Over two years, this writer befriended panipuri-wallahs in an attempt to tell their stories — even if, at first, they didn’t want their stories to be told.

Unless I’ve sat through the night, 5.00 a.m. isn’t an hour I’m used to seeing. But, unlike me, 23-year-old Ajay sees it every day. And if I have to watch him fry the puris, he told me, I’d have to join him at that hour.

“What keeps you from doing the frying a little later?” I ask. “I have to go to the [wholesale] market na, sir? Leaf plates, potatoes, coriander, tamarind and all the masala. By the time I come back it’s 2.00 p.m. and I have to be at the stall by 4.00 p.m.”

A smile flickers at the edge of his gutka-stained lips one that laid bare my educated inability to comprehend the simple complexities of being a panipuri-wallah.

The panipuri, served by vendors from a setup that gives the word ‘utilitarian’ a run for its money, is not complicated. This ubiquitous fast food is, in every sense, a material manifestation of the elusive philosophy of “simple joy”. What can possibly be complicated about panipuri? As for the vendors and their lives, what can even be noticeable about them?

But in 2011 they did get noticed — by prime time news no less. Maharashtra Navnirman Sena’s activists thrashed panipuri vendors in Mumbai and Pune. Some even smiled for the camera while doing so. The cause for the eruption of this round of anger was said to be a video that showed a panipuri vendor taking a bladder break into the vessel used to mix the pani for the puris.

While jokes about filthy panipuriwallahs aren’t new to urban Indian lore, this episode was different on many levels and left more questions than MNS’s thrashing could answer. There had to be bigger stories that weren’t being told; ones that have predated ephemeral political outfits and would live beyond petty electoral ambitions.

For the next two years, I befriended a few panipuriwallahs and tried piecing together a story. Over time the facts of the storyline started lining up. Facts such as:

1. Due to the low investment in setting up stalls, this is a very good way for migrant workers to start off.

2. Till some years ago, the number of Rajasthani migrants in this trade was quite high but they shifted to jobs like carpentry, masonry, small trade, grocery, etc. As of today, I couldn’t find a single panipuri-wallah who isn’t from the Hindi belt. I think it’s, on the one hand, a case of survival of the fittest — the financial aspect of making a living off selling panipuris is far dirtier than the jokes; on the other hand, Rajasthani migrants have a better support network of family and friends where seniors adopt younger ones into their better paying, more settled trades.

3. Their work hours are impossibly long and strenuous. They have to stand for hours on end, often making a run for it when civic authorities come chasing, and anybody who survives past the age of 30 in this trade does so with very sore legs.

4. While peeing into a food vessel is as horrendous as it can get, the fact is that these people have absolutely no place to take a toilet break since they stand in public areas with no place to hide.

5. Their earnings are meagre and the rent they have to pay is high for the crime of being migrants, and now the added crime of being bhaiyyas.

7. Early business comes mostly from students and college-escaped lovers, who are the best customers. Then come office-goers and middle-aged women who haggle for discounts. As night grows, it’s time for shoppers and drunkards. Last come policemen who not only eat for free but also lecture them about why they are being done a favour by being allowed to stand here.

8. They go home late in the night, perilously crossing the night streets with traffic signals switched off.

But facts don’t complete a story; characters do. And I soon found out that this would be a tough story to pen down, since it dealt with characters who barely existed — little more than fleeting glimpses, never taken note of. Worse, the characters themselves weren’t eager to be noted as existing.

5:30 p.m. Dadar Chowpatty Beach, Mumbai

The place is a mess in every sense — sight, sound and smell. Unlike what fine books tell us about healthy sea breezes, the air here is stale. And amid all this, ignoring the stinking and smeared walls behind them and hordes of onlookers all around, couples sit on the trademark starfish-like boulders of Mumbai beaches, being shamelessly intimate.

We select one stall randomly and the vendor’s lackey wipes a discoloured plastic chair with a rag. The vendor looks partly disappointed and partly suspicious when I pay no heed to the menu and instead fish out a camera and a notebook.

Thoda baat karna hai,” I smile. He doesn’t respond. “Press wallah hoon. Ek chhota sa interview karogey?” The young man smiles with a touch of shyness.

“My work begins at 4.00 a.m., sir. I work as a cook at a restaurant till 11, then go home for lunch and come to the stall at 2 and am here till 10 in the night.” “Rs.2500 from each place sir.” “Single sir. Matlab single in Mumbai but married in village.” “Near Ranchi sir.” “I worked as mechanic in Ranchi before coming to Mumbai. Work is hard here but at least there is money.” “He [points to lackey] has come just three weeks back...my maasi’s son…Rs.1200 per month now, for starting off…better than his previous job as painter in Ranchi. No, no we never face any trouble. Maalik’s brother is the corporator na [elected to local body].”

5:00 p.m., Phule Mandai, Pune

“No, no, I’m Marathi,” the middle-aged man declares. I catch the lilt in his vowels and know he isn’t being entirely honest but I don’t press him. Instead I order a plate of panipuri and, gulping the second one, I tell my friend, “This is nice, man…much better than what we got at that place…take a plate, I say.” Trick works.

“Narsingh Jadhav, sir. I’m from Bidar actually…you know Bidar sir? Karnataka?” “I came when I was 5 years old… (laughs)… right sir, I’m Puneri now…I’m 40 now sir.” “I came with my mama. We had just one acre of land, that too useless because there’s no water and too many dependants on it. My mama was panipuri-wallah here. I learnt by working with him.” “No sir, not my cart. How can I afford cart? Everything else I manage of course — buying the stuff, cooking, everything.” “Bada maalik is corporator but day-to-day business is managed by chhota maalik.” “That way no major problem, sir, just some financial trouble I’m facing currently.” “Rs.200 a day. I’m requesting for Rs.250 for many months but chhota maalik doesn’t agree.” “Problem is earlier I used to live in maalik’s shed, but wife didn’t like it so had to move out a year back. Rent is Rs.2500 so no savings are happening. She’s from good family na, that’s why she doesn’t adjust.” “Yes sir, two sons but they live with my in-laws in Kalyan.” “They are in English-medium school.” “Which class? That I can’t tell…I see them only once in a year so I never kept track. But I know I’m growing old. My legs hurt nowadays (shows a clotted swollen leg).” “Yes sir, I showed, but local doctor says I need to go to hospital for check-up. But I’m paid on daily basis na, so I can’t manage.”

“Sir one minute… (calls me back)maalik won’t know na? I mean kuch problem…you know like those bhaiyyas

9:00 p.m., Fergusson College Road, Pune

“Photo kyun liya saab?” I ignore him and take a few more. “Saab, don’t take photos.”

“Relax, I’m from the press,” I tell him.

Another boy walks up: “Oy, you move…the picture should be mine. Sir, shop is mine. He’s just a friend.” He takes charge of his “shop”, which is an hourglass-shaped wicker stand, a stove with simmering chana dal, a steel handi with tamarind-jaggery-masala water, a few more vessels, the large red plastic sheet and the trove of puris.

“My name is Palaash Seth…no, it is Anand…write only Anand sir…place? That I can’t tell sir.”

“It’s OK. I’m a Bihari too,” I lie.

“U.P., sir.” “I’m 13.” “I get Rs.2000 per month. No holidays.” “No parents. Grandfather is in the village and he couldn’t afford to keep me, so I came here with my uncle. Actually he’s not my uncle but from my village. Earlier he used to manage this shop but he can’t run like me and every two days police fellows chase us, so maalik decided to put me here instead.”

Tilaknagar, Kirti Nagar, Mayur Vihar, Kilpauk, Nungambakkam High Road, Saras Baug, Exide Junction — it’s the same characters who come again and again, changing only their names, faces and places of work.

I give up trying to tell their tales of woe and sit back and contemplate the irony of their lives. Lovely young women and their men laugh and emote with every tingling twirl of panipuri offered by these vendors. But when the day’s business is done, the givers of joy go back home to tasteless boiled daal, rice and potatoes. Daal and potatoes are mostly the leftover panipuri filling. Their lives are a sheer contrast to the spice — hopeless, joyless and bland. But going to bed late and getting up early leaves them little time to mourn.

Back in Pune, I tell Ajay about the panipuri vendors of Chennai and ask him “What’s this deal with Kolkata-style panipuri?”

“Kolkata panipuri walon ka university hai,” he says in his quirky style. “That’s the best city to start your career. Look at me. I’m from Bihar but I learnt under my elder brother there and that’s why my stall is such a hit with the people. You know Dhamtalla sir?”

“Yes, I know Dharmatala.” I chuckle at his condescension.

“My brother’s stall’s been there for nearly 30 years now. My two nephews and my niece are going to a good school. He was telling me last week he’s even planning to buy a small house”

“Then why did you come here with your cousin and not stay back in Kolkata?”

Arey sir, simple hai. Here I have freedom to eat and drink. There, with my bhaiyya-bhabhi, I have to follow rules. Everybody has to work hard; even I do. But we need to have fun too, hai na?”

Postscript: While every other day Mumbai’s political parties cry themselves hoarse debating which movie, which race of migrants or which one of the myriad other frivolities offends the sanctity of Mumbai, the city continues to have just one public toilet for every 11,000 (counted) residents.

CR Park, South Delhi

Name: Ganesh

Age: Late 50s

Origin: Bhagalpur

Years in this line: 15+

Earnings: Rs.200 a day

Work hours: Around 10 hours a day

There’s very little money. The number of customers has decreased because people are going to expensive restaurants to have panipuri. But what can I do? This is my trade. So I wait for customers every day, whether it is hot or cold or raining. I want to go back to my village and have enough money to get a house there and take my whole family with me.

India Gate, Delhi

Name: Sanju

Age: 38

Origin: Bulandshahar

Years in this line: 5

Earnings: Rs.200-250 a day

Work hours: 10.00 a.m. to 10.00 p.m.

I was working in a factory and had to leave when, in an accident, my hand was cut off. I wasn’t compensated; neither did they give me a certificate. I couldn’t find another job. I have no money to pay rent, so I usually sleep on the pavement. I save so little I can’t send anything back. Every week we have to pay hafta to the committee. The police doesn’t take anything but the committee takes at least Rs.300-400 per week.”

Sampige Road, Malleswaram, Bangalore

Name: Dilip Kumar

Age: Unknown

Origin: Madhya Pradesh

Years in this line: Less than 1

Earnings: Rs.1200 a month

Work hours: 11:30 am to 9.00 p.m.

My stall is often taken away by police. I have to then pay Rs.200-300 to get it back. Owner controls our salary. I haven’t sent anything back as yet, but I have saved some to carry home this Holi. I don’t want to come back here. I don’t like this work. There are so many troubles and my legs hurt from standing all day.

Kilpauk Garden Road, Kilpauk, Chennai

Name: Phoolchand Gupta

Age: 44

Origin: Uttar Pradesh

Years in this line: 31 years

Earnings: Non-committal

Working hours: 3.00 to 9.30 p.m.

My father and grandfather migrated to Kolkata to sell panipuri. When I was old enough, it was my turn to go. I came to Chennai from Kolkata 12 years back, and run this stall with my three brothers. Madras is an expensive city, more expensive than Kolkata. Whatever we are able to save after paying rent and settling other expenses, we send back home. My children are not uneducated like their father. They will not rough it out like me.

Nungambakkam High Road, Chennai

Name: Shambunath Gupta

Age: 35 years

Origin: Uttar Pradesh

Years in line: Around 20 years

Earnings: Non-committal

Working hours: 2.00 p.m. to 10.00 p.m.

When it rains, we move to a corner or hold an umbrella, but business never stops. Not until it gets very difficult. Back in Uttar Pradesh, I studied till higher secondary, but had to start earning after my father passed away. I came to the city two years back, after spending many years selling panipuri in Kolkata. Money is in the cities. Business is not as good there as it is here. We start making the chutneys at 4.00 a.m., open the shop at 3.00 in the afternoon work till 10.00 in the night. I have four children to educate.

Kilpauk Garden Road, Chennai

Name: Satrudhan Yadav

Age: 45 years

Origin: Patna, Bihar

Years in line: 30 years

Earnings: Rs.300-500

Working hours: 3.00 p.m. to 9.30 p.m.

My snack, chana jor garam, is very famous in Kolkata. I went there as a 15-year-old boy. It hardly finds takers here. I pay as much as Rs.2,000 just for rent here. One month I am here, and if there is a wedding or a festival I go to Kolkata, or Patna, or wherever my work takes me. We have no permanent place.

Email: email@siddharthya.com

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