Where did the popcorn wallah go?

Tan..tan..tun…tun..tan…the chimes of his sickle shaped utensil hitting the dark iron wok could be heard atleast a block away. Each afternoon, around the last few minutes of the 13th hour I could hear him approaching. I’d be usually be sweating in my school uniform, just arrived from school, with my mother bidding me to change before venturing out. On most days it would be too late for her, I’d already heard the popcorn wallah‘s tune and like children chased the Pied Piper I’d rush out to our gate waiting for him.

He was a tall dark man, with bright white teeth, often reserving a smile for me. The transaction was the usual, I’d ask him for 2 rupees worth of pop-corn and he’d pop fresh kernels of corn into the wok. The wok was a curious instrument, bigger than the ones at home but not any bigger than the ones they’d make jalebis in the nearby sweetshops. At the base of the instrument was a coal fired stove, and the wok had a sand-salt mixure. The real thrill of the ritual was the sound of popping corn, it gave me a strange delight and he’d cover it up with a strainer but even with that contraption, a few kernels would pop out and escape leaving a trail of popped corn in front of the houses he had sold his produce. In the end, he’d pick a paper bag, and gently blow air to open it. He’d finally fill it to the brim with hot popcorn and finally top it off with a sprinkle of the strange sand-salt combination. It took 5 minutes each day, in the sweltering sun, and I’d pay him up a couple of rupees. But the whole performance was not without its rewards, he’d always fill a tiny paper bag with already popped corn and give it to me for a quick snack, while i watch him cook a fresh batch for me. He’d never charge me for it, it was perhaps a token of our unspoken friendship.

This would continue for the next morning and the next, for almost 2-3 years, the price went up to three rupees and gradually his regular visits declined. Sometimes he’d be back to his village for weddings, and at some point he stopped coming. I, for my part, also grew up and left my home for studies and work. I still wonder where did the popcorn wallah vanish, does he still sell it in another town or place? Does he share the same camaraderie with another boy as he shared with me?

The second man had his stall in front of the Parade grounds in Kanpur. I’d often visit my grandfather for my summer vacations, and he’d take us once a week to this pop-corn seller to pick up our favorite snack. This man was shorter in stature, but more talkitive, he’d talk my grandfather about us and about his well being. It would usually be dark when we’d be visiting him, his kersone lamp would burn and through little strands of light on the wok. He’d only pack the fresh popcorn into thin polythene bags, and perform the magic of sealing the packs by touching the base of the lamp with stretched packing material. This was pure magic, and probably my first experience on how one could seal stuff in poly bags! This man would always give us extra bags of pop-corn, much to the annoyance of my grandfather, for he would refuse to take money for these extra bags. It was a ritual, with him giving us extra bags, and my grandfather coaxing him to take money for all of it. It would always be a sight, sometimes he’d win the argument on others my grandfather would prevail. Each week, when the packs were empty, we’d go for the refill. Over a period of time, our grandfather grew old and could no longer drive the scooter, my trips on vacations declined and the talkitive popcorn wallah vanished from our memories.

I do not know the fate of these men, who shared their affections with us with a fresh bag of hot popcorn, I wonder if they still ply their trade or have long fallen victims to make-it-yourself-for-10-rupees Act II, or worse, compete against 60 bucks a pack popcorn at malls, which we grudingly buy either due to keeping up a social pretence or just lack of other options. Maybe I’ll spot them once again…just maybe..

If you have a similar story of a street vendor filling your childhood with tiny pleasures, do share in comments below.

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