The mrrr…mrrr…mrrr of the tires on the semi-molten asphalt gave way to a cloud of dust as Sewa Singh spun the wheel sharply to the right. The old Ambassador taxi pitched and yawed as it swung off the highway, hit an earthen mound and came to a halt in front of the paan gumti, a tiny shop not any bigger than a large wooden crate, supported on four bamboo legs. I figured we were at the outskirts of Purulia, a town approximately half way between Jamshedpur and Bokaro, in the Indian province of Bihar.
Let me tell you what a paan gumti is all about. It’s like a mini convenience store, a small box-like structure on stilts, with the front side that swivels on hinges. This side is the store front. If you stand facing it, the floor will be at the level of your waist. Looking in, the first thing you’ll note is a thin square polished stone slab in the foreground on the floor, tilted slightly toward you. The shopkeeper (paanwala) rolls the paan you ordered, on that slab and it’s tilted to allow excess water from the wet betel leaves to drain off. If you’re standing too close, the excess water will drain off right onto your pants, where the zipper is. And if you’re not the sort who pees in his pants, you won’t like it, trust me on this.
A small mat, right behind that stone slab, is where the paanwala sits, cross-legged. Around him are spread his wares – loose cigarettes in a tin, beedis (Indian hand-rolled smokies, a penny a piece), paan (betel leaves), supari (betel nuts), paan masala (stuff that’s goes inside a paan), zarda (chewing tobacco), all in small round cans made of brass or aluminum. There’ll be around 10-20 of these cans within his reach, with their lids open. And since the lids are always open, there will be a number of dinner guests, each around a few millimeters in length and having the characteristics of a WWII Stuka dive bomber. They’ll buzz in for a sit-down meal and leave without paying.
In the back of the paan gumti, sheltered from the loo is a kerosene stove on a crate, shielded inside a cardboard box, along with paraphernalia for preparing tea. Relax, a ‘loo’ is Bengali for the dusty, searing hot wind that whips around through arid Northern Indian towns in summer afternoons.
The tea stall is kind of like a high-margin subsidiary spin-off and the CEO is a plump woman in a dirty petticoat, rolled up to the knees and no saree over it. She has a blouse on, with no bra under it, the bottom-most two buttons of the blouse having not been able to stand the stress and left. That’s the paanwala’s wife, reporting directly to the chairman of the board, the paanwala. She’ll be hunched over a dekchi of boiling frothing tea while their sole employee, a snotty little girl, washes the dishes in a stream nearby. Don’t ask me why, but paanwalas always have plump, bra-less, petticoated women and snotty kids.
The paanwala is most likely an avid paan chewer himself and will need to spit out the stuff from time to time. So he’ll have his tiny ‘pikdani’ (spitoon) right next, into which he’ll make regular deposits as he busies himself rolling you a paan or hands you a cigarette with grubby fingers, permanently stained by betel juice. If you ask him a question, please stand well away out of range, if you don’t want to get sprayed. He’ll reply with his mouth filled with paan, face tilted up, lower lip basin-shaped, his speech having to do without being able to pronounce the ‘t’s, ‘th’s and the ‘d’s.
A paan gumti is the only place on earth where one can buy just one cigarette if he likes and not the whole pack. This has helped me stop smoking so many times while I was in India that I’ve lost count. If paan gumtis hadn’t sold single smokes, by now I’d be where you’d be only be able to communicate with me through an ouija board, I swear to you.
And if you’re planning on getting yourself a paan from him, better have some loose change on you. If you don’t have small change and take out, say, a C-note, you’ll make the paanwala decidedly uncomfortable. He’ll fish around in that tin can of his, where he has all his change and a few tightly rolled 5s and 10s. Then finally he’ll put his fingers inside his bulging breast pocket and bring out a dog-eared notepad and myriads of small slips, receipts etc. Wedged in between them will be a few carefully folded 20s and 50s (maybe even one or two hundreds, but unlikely). He’ll carefully unfold the bills and count out the exact change, rechecking his calculations repeatedly to make sure he isn’t giving you back more than you deserve. All the while, his eyes will be screwed close together, eyebrows furrowed in deep concentration. If he were sitting on Bikini Atoll while the Castle Bravo test was going off, he wouldn’t know it, believe me.
Every paanwala has a naked light bulb that he calls ‘balab’, hooked up to the ceiling, it’s wiring connected to a multi-plug which also feeds a radio, blaring ‘man chahe geet’ (hindi film favourites) or ‘sipaiyo ka man pasand’ (requests from our troops) on All India Radio. Requests for songs will be pouring in steadily from a hick joint called Amravati, giving you the distinct impression that it’s all that Amravatians do the whole f—-n’ day, send in song requests. That same multi-plug also connects to a tiny table fan that is suspended from the corner of the ceiling facing down, the swivel movement performing half-rotations incessantly. And there’s no electricity meter, the power connection having been directly bled off a junction box nearby. Even considering the free power line, the average paanwala still just manages to eke out a precarious living.
But hey, not all paanwalas are just getting by. Some, especially the ones at the main downtown traffic lights, do really well for themselves. I wouldn’t be surprised if the one at the corner of MG Road and Moledina Road in Pune is sending his daughter to a convent school in Lausanne. That’s because, besides the regular paan shop revenue, he also acts as the bag man for the bribes that traffic cop collects. And the paanwala gets to keep a cut thereby. You cross a red light and the cop siddles up to you, a book of blank traffic tickets in hand. “Go give that paanwala over there a twenty and you’re free to leave”, the cop says. You pay. Economics. Some paanwalas also dabble in marijuana and hashish balls that they hawk in little paper sachets, Rs10 a sachet. Low grade stuff, diluted and cheap, meant for the hoi-polloi among the coolies and rickshaw-walas. More like the khat they chew in Yemen.
Of course, you can’t just walk up to the paanwala and demand a sachet. You’ll have to know someone who knows someone who knows him. No big deal. You just grab hold of a rickshaw-wala and get him to introduce you. All rickshaw-walas are addicted one hundred percent. It helps them to fight hunger and exhaustion while they get through the day, carrying loads or pulling rickshaws.
Time out, for some nomenclature briefing. You must be wondering about the ‘wala’ bit. Well, adding ‘wala’ to an activity or an object transforms it into a guy. It literally means ‘that guy with the..’ or ‘the guy who has the…’. Thus, you could call a guy with cauliflower ears, like yours truly, ‘Cauliflower-ear-wala’ meaning ‘that guy with the cauliflower ears’. Further, note that ‘wala’ is masculine and ‘wali’ feminine. No guesses on what ‘Jackfruity-baobab-wali’ could possibly mean to depict. Come on, this is a tutorial. You pass and I’ll give you a zarda paan that has just been vacated by the one of those 5 millimeter long, Stuka-like dinner guests who flew in.
Now where was I. Yeah, Sewa Singh had just parked his taxi by the paan gumti. I used all my strength against the screeching wind to nudge open the car door, got out and staggered toward the paan gumti, leaning way over against the wind, my head buried in my chest, trying not to get pinged by burning particles of hot blowing sand. As I found my balance, I stole a glance around.
There was one other car parked nearby, bonnet open, the driver’s butt sticking out. Obviously some kind of a break-down. Another Ambassador. This was the late 70s and the Ambassador and the Fiat 1100 were the only two brands of cars you found on Indian roads, the Ambassador being the more popular of the two. It was based on a 1940s design of the Morris Oxford and built by a business family, the Birlas, which had managed to leverage the close relationship that it’s founder GD Birla had with Gandhi, to amass a business empire that had India virtually by the testicles. A sorry excuse for an automobile, the Ambassador can still be seen on Indian roads even today.
I felt sorry for the lone passenger whose silhouette I could barely make out in the back seat of that other car. Soon as my senses discerned that it was a female, the guy inside my 25yr old head demanded,” Well, don’t just stand there, go check her out. You know the drill, be nice, be chivalrous, be smooth and suave, offer her a lift. Do what you have to do, but within the next 30 seconds your back seat should look like she was born in it.”
Bracing myself against the loo, I tottered toward the other car. The driver must have sensed my approach, for he emerged from under the hood and sized me up suspiciously.
‘Kya ho gaya, gari band ho gaya kiya?” (What happened? Won’t start?). I was trying to look concerned, having long-term acquisition plans in mind.
“Sala, fuel pump gaya. Bhosriwala mechanic kal hi naya pump bithaya tha. Sala agar kahin dikh giya tho gaar pe laath parega, sala.” (F—-n’ fuel pump’s broken. The m—–f—-r mechanic changed it just yesterday. If I see him, I’ll ream the f—–r‘s butt.”
“Seems like it’ll take you a while. No sense in keeping a lady waiting all that while. It’s not very safe in these parts after dark, y’know. “ I was smooth, real smooth, “where are you headed?”
“Hey, that’s exactly where we are going. Aren’t we, Sewa?” Sewa Singh nodded with a barely perceptible smirk. It’s true we were headed to Bokaro but we were going to Dhanbad first and wouldn’t reach Bokaro before 10-11pm that night. Having been my longtime chauffeur, Sewa knew the antics I got myself into frequently. I continued without missing a beat,” So if you like, we can take the lady with us and drop her wherever she would like us to.”
The driver sized me up and concluded that I looked decent enough. He walked up to the back and spoke with the lady. After a while she emerged from the car. She must have been at least 70. This time the guy inside my head had screwed up. No matter. An offer made had to be kept.
On the drive to Bokaro, the lady turned out to be extremely jovial and a wonderfully entertaining person. She also turned out to be the mother of Charanjit Singh, GM(Purchase), Bokaro Steel Ltd. I’d rank that business trip as one of the most entertaining I’d ever taken. And the most rewarding. Charanjit Singh showed his gratitude indirectly. Orders from Bokaro sky-rocketted and I ended up winning the best salesman award in 8 out of 12 product categories.