Street food is an important part of life in Kolkata. The famous phuchkas ( or golgappas or paanipuris, call them what you will) are known across the country for their exquisite taste. Not surprisingly, the taste-makers have been prominently featured in the media for their skills in being able to manipulate the tastebuds of thousands of people in the city. The phuchka-wallahs have been interviewed numerous times about their lives, customers and what they like. But rarely had they been asked about what they liked themselves. Those quirky stories had never come to the forefront. This is when my friend Reeti and I got thinking. Certain stories are rarely told and often get lost in the sensation of terrorism and politics that scream for attention every morning. What started out as a small assignment blew into a full fledged narrative with a few other friends coming along to support us. We zoned into three famous phuchka-wallahs and one hot March afternoon after college, Reeti and me, accompanied by Aditya, Rukmini and Antoreep set out.
We first interviewed Bachhu Prasad outside Jadavpur University who seemed happy enough to talk. When we asked him why people came back to him again and again, he replied that it was not his phuchkas, but the human touch that he lent. He said that if one bonded with their customers they would come back, no matter what. He is originally from Bihar and migrated to Assam before settling in the City of Joy for good. Phuchkas run in his family and they have been selling them for decades on end. His father had been selling phuchkas since 1965 and he continued the legacy ever since. He loves phuchkas and seemed a bit puzzled when we asked him what his ideal phuchka would constitute. He couldn't grasp the fact that someone would ask him for his preferences as people mostly wanted to know what the customers preferred. The phuchka-man's preference seems to have been marginalised.
After this we spoke to Kusheshwar at Mudiali who has had to move base a couple of times due to run-ins with the police. He sits under a bright yellow umbrella situated below a tree. He said that the umbrella protected him from the crows and the truth of the statement was proved a few minutes later when a twig dislodged itself and landed on Antoreep's head! He comes from a village near Patna and has been taught the art of phuchka making by his brother.
The last man we spoke to was Jetendra Pandit near Vivekananda Park. There is a complete phuchka community there and it is known for having created the much imitated dahi phuchka which can now be found all over the city. Like the other two, he hails from Bihar as well. We got a taste of not only the phuchkas, but even a bout of traditional medicine. Aditya accidentally scratched his hand and it started bleeding. Pandit calmly applied some “special chilli powder” on the cut, in front of our appalled faces. Astonishingly, the cut was sealed in a matter of minutes. Pandit told us all about the varied taste preferences of different communities in the city. Observing taste buds over a span of twenty five years, who could be better informed?
After the trip, a clear pattern emerged. The men who are famous for creating one of the culinary landmarks of the city, are not from West Bengal themselves! And here we are, Bengalis taking pride in the timeless phuchka. A clear pattern of the migrant worker emerged as part of the larger picture.
Reeti and I realised that what we had embarked upon was merely the tip of the iceberg. Countless anecdotes and insights had emerged from just three conversations and there are thousands of phuchkawallahs across the city. Their stories will still remain untold until the next March afternoon. These chronicles need to be documented to grasp yet another facet of a city.