Vantage point

Tuesday, October 21, 2003

This story developed over a telephone conversation with Sarika few weeks back. She had put me on hold because she had to talk to her Mom, and when she got back on the line she said to me
�Kya keh rahe thhe?�
I replied �Kaun main?�
�Haan yaar, tum. Aur nahin to kaun? Ramu Panwaala?�
�Hey, don�t discount Ramu panwaala. He leads a pretty interesting life you know.�
�Who the hell is Ramu panwaala anyway��..�

And in the course of this conversation, the skeleton of the story was created. This week Saru and I were �ganjing� when we stopped to have some paan, and suddenly the story came back to me. Now that midterms are here, I have some free time (!!) and so am committing it to paper�.word doc anyway.


Ramu woke up that morning at the crack of dawn. He woke up, very surprised with himself. He could not remember the last time he had woken up of his own accord. Usually his wife had to goad him to get up, sometimes even sprinkle water on his face. He had once slept through a major earthquake, and had once woken up to find himself half submerged in water, because their village had been flooded. Ramu�s sleeping habits were a big joke in the family, and everyone had at least one �Ramu�s sleep� story up their sleeve.

Which is why Ramu was astonished to find himself awake at 6 that morning. His wife was still asleep next to him. It took him some time to realise that this was not a dream and he had actually woken up early. He got up, and surprisingly, did not feel bleary like he usually did in the morning. Sauntering to the window, he looked out.

�Hmmm, so this is the �sunrise� thing they keep talking about.� Ramu observed it with a scowl on his face for some time. �What is the big deal anyway? It is like someone is rewinding the sunset.�

The talk of the whole household that morning was Ramu waking up by himself.

�You know, I feel something in my bones today�, he told his wife. �As if this is a special day. I feel as if something major is going to happen. That this will be the day�.�

His wife stopped listening. She often wondered how could a man be so verbose. Ramu had lofty concepts of everything. He had a great sense of the dramatic and had the ability, nay, tendency to describe even the most mundane thing like a haircut sound like a historic event. She often thought that he should either be a politician or a historian. Which other paanwaala would speak of his profession in such a grandiose manner.

�Paanwaalas are artises� he would say. �Artistes unique to India. Everyone has painters, sculptors, musicians, chefs and writers. Only our nation has paanwaalas. A paan is an object of art. The nuances of paan-making are too subtle for someone to actually institutionalise. Which is why no one has been able to manufacture a paan-making machine. Can any assembly line ever aspire to recreate the aura of Michelangelo�s David? No! Similarly, no pretenders can recreate the magic of a perfect paan���

So on and so forth. His eulogising of his profession was not without reason though. It had made him a very successful man. After taking 6 years to complete his graduation, he could not get a job anywhere in Lucknow. He thought about going to Mumbai like his entire neighbourhood, which mass-migrated in the 70s, but decided the effort wasn�t worth it. Ever since he was a kid, he had been enamoured by paans. So he decided, on a whim, to become a paanwaala. He bought a shop, bribed a policeman, a bureaucrat, an MLA and an MP, and very soon his �business� was on its way.

�Ramu Kalakar Paanwaala�, the sign on his shop proudly proclaimed. The sign also had a crude version of what looked like a flat-chested naked woman, but was actually meant to depict Michelangelo�s David. Ramu owed his initial customers, who were students of a college nearby, to the very fact that the image looked like that of a naked woman.

But Ramu was good at his work. The customers came upon hearing of the image, but stayed because of his paan. It really was delicious. Ramu himself did not eat tobacco or any tobacco paan, so he specialised in making meetha paan, the paan without any tobacco. That was the USP of his shop � the tobaccoless paan shop.

Surprisingly, the shop did better than most paan shops. It attracted the cr�me-de-la-cr�me of Lucknow. Ministers, MLAs (yes, both terms did not have the identical meaning in those days in U.P.), IAS officers, singers, ��in short everyone.

Ramu often launched into monologues about the art of paan-making and more often than not he found a sympathetic and even interested ear. In fact his interviews had been published in Lucknow Times, Lucknow Newsline and he even found a mention in an issue of Outlook. The success of his paanshop had made several venture capitalists approach him with offer for setting up a chain of �Ramu Kalakar Paanwaala� shops all over the country, but he politely refused.

�My art can not be recreated. Even in my shop, I have hired help only to handle the cash register. I still make each and every paan with my own hands. Did Michelangelo hire help to make sculptures?� he asked vehemently to a reporter from the Sahara Times who was chewing on a yummy meetha paan.

�So what is your dream, Ramuji?� the reporter asked.

�My dream? Oh as I keep telling the wife, my dream is to achieve the purpose of my artistic life. And that shall be done when I have created a David of my own.�

�A David?� the reporter asked quizzically.

�Yes, a David. Like Michelangelo�s greatest creation is the statue of David, I too am waiting for that paan which shall be the pinnacle of my artistic ability. The zenith of my god-given skills. A crescendo of superlative paan-making achieved by the perfect combination of these ingredients, like select musical notes. Yes, I dream of that David among paans.�

The reporter did not know how to react to this barrage of verbal grandeur.

�Errr�ahem..� he cleared his throat �And when you make this David paan, what will you do with it? Store it for posterity?�

Ramu looked at him like a teacher looks at a kindergarten kid who spills his milk

�No, no. It will be eaten. For that is the purpose of the paan, to be eaten, relished, enjoyed, savoured, and finally swallowed.�

So that morning when Ramu woke up early, a bee started buzzing in his bonnet. However he could not quite pin the thought down. He reached the shop that morning, and reached his table to start making some paans.

He examined the betel leaves that day and noted how fresh and juicy they seemed. The first leaf he picked up had a perfect shape. He smiled at the symmetry and applied kattha on it. The he reached for the gulkand. Ramu used his hands and spoons to put the stuff on the paan. The way Ramu worked was all set in his mind. He had definitions for what the perfect quantity of each ingredient was supposed to be. If course he did not measure it, but he had an unstated amount in mind. Whenever he put a helping of anything in the paan, his mind automatically said to him �You put a little too much� or �You didn�t put enough�. However these variations were too minute to be corrected. To get an idea of what he felt like, try stopping a stopwatch when it is showing a predecided number of milliseconds. We lack the quickness or the sense to do it. But when it is stopped, we can see if we missed or succeeded.

Usually, because of the gel-like and uneven texture of gulkand, his first error would be at this ingredient. Today however, his mind said to him �Perfect� as soon as he put the gulkand on the pan. He put some minced date and crushed almond, and then proceeded to sprinkle grated coconut on it. �Perfect, perfect, perfect!� his mind cried. He stopped for a second. Could this be the reason his day started in that unlikely manner? Could this paan be his David? He added munakka�perfect�..cashew powder�perfect�.pistachio powder�perfect! He took a deep breath and froze for a few seconds. This was a historic moment that was nearing him, if all went well. His greatest performance! Was he ready for it? He waited till his trembling hands became steady. He then added some salli supari, and waited for the last ingredient� a rookie Wimbledon finalist serving for a match point. His right hand reached for the rose powder, and he sprinkled some of it on the pan. PERFECT!!!! He had done it!!!

With a huge smile on his face, he looked at Ghanshyaam, his assistant. Ghanshyaam knew his boss too well and guessed what had happened.

�Davidva hui gawa?� he asked.

Ramu furiously nodded as he folded the pan perfectly, and put a piece of clove through it. He placed the pan in the box and felt like a virtuoso who had just finished his greatest recital.

Ghanshyaam started clapping, and an elated Ramu could not stop himself, as he ran and hugged Ghanshyaam.

�You must call the press!� Ghanshyaam said.

�Yes, I will, but not at once. I have a plan. Have been thinking about this for years.� Ramu smiled. �First, I will mark that paan with something special�..yes, I will wrap it in this silver foil�..and make sure I give it only to one of our regular patrons. I will just tell the patron that paan is special, won�t tell him it is my David. Then when he eats it, I will tell the press about it, and they will interview him to ask his opinion about the paan.�

�Good idea, sir�.

Everytime a regular customer came, Ghanshyaam looked at Ramu, who would nod his disapproval. He was waiting for someone really special to come in. And that someone special entered the shop an hour later.

�Ashraf Faizi, the greatest Urdu poet alive and our long time patron�, Ramu thought and decided Ashraf would be the lucky one.

�Salamalekum, Ramu Kalakar�, the suave shaayar said. �How are you today?�

�Oh I am very happy today, Ashrafmian. Aap sunaiye kya haal hai.� Ramu said, signalling Ghanshyaam to get the �David�, which was wrapped in silver foil.

�I am in a bit of a hurry actually. I need 10 paans immediately.�

�Sure. But this is one paan I want you to have, he said placing the David in his hand. It is very special�..�

Just then a boy who worked in the shop next to his came running

�Ramuji, your wife is on the phone. Very urgent message.� Ramu�s phone had been dead for a few days and his neighbouring shop was receiving calls for him. Ramu rushed over to the shop and was very angry to know that the �urgent message� was that Ramu should not forget to get some potatoes while coming back.

Grumbling, Ramu entered his shop and was shocked to see it was entirely devoid of any shaayars.

�Where is Faizisaab?� he shouted.

Ghanshyaam looked apologetic and said

�Errr, he wanted all the paans parcelled. He said to me �don�t forget to pack the paan with the silver foil as well. Ramuji said it was special.� And then left in a hurry saying some guests were waiting for him.�

�Oh as long as he knows it is special, it is fine by me. I would have loved to see the expression on his face when he ate that paan. I guess I should call the reporters and then call him up to ask him about the paan.�

And Ramu reached for his telephone diary.


Ashraf Faizi reached home with the paan and entered the living room where all this guests were sitting.

�There you are� his wife said. �Got the paan?�

�Yes, I got the paan. Here everyone, have this. I will just park my car and come.�

Everyone started taking a paan each from the box. A dainty hand reached for the David.

�Hey, this one is in a silver foil. So cool.� she drawled.

She opened the foil and started taking a bite, when Mr Faizi said

�Not like that. You put it completely in your mouth, Christine.�

Christine put the paan in her mouth. As she started chewing, the taste of the gulkand, the cashew etc sunk into her tongue.

�Oh my god, this is sweet!!!� she said and spat the paan out into her hand. �I am on a sugar free diet, I can�t have this.� And ran to the sink to throw the remnants of �David�.

�Oh no, you spat out a Ramu Kalakar paan. Ashraf will get very upset about it. If he asks, just tell him the paan was very tasty. Don�t tell him you spat it out, OK?�

The group of European exchange students from IIM Lucknow who had come for dinner at the invitation of Mrs. Faizi, professor at IIML, nodded their heads. Christine was still trying to clear her mouth of the sweet gook. She admired her own svelte figure in the mirror and repeated to herself her resolution - stay away from sweets.


Ramu Kalakar Paanwaala shop in Hazratganj was full of reporters. Flashes were being heard as Ram made a statement about the David of his paans. Then one reporter who had hooked up a chordless speakerphone told those gathered that the call could be made. A call was placed to Faizi�s place.

�Faizisaab, Ramu Kalakar here.�

�Arre Ramu, how are you? Yaar, I could not eat even one of your paans. These European exchange students had come over for dinner. They polished them all off.�

There was a deafening silence in the shop for a while. Then with a quavering voice Ramu asked.

�Err, could I speak to the person who ate the paan in the silver foil?� he asked. Faizi was puzzled by this request, but he gave the phone to Christine. Christine was puzzled as she took the phone.

�Allo?� she said.

�Miss Christine� the reporter from Lucknow Samachar said. �We have a question for you.�