Monday, February 6, 2012

The Halwais of Rajinder Nagar

My college life came to an end in the May of 2011. Since then, I’m working as a CA article assistant at my parents’ CA firm, which is at a distance of just a kilometer from where I stay. My trips to places in Delhi have been confined to one or two schools in Rohini, where I write my numerous exams every six months; Jhandewalan and Pragati Maidan, where I have to visit the Income Tax Offices for clients’ cases; and Rajinder Nagar, where I have my home, my office and a friend who I call “Booby”, Rahat.
That explains why I never feel the need to use the ‘Check In’ function on facebook. My day starts with getting dressed up at my home in New Rajinder Nagar, slogging my lower back at the office the whole day in Old Rajinder Nagar, and then going for an hour long evening walk with Booby before I get cozy with thoughts of Konkana Sen Sharma at night.
There’s a road that divides the colony with the maximum number of parks in Delhi, New Rajinder Nagar from the colony that is known for IAS coaching centres, Rapid Flour Mills and Sir Ganga Ram Hospital, Old Rajinder Nagar. Apart from serving the heavy traffic every day, the Shankar Road acts as a clear demarcation between the two colonies with different first names. It’s like the layer of concrete that divides the residential units of an elder brother’s family staying on the ground floor from that of a younger brother who stays on the first floor and portrays around himself an air of superiority. The younger brother, New, believes in living in style. He makes sure that his apartment has wide corridors between rooms where the Italian marble flooring is smooth enough for his kids to play with their toy Mercedes and Audis. Kids, who he believes should be sent abroad to study. He grows plants bought from a nursery near Khan Market in pots and vases that he purchased on his recent trip to Europe. He has taken the charge to beautify the terrace with an English looking swing that rests on grass so green. He likes his home to feel open and tries hard to show an air of sophistication. Whereas the elder sibling, Old, is a Sindhi man who follows Gandhian ideas. He chooses to ensure that his kids study at home. He saves for their higher studies and wants them to grow up and serve the country as IAS officers or doctors. He saves for contingencies, too. He knows that life is unpredictable. He knows that one needs “God’s hand” on one’s head for life to sail smoothly. He saves for the best medical facilities available at the local hospital and is satisfied living in the cramped rooms on his floor, architectured during the time when his father moved to Delhi from Pakistan in the year 1947.
Both the brothers are poles apart, but there’s something that binds them other than the common middle and last names.
The sweet shops in my colony are extremely popular. They’re sad and joyful in their own special ways, but have an aura that belongs to “Rajinder Nagar” and not “Old” or “New”. Remind me to take you for a treat to these places the next time that you pay me a visit.
1.       Sindh Sweets
Sindh Sweets is the most popular sweets shop in Rajinder Nagar. Popularly known as “Sindhi”, it is easily spotted among the various shops at Shankar Road Market. It’s owned by two old men who, just like me, believe that gray hair looks classy. They sit wearing a pair of white kurta pajama, issuing receipts to customers who take their purchases from the various counters. The sweet shop was reviewed on NDTV Metro Nation’s Feeding Frenzy once. That was the day when I stopped trusting the show’s choice of eating places. Not because Sindh Sweets is bad, but because it’s just like any other random sweet shop. I don’t see the point in why anyone with long hair, pierced ears and a goatee would go to review the halva and rabri Sindhi sells to residents of Rajinder Nagar.
People who visit our house often get sweets from Sindh Sweets since it’s just a minute away from my house. And, that’s exactly the reason why I’m asked to rush to Sindhi and get dhokla, khandvi and other such snack items for the visiting guests. I have studied the food inflation trend by purchasing paneer from Sindhi since we shifted to Rajinder Nagar seven years back.
A few weeks back, I was coming back home from the office when the sight of hot jalebis being made caught my attention at Shankar Road. I wanted to buy just enough for my sister and I. I went inside and the conversation that followed was such:
“Uncle, bas sau gram jalebi chahiye.”
“Chauda rupaye do.”
I gave him a ten rupee note with the perfect amount of change for the balance.
“Yeh kya dus rupaye ka note hai? Side se phata hua hai. Doosra de.”
“Uncle, phir hundred ka note hoga”, and I handed him a hundred rupee note.
“Chhutte paise laate nahi hain, sau gram mithai lenge”, he said, as he gave me the receipt for the jalebis with the balance amount.
“Uncle, aapne toh bilkul phata hua note diya hai. Aap mujhe toh keh rahe the chalega nahi, ab main yeh note kaise chalaunga?”
“Dimaag hai tujhme ya nahi? Chhutte paise laaya kar itne nakhre karne hain toh.”
I quietly took the change and picked up my jalebis to leave. What stopped me from playing a Raghu Ram on the sets of Roadies was a little lesson that I learnt at the age when I played Ring-a-ring-a-roses and would be asked to recite Humpty Dumpty in front of all the guests who’d visit us on a Sunday afternoon: Respect your elders.
So, I went back home and dug into the jalebis, which tasted of rose. Trust me when I say that it’s not a good taste. Their recipe for jalebis had rose water as a prime ingredient. It just took away all the fun from the whole experience of munching on piping hot orange jalebis.
That was the day when I learnt why people not only called the shop “Sindhi” popularly, but also “Sanki ki dukaan.” Mr. Sindhi’s lost out on a customer who would go to him to buy a kilo of paneer every week for seven long years. Now, whenever my mum asks me to get some paneer, I don’t mind walking down to a dairy which takes me five minutes to reach. I get to walk a little more. Exercise is cool, bro.
2.       Peshawar Sweets Bhandar
Another sweet shop on Shankar Road is Peshawar Sweets Bhandar, popularly known as “Peshawri”. It is again owned by two old men with little tufts of gray hair on their heads, who choose to dress up no differently from the brothers at Sindh Sweets. Peshawri Sweets needed a makeover for the longest time. Located next to Puma, Levi’s and Reebok outlets, it brought a very inconsistent image to the eyes. The two wooden tables inside, with white laminate sheets peeling off after years of serving the colony residents, were rickety and could ditch any time. The kitchen of the shop was visible to the customers, and had everything, including the walls and the ceiling, covered in a thick coat of soot. The sweets used to be covered with a netted cloth and reminded one of the sweet shops one gets to see on Discovering India episodes on the Discovery channel.
Last year, the two old men decided to pass on the business to their sons, who now run the shop and try hard to not look like “shopkeepers” by adorning the latest apparel from the adjoining outlets. They have given the shop an overhaul. The wooden furniture is now replaced by shiny stainless steel tables and chairs. The ceiling of the shop has small lights in various colors like blue, red and green. The glass shelf for the sweets looks neater, and the kitchen no longer shows to the passers by on Shankar Road.
I once bought a box of kaju barfi from Peshawri. I wasn’t too happy with my purchase because even though the barfi tasted perfect, it wasn’t the conventional diamond shape. It had an appearance which made both the kaju barfi and the normal barfi look like the bichhde brothers played by Salman Khan in Judwaa. A kaju barfi -has to- be diamond shaped. That’s where the beauty of the sweet lies. Call me a drama king or whatever, but c’mon. I won’t let a sweet shop owner disfigure the kaju barfi I have grown up on as a kid.
But, the Gulab Jamuns at Peshawri are no different than Katrina Kaif. The soft skin, the sweetness, the hotness, and the urge to use one’s mouth to touch and appreciate such beauty are feelings best described as inexplicable. A framed photograph behind the counter proudly shows the sweet shop owner receiving an award from HT City for selling the most delicious Gulab Jamuns in Delhi. Peshawri Gulab Jamuns for twelve rupees a piece are worth replacing Ganga Jal on one’s deathbed. Guaranteed to take you to heaven.
3.       Aggarwal Sweet India
The original “Aggarwal Sweets” of Delhi is a sweet shop which has just three branches in the capital. I was made aware of it when I got a chance to meet the original Mr. Aggarwal at the office a couple of months back. The next time that an audit team from my office goes for an audit to their main branch at Pankha Road, I should ensure that they come back with an answer to why our respected client never got his last name patented. I guess the laws of the state won’t allow him to. But, it’s insane how every locality in the country has an Aggarwal Sweet Corner.
There’s a shop by the name of Aggarwal Sweet India in the Old Rajinder Nagar market. It serves the residents of Rajinder Nagar with the largest variety of chaat items as compared to its competitors as mentioned above, and those who follow. It is the most crowded sweet shop in Rajinder Nagar because of the variety of snacks it sells apart from the usual Bengali sweets, which every sweet shop box would asks you to “keep refrigerated” and “consume within one day.” This shop sells not just pakoras and chaat, but also pao bhaaji, gajar ka halva, soya tikka, haryali kebabs and more. The dal ke chile, raj kachori and paneer tikka that they offer will never disappoint you. It’s the only shop where you get fresh jalebis on a day when no other sweet shop in Rajinder Nagar will choose to make them.
The bhalle papri chaat at Aggarwal Sweet India is outstanding. The perfectly whipped cool dahi coupled with the best combination of chutneys and condiments. A bit of pomegranate seeds sprinkled on top add to the flavors. And, it’s been my favorite place for occasional gol gappe treats for as long as I can remember. I’m ready to forgive it for a bit of faux plagiarism of a pseudo trademark ‘cuz it does not fail to do justice to the name Aggarwal.
4.       Bikaner Sweet Corner
The latest addition to the club of halwais in Rajinder Nagar is the Bikaner Sweet Corner in the Old Rajinder Nagar market. At a distance of just ten steps from Aggarwal Sweet India, it’s a shop with the most visual appeal as compared to its competitors. Colors of orange and yellow are generously sprawled all over the walls and furniture. With no arrangement to sit, and a provision to stand comfortably while you eat in the open, it has a different ambience of its own. It’s the only shop among the ones being mentioned here, where you’ll see the least number of people eating at any given time during the day. My trips to this particular landmark with Booby every week always remain memorable. The feeling of eating good quality chaat on the streets is something that only Bikaner leaves us with. The chaat is no less than what is served at Aggarwal. The laddoos make my taste-buds dance to tunes from the movie Shaadi Ka Laddoo. The silence resulting from the absence of a herd of customers makes it a nice place to eat, crack horny jokes and laugh your lungs out. Don’t worry if you think you’ll start choking on your plate of tikki while you laugh. The chaat wale bhaiya will rush to your rescue and get you a complimentary piece of papri dipped in dahi and chutney, too. If there ever happen to be any customers around you, nine times out of ten they’ll be students preparing for the civil services exams, who’ll have nastier jokes from different parts of India. So chill, no one judges you for having a good time with your friends here, the way you like it.
The clean ambience, an ever-smiling staff of polite halwais, good quality snacks, and my company on most evenings will ensure that you have a good time at Bikaner Sweet Corner.
5.       Who’s Life is a Jalebi?
There’s another halwai somewhere in the by lanes of Rajinder Nagar. He works through the day. He goes for walks in the evenings. He’s not as popular as those you just read about. He can’t promise to make you some chaat, but a good chat is what he’ll never fail to deliver. Jalebis, anyone?

Saturday, February 4, 2012

I'm a Karela. I Love Me.

When I wrote my first blog post, I thought I’d write a post every week. I decided to maintain it like a public diary, where I could write just a few paragraphs on the things that I would notice on an everyday basis, vent out a little and feel good about the fact that I no longer feared being judged on how I wrote or chose to express myself. My first blog post met the objective pretty well. I’m really happy about the things I’ve been writing about so far. But lately, I realized how I shun away the thought of putting up anything which may seem ‘flimsy’ to an audience of around ten people, who read my posts after a few requests to do so. A few of them may have liked a previous post, which made me think of how I should keep writing on things that appeal to my friends. It’s like trying to live up to certain expectations and adopting an image that may be perceived as praise-worthy by just a few of my close friends.

It’s funny how it’s not just my blog. We all try to live up to some image that we choose to believe the world expects us to portray. If you’ve topped your class once, you want to do it again. A lot of times, it’s not because you feel like working that hard towards it, but more so because if someone else scores more than you in the next semester, you’ll be called “Rank 2”, and it’ll make you feel as pathetic as The Rock in your 2001’s deck of WWE trump cards, which introduced Brock Lesnar as the undisputed God of World Wrestling Entertainment. I’m sure that whenever you’d get The Rock or even The Big Show in your set of cards, it’d make you cross your arms at the wrists and hit them hard on your pelvic area shouting “Suck it”, or hold up a faux mic in the air, thinking of yourself as a dude much cooler than Himesh bhai, and asking the world if it can smell what you’re cooking. You were so happy, weren’t you? You were happy ‘cuz you wouldn’t need to suffix a “clash” after you’d read out how much their biceps measured. You knew that in your deck of cards, The Rock had the biggest biceps. The Big Show was the tallest. Mark Henry weighed the most. They were your prized possessions. Even though Mr. Mark Henry didn’t have anything to boast about other than his purple jersey that read “Chocolate” and made him look like a giant mutant Cadbury’s Éclair, you kissed his picture every time that you won a card after calling out his weight in pounds (and mentally calculating how much 470 lbs measured in kgs). You didn’t care if they were Rank 1 or not. They were just special in their own way.

The women wrestlers made you cringe if they’d ever pop up while you were engaged in an intense session of trump cards. But, they’d be goddesses you’d love to ogle at if you were age seventy in the year 2000, and TenSports showed them wearing a garment which could not be differentiated from a birthday suit. You see how there were reasons for which you hated them, and reasons for which you could not. They’d be put away as Jokers in a game of trump cards, ‘cuz their chest measurements wouldn’t match those of their male counterparts, but Hugh Hefner would still approach them to pose for his magazine ‘cuz their non-wrestling counterparts couldn’t match their chest measurements.

When I think of the days when I would watch wrestling on TV as a kid, I still remember The Rock as the champion of all. He must’ve been Rank 20 when he retired from the sport. He went to Hollywood later and made another name for himself as Dwayne Johnson. I don’t remember much about Brock Lesnar, apart from the fact that he was Rank 1 on my set of trump cards. That’s probably been his only achievement in my eyes, and I don’t care. My younger cousins would hate to watch any fights that involved Hulk Hogan, but my elder cousin would still tell me about how he tore away his vest in Hogan style, with gleaming nipples. Uh, eyes.

We all judge others to some extent, even if we say that we don’t. It’s ok. It’s human. It’ll probably be unfair to not expect others to judge us, or compare us to others and themselves. It’ll be unfair for us to try hard enough to do something, not doing which will lead to others judging us. It’s uncool how I still care to take off my geek glasses whenever I’ve to go meet a girl friend. It’s crazy how I’d still freak out thinking about what shoes I’m wearing or what place I choose to eat at, the next time I make a lunch plan with a gay friend. It’s crazy how I still have to mention “gay” ‘cuz that’s the only way people will know that it’s understandable for my friend to be considerate about such issues. It’s crazy how I’ll keep trying to look for things that will make me stop shedding hair and not go bald in a few years from now. It’s crazy how I believe that people who love me won’t care enough when I’m probably not as decent looking as they think I am. It’s crazy how I’ll throw everything that’s lying on my bed into my wardrobe every time that a friend visits me. It’s crazy how we judge to such an extent that we become oblivious to the good in ourselves and judge the reflection in the mirror more than Anu Malik has judged the contestants on Indian Idol.

We may be the Tori Wilson to a ten year old who goes to school, or the Tori Wilson to an eighty year old who chooses to publish one of the world’s most popular magazines. No matter what, we’ll still be Tori Wilson. We’ll have fake body parts, but hopefully an honest accent. We’ll either be loved by thirty year olds for tearing off our yellow vests before we get down on the rink, or made fun of by fifteen year olds.

I respect Mr. Reshammiya for singing because that’s what he wants to do. I respect one of my friends for being proud about being gay ‘cuz it’s nice to know that he’s comfortable about his identity with himself. And, I respect a karela ‘cuz it doesn’t matter to him if I hate him or not. He doesn’t wish to be everyone’s favorite aalu. He’s happy to know that apart from being nutritious; he looks like the most beautiful geographical state on the map of India, which has a name that sounds similar to its own.

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