This story had appeared in children’s magazine Lotpot. A young boy was very fond of Indian fast food, or rather street food — chaat, samosa, tikki and so on. Every other day he would demand his father to take him to the stalls offering such spicy delicacies. His father resisted a lot, but had to surrender. His mother would teach him how eating street food was not healthy, and even went to the extent of offering to make some of those snacks at home itself. But the boy didn’t listen. He did not find the same flavour in home made snacks as found in street food. In fact, he was completely addicted to the street food. His parents were very worried, but could not figure out how to deal with the problem.
When the boy’s birthday arrived, his parents asked him if he wanted anything special. As usual and as expected, the boy demanded chaat from one of the stalls in main market. His father consented without any protest or complaints, but put a condition: ‘Sure, we would go there, but before that I want to take you to one place. It is very interesting, wouldn’t take much time, and I’m sure you’d definitely love it!’ ‘Really?’, the boy asked, and happily agreed. So the father and son rode on the motorbike along the busy roads of the city. Soon they left the main city behind, and took narrow streets and allays of a slum area. Everywhere there was filth, piles of garbage smelling foul, water logged drains, mosquitoes, flies and so on. The boy was confused and curious why did his father bring him here, and where was the place that he was referring to.
Finally, at one place, his father stopped the bike, removed helmet and asked the boy to get down. ‘Look there,’ he said pointing in a certain direction. The son looked in that direction, and in front of a small ordinary house, he saw a woman and a young girl peeling boiled potatoes, a man chopping vegetables, and another woman kneading dough. All of them were working in a mechanical way, as if in a dream, without paying any attention to the quality or condition of the potatoes or the vegetables. He recalled how his father always looks very carefully while buying vegetables, how very minutely his mother examines every item while cooking. None of that scrutiny was here. The family was sitting next to an open drain with flies and mosquitoes all around. Plastic bags had clogged the drain and the flow of water was blocked. There was a small naked boy with running nose, holding a piece of bread in one hand, crying.
‘What is going on?’, the boy asked.
‘This is where they prepare the chaat. And this is how they do the basic preparations. Once this is finished, they would take all of this to their stall in the main market and do the final cooking depending on customers’ orders’, his father explained.
The boy looked back again. And you don’t need me to elaborate upon what he saw. You yourself can very well imagine. His face turned white as if all energy had been taken away from him, he wasn’t even breathing. His father didn’t say a word, and let the boy have the first-hand experience. I feel that this was the most important moment. He did not preach or lecture, instead allowed the child to discover, see, witness and learn on his own and decide himself what was good and what was bad. He looked around casually, but kept a keen eye on his son, observing every change in his expressions and body language. He was smiling to himself, but maintained a casual expression on outside.
‘Papa, let’s go from here’, said the boy.
‘Oh, yes, sure. It is already very late. Let’s first go to the Sarojini Market; someone was telling about a good chaat stall there. Let us give it a try. I’m sure you’d love it!’, said his father while starting his motorbike.
‘No, I don’t want to go’, replied the boy looking again at the family, then turned back and sitting on the bike, added, ‘We will have kheer at home’.
And the two rode back to home.
It was a very short story only one page long. The description of the surroundings was so disgusting, caused so much nausea, and painted the picture so vividly! Like the boy, the reader also got a first-hand account of the place where the preparation for chaat was going on. That way, the writer was very successful in attaining his intended objective. I tell you, after reading that story, it was impossible to eat at any street stall. Every time I wanted to eat a samosa, just one, a single bite, please, every time the image of that naked boy with running nose came before my eyes and I came back. As I grew up, I started observing the stalls more carefully and closely — the water they use, their hands, nails and so on. And I realized that that story wasn’t just a work of fiction, instead presented a real picture. And today, sitting in my room in Kanpur, I realize that it wasn’t a story at all, instead a report! Believe it or not, wandering through the streets and markets in this city, I have noticed a strange pattern — every street food stall is next to an open drain, every vegetable shop is sitting ‘on’ a drain. No wonder, there is always a medicine shop next to every snacks shop or restaurant (pun intended).
Well, I couldn’t eat anything at street stalls after reading that story. And then, having kept away from street food for several days, slowly my interest in them itself faded away. Now I do sometimes take samosa, but only once in about 6 months. And while eating, I’m quite aware of what I am doing. Sometimes I make snacks at home itself, but most of the time I cook only traditional north Indian food. Not even Maggi.
There is another aspect of this story which I did not realize at the time of reading, but appreciated very later, when I grew up. It was about having a first-hand experience of everything that affects you and your life. It is so good and so very important to go out to the places where things that you consume are produced, made or manufactured — the clothes you wear, the food you eat, the milk that you drink, the gadgets you use and so on. Some of these places would be out-of bounds and restricted areas, but most of them wouldn’t be. And by witnessing the processes, you would learn a lot. It is not about academic learning or intellectual gathering of information. I cannot explain well what I mean with that, but when you stand there and see for yourself how things are done, you yourself would know.