A Streetcart Named Desire

February 25, 2014 – Lucky Peach: The Street Food Issue

Chaat

Every day at 4 pm, Ramchandra Charosia leaves his home in a seaside shanty with a ten-kilogram aluminum tray balanced on his head. He walks up the hill to Mt. Mary Road, unfolds a lightweight cane stand and readies his supplies. He’ll stay here from 5–10pm, peddling snacks called chaat for rs20 each to domestic staff from nearby apartment buildings as well as the wealthy residents who live there. At 10 pm, he’ll go home, eat dinner, and sleep. He has done this every day for the better part of forty-three years.

Mount Mary, really a modest hill, is one of the swankier parts of Bombay (now officially called ‘Mumbai’ though I and many others – for a host of political reasons – still prefer Bombay). The apartment towers, which line the leafy, quiet street that leads to the Basilica, look out to the Arabian Sea over the Bandra Bandstand promenade, where gaggles of teenage boys dressed in tight jeans or metallic bellbottoms wait for glimpses of the megastars living across the street. Very occasionally, Salman Khan deigns to step onto his balcony and give a steroidal wave to his adoring fans. The slum where Ramchandra lives stands on an outcropping of black rocks at the base of the promenade, just a couple of feet above the rolling grey-green tide that carry’s Bombay’s refuse out to sea.

Ramchandra is surprisingly tall for a man who has spent four decades carrying the burden of his life’s work on his head. Gravity seems to have exacted its toll primarily on his face, which, save for the gray and sightless left eye listing defiantly up and inward, seems heavy, weighed down. He stands nearly a head taller than his youngest son, Sumeet, who left the family village in the impoverished northern state of Uttar Pradesh[1] to join his father in Bombay directly after completing his BA (the equivalent of a high school diploma) in social sciences. The two live with Sumeet’s older brother, Brimha, Ramchandra’s eldest son, who works as a security guard at one of the nearby apartment buildings.

On their tray, Sumeet and Ramchandra organize the myriad homemade ingredients that, in their various permutations, make up an assortment of street foods known as chaat: inch-wide discs of fried dough (called puri), fine threads of fried chickpea dough (sev), sweet date and cane sugar-chutney, spicy mint chutney, a large tin of water spiked with chilies and coriander and tamarind, yogurt, puffed rice, boiled potatoes, chopped onion, and an opaque plastic jar of chaat masala, a spice mixture redolent of sulfuric black salt and sour green mango powder. Thin ping-pong-ball-sized shells of crispy dough fried golden brown (also called puri) fill plastic bags clipped to the edge of the tray, one of the few items that Ramchandra and Sumeet don’t make themselves.

Sumeet—his smile warm and gap-toothed, his voice soft, high, lyrical—seems far younger than his twenty-two years. On the first night that I met him, Sumeet told me that he, too, was a writer. A poet, in fact. “I write poetry about family and patriotism,” he said. “I want to write a biography of an actor.” (Which actor, he didn’t specify.)

I’d noticed on my first visit that, even as he mixed an order of bhel puri (puffed rice, sev, potato, onion, and sweet and spicy chutneys) in a cone of discarded magazine paper, Ramchandra managed improbably to keep his single functioning eye both on his work and his son. Sumeet had stepped over to gleefully show off pictures on his small digital camera of himself with film stars Sharman Joshi and Prem Chopra, customers from down the road. “All the actors and actresses come here for chaat,” he boasted. I asked if I could see his poems. He told me he couldn’t show them yet, that he had to wait until his audition for Wah! Wah! Kya baat hai!, a kind of Indian Idol for amateur Hindi-language poets. I told him I looked forward to seeing them after that.

* * *

The umbrella term chaat can cover a multitude of different dishes, with variations by region, city, and sometimes even neighborhood, across the subcontinent. It can be pretty difficult, in fact, to pinpoint what exactly makes chaat chaat. Vikram Doctor, Bombay’s most prominent food writer, described chaat to me as “a kind of street food eaten as an indulgence, not for basic sustenance,” as opposed to the heartier street foods that feed many of the city’s working poor. Chaat comes from North India, most likely from Uttar Pradesh (or maybe the mercantile state of Gujarat in West India), and it is also decidedly urban, created for people working away from their households and the comforts of home cooking, be they moneyed merchants or migrant laborers.

Not being a product of Bombay itself, chaat doesn’t achieve the same kind of sophistication and diversity here that it does elsewhere, particularly in the 18th-century lanes of Old Delhi, where it reaches its apotheosis in elusive delicacies like daulat ki chaat, a saffron- and pistachio-scented froth of sweetened milk sold only on foggy winter mornings. Still, Bombay’s own distinctive interpretations of chaat are emblematic. Bhel puri, perhaps the only chaat truly of Bombay, has become a particularly hackneyed and popular metaphor for the city that spawned it, a mixture of flavors from across the subcontinent that, so the saying goes, matches the multicultural collage of India’s greatest city.

The most popular of Bombay’s chaats is probably pani puri (known as golgappa in Delhi and puchka in Calcutta), a serving of six puffed puris, their tops punctured to create tiny cups to be stuffed one-by-one with potato or mung sprouts or stewed yellow peas, then filled with sweet chutney and topped off with chile- and coriander-spiced water. Each puri is eaten in a single explosive bite then followed, often much too quickly, by the next one. The word chaatpallah describes this specific combination of flavors and textures: crunchy and wet, sweet, sour, and savory.

“Like anything, like driving a car, you have to learn to do it,” Ramchandra told me as he assembled my order of sev puri (another popular chaat more or less unique to Bombay), pressing potato onto six discs of flat puri, topping each with a precise lashing of masala and chutneys, a little mound of sev, and an aromatic flourish of fresh coriander. Ramchandra only learned to make chaat after emigrating to Bombay. His father had come some years before him, first selling roasted chickpeas and peanuts, and later ice cream, from a tray that he carried up and down the rocky coast below what’s now the Bandstand promenade. When Ramchandra arrived in 1971, he took over his father’s post while the older man staked his claim to the spot on Mt. Mary and began selling chaat. The recipes came from a vendor who had moved to Bombay from the same village in southeastern UP in the early ’50s, immediately after independence.

Even all these years later, Ramchandra and Sumeet use those same recipes and continue to buy their puri and sev from that stall, Gupta Bhel Puri, run now by Vinod Kumar and Mahendra Yadav Gupta, grandchildren of its founder.

The Guptas’ grandfather purchased his land in Bandra for just rs500 when he first arrived in the city. At the time, Bandra—today among Bombay’s most fashionable (read: expensive) neighborhoods—was still more or less suburban, really just a collection of Catholic fishing villages and gracious bungalows built on grassy, palm-studded lawns. Set on a pretty—though no longer quiet—lane, the Guptas’ two-room shop is probably a real-estate gold mine today. “When the store started it was only a tarp and a small shack,” Vinod told me. “There were no roads, no buildings. Where the Promenade is, the sea used to reach even to there.”

Mahendra, his dark jowly face rough with white stubble, claims his grandfather was the first person in Bandra to sell chaat. “He made his own recipes,” Mahendra said, “He didn’t take any instruction.” The process of making the chaat remains unchanged today.

Mahendra and Vinod—assisted by their younger brother and a coterie of nephews and sons and cousins who cycle in and out of the city—wake every second day at 6 am to roll out hundreds of flat puri over six-inch wooden blocks using miniature rolling pins just a few inches long and a couple centimeters in diameter. On the other days, they wake a little later to fry up nearly a kilo of sev. Outside, they’ll take two hours to boil down their sweet chutney, made by soaking dates in hot water before pressing them by hand with course, nutty, molasses-brown jaggery and tamarind pulp.

Throughout the course of the morning, fourteen vendors from around Bandra, including Ramchandra and Sumeet, will cycle over to Gupta’s shop to buy fresh sev and puffed puri (most vendors make their own flat puris), which Gupta, in turn, purchases from a small wholesale manufacturer in the next neighborhood to the south.

The puri factory is an outfit of nine guys between the ages of eighteen and twenty-eight, operating out of a corrugated metal shack hidden beneath a stand of palms along the same stretch of open land where the local fisherman periodically hang their catch to desiccate in the sun, making for a pungent drive along this road on the best of days. The guys who work here—all of them first generation immigrants from the same village in UP—wake each morning at four a.m. to mix and roll out 100 kg of dough—a combination of rice flour, chickpea flour, ground black lentils, and semolina—before using a small cylindrical mold to cut 40,000 individual puris by hand. All together, this takes eight hours. In the afternoon, they spend another three hours frying and packaging the puri before distributing them in orders ranging from 2,000 to 15,000 to some thirty stalls around the city. A bag of 100 puri sells for rs30 (about 50 cents).

* * *

For years after opening their own chaat stall, Ramchandra and his father stayed on with the Guptas, learning the recipes for the chutneys and puris that they would take each evening to sell in Mt. Mary. Eventually—Ramchandra couldn’t say exactly when—they moved out, relocating to the shack in the seaside slum where Ramchandra and the boys still live. That slum, called Ganesh Nagar, takes its name from the notoriously sweet-loving elephant-headed Hindu God Ganesh. He is the god of beginnings. He is also the God of Obstacles.

There are approximately a quarter million street vendors in Mumbai. In most Indian cities, hawkers constitute about 2 percent of the population, with roughly a third of those selling prepared foods like chaat. Of the presumptive 250,000 hawkers in Mumbai proper, only about 15,000 have licenses issued by the Brihanmumbai Municipal Corporation, or the BMC, a fairly innocuous name for a truly fearsome and inscrutable bureaucratic machine.[2] Ramchandra is not among the licensed.

In 1978, the BMC decided to stop issuing new licenses entirely, effectively criminalizing hawking in the city. The timing of that decision coincided with the 1982 textile mill strikes that in just a few years obliterated the city’s single largest industry, leaving most former mill employees no choice but to begin hawking. In the 1960s, Bombay’s informal economy employed roughly one third of the population. By the 1990s, it employed two thirds. For all the stories of India’s dramatic economic growth and push into modernity, the informal economy in contemporary Mumbai rivals the city’s formal one in complexity and scale. Even a humble operation like the Gupta Bhel Puri stall employs and supports, either directly or indirectly, at least two dozen people.

“The business has become very big, so maybe we’ll open another shop somewhere,” Yadav told me one morning with an offhand shrug, an achievement that would probably have been unimaginable to his grandfather sixty years back. For Sumeet and Ramchandra, that’s not really an option. The night before I’d asked Sumeet if he and his father had ever thought about expanding, or even just setting up a more permanent stall. “No, I’ll keep it like this,” he said. “If I make it bigger it’s a problem with the BMC and the police.” As it is, Sumeet and Ramchandra pay rs300 each month to appease the cops, and even that sum does not prevent officers from coming several times a year to confiscate the stand, the tray, and all its contents. Each time that happens, Sumeet and Ramchandra pay rs1200 to get their lives out of hoc. That’s about the same amount they’ll make on the very best of working days.[3] Vendors located closer to “natural markets”—heavily trafficked places like railway stations, hospitals and schools—often pay significantly larger portions of their incomes to the police and BMC. In some cases, police actually encourage hawkers to shift their operations to these areas, primarily to secure larger bribes for themselves.

“The unlicensed hawkers—it can be said, illegal hawkers—they are doing their business on the grounds of bribe,” said Dhayashankar Singh, President of the Azad Hawkers’ Union, on a hot October afternoon in the Union’s cramped, one-room office, located on the ground floor of a grim apartment block in Andheri, the largest of Mumbai’s suburbs. Singh worked for sixteen years as a vendor himself, selling samosa and vada pao (a battered and fried potato patty served on a soft roll). “They pay to the BMC, the Police, sometimes also local gundas [Hindi for ‘goons’].” Many vendors, he said, pay as much as 30 percent of their total incomes to the authorities.

Some days later, I traveled even farther north to Kandivali, a suburb near the city’s northern periphery, to meet Akilesh Gaud (big-bellied, mustachioed, and jovial) and Radheshyam Gaud (also big-bellied, also mustachioed, less jovial, and of no relation), Working President and General Secretary, respectively, of the Shahid Bhagat Singh Hawkers’ Union. Sitting in the harsh fluorescence of a simple café near the Kandivali railway station, the Gauds explained the byzantine rules and regulations that operate as guidelines for the complex system of financial transactions between hawkers and city authorities.

In most cases, it works something like this: A single hawker in each area, identified as Zero Number (“He is like a secret agent, like 0-0-7”), will collect bribe money on a roughly monthly basis from up to 200 hawkers and distribute it directly to the BMC. Because they work in a low-traffic area without complaints from local residents, Ramchandra and Sumeet don’t deal much with the BMC, paying their fees directly to the local police who, throughout the city, collect their bribes individually and at will. Some estimates put the total combined bribe collections from Mumbai hawkers at nearly $10 million annually.

In September of 2013, the lower house of India’s parliament finally passed a draft version of a new national policy for urban street vendors—the first comprehensive legislation on hawking since the Bombay Municipal Act of 1888—that, if enacted, would grant licenses to all currently working vendors and, at least in theory, limit these kinds of extra-legal transactions. With new regulations in place, hawkers could work legitimately even as municipalities clean up the streets by creating designated hawking and non-hawking zones. Again: In theory. When I asked Sumeet about the legislation, he told me, with a small frown and an indifferent shrug, that he’d never heard of it. Union leaders like Singh and the Gauds have worked tirelessly to push the legislation through, but most vendors don’t seem to expect much.

* * *

As the sun went down and sales at the Kandivali vegetable market reached fever pitch, Akilesh’s phone began to ring. He answered curtly: an eviction. Police, claiming to have received a complaint of traffic obstruction from nearby residents, had come after four unionized street vendors, issued eviction slips, and fined them rs1250 each. “Rs1200 is the official charge,” Gaud said with a shrug. “There is rs5 for government stamp and the police collect 45.” He smiled widely, nudged Radheshyam and laughed: “Service charges.”

A few moments later, a vendor from the market outside joined us at the table. He told us proudly about the local chaat vendor whose son now works as a doctor back north. Radheshyam himself had gone from working at his father’s vegetable stall to running a vegetable wholesale company that transports 800 metric tons of produce from the municipal market in the outskirts back here to Kandivali every day. Later that evening on the train back to Bandra, Debdulal Saha, a TISS researcher, told me that stories like these are “one or two in a thousand.”

“Hawkers are putting the business from generation to generation – 20, 30 years,” Akilesh had told me. Thirty years from now, there will likely still be a Gupta selling chaat from the same stall in Bandra; in a city built on constant, feverish movement, that kind of fixity is a comfort. With their wheels and carts placed on the fringes of Mumbai’s heaving, crumbling, traffic-choked roads, vendors embody that idea of movement, the simple intoxicating dream of mobility so essential to the city’s allure. Unmoving for decades and generations on end, they also embody the illusion of mobility that lies just below the surface chaos: honking your horn doesn’t mean you’re actually getting anywhere. They call Bombay the City of Dreams. So what if only one or two in a thousand come true?

Maybe Sumeet will write that biography one day. It is, after all, possible, which counts for something. “One day at home I was watching TV and saw that show and decided to take part,” he told me the last time we spoke. He wrote five poems, recorded a short audition video, and sent it in. Last I heard, he was still waiting to hear back. “If I get the chance, I’ll get the career in writing. I’ll try my best to do that.” If not, he said, he’ll take the exam to join the police force. Failing that, he’ll stay on in Mt. Mary, following in the patient, pragmatic footsteps of his father and grandfather.

Since he’d already auditioned for the show, I asked if he might be willing to recite a poem for me. He took two sheets of paper from his back pocket—carefully folded, soft around the edges from handling—and read:

Wah! Wah! Kya baat hai![4]
People come from quite far to read their poems there
Sometimes they shout
Sometimes they come with love
Sometimes they are called poets
Sometimes it’s only time-pass
Sometimes they make us cry
Sometimes they make us laugh
Sometimes they try to scare us
And sometimes they give us strength.
Wow, it’s so amazing!:
People come from so far.

[1] Were it an independent nation, UP would be the fifth largest on earth, with a population of 200 million squeezed into an area the size of the United Kingdom. Something like 80 percent of all the street vendors in Mumbai trace their roots here.
[2] Mumbai and the central suburbs have a population of about 12.5 million people, but including Navi Mumbai, Thane, and other satellite cities, the Mumbai metro area has a population closer to 21 million, about a million more than New York City, crammed into a space one-eighth the size. That means Greater Mumbai probably hosts about 420,000 hawkers—more people than live in the city of Miami. But this is all educated guess work. The Tata Institute of Social Science (TISS) has begun a comprehensive, person-to-person head count of vendors in Bombay (a Sysiphean task if ever there was one), but current estimates are based on studies, led by TISS Professor Sharit Bhowmik, from seven other Indian cities.
[3] During the three months of monsoon season, daily profits can drop as low as rs100.
[4] I’ve heard this traditional verbal plaudit (the Hindi equivalent of shouting ‘Bravo!’) translated in two different ways. (1) Wow, it’s so amazing, and (2) Wow! That is something worth praising.
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