by Nabankur Paul
As the small paper sack lands in my left palm, slightly trembling, as it cautiously settle in my clutch, and the sudden warmth starts transcending from its concealment. My fingers ineluctably sneaked inside the sack and buries deep inside the content below. Till then my nostrils has purportedly drenched itself in the "warmth & aroma" arising from the bubbling hot oil and it's floating prey, as it regularly gets sieved out from it's suspended state.
In a state of hypnosis I get set to devour of what lies in the front of my edacious eyes, a few chunks of delicious, crispy “PAKORAS” , lurking nervously from the uncreased opening of it's paper cave.
As my fingers hurriedly, yet cautiously, forks out few of those hot mortars in no time, the flaps of my spout opens automatically to welcome the first few chunks of these hot crackers.
A typical gastronomical journey now begins with potatoes getting flattened by the joint action of jaws and teeth; as it depletes the soft tissue with random crushing blow.If one is getting bored with the monotony of this mechanical ruination. Then hold your BREATH! Within a few seconds from now the next stage of enchantment begins, as the ECSTASY unfolds, with the mystical condiment unravelling gradually with every fatal blow!
It's sheer JOY,one, that can only be compared to the sound of sweet strings of a mandolin, as it vibrates with every stroke unleashed on it, or the sprinkling of a piano, as it gradually picks up against the backdrop of a rumbling bass!
Finally as the end draws near, what remained behind like unexpressed delight were ethereal remnent of green chilli, embossed with it's "flavour & hotness" in the retreating breadth! Such was the magic of the secret “masala” of our local “Pakora man” some 35 yrs ago! He used to transform some innocuous chunks of potato into crispy nuggets, ready to explode inside the mouth with some “ZING” flavour.
These are tales of a time, when corpulent Ambys ruled the road of Kolkata, television just sneaking in affluent house hold, a clangorous telephone was widely acknowledged as "Status Symbol", and eating out was stretched only to the "phuckawalas” of the nearest park or a gala outing during “Durga Puja festivity."
During those days,in the afternoon, like every other mesmerized soul, if you are pulled towards a source engulfed in a celestial emanation, a cramped, poorly illuminated, cooking scene, a dingy, make shift kitchen by the pavement........ .
And while you sneak in there through a gathering of modest group of anxious buyers, you would certainly observe to your amazement our very own “Pakora Man” a skeleton thin, bare chested individual, profusely drenched in sweat, mixing the potato chunks in the thick viscous mix of powdered pulse and condiments & frying up the crispy nuggets. Assisting him was his equally feeble wife, thin, sickly, depressed, converging all her energy to keep the fire alight and kicking, as she vigorously swayed her hand held fan in the coal lit fire to bring in few gush of fresh air. Her utter desperation would certainly make you feel as if her life depended on it, and a little deceleration would attract severe lashes from her puritanical master!
With advancing time, I shifted base outside Kolkata, the memory of “Pakora man” transformed from vivid to a fading photocopied scripture on Facsimile paper.
Few years ago when I decided to finally nest myself in Kolkata and that too in my old locality, I came across my “Pakora man”, once again. It was one of those autumn evening when I strolled out to procure some essentials, as I followed a sharp bend in the street and took an abrupt turn, a familiar aroma hit me like a thunder, I put an abrupt brake to my advancement, stopped, looked around and observed to my amazement my old “Pied Piper” “Pakora man” and his skinny wife churning out the "Pakoras" in a room by the side of the pavement and a modest crowd of anxious buyers surrounding them.
As I proceeded towards the shop it became quite obvious to me that,during this extended stretch of few decades, our sincere laboring sire with his luscious creation had rightfully amassed a fortune, however slighter may be,to shift his trade to a more concrete existence from the one with a make shift insecurity.
The shop in it’s new location, was a bit of a luxury compared to it’s previous existence, only a bit, as it took the shape of a corridor, with just one hole (I’ll restrain myself to term it a “window”) on the extreme end of the wall. A bright halogen had replaced the previous zero power bulb, as it illuminated the wall next to it. The wall was bloated in places, as the plasters rebelled against the advancing damp.The surface was soaked in soot and oil. A table fan was tirelessly rotating in one corner of the room.
The Kitchenette in it’s present orientation had extended itself a wee bit outside the room and into the
pavement. The pumping stove had replaced the coal fed hazard. Interestingly, the rigors of pumping was borne by the man, seemingly at an advantageous position to perform the dual act, as the other halve mostly incise into the vegetables and gathered the dues from the customers. A breather, compared to the labor and hardship of the past.
The man had a chiseled feature,as the sharp nose protruded fearlessly from its origin, just enough to balance out the dimension with it's other sensory compatriots,numerous fine lines travelled across the face,some visible with their deep tone either on the forehead, or at the edge of the eyes. Others, the lighter one, needed serious congregation of the visual senses. The deeper lines on the forehead unintentionally depicted an impression of exasperation, a mental state, complimented by loose flab hanging below the eye. The hairs, a mix of grey white and black, on the forehead, had thinned out considerably leaving a vast stretch of meadow, glistening due to excreted sweat.
The lady sat on the pavement slightly arched, her head culminating the brief arc, remain suspended over the assortment of chopped vegetable,as she concentrated on her dicing obligation. Now & then she would look up to collect the emolument from the serviced customer. Her hair, in a loosely tied chignon, remained in complete disarray,as the splinters of thin hair remained scattered across her neck and beyond. The face, whose skin had loosened up considerably, with some distinct folds, remained slightly suspended, more so in the areas below the chin and the eyes. Unlike her male counterpart the thin lines on the face though evident, were not so densely branched,exposing some unlined surface here & there. A fading vermilion confirmed her existence, as I ardently searched for it on the forehead.The attire as expected,remained soiled and mangled for both,taking the daily brunt of arduous cooking.
The one thing that remained unchanged though,since it's inception & throughout the span of my intermittent interaction with the duo, was their grimace to the on going occurrence, with a murky disconsolate expression that sagged heavily, as if eternally.
The "Pakora" man suddenly shook me up from my brooding slumber with his thunderous voice "What's your order?"
I forwarded the ten rupees note to him, silently, as if possessed by the spell of crispy nuggets and it's creator
"You have to wait, there are others ahead of you, in the cue" was his curt reply to my silent submission.I nodded & moved aside to accommodate the earlier buyers in my vacated front row.
A few moments later as the "Pakora sack" landed in my clutch, I gently moved away, distancing myself from my engrossing subject, with which I was so much attached just a few minutes ago.Then it was time for my primordial entity to take over my conscience.
This time I was not blown away with the taste in ecstasy.It definitely brought along with it some flashes from the past. The eagerness from my side, the scene of creation, the taste, all were there, just like yesterday. I felt just Good! That's it! Nothing more!
After attending the last congregation in my old "Pakora" shop, I rarely ventured there, there could be some exceptional cases of revisiting my childhood pastime,but those were, as I mentioned, "exception", compared to my uncontrolled craving during adolescence.
Then one day, after a lapse of few months, when I was passing by the shop, I observed only the lady in the shop, carrying out the entire operation on her own.
Not once, but in my next few sojourns of frequenting the vicinity of the shop, I observed the same scene from a distant .
Next time, I couldn't just remain as an indifferent passerby,with a nagging curiosity, to appraise myself on the prolonged absence of "Pakora man," I briskly advanced towards the shop.
As I reached the shop, an air of refinement greeted me. Ignoring a few cosmetic changes in the arrangement, here & there , I finally realized that,the core to all this refinement, was the lady herself, she looked fresh, relaxed & youthful, the attire mostly clean with a few blots of turmeric here & there. The hair neatly tied. A feeble smile remained suspended from the edge of the lip as she conversed with the lone buyer. I had never seen her smiling before, her present persona was a significant drift from the past.
Smilingly she enquired about my order. Axiomatically I brought out a 10 rupee note from my pocket, and asked "I am not seeing your husband for quite some time!"
She stared at me for a while,then replied in a phlegmatic voice,"He passed away two months back . Massive heart attack!"
The Sun went behind a brief cloud cover, only to shine again.
"Hold your portion Babu"!
I was awakened by the thrust of her dialogue!
She handed over the food pack to me.
I gently put a few chunks on my palette,as it mildly squeezed the brown nuggets.
Then stood there frozen with astonishment and disbelief " THE ZING IS GONE!" ***