I’m always amazed by the sudden turns that my conversations with people sometimes take. One minute I was doling parenting advice to a part-time help, and the very next minute my kitchen was redolent with the vaguely questionable aroma of boiling chickpeas. Seema said her seven-year-old’s friends were refusing to play near their tenement over a drain in South Delhi. As her daughter wasn’t old enough to wander around the slum, she ended up being home alone.
Why didn’t the friends want to come over, I asked. “They say our house smells bad,” said Seema. I deduced it must be the salubrious location above the drain, but was proven wrong. “Our home always smells of chana (chickpeas) — either they’re soaking outside or boiling on the stove,” she explained.
While it was true that cooking chickpeas gave off a strong odour, it also buttered the bread in Seema’s household. Her husband made a fairly good living selling chana-kulcha from his portable tripod stand. “Every morning, I wake up at 5 a.m. and start boiling the chana soaked the previous day. After it is tender, I take it off the heat, mash it up and add lots of masala. It may not smell that great, but it tastes good with the kulcha bread my husband orders from the local bakery,” she said. After the chana was ready, her husband would rush off to his regular spot in the Green Park market to cater to those in need of a spicy and cheap breakfast. And so, inevitably, our conversation veered towards the chana business.
“Green Park is a great place for street food. You’ll be amazed at the number of people who pass up the fancy food joints there, to eat a good honest plate of chana-kulcha!” Seema laughed. Students and office-goers of limited means formed the bulk of their customer base, said she.
On good days, her husband would be home after 4 p.m., having sold all his chana. “On bad days, we get to eat more than our fill of it in the evening,” said she matter-of-factly. “Except in the hot summer months when the demand is low, I make about two kilos of chana, which my husband divides into at least 50 plates that he sells for Rs 20 each,” said Seema. Being part of India’s great unorganised sector, the couple didn’t have to bother about mere trifles such as kitchen hygiene. “In summer, the chana does sometimes start reeking. I make it last longer by adding salt and fresh-cut onions right before serving. Cut veggies and salt hasten the decomposition process,” Seema said.
“We’re don’t even notice the smell, but when people point it out, all I can say is it’s a problem that we can’t do much about,” she said. I realised Seema’s malodorous problem had to do with the unauthorised tenement she lived in. Built over a rotting drain, too close to one another to allow for ventilation, these homes were designed for smells of all sorts to linger. Further, they were occupied by people like her, whose businesses invariably spilled into their homes. “Our neighbour, a cobbler, often mends shoes in his room. His place always smells poisonously of the glue that half the neighbourhood is already addicted to. Another neighbour dyes fabric in a vat outside his house. It’s so poisonous that not even a blade of grass grows there!”
The conversation must have been inspiring, for she expertly set some chana to boil in my cooker, saying I must taste her cooking. Dinner, anyone?