Street food in Allahabad. Image source.
This is the third in a series of ten microstories. These stories — vignettes, to be accurate — are set from dawn to midnight in an Indian metro. They follow different people in different settings over the course of a single ordinary day. Two of these stories have been published / accepted for publication in literary magazines. I’ll be publishing one piece per day over the next ten days.
It’s midmorning before the students emerge. In the first break between classes. The boy has claimed the spot closest to the university gate. Fifteen feet away: any closer, and the black-uniformed security-guards shoo him in loud voices. He doesn’t take it personally: their voices are loud from shouting “Yes, sir!” in the army. He’d like to be a security-guard someday. But he figures you must retire from the army to earn the privilege of standing inside the gate. Twelve hours a day. Meanwhile he doesn’t mind doing this.
He was at the bridge an hour before dawn: to meet the trucks this side of the tollbooths. To haggle wholesale prices for potatoes, tomatoes, onions, chilies. He doesn’t buy enough to buy wholesale: on a good day he goes through 30kg of potatoes. They sell him wholesale nevertheless: for he’ll take off their hands green potatoes and soft tomatoes.
“I can make anything taste good,” he says. That is his USP: the fifteen-year-old who dropped out of school to support his mother and sisters. His father has no time to support anyone. His father has a prior engagement. Sleeping on the pavement around the corner. Drunk.
Over the wide-armed lily of the blue-burning gas, the boy heats up his thick iron griddle. He cooks off diced potatoes into patties.
At midmorning, when he’s been up eight hours, the students saunter out of lectures sleepy-eyed. They stand at his chaat cart. Perplexed. What snack do they want to eat today?
His menu has only three items. From Monday to Saturday, the same people come to his cart. Every day perplexed. He’s amused.
“Thank god I left school,” he reassures his mother. “Sitting in class, my brain would’ve become as dull as theirs. They can’t even decide what they want to eat!”