One of my friends recently posted a picture of her baby girl – who just turned six. I left an offhand comment on the post, saying that our children would be teenagers by the time we considered ourselves adults. Afterwards, I spent a long time thinking about that offhand comment. I've always considered my generation of Indians a rather unique generation – a lost one. My contemporaries were almost all born in the late seventies, and we are definitely not Millenials. We are also not flower children, or children of the war, or children of the freedom fighting generation. Nowhere else is it more obvious than when I go back to India and catch up with all my friends. In India, I revert back to being a teenager. When my friends and I all catch up – some of us after more than ten years – it is a warm, comforting familiarity, like we were never away, like we were still young and carefree, like we had families, but we were absolutely comfortable with leaving the kids with our parents when we are out
This lost-ness is obvious in our professions, in particular. When we were growing up, we had two options (which increased to four, by the time I'd graduated) – doctor or engineer (or IT/ software specialist and investment banker or both). Somewhere along the line, things changed in my generation. When I go back now, I catch up with architects, advertising gurus, writers, entrepreneurs, those dagnabbed investment bankers, speculators, small business owners, restaurateurs and artists. In my generation, a switch flipped, turning us from robots who did what we were told to do (and what everybody else did), into bright sparks who followed our own way. However, a lot of us are still conflicted and this is where the gap is most apparent.
I mean – take my own story. I moved from a science based background, to being a sociologist to a grad student, to an academic, to a food writer. My teachers thought I'd end up being a poet (okay, I do consider food to be poetry, so they may be right there?). When my sister and I were born, my mom and dad became parents. They behaved like parents, they provided like parents, they loved like parents. When I became a mother, I found the deepest love I could have for another human being. But somehow, I didn't lose myself the way my mom did in us. I still stayed the same, and in many ways, I saw that sameness in my friends, in that retaining of their individuality, of what makes them who they are.
However, when I go back home, despite the familiarity and comfort, and the rightness of hanging out with my friends – there is a gap somewhere. That gap comes in when I meet the next generation, the one born after the Millenials (Generation Y? Z?). That gap acutely brings back to me the discomfort of being old enough to be considered an 'aunty', but young enough to easily get all the cultural references of Generation Y/ Z, thanks to the overwhelming reach of the internet. That gap, which is so painfully familiar to me and my generation of in-betweeners. I am always wondering where I fit in and this lack of space is what I always struggle with when I go back to India.
There is a saying in the expat world. The first generation are those that came with no money, but a dream and the ability to work hard for their children. Their children are the professionals. Their grandchildren are the dreamers and the artists and the creatives. So where does that leave the generation in between the children and the grandchildren? The professionals who were also the dreamers?
It's a good question. And it is one I don't have an answer for.
I do have a cat picture though. We found him when waiting for Shivanna's stall to open. Isn't he adorable? I love cats. Cats rule.
Back to my story of Shivanna and his charmuri stall.
It started with the wedding of my dear friends Pritham and Nicole (Millenials, if interested). I was seated next to a beautiful young teenager, and we got to chatting. Viola's uncle was the master of ceremonies for the wedding, and through the course of the dinner, we found a love of food, style and Nutella in common. Oh, and a penchant for seeking out holes-in-the-wall street food joints.
There is this thing about being a food writer. People naturally want to share their favourite places with us, and before I knew it, I had a date with Viola, who promised me the best 'charmuri' I would ever have at charmuri ajja's place (charmuri grandfather). She didn't even know that his name was actually Shivanna, I discovered that later. For her, he was always charmuri ajja, and she'd been going to his place since she started college. We grabbed an autorickshaw outside Viola's college and made the short trek to Kadri Temple Road, where we found charmuri ajja's stall.... closed.
This elicited a flurry of phone calls and texts and frantic messaging of friends, and before we knew it, we were joined by more friends, Viola's friend, Alvin (Gen Y/Z), and my buddies Roshan (confused non-millenial like me) and Nikhil (of the erstwhile The 3 Hungry Men and early Gen Y/Z).
We hung around opposite Shivanna's stall, chatting about food writing, eating, cooking, movies, world politics, photography... you name it. And what was interesting about the whole group was that despite the differences in our ages, we never ran out of things to talk. While we were talking, Shivanna showed up in his Maruti car. See, here's another myth about India, that street food sellers are on bicycles or lug large gunny sacks filled with puris and sev over their back as they trundle along. It's a romantic image, all right, along with visions of snake charmers and elephants walking down the streets. But the reality of India is a burgeoning middle class, and roads choked full of cars, as a symbol of social mobility. As someone who refuses to drive, or for that matter, is hardly interested in cars, I stand out as a bit of an anomaly (oh, and my cracked phone screen caused no end of consternation... I was from Canada, could I not afford a phone that wasn't cracked?). That's beside the point though, and yes, Shivanna is rich enough to afford a car. It is not surprising, seeing how many people he serves charmuri to, in a day. And I wouldn't be surprised if his entrepreneurial spirit also led him down other money-making avenues.
Shivanna added a generous amount of fresh, lime-scented cilantro chutney into the bowl, along with the chopped vegetables. He swirled in a eye-wateringly spicy red chutney made with chilies, garlic and vinegar, then seasoned the whole lot with salt and lemon juice. He ladled the charmuri into paper-lined aluminium plates, throwing freshly roasted peanuts and a large handful of cilantro on top, just before serving, as he handed out the plates to all of us. The whole process took less than five minutes.
What is this charmuri, anyway? Well, for the uninitiated, it is a deliciously spicy street food snack made with puffed rice. It is similar to the more common bhelpuri, but a simpler version. Charmuri, for me, is all about textures, fragrances and flavours. The crisp crunch of the puffed rice, the spiciness of the red and the fresh zing of the cilantro-lime chutneys, the tanginess of perfectly ripe tomatoes, the raw earthiness of red onions, the slightly herby, soapy taste of fresh cilantro, sweetness from the freshly toasted peanuts – it all adds up to this wonderful combination of flavours that really need to be savoured standing with a group of friends on a dusty side street in India.
We dug into our charmuri, and for a few minutes, we just reveled in the taste of this quintessentially Indian snack. Then Viola looks up at me, and triumphantly says, now, isn't that the best charmuri you've had? I agree, it certainly was, and I loved the pleased look that flitted over her face as she chattered away. The rest of the group was good naturedly arguing about the merits of Shivanna's charmuri versus the other vendors in town, while Shivanna, smiling to himself, ignored us and our cameras, as he continued to serve charmuri to the increasing line of customers, as word got around that he'd finally opened up his shop. He would continue to serve charmuri to a variety of people as the night crept up, from the young nurses who lived in the residence opposite, to the various students from colleges around the city, to the people in the large apartment building beside his shop, from night owls to early risers. He would be up late into the night, perhaps reading a paper by the stark tube-light in his shop, as the rush slows down, and my hometown descends into sleep.
Once our charmuri was done, we also grabbed a classic street snack in India, sliced cucumbers with chaat masala and chili powder.
I had forgotten the joy of a late evening in India, snacking with friends, as we watched the world go by. Life is busy, and stressful, and somewhere along the line, I forgot what it was like to be free of cares, to schlep off to a restaurant just because we felt like it, to bunk off classes, and loiter around eating samosa chaats and drinking sugarcane juices, as we argued about the meaning of life.
Viola and I, along with the rest of the group were having so much fun, that we decided to continue on to another local hangout, Dinky Dine (I know! The name!) Dinky Dine is famous for it's fresh red grape juice, which has whole, peeled grapes in it (I cannot explain how they peel the grapes, and it is one of the enduring mysteries of Dinky Dine). It is opposite a local kids park called Kadri Park, and as we drove there, the light was fading and the lanterns that people use to light street food stalls were all coming on. I stepped out of the car, and back down memory lane. Kadri Park (or Deer Park) as we knew it, was the site of most of my childhood weekend memories. In times long past, the park was host to a zoo, and it's name, Deer Park, came from the deer that roamed around it. There were exotic birds, crocodiles and a snake house. We were equal parts thrilled and terrified by it, but we also loved going to the park opposite, and riding the toy train that circled around the park.
I took Adz there later during our stay, and she was excited, but also unimpressed. It was sad, but I realised that for a kid who's grown up going to West Edmonton Mall, a dinky little toy train across a dusty park was hardly any excitement at all. It certainly did not take away from my own excitement, but for me, that park is so bound up in a simpler time, a time when mom and dad were always around, and we were surrounded by family all the time. It was an easy decision to choose to move away from home, first to JNU, then London, then Canada, but sometimes I wonder if it was the right decision. The fact that Adz exists means that every choice I made in my life has a consequence, and some wonderful memories associated with them. However, how could I deny her the simpler pleasures of life in India? Should I be going back more often? Why is it getting harder and harder to be away from my family?
More questions I do not have answers for.
Dinky Dine was the same though. Some things never change, and thank goodness for that. We flopped into bright red plastic chairs, as we watched children screeching around on the trains. We had a friendly argument about what Dinky Dine did best - North Indian, South Indian, Chin-dian (Indian-Chinese), or chaat? There was no consensus on that, but we did agree that they did do a really good grape juice, incredibly refreshing after the spice of the charmuri. I also decided to annoy my mom, like I always have, by filling up on street food just before I showed up for dinner, and ordered a piping hot pav bhaji, with all it's steamy, buttery, pillowy soft bread rolls and more spicy vegetables. I split it with Viola, as we laughed about everything in the world.
Serves 2 - 4
Spicy Red Chutney (Garlic-Chili Chutney)
10 – 12 cloves of garlic, peeled
3 long mild red Kashmiri chillies (or more to taste)
1 tablespoon lemon juice
1 teaspoon salt, or to taste
½ cup boiling water
Shred the chillies loosely, shake out the seeds, then soak in the ½ cup boiling water for about 5 minutes.
Place the chillies and the soaking water in a blender, along with the garlic cloves and lemon juice.
Blend to a fine paste. Add the salt and adjust the seasoning to your taste. This makes more than you need for this recipe, but will keep in the fridge for a while.
Fresh Green Chutney
1 large handful of fresh cilantro
1 small onion, chopped
Juice of 1 lime
1 – 2 green chillies
1½ teaspoon salt, or to taste
1½ teaspoon sugar, or to taste
Place all the ingredients, except for the salt and sugar in a blender and blend to a paste. You can keep it a little more textured, if you wish, or blend quite fine.
Season to taste with the salt and sugar.
2 cups puffed rice (available at Asian grocery stores)
1/2 red onion, finely diced
1 small tomato, finely diced
2 - 3 tablespoons spicy red chutney (to taste)
2 - 3 tablespoons green chutney
Salt, to taste
Juice of half a lemon, or to taste
Large handful fresh cilantro, finely chopped
2 - 3 tablespoons, dry roasted peanuts
Place the puffed rice in a large bowl, and add the onion, tomatoes and the chutneys to it. Stir together until everything is well combined, then season with salt and a splash of lemon juice.
Stir in the chopped cilantro and peanuts and serve immediately (as the charmuri will go soggy otherwise)