Mission Delhi – Ramchander, Paharganj

Mission Delhi – Ramchander, Paharganj

One of the one percent in 13 million.

[Text and photos by Mayank Austen Soofi]

Throughout Mumbai you will find stalls selling sandwiches layered with chutney, potato, tomato and capsicum, slathered with butter and toasted in a handheld sandwich toaster over a small stove — So says celebrity chef Vikas Khanna, referring to the famous Bombay Sandwich in his book Savour Mumbai: A Culinary Journey Through India’s Melting Pot.

Delhi does not have a version of this Mumbai street staple. But in Paharganj, you will find the bespectacled Ramchander, selling the Bombay Sandwich for 25 rupees a plate. Every evening, this elderly man brings his trolley to the Main Bazaar in Paharganj, the hotel district that is packed with dozens of little cafés serving food from across the world — yet Mr Ramchander’s humble trolley remains in favour.

“I’ve been seeing Ramchander for 30 years,” says Manoj Kumar of the second-hand bookstall Prince, which stands across the street from a Korean eatery. “He used to be very fit. Now he has grown thin and his back has also curved a little. But his Bombay Sandwich is still delicious, still very soft.”

Watching the grey-haired Mr Ramchander, who refused to disclose his age, make the sandwich is like looking at a veteran acrobat in action. The trolley is a wooden chest with a glass front that has om painted in red on it. One of the two shelves is stacked with tomatoes, onions and cucumbers. The other has loaves of white bread. There is also a pan of boiled potatoes, a jar of salted butter, a couple of masala boxes, and a pot of mint chutney.

When he gets an order, Mr Ramchander flips out a slice of bread, smears it with butter, and layers it with green chutney, boiled potatoes, onions and cucumbers. He then slaps down a fresh slice over the stuffing. Covering the sandwich with his bare palm, he uses the other hand to cut it into four parts. He does not toast it.

An extremely private man and particularly sceptical of inquisitive people, the sandwich man rarely talks about himself. All that The Delhi Walla could extract from him was that he had come to Delhi “many, many years ago” from his village in Gorakhpur, in Uttar Pradesh. Although he confessed he has grown old making the Bombay Sandwich, he remained silent on why he picked this snack, and not, say, gol gappa.

It was another vendor in the market who cleared some of the mystery.

“Ramchander lives in Sadar Bazar,” says Ram Bhavan, who hawks ram laddoos — crisp, deep-fried balls of moong dal served with grated radish and mint chutney.

Having a comradely acquaintance with Mr Ramchander, Mr Bhavan says: “We food hawkers are not traditional cooks. Most of us left our villages because there was no livelihood at home. Here, it was just a matter of chance that I ended up with ram laddoo and Ramchander with the Bombay Sandwich, although it is true that this bread chaat is not common in Delhi.”

But there are a handful of Bombay Sandwich stalls in Sadar Bazar, where Mr Ramchander lives.

It is around 7pm that Mr Ramchander makes his daily appearance at the Main Bazaar. He is there till 10. Dressed in a white kurta, pyjama and beed — a kind of headgear fashioned from an angocha-like cloth — this quiet man gently paces up and down Paharganj’s filthy lanes with his small trolley, waiting to be hailed by faithful customers yearning for the familiar taste of Mumbai.

[This is the 86th portrait of Mission Delhi project]

For Bombay with love