Amidst the humdrum of routine office work and domestic chores, it is nice to spice things up. Eat spicy things I meant. And what better to make a boring ‘baby stroller pushing’ evening better than to gobble down some hot and sour ‘panipoori’…or golgappas, or phuchkas, or spicy water balls…Well any Indians would know that these are just synonyms for that ingenious Indian delicacy that is wholly 100% original Indian. Hey but this story is not really about the spicy snack…Interestingly it is about the person whom we look down upon as the nose picking, phlegm spitting, and butt scratching scamp – the infamous paanipooriwallah (the spicy water balls seller).
His name was Shankar, and he was from a village in Jharkhand. Shankar had come to Bangalore with his uncle, Ram Bhagath who owned a ‘Pan shop’ in a flourishing commercial locality of the city.
It had been about 4 months since Medha had stepped out of the house. Her son, Rusheel, had just completed his fourth month into this world. One lovely evening, Medha decided to take him out for his first stroll in the park. A perked up Rusheel looked all happy and excited as the surrounding over his head kept changing. After a fifteen minutes stint outdoors, the little boy fell asleep. Medha was returning home, when she chanced upon this panipoori stand.
“Bhaiya, give me one plate.” She told the paanipooriwallah.
One poori inside her mouth, and a million flavors exploded in her mouth. It brought back happy memories, when she would go out with her mum for these tiny delicacies; when her husband Prasoon took her out for little spicy treats; when she would go out with friends and have fierce panipoori eating competitions. As she ate and recollected the past, the paanipooriwallah asked, “How is it didi (a common way of addressing a young woman in India)?
“It is very tasty, just the way I like it. What is your name?” Medha asked.
“Didi, my name is Shanker. My mama (Maternal uncle) lives here only. He has a ‘pan’ business in the city center. He only brought me here from Jhharkhand.” The boy got all chatty.
There was something very innocent about this boy. His hair oiled and combed to one side. His once light brown skin was now swarthy and dry. He wore a weather beaten check shirt, which was either blue or grey (it was difficult to say). But in spite of his down trodden look, he had a disarming smile and a kind face.
Medha took an instant liking towards this boy. She paid him, and was about to leave, when Shanker handed her two more panipoori pieces. One of them was without the filling.
“The empty one is for the little one.” He said smiling.
“No no, he cannot eat all this. He is just four months.” Medha replied.
“Then you have it on his behalf didi.” Shanker said.
As Rusheel grew fonder of his outdoor saunters, Medha too began to enjoy her evening walks. And every now and then she would stop by Shanker and eat panipoori.
Sometimes Medha would even shop a little during her walks. One day she bought a few vegetables and then went for her panipoori treat.
“You are still putting coriander leaves in the garnish? They have become so expensive. I just bought one bunch for Rs 25. How will you manage?” She said after watching Shanker put generous amounts of cilantro in the ‘sukhas’ (poori with filling but no tamarind water.)
“Didi, my customers like it that way. What fault is it of theirs if the prices fluctuate so much. In this fluctuating market, I will at least have customer stability. If I don’t make the filling with enough dry mango powder, will you like it? And then you will switch to some other panipoori stall that makes a better filling.” He said like a pro.
It touched her heart. In spite of the rise in prices of items needed to make good panipoori, Shankar did not increase the price per plate. He did not reduce the number of poori in one plate. In fact, unlike other panipoori sellers, he gave two ‘sukkah’ instead of one at the end. On top of that he would give away a poori to any kid who loitered nearby, or was with parents but was not allowed to eat the spicy snack.
“You are naïve Shankar. The new guy in front of the park gate takes Rs 5 more per plate and does not even garnish the poori so elaborately. You should think about it. He is also doing good business because of the location of his Panipoori stand.” Medha was really worried that he would make loses in his business.
“He is just transacting money for his food. I get much more than ten bucks from my customers. There’s a boy called Shivaji who lives a few streets down the road. Last weekend his family went to Thirupati and he brought some Prasad for me the next day. Mahesh bhaiya who works in the electrical shop in the opposite foot of this street is a regular customer. Bhabiji (Sister in law) and Bhaiya invited me to their anniversary. I got them a box full of panipoori. Raghu bhaiya who owns a fruit juice shop nearby, loves to eat spicy golgappas; often he gives me a fruit or two after closing his shop. He asks for nothing in exchange. There are so many other customers who love what I make.” He said to an astounded Medha.
He lacks the skills of a wise businessman, but he has a heart that is warm and humane. He would be truly successful one day…Medha thought.
Days rolled into weeks, weeks into months. Rusheel was now a year and a half. He was already addicted to Shankar’s panipoori. Whenever, Rusheel went out to the park, a visit to Shankar was a must. He would stand beside him and stretch out his hand. Shankar would make a special filling of plain potatoes and salt for him, and place it on his tiny chubby palm. They would exchange smiles before waving bye-bye. On his second birthday, once the celebration at home was over, Rusheel had carried a piece of cake with his grubby fingers and given it to Shankar. Shankar had cleaned his hands with water, wiped it dry and then had carefully taken the distorted and crumbled piece of cake from little Rusheel’s hand and had eaten it with great delight. He wished him ‘Happy Birthday’ and made a whole lot of his favorite potato filled poori.
Prasoon, urged him to take money but Shankar refused.
“It is my little friend’s birthday, and I am giving him a small gift. No one pays for a gift Sir.” He told Prasoon.
“Amazing chap this Shankar is.” Prasoon told Medha after coming home.
“I know. In spite of being engulfed in poverty, the vices entrapping this section has not been able to touch him. He is honest and connects with people so easily. I hope something really good happens to him soon.” Medha told Prasoon.
And then one day, just like that, Shankar disappeared from the colony.
Mahesh the electric shop owner, Raghu the fruit juice vendor, Shivaji from down the street could not tell Medha about Shankar’s whereabouts. Weeks passed by. Medha did not feel like eating panipoori for quite some time. Then one day when Rusheel began to throw tantrums for panipoori and reluctantly Medha took him to the guy in front of the park gate.
“Bhaiya, there was a paanipooriwallah named Shankar who used to have his stand close by. Do know what happened to him?” Medha asked
“Oh that guy? His uncle who had a ‘pan shop’ was murdered. Local gangs, extortion money and all that. Shankar was taken to the police station for interrogation. After that what happened to him I don’t know. Maybe he went back to his village.” He said.
Color had drained from Medha’s face. She felt disturbed. Shankar was such a nice lad. No vices, no dishonesty, no skills of a sharp businessman. And such a horrible thing had to happen to him of all the people.
“Prasoon, I think we should do something. Atleast check with the police and see if we can find something. He was really quite poor. And with all the troubles, god knows, how he will manage a decent survival.” Medha said to her husband.
“It’s been quite some time now. He would have probably gone back to Jharkhand. If he was here, we could have done something. But when no one knows about him, it’s obvious that he has gone back. So stop worrying. He is a smart guy. He will find a way.”
“But that’s the whole point Prasoon. He is not very wise about the way this world works. He is an idealist, an innocent boy who sees good in others. It is easy to bully him, cheat him, and fool him. I wish he was a little wiser about worldly affairs.” Medha thought aloud.
“Well as good as he may be Medha, we cannot help him. He has gone back to his village and his family will take care of him now. Trust me everything is sorted. You are over thinking the matter.” Prasoon explained to Medha and the topic was closed.
It had been almost four years since the ‘Shankar’ episode. Medha had forgotten about the whole thing. What choice did she have? Prasoon had made it clear that he was fine. Rusheel was growing up at lightning speed and she had to keep up with him. He was 5 and half years now. A busy-body who did not take a moment rest from his naughtiness. Medha was always occupied with her mischief-maker.
The founder’s day of Rusheel’s school was round the corner. Each student in his class was asked to make a collage on the topics given to them. Rusheel’s topic was the color “Green”. Medha and Prasoon were busy rummaging through newspapers to find things relevant to the color green. They were collecting anything that was green. The idea was to sort the cut outs to create a theme and make the collage accordingly. Suddenly Rusheel found a glossy green pamphlet from inside one of the newspapers. As soon as he brought it to Medha, she felt Goosebumps on her arms – Grand Inauguration of Shankar’s Food Stall. A colorful mix of Indian snacks and delicacies. A great place for families and kids. For the first time in the city, Shankar brings to you special kid’s panipoori for the little ones. Everyone is welcome.
Medha quickly got up to show the pamphlet to Prasoon.
“Do you think it’s the same Shankar? See the place is at the city center, not very far from here. Let’s go there tomorrow evening to see if my guess is right.” Medha suggested.
“Sure. But not tomorrow. Once the founder’s day celebrations are over we can go to the city center. Rusheel will be all excited, so we can spend some time at the City Center.” Replied Prasoon.
Medha was excited.
The founder’s day was a success. Rusheel won first prize for Collage. His collage was titled “Nature then and now”. As dotting parents, Medha and Prasoon were elated. It was in fact Rusheel’s idea to do something about nature while sorting the paper cutouts.
Brimming with glee the three of them went to the city center. Rusheel did not have any memory of Shankar, but he was happy with the agenda of having panipoori. Prasoon parked the car in the designated parking area and the three of them got out.
“Excuse me, could you please tell us if there is a joint called Shankar’s Food Stall nearby”? Prasoon asked the security personnel manning the parking lot.
“Yes yes. It is a big place right down this alley. It opened a month ago, and is always thronging with people. You cannot miss it.” The guy replied.
It was true. When the three of them reached Shankar’s Food Stall is was massively crowded. There was a queue in front of the cashier in the ‘Self Help’ section. Some people were seated in the waiting area of the catering section. Medha pushed the glass door and they entered. Medha was standing in queue when she suddenly saw Shankar talking to the cashier. She broke the queue and started waving at Shankar frantically. The cashier thought she was waving at him.
“Madam please don’t break the line. Other’s have been waiting for long time. Please order when your turn comes.” Said the cashier. His tone was polite but professional.
Medha was taken aback. There was a glint of recognition in Shankar’s face, but it disappeared as soon as it appeared. He turned back and went inside a room marked “Office”. Medha felt terrible and confused.
“Mamma, get me two plates of panipoori. See all the children are eating it. Their parents are not scolding them.” His innocent request kept her in the queue. Finally her turn came and she ordered as Rusheel wished. Prasoon was unaware of the episode that had taken place, and he asked Medha to order for ‘dahi puri’ (poori filled with curd instead of water). Surprisingly the bill amount was a whopping three digits. Medha did not feel like eating anything. She paid for the orders and waited at the delivery counter.
“Hey Shankar, how are you? This is a very nice place. Congratulations.” Prasoon said aloud as Shankar emerged from his ‘office’.
“Thank you Sir. I am trying my bit to make a success of this place. Business is good. Hello madam” Shankar replied.first courteously answering Prasoon’s question and then looking at Medha.
“So how did this happen. I was very sorry to hear about your uncle.” Prasoon continued the conversation.
“It was very unfortunate. After his demise I had gone to Jharkhand. But someone had to run his shop. So I came back. With time I learned the trade and then transformed the ‘pan shop’ into this.” He narrated his success story in a nut shell.
“You did come back a wise man Shankar. We are very proud of you. All the best.” Prasoon said.
“Thank you sir. Sorry, but I have to rush now. Please enjoy your food.” Saying this he left.
Medha was dumbfounded. Where was the Shankar whom she called naïve?
Where was the boy who wore the most disarming smile? Where was the fool who knew his customer by their names? Where was the stupid businessman who did not increase the price for competition; or the lad who did not care for the rising price of coriander for the sake of his loyal customers? He was gone…she realized.
As they were leaving, the guard at the door handed out a box to Rusheel.
“Shankar saab asked me to give it to the child.” He said.
“Oh thank you, I must say your Shankar Saab still remembers his old customers.” Prasoon told the guard smiling.
“Yes sir. When luck shines, people go from rags to riches. Saab was a paanipooriwallah. When Ram Bhagathji died, the poor boy was harassed by the police. Although he called him uncle they were not related and yet the police kept thinking that he was involved. Shankar saab was scared and went back home. There he married Ram Bhagathji’s daughter, and by law inherited his shop. He is a sharp guy and a very wise businessman. He does not interact much with anyone, and is very professional with his staff as well as customers. That is why his business is flourishing.” The guard narrated.
“Yes, he did come back a wise man.” Medha thought aloud.
“Come Rusheel, it’s time to go.” She said and holding her son’s hand went towards the car.