Oh! Calcutta

I was in Calcutta over the weekend. I like the city. I guess it was after some 15 years or so that I visited this eastern Metropolis where it starts getting dark at 5:30PM (during this part of the year) itself. Bits and pieces of this neglected city have changed – many parts remain the same. Cars are smaller and therefore quite numerous on the many narrow lanes. There is still a lot of seemingly hostile but good natured haggling over daily transactions, which I admire in this part of the country. A successful haggle results in an exchange of not just currency notes and coins – sweat and grime change hands too. The climate is quite humid and the Ganges is quite muddy furiously blushing at the confession of sins that it brings in all along it’s flow. I managed to fight my way using a few broken, mispronounced words in the local dialect and restrict a particular cab fare to 100 rupees instead of the 120 that was being asked for. When in Rome, do as the Romans do. Speaking of coins, I guess this is perhaps the only major city where 25 paise coins are still in currency.  I felt nostalgic since the scene reminds me of my childhood spent in Eastern India – red soil, open spaces (on the outskirts of Calcutta now) and the relatively slow pace of life. And the fact that a 10 rupee note goes a long way here. While I did not board a bus, but was craning my neck to to catch a glimpse of the “cash fans” – the bus conductors here, fold up currency notes longitudinally into slim rectangles and use each gap between their fingers in the palm of their hand as placeholders – the gap between the index and the middle for fivers; the middle and the ring holding up the tens while the ring and the pinky holding on to the fifty rupee notes! I am not sure of this distribution – but I did not get a chance to verify. It looks (or used to) like an expensive fan. I saw this 15 years back and became a fan of wristy conductors. Maybe by now, with a change of government in West Bengal, the conductors have got shoulder sling bags made of leather like their counterparts in Bombay. Maybe not – only citizens of Calcutta that travel in busses can elaborate. The yellow toad-like taxis are everywhere – these run on (2 x reading + 2) meters while the white ones represent the privately negotiated OTC market. These are the dinosaurs on Indian roads – the Ambassadors. The dexterity of the drivers though would rival any accomplished drag racer anyday. Or Pokemon. Or Garfield.

Apropos my earlier post on the pani puri, I did manage to plop some puchkas down my maw. Awesome! Especially when the server kept plunging his dirty stubby fingers in the heavenly soup of pungent tamarind water. Meanwhile IFCI has cantered up. I wrote about it 3 months back on 05Jul’10 and while there does not seem to be any clarity around the digital event regarding its banking foray, the long term resistance has been broken and people are talking about it reaching the 90s pretty soon. I guess I’ll wait and watch for some time.

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World Badminton Championship

Saina Nehwal has won her first two matches and plays 6th seed Shixian Wang tomorrow. Shixian Wang comes into the quarter finals beating Jie Yao, the 11th seed in a slightly more emphatic style. So lets see if Saina can enter the semis. The other quarter final to watch tomorrow is between Hongyan Pi (5) and Xin Wang (3). The winner of this match will clash with the winner of Saina vs. Shixian in the semi final.

Meanwhile current world number one, Yihan Wang is out of the tournament. [update 8PM IST, 27Aug: She’s out of the tournament. Toobad – but I think she was outclassed well and truly in 34 minues flat]

BTW, I made one observation about tags and google searches and hits on websites. It’s quite surprising that not a single soul has stumbled upon my website through google using the search phrase “Saina Nehwal”. So I ran a quick analysis on what search topics have been most successful in diverting traffic to my website and the result was quite an eye opener. Other than searching for me, people who spend their time looking for fairness creams and pani puris are more likely to come up to my site as compared to people looking up John Abraham’s butt or Katrina Kaif. Or Saina Nehwal for that matter. I felt quite let down since the whole purpose of writing about that man’s butt was to get more iballs. I thought about it for a couple of minutes and then guessed what must be amiss with my logic.

It’s the thing about statistical long tails and probabilities. Since Saina, Katrina and butts are much written about the chances of my humble ramblings on them getting shown up early enough in Google search rankings is miniscule. But since the likes of pani puris, fairness creams and IFCI sit on the long tail, the chances that my website will get picked up, if someone is looking up on these topics is high. It runs counter to common logic – that write about hot topics and you’ll get noticed more. Niche positioning. I am amazed at the kind of people that my writing resonates with – imagine being patronised by someone who is interested in “fairness creams for Muslim boys”! Or surfers  concerned if eating “pani puris will cause blindness”.

Some time back I had read a very insightful book called “The Long Tail: How Endless Choice is Creating Unlimited Demand” by Chris Anderson. The book talks about the growth of niche markets and specialist sales on the internet. So taking a leaf from this book and applying the conjecture developed above, I guess the key to getting more and different people to look at my website is to use many many tags (Napster, Amazon, eBay use the limitless potential of online store to stock up an enormous array of merchandise) and tags that are off center. If this post sounds like a pathetic lament to increase the traffic on my site as opposed to writing what really interests me and my core group of readers, then you hear right. Screw it. I dont care how many new sets of feet trample my online space. I will write what I want to write.

The Hot Pani Puri

Yesterday, there was the familiar in-between-meals pang that got me walking down a street in search of something to kill my hunger. That and the possibility of my shifting base to another citiy got me to the pani puri. Cost of  living indices across various Indian cities is a topic that has occupied my mind quite a bit in the recent past and taking a lettuce leaf out of the big Mac’s book, I thought of developing a pani puri index of affordability. I hit the internet on coming back to my pad, but gave up quickly. The prices of pani puri either seem to be a closely guarded secret or could be so low that the cost of hooking up to the internet for 10 minutes seems a lavish splurge in comparision. While still on the internet and the topic, I thought of killing some time in assorting and discovering things about this humble food of the masses in the sub-continent.

For me personally, the Kolkata variety of this dish that is the best. I am no gastronome but since I’ve grown up in the east, stuffing these roundels down my throat – especially during the Durga Puja festival, I am biased. What’s the difference? Firstly, it’s called puchka, phochka or phuchka (depending on what stage are you in the devouring of this beauty) there; secondly, it’s obviously cheaper in the east – though the gap seems to have narrowed down of late and thirdly, the stuffing: its got mashed potato in it with a bits of gram et al thrown in for good measure. That’s the staple pani puri for me and will always be, but I’ve relished the other varieties as well. When in Lucknow, I thought that the vendor was loony for not understanding what a puchka was till I learnt that its called something like pani batasha or batasha there. Apparently the Hindu heartland is where this puffy delight seems to have originated from. Then of course, there are the gol gappas (gol = round; gappa = that hurried act of stuffing and swallowing something decidedly challenging). The stuffing changes as you cover the breadth of the country ranging from boondi (I don’t want to translate that to English), gram, sev (fried semolina), etc. The water also flows different courses, some being mint flavoured, some carrying a strong infusion of tamarind and other pungent spices while others being sweeter and date flavoured. I dig the tamarind, pungent types.

What to call them in English? Many people have attempted this before and I don’t know if an official term is out yet but let me add my two cents here. Some have called them water balls (sound like Holi missiles) and wheat bulbs (sounds like some smart alec invention at Monsanto). Some others have even called them fried balls? Yuck! Imagine: “I looked at my girlfriend, so pretty in her white cotton dress having Ramu’s fried balls by the main street – her eyes watering and the mascara threatening to run and the only remorse I felt was the fact that I had no small change in my wallet. All knew that Ramu’s were the best”. Whoops. Change fried balls to pani puri and I’ll bet you’ll be better off. So if papads became poppadums then should pani puris be called tangypops? Why not?

 How does it taste feel like? mmmmmm….when you bite, the gol explodes flooding your mouth with that sweet, tangy and hot infusion of a million flavours. India is a land of contradictions – yes, sweet and fiery do co-exist nicely in this small fried universe. There’s far more liquid than you’d imagine the little ball to have. It bites, it challenges and if you give in, it makes you choke. The urban chic brigade is going hep by using vodka instead of the spicy water – to each his own. Some vendors have started using mineral water for making the pani and plastic gloves obviously spurred by a Supreme Court of India directive to make such offerings more hygienic. But my real foodie buds feel that the taste of the dirty fingers crushing the puris in the center and dipping them in that pungent water kept ready since yesterday is the real heaven. Who cares about the innards – it’s always the entry that jangles the senses (if you know what I mean!) Heck, we’ve grown up forcing these spicy spheres into ourselves and nothing much has happened to us. Some of us even have the strength to blog after years of gorging. Some balls we have. But this gets me to the poser of the day: Do docs (i.e. the Hipocratic Oath types) eat the real hand crafted roadside ones? For that would make them watered down hypocrites, no? I haven ‘t noticed, but if you have please let me know.

Who eats them? Nearly everyone, though a few are confirmed closet ball stuffers. Mostly women seem to gorge on it. Does that make it a sissy food? Hardly, if the challenging taste is any consideration. Or is it that a well made, spicy plate of this alkaline food threatens the male bastion by making men cry? Maybe the whole transaction has a subtle gay overhang – a guy giving another balls to eat. I don’t know, but I like to eat them. But yes, I tend to avoid the carts that have women flocking to them. Nothing like a quiet man to man deal.

Is it cultural? You bet! There’s a recent T Series produced Bhojpuri song called Gol Gappa Khiyae Ke Balmuwa. I’m sure the lyrics would be quite interesting. Got it? Bhojpuri. Pani puri. 😐 Apologies. And then there’s the sartorial connection set up by Rish Oberoi, an ex investment bank employee who in an Andy Warholish adaption attempts to sell fashionable clothes each having a motif and graphical application of the puchka through his venture aptly called Paani Puri Clothing. And then of course there was the gol gappa eating contest beteen SRK and Anushka Sharma in the film Rab Ne Bana Di Jodi that was quite a mouthful.

Is there a business opportunity for me? Yes and depends. For you might be a tad too late, but it’s a huge market and many mouths to feed. Some time back the Ahmedabad based Arvind group of companies had plans of starting a chain of gol gappa outlets called NRI Panipuri. I hope the venture has not turned soggy. Any Amdavadi readers, please ring up your street side pals and let us know. The group also had plans of developing gol gappa automated vending machines and installing it in malls! Wow! That would have been fun. Imagine feeding the machine a 10 rupee note, squatting down, eyes wide shut and the mouth wide open waiting for the nozzle to fire the lovely roundels into you. I love India. No really, if the Arabs can export hummus and pita and even have Adam Sandler doing all sorts of weird things with it in the Zohan flick, why can’t someone accept gol gappa stalls et al outside of India? And a note for my esteemed Pune readers: have you visited Om Jai Shankar Pani Puri? At least check out their website. I hope they start selling them balls online. What can you do? Puchugol, the patron saint of the pani puri vendors needs you! Some time back the Supreme Court of India said that street food must be prepared and sold in a hygienic manner. But local municipal corporations seem to have interpreted the order as banning the sale of street food. This is posing a threat to the survival of the vendors. I am sure you must have or will shortly notice the prices of pani puri plates going up in any street near you. Inflation hits these guys the most considering that a good portion of their earning might be disappearing as bribes to the local policemen/municipality officials. I don’t know what help to offer other than exhorting as many of you to get down on the streets and patronize these stalls. Micro sized sales units sold at low prices but in large numbers is the essence of India. Do you your bit and bite. 🙂

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