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.


Elections 2014: The People have spoken…

The four words of the above title have been repeated multiple times since this Monday on various news channels. While, I being not in India was denied the opportunity to vote (as postal ballot is not a reality for us), the rest of the country did.

It has been a remarkable 6-7 months, I have seen normal friends on facebook turning into fanatics, have seen the discourse of the lowest quality where an opposing view was either coming from an AAPtard, psedu-secular, communal, pseudo-liberal, pheku and what not.

The saddest part of all this has been the fact that numbers and statistics have been cleverly selected and shared to prove points, everyone has data points.  It seems nobody is wrong. They also conveniently offer that judiciary has spoken while at the same time doubting the judicial results on the opponents.

By the end of it, I also sarcastically started annoying my wife with abki baar… on each sentence. But it is no laughing matter, being the world’s largest democracy we had a chance to speak our minds.

Tomorrow (it’s today already?) the results will be out, and we will soon have a new Government to crib and blame about. Finally, only time will tell if our representatives will again do the 5 yearly Great Indian Vanishing trick.

I may sound cynical, but whosoever gets chosen, I only hope they bring all the change they might have promised. As often said before, my only wish is what Tagore wishes years ago:

Where the mind is without fear and the head is held high
Where knowledge is free
Where the world has not been broken up into fragments
By narrow domestic walls
Where words come out from the depth of truth
Where tireless striving stretches its arms towards perfection
Where the clear stream of reason has not lost its way
Into the dreary desert sand of dead habit
Where the mind is led forward by thee
Into ever-widening thought and action
Into that heaven of freedom, my Father, let my country awake.

Indian Train Journeys – An experience like none other

Sleeper Class

In the past few years I have traveled a lot by trains in different countries, while nothing beats the punctuality of the Swiss Railways (SBB), or the speed of Deutsche Bahn & TrainItalia, none of these travel systems have the true experience like the Indian Railways.

During my college days I’d used to travel regularly on the Sleeper class from Noida/Pune to Lucknow. Like everyone else, I have been a witness to the unapologetic delays,the festival rush when having a reservation meant little when fellow travelers had to get home to be with their families on Diwali.While I upgraded to the AC IIIrd, it just wouldn’t give me the same experience as the Sleeper Class travels or General class travels between Lucknow & Kanpur.

I have been always amazed at the uncanny ability, of passengers, to analyse delays in the local MEMU type trains stopping in between stations in the middle of nowhere. A typical conversation in this situation would go like this:

‘Bhaisaab, ye train kyun ruk gayi? (Brother, why did the train stop?)’

With an air of authority of such matters the reply would be, ‘Passenger hai, Shatabdi cross ho rahi hai, dekhna abhi crossing ke baad chal padegi (ours is a passenger train, giving way to a more important train, you’ll see it pass)’

And if by chance, the above mentioned logic fails, the second response would be, ‘Lucknow station pe platform khali nahi hoga, aajkal bahut train late hai isliye rukna hai. (No free platforms in the destination, we’d get in once it frees up)’

These conversations happen everyday between strangers, nobody knows how true they might be or who created them to begin with, but there would always be someone to ask and answer.

Then, there would be instances when you’d have reserved a lower level seat and there would always be a gentleman requesting you to shift to the upper levels because ‘ladies hai (women passengers with them)’. If you were a guy like me, most of the times you’d grudgingly oblige, even when the upper berth was your last preference.

But the most fun was to be had to be a part of wedding parties, when at each station some new members of your extended family would join you with fresh supplies of snacks, cold water and family gossip. The singing & gossip sessions would last late into the night, but who’d care about other passengers. Of course, there would always be that elder uncle or cousin who’d be snoring like a siren, feeling completely at home in the wobbling train.

Talking of these train journeys, how can one forget to mention the support economy of chaiwallahs and naashta (breakfast) sellers who’d chirp in at each station offering you wafer thin omelettes, & cutlets from unverified sources. Many train stations have their own special offerings which lure the foodies to step out at the stops and attempt to pick the sweetmeat or savory offered. The chaiwallahs (tea sellers) deserve a special mention with their trademark calls for tea, which is always promised to be enriched with cardamon and tulsi (basil) with a money back guarantee on quality! Lets not forget, he’d be off the train much before you’d be done with your tea, but the promise meant something to everyone.

Finally, there would be the ticket collector in his black coat moving with the air as if he were the king of the train, followed by hapless passengers on the wait list requesting the lord’s mercy be bestowed upon them with a berth to sleep for the night.

But while all this excited me, everyone would often knowingly ignore young lecherous men leering lustily at young women making them uncomfortable, exposing the undercurrents of gender issues in India, or parents beating the hell out of their kids in public as a punishment for their hyperactivity.

Italy Travelogue – Part Deux

Planning a trip to Italy is not an easy task, so when a long weekend was planned to Milan and Florence, I had to pay attention to details. This being a trip with my parents, I had to be extra cautious with the fact that they cannot exert themselves as much we can. After a combination of internet searches, the plan was decided, a train ride from Zurich to Milan and then a ride to Florence. Spend the rest of the day and the next in Florence and catch an evening train to Milan to spend the rest of the weekend there.

With the plan in place, we set out to Milan taking the first train out of Zurich on a Friday morning. The journey is beautiful and picturesque, the first Italian station on the journey is Como. The sudden change in the landscape outside the train surprised my folks. After around 45 minutes, with a 10 minute delay we reached Milan. The Milano Centrale station is massive to say the least, the edifice was started in 1906 and completed in 1931, modified design to reflect the greatness of the Fascist era it is worth a visit. Sadly the same station’s platform 21 was the departure points for trains to Auschwitz and Dachau concentration camps during the great war.

With a rush to catch the next train in time, we ended up on Trainitalia’s fast train to Florence (or Firenze), do note that booking tickets early with Trenitalia offers cheaper prices on these fast trains. Upon reaching Florence, we walked our way to the Hotel Universo, which was just across the Basilica Santa Maria Novella. Be careful, for you shall encounter many vendors and taxi-wallahs as you get out of the stations.

The Piazza is unpretentious, we went for a short walk to the famed Pharmacy of Santa Maria Novella. Pharmacy? You ask? Well, you need to be there to see it, established in 1612 to serve the needs of the local public, this beautiful pharmacy offers natural products and fragrances for the souvenir hunter.

Post this place, we opted for a Hop on Hop Off tour, something which I am not a very big fan of. However, it was worth getting an overview. Our next stop was the Piazzale Michelangelo, a park with a beautiful panoramic view of the city of Florence, famous for the replica of the Statue of David & the view of a Florentine sunset. On the same hill did Galileo perform his famous experiments in gravity, he was a citizen of this city.

We next visited the famous Florence Cathedral, the landmark monument of the city and its Baptistry, the Bapitstry was exceptional owing to its Gates of Paradise and the eclectic Mosaic ceiling. This, for me, is a must visit place, one has to spend time to understand the ceiling.

The Cathedral of Florence is a unique building, one has to stand in a long queue to get in. For Bell tower enthusiasts, Giotto’s Campanile offers a beautiful sight if you are willing to walk up 414 steps.

Within a walking distance from the Cathedral was the Uffizi Gallery, another must visit place in Florence. A tip here is to book tickets through reservation or you shall end up standing like us in the queue for almost 45 minutes. People are allowed in batches in this amazing collection of art & paintings including works from Da Vinci, Michealangelo, Raphael and the likes. The gallery also offers an amazing view of the bridges of Florence, overlooking the Punto Vecchio.


One of the regrets of this trip was the lack of time to visit Pisa, it would have been a 4 hour trip, but we had our hands full in Florence. Many people also indulge in tours related to cooking in Tuscany and wine yard trips, am sure they are fun to do.

On the same evening, we took a train to Milan. Reaching Milan at around 9.40 PM, we headed towards our hotel, barely a  walking distance from the station. It was already late at night, all we could wait for a night’s sleep.

Next morning was the last morning in Italy, our first stop from the Metro lines was to Piazza del Duomo. The massive square is the go to place in Milan, our first stop was the Duomo. The Duomo is also called as the Milan Cathedral, it is the 4th largest cathedral in the world constructed with brick and marble. The visit to the top of the Duomo is worth it, the ticket counter is behind the Duomo, not in the same compound. The trip to the top roof is a treat in itself, one of the rare possibilities when it comes to visiting a cathedral.

Inside the Duomo, the composite stained class paintings across different panels are simply majestic. Next to Duomo was the Galleria Vittoria Emaneuelle, a majestic shopping arcade opened over 200 years ago.

Slightly ahead of the Gallery is the famous square with Leonardo da Vinci overlooking his disciples. A longish walk away is the Gallery Ambrosiana, a place which I had visited in my trip last year.

We closed our trip with a short bus ride around the city, there was a lot to see, but tired from the long three days we were content with a glimpse of what Milan has to offer.

Interesting food tips is to try the Milanese Risotto and the Panettone. For shoppers Corso Buenos Aires is the right destination.

A trip to Italy cannot be completed in a long weekend, with destinations like Rome and Venice, I shall return some day. Until then, Grazie Tuscany and Lombardy.

I’ll be happy take take your questions in planning a trip, although am not an expert.

Ham honge kamyab

If you are of Indian origin, chances are that you have heard the song above, probably sung it at one point or other in your life. It was a translation done by Girija Kumar Mathur

We used to sing the English version of this song in school, the real song “We Shall Overcome”  is in English which had become the Anthem of the African-American Civil Rights Movement.

Standing at the Berlin HB station, we were singing this song, and then the reality struck(akin to the light bulb being lit). The song is probably a reflection of the prepetual state of affairs in India…it talks about overcoming the odds someday, it doesn’t mention when…not today, not tomorrow but someday.

Isn’t that the real Indian way? Infrastructure projects going on forever, to be completed someday? Lokpal Bill in process for over 30 years, will be passed someday? India will be corruption free someday…Indians will be empowered someday…

Maybe it gives us hope to not give up…but it also makes the time period abstract…

What are your views?





Its been just around a week in Geneva, the perfect city in the perfect country of Switzerland. Life seems so systematic, organized, punctual and respectful. In between extra polite Bon jours of ever helpful citizens of this city and the rough brawny and loud existance back home, I seek peace.

Its strange, life seems much more balanced, comfortable and easier here…its simply a perfect place to be. Yet, I am counting days to return, to an imperfect country where I’d start cribbing the moment I reach and start comparing it with good ol’ Geneva.

Why? Simple. Its the place I call home, its not perfect…its far from perfect but it still is home. Its the place where most memories and moments of my life have been, its the place where things can change, there is an opportunity to improve and make it perfect. There is so much to do.

Yes, i have met too many Indians living outside India and cursing it. I do not like it, I respect their decision to move out but with the same decision they forfeit their right to be critical of the place. If you cannot be a part of the journey you have no right to talk of its destination.

I know I’d go back home and crib…but its home, imperfect home.

City of Joy

I started reading a couple of months ago, it took me a bit more time than usual owing to work pressures and general lethargy. However, I finished it last night and have already updated http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/City_of_Joy, my first real Wiki edit.

The book revolves around a slum in Calcutta called Anand Nagar, based on the real life slum known as Pilkhana. Stephen Kovalski is a Polish priest who arrives in India with an aim to embrace the sufferings of his fellow humans. In a parallel story, Hasari Lal, a peasant farmer, arrives in Calcutta with his family in search of a living as monsoons fail year after year leaving his family in abject poverty.

Kovalski evolves as Brother Stephan for the slum dwellers who fight for everyday survival, and he amongst others are a source of good deeds in a harsh and uncaring world. The story talks about the value of human life in a hellhole like Anand Nagar (City of Joy), the mishmash of culture, religion and the horrors of the slum life.

While Kovalski attempts to help his fellow beings, Hasari Lal becomes a rickshaw puller, the human horses who still ply in the streets of this city, in order to earn his daily bread.

The book describes environment in a visually stunning in horrifying way, there were moments where I wept at the torrent of human tragedy. It made it all the more difficult to ignore this because I am a resident of this unforgiving city, and I know that the book has been based on real places and real heroes. But the book is not about tragedy, it is about the human endeavor which survives in the midst of misfortune, its about those people who make the world a better place in-spite of all odds.

Strangely even after 25 years of its being published, the city seems the same wretched place as described. A must read, for peace shall arrive in the end.

‘Misfortune is great, but man is greater than misfortune.’ – Tagore

PS-There is a movie based on the book, but the story seems very different.

My 2010 list of Social Networking Behaviour in India

As the year draws to an end with plenty of you looking forward to another year of bungled resolutions, I decided to sit back and create a list of my top 10 observations of Social networking behavior.

  • Top(and most Hated) Trending topic of the year: #justinbeiber
  • Yep, this 16 year old singer refused to leave the trending topics for over 6-8 weeks back from April to May. Much to the irritation of people like me who had never heard his music (and still refuse to do so). Thankfully twitter changed their trending topic algorithm, and we got respite from beiber fever!

  • Biggest Activism achievements of Indian Tweeple: Ensuring that the world doesn’t forget My Name is Khan, Commonwealth games and Media Mafia
  • 2010 was the year when tweets became an important source of news and gossip for the newspapers and news channels. However, tweeple took things in their own hands by relentlessly pushing for visibility of stories like the Media Mafia (or Nira Radia), CWG and MNIK.

    We the tweeple, somehow, represent the intelligentsia!

  • Biggest Loser of the year: Orkut
  • While Facebook went on to become home to 500 million users around the globe, Orkut has been already admitted to the ICU, dying a slow painful death. Our frequent gaffes at #orchutiyas who loved to send the gals a fraandship requests has just reduced the life span of Google social network.

  • Most Popular tweep of the year: @shashitharoor
  • While I’d love to claim the title for myself, but this gentleman was the paycheck Indian newspeople for a good 3-4 months. He was closely contested by one Mr Lalit Modi, well it did cost both of them serious troubles in their jobs. As for me, I was just happy that @shashitharoor once retweeted my tweet 🙂

  • Silliest Social Networking behaviour of the year: Its a tie between self like and hubby like (will explain below)
  • Self-Like, the event when the said user posts a message on his/her wall and then goes on to click the Like button herself. Behaviour bordering narcissistic I say!

    Hubby-Like, the event when a married/committed/uncommitted/committed-but-publicly-friends users mutually like each other’s wall posts on Facebook. Furthermore, they even chat on the said wall, even if they might be living in the same room or would have been a part of the posted photograph!

  • Most complex trending topic of the  year: #eyjafjallajokull
  • Ah well! The Icy nation shocked the world, and this time it-could-not-be-named threw the airline industry into a spin! Well, i still cannot pronounce it, had to google the spelling as well 😦

  • Most common view on my facebook feed in 2010: Relationship updates and the likes!
  • While the facebook feed resembles a wedding album for a good year now, its this view which is most common on facebook these days. XYZ is married – 5 likes, ABC is in a relationship – 6 likes, GHI is single – 4 likes. No matter what these people did, someone did like the change, and no it doesn’t mean that 4 people who liked the updated single guy status are chicks! No matter what you do, there are people to Like it (specially when Dislike is absent from the social network)

  • Biggest Indian twitter achievement of the year: #icionicIndianAds as a trending topic
  • It happened on the 2nd of February, #icionicIndianAds made it to the top of the trending topics on Twitter. I don’t know how many of you were a part of this frenzy, but i remember blowing upto 3 hours of office time on this trivial pursuit. Needless to say, it was an eventful day which I throughly enjoyed, thanks @dharmeshG! (this was before indian trending topics were introduced)

  • Top words on twitter profiles in 2010: photographer, journalist, actor and social media evangelist
  • The combination of these words my friend, is the holy grail of being popular on twitter. Chances are, that 9 of 10 people on your twitter timeline have one or more of these keywords in their profile. You ain’t a twitterati, if you ain’t got it!

    With this I shall end my 2010 list of social networks in India.

    If you’d like to follow me on twitter, click on @ankurmehrotra. Hope you have a great new year ahead!

Leaving Maximum City aka Mumbai aka Bombay

There is a silly line which I mutter every time I get down on the VT station (okay! CSTM for the MNS and SS) with my friends. Watching the crowd, I’d quote innumerable hindi films:

ये है मुंबई शहर. सपनो का शहर. यहाँ सबको जल्दी है. खाने की जल्दी. ऑफिस जाने की जल्दी. पैसे कमाने की जल्दी. जीने की जल्दी. रोज़ यहाँ हजारो लोग आते है अपने सपनो को पूरा करने..

I arrived in Mumbai around 6 months ago, for my job required me to. I had always believed that if one could survive in Mumbai one could survive anywhere. I had been here before, but always as a visitor, an outsider just for short trips. But this time, I was meant to stay here and live the place.

Within a week of my landing here I ended up living in Dadar. Oh yeah! I was living in the townside as a Mumbaikar would say. For them anything ahead of Sion is a part of the suburb! I guess I had well avoided the most stressful activity for any newcomer, of finding a ‘decent’ place to stay, thanks to an old friend.

Like Morgan Freeman once talked of life being institutionalized my life started oscillating between the 8.41 AM Thane Fast from Dadar and the 6.27 PM CST Slow from Thane back home. Within 15 days I was the champion of the Central Line with a good awareness of surviving Western and Harbor too. I could tell you how much time in exact minutes it takes between point A to point B. I could lounge myself or squirrel through crowds to get in the trains. You could quiz me for any station sequence and I’d ace it!

In between work and trains, the endless stream of people and constant acitivity at any time of the day made it so alive…nothing like the sleepy towns I have been to. Between the extremities of lavish homes at Khar and the people living off the city streets I was amazed by the ‘in your face’ nature of life here.

Hundreds of Mani’s Dosas(What! you never been to Mani’s Cafe in Matunga?) and Filter Kapi fueled my mornings enabling me to be a corporate labor each day, with Mani never realizing how he was fueling India’s GDP through an able manager like myself!

Marine Drive and Nariman Point

Our weekends were sprinkled with our Foodie desires and frequent visits to the Marine Drive. That stretch of Queen’s Necklace would continue to be one of the favorite places of the city, almost an oasis of peace in bustling city. It was a part of my first evening here and I hope it shall be a part of my last evening here too.

Did I love the city? Do I want to leave it? These questions keep coming, but I feel they are irrelevant…afterall the choice has been made, my preferences do not matter. But, I do know for sure that this city allows one to dream and pursue them…it is both kind and ruthless to people….Like Sinatra once sang:

“This town is a lonely town…Not the only town like-a this town…This town is a make-you town…Or a break-you-town and bring-you-down town…This town is a quiet town…Or a riot town like this town…This town is a love-you town…and push-you-’roundtown”

I survived Bombay…and I know I can now survive anywhere.