Stranger in Madras
I woke up instantaneously as the first shimmer of sunlight hit my face, and I fell right back down at the same speed and laid down for a while. It was my last day in this vibrantly chaotic city, and who knows when I would be back really. Thoughts were racing in my head about this day- what am I going to do, where will I go, who will I see, and how will I cope? I have never been one to fully express affection, rather, in contrast I jump at the opportunity to vent my poignant sentiments. So I stared at the ceiling and immediately regretted not spending enough time with my grandparents. As I flew back to the United States, I kept telling myself “they’re probably so hurt” and repeated that over and over until I accepted it as a consequence I would have to live with. Harsh, man. Then I sprung back up, rushed to the bathroom with a sense of redemption, and I said to myself “Well shit, I should make the best of it then”. What transpired later that day would forever change my perspective of the locals of this magnificent city.
Fast forward later to that evening at around 6:00 PM, and one could spot a group of five elated brown-skinned boys and three undoubtedly embarrassed girls waltzing up Taylors Road in Kilpauk. Yes, it was us, and we had decided to resort to every Indian’s most favorable idea of a tranquil day in the city.
Chaat, broadly speaking, is an array of savory and sweet nit bits that serves as equivalent of what it is to an Indian as coffee is to an American. We thrive on chaat- be it the extraordinarily spicy kind that would make the hottest Mexican American dish offered at your mainstream Chili’s or Applebee’s laughable, or even the sweet kind that would drive you mad as you try to distinguish the complex infusion of so many spices to create such a ponderous taste.
Now where does the Eat Sleep Race clique of Kilpauk, Chennai-10 find chaat? Well we don’t have a name for the place, because it does not have one. We only know that it’s a tiny stall, about five feet squared in area that sits right in front of a small ice cream parlor, and we know the guy who owns it. Ultimately, this is what I’ve come to talk about- the guy who owns the chaat shop.
A local chaat shop owner in the streets of former Madras could make a meager Rs. 1500 ($22) to Rs. 3000 a week (after all the additional charges for livelihood) depending on the locality of the store, its pricing of products, its hours of operation, its number of employees, and other mundane business terms that no one would really care about. For the sake of mystery and typical dramatization, I shall call our subject Mr. Chaat. From basic deductions, one may notice that Mr. Chaat is a very simple man, who was uncomplicatedly dressed with a standard fashioned checkered shirt, flannel pants and the stereotypical open toed leather sandals that subsequently reflect his moderately shaved face and combed hair. He carries a solemnly affordable cellular phone that could be compared to a dinosaur when factoring in its age (well over a decade old). Mr. Chaat rides to work on a bike, a punctual hour of the morning and opens up shop to the first morning customers- who require a satisfying bite to keep them at ease as they scurry to work in an unsuccessful attempt to beat the merciless traffic. The reasonably residential and middle-high class location of his chaat stall contrasts greatly to the low income neighborhood from where he travels. Throughout the day, he takes one or two breaks, revitalizing himself to endure, another cycle of serving chaat and sparking up conversations with his customers.
So my friends, cousins and I rendezvoused at his stall, and ordered the usual of Paani Puri (about 10 orders), Dahi Puri, Murukku Chaat, and Bhel Puri. We were famished, and there was no better way to overcome that agony than chaat at that moment. Mr. Chaat kept scolding us when we kept swiping murkhus (as we always do) from his stock, and in response we apologized and again swiped another snack. I spoke to Mr. Chaat and told him it was my last day, to which he replied with one word- “Good.” Hurtful. We then talked about his ancient phone (the dinosaur), which he was trying to replace desperately as the screen was damaged, and I told him I could try and get it fixed for him. His face lit up and out of appreciation, he offered me a free plate of Murkhu Chaat! What a score! After everyone had offered their goodbyes to me, I turned to Mr. Chaat and handed him the money for all the food. In response, he briefly looked up, looked back down, raised his hand in a waving fashion and said “No, you keep it. This is on me. Just make sure you come back soon next time.”
And alas, cascades of confusion and wonder overcame me as I was just taken aback by that gesture.
I admit, people go out of their ways on a participatory basis to help others, but this was a different scenario altogether. A man earning about $30 a week, who I’d met perhaps five or six times over the course of nine weeks, had compromised to make my last day in India memorable. And that is what gives me an incentive to indeed “come back soon next time”; an honorable sacrifice for a greater cumulative victory, and that is to offer happiness at the expense of what is assumed to be most valuable. What struck me the most out of all this is that it is always those who subsist at such simplicity who are willing to establish reconciliation in the most comprising methods. From a more broad point-of-view, he is just another stranger, however, to me he becomes a hero. Like most, he is a survivor in the process of surviving; a hustler barely making ends meet for himself and his family, but never letting the realism of life get the best of him when opportunities of benevolence present themselves. My mother told me just three days ago that the most important virtue and duty in life is to give back to the world that we carelessly manipulate at our will.
Furthermore, I concluded that the privileged will never satisfy their quench for “more” to any avail. One must comprehend the strife of one’s origin to fully appreciate the value of life- even if it is bleak. We are all embroiled in an internal conflict to pursue our necessities and attain harmony. Except there are two types of people- those who pursue the genuine necessities for a content livelihood and those who pursue the materialistic and unnecessary “necessities” for a competitive livelihood. What we, the fortunate ones, will never understand is that we comprise of the latter, in that we just keep looking for more. We will never be content until we realize this.
Only two memories cross my mind from that day- my epiphany that enlightened me of the simplicity of such a complex quest that is life, and the fact that I was unable to repair Mr. Chaat’s phone.
– Fate loves the fearless –