper palate when you try to stuff them in one go. Sometimes, they smash small pieces of coconut or alu’r chop (potato cutlets) in the filling - a master stroke of an idea. Sometimes they give you the option of meetha paani (sweet water) for the fainthearted who cannot handle spice. Personally, I do not like huge phuchkas that could potentially kill you in the process of eating them. I like them small, crisp, tangy, and less spicy.
Phuchka is an element of bonding. It makes friendship stronger. I had a bunch of loyal phuchka friends who would be available anytime I craved for some. You would see these couples bunking classes and meeting surreptitiously, having phuchka near Science City or Victoria Memorial. Little joys of life, I would smile to myself. If you have been drooling all this while like I am, please stop reading further, go out, and gulp down a few dozen phuchkas. Have faith in your immunity and forget about dirty hands, typhoid and jaundice. Like my sister said when she was three, “They are poor people, if all of us worried about hygiene, how would they make a living?”
Dollars might have the potential to buy you a lot of things, but it cannot buy you the happiness of standing on a busy street and sweating while plopping phuchkas into your mouth one after another, praying that the phuchka waala had added fewer chilies, but not wanting to stop until you die of happiness. For you know that every moan you make while you close your eyes and gorge on them is worth every rupee you spend.
** This is a reference from the movie Deewar (1975)
Photo credit: Hira Zubairi