City Food – The Lunchbox, Around Town
The love of the packed meal.
[Text and photos by Mayank Austen Soofi]
Your lunchbox is a guide to the geography of your soul.
Take Delhi-based Babita, who goes by one name. The 23-year-old vivacious girl is a cashier at the landmark BahriSons Booksellers in Khan Market. Babita loves cooking. Every day she carries to work a lunchbox as do her colleagues. They are blessed to be with BahriSons, for it is the only shop in Khan Market, apart from the KK Lee shoe and bag makers, that closes for a short while every afternoon so that the staffers can have their lunch at peace.
At 2 pm sharp, the doorman Reet Bahadur draws the store’s blue curtain. One of the shop assistants spreads a copy of The Sunday Guardian on the floor of the foreign magazines section. Everyone noisily sits down in a circle and 13 lunchboxes are opened. Pinkoo’s food is considered bland; he lives on his own and makes it himself. Mithilesh bhaiya’s box is also left alone, except on days when his wife packs sattu ka paratha. Babita’s food is the most popular. Expect a riot if she comes with her famous pasta. Sometimes she brings an extra-large lunchbox filled with mutton curry, which is said to be so delicious that it forces even the owner, Anuj Bahri, to come down from his citadel on the mezzanine floor.
Around the same time, at the India International Centre (IIC), Premola Ghose is making space for plates, bowls and spoons on her work table. The office of the IIC programmes division chief is tastefully decorated with framed illustrations of the IIC. At the moment, her attention is on her lunchbox. “Pathetic,” she exclaims, as the container reveals a dry dish of paneer (cottage cheese).
No wonder Ms Ghose often supplements the contents of her lunchbox with mulligatawny soup from the IIC’s esteemed kitchen.
Waving towards Omita Goyal, the chief editor of the highbrow IIC Quarterly, she says, “Our Omita gets the most posh lunchbox.”
That’s true, at least for today. The magazine editor’s meal is perfect for a slim aesthete: plain yellow dal, dry green bhindi, dahi and chapattis.
“Someday you must try my cook’s sookha aloo,” says Ms Goyal, “Meena uses kari patta very intelligently.”
The mention of curry leaves cheers up K.S. Kutty, the only Malayali in the room. “Ask us!” he says. “We add kari patta in sambhar, avial, kalan, koottukari… in fact, we add it in every dish.”
Today, however, Mr Kutty’s loyalty to south India stands suspect. His lunchbox reveals dal and roti — he finds the north Indian food less cumbersome to carry. “But you should have come yesterday,” he says in defence. “I would have offered you idli and chutney.”
What The Delhi Walla wants is the lunchbox of Mr Kutty’s colleague Girish Chawla. Actually, I want his lemon pickle. The dark-brown nimbu achaar is glistening like a dream — it is succulent, drenched so intensely in spices and oil that it looks as if it has been marinated for decades.
Following the direction of my gaze, Mr Chawla says, “It was made by mummy, my mother-in-law. She is a very active woman. Not only does she make delicious pickles, but mummy is also famous in our A-block Jangpura for singing bhajans. Being a middle-class man, I’m very lucky to have married the daughter of such a woman. My wife Shail makes very good rajma, karhi, kala chana and jeera aloo.”
Pickles are also the choice of Lalita Devi, who sells small samosas in the colonial-era Connaught Place. Her lunch box usually consists of rotis, mango pickle and a subzi. She wakes up at 5am daily to prepare the potato mixture for the samosas as well as breakfast and lunch for herself and her three children. “Sometimes, I bring only rotis and achaar from home and get dal from Shan-e-Dilli,” she says, referring to a nearby eatery.
The samosa stall was started by Lalita Devi’s husband Ram Babu in the 1990s. “He disappeared eight years ago on 7 January,” she says, “I had to take up the responsibilities of his business.”
In the afternoon, when it is time for a communion with the tiffin box, Lalita Devi moves away a little from her stall, so that the hand she would use to eat doesn’t touch the samosas – she wouldn’t risk even a smidgen of saliva on them. Often, a helpful vendor in the area takes up her place at the stall to ensure she does not lose out on business.
Sitting under a kurenjiya tree, close to the India Gate roundabout, Ravinder Singh, Rajender Pratap and the much younger Deepak Kumar are almost done with their lunch; their steel boxes are finally empty. “We are daily wagers,” says Mr Pratap. “We go from one locality to another in search of work.”
Tearing a half-eaten aloo kachori, made in the morning by his wife, into tiny morsels, Mr Singh says, “Now we will head to Bikaner House. They are looking for someone to trim the hedges.”
Getting up lazily, he scatters the morsels around the tree. Within a minute, a squirrel runs down the trunk and claims its portion of the lunch.
It is 2.30 pm. BahriSons reopens for business.
Songs of the lunchbox