Sanjeev had finished his shift. It was back-breaking work. The construction-site saw a steady stream of workers coming and going ever since the project began five years ago. But Sanjeev was a constant. He had been among the first batch of construction workers hired to work on the site. He was proud of the work of his team. They had toiled to give shape to the plans in the blueprint prepared by the architect. About 60% of the integrated township was completed and more than 50% of the housing units were already occupied. Sanjeev and his team lived in shelters created with asbestos sheets and concrete flooring in a section of the vast land. There were some couples living and working on the site and they had been given separate tenements by the contractor. The other men who were living on their own here shared a dormitory-like accommodation. There were separate bathrooms and toilets and there were no complaints from the workers. Though the work was extremely tiring the contractor always paid on time and was courteous and respectful to all the workers. This was something of a rarity in this industry.
Sanjeev thought he will have two vadas and a glass of tea before he returned to the workers’ dormitory. In the five years, that he had lived in Chennai he had picked up fragments of the language. He had taken a liking to the food. There were times when he was home-sick. Then he would take out his flute and play a tune. Someone else would start singing. Living away from the lands of their birth – these people had all become a team. Sanjeev came from Maharashtra’s Vidharba region. The two years before he had migrated had been severe in terms of the drought. There was no longer any scope for a small-time farmer. His two younger sisters were married and they lived in Bombay with their husbands. One of them was a taxi-driver and the other worked in a pav-bhaji center. Once when he had visited them in Bombay, his brother-in-law had treated him to a plate of pav-bhaji. It was simmering with rich Amul butter and the taste still remained on his tongue. In all the years of toiling and saving money for his sisters; Sanjeev had not thought about his own marriage. Now he was nearing 40. He was like an elderly figure to the other workers who were all young in the age-group of 20 to 30.
On Sundays, he had a rest-day, he would take his JioPhone and make a call to his sisters. One sister had a son and the other sister had a girl. It made him happy to see the little ones. The plague called Corona changed everything. Life became a big struggle as work got stopped. Travel was impossible and it was difficult for the contractor to support everyone without any work. Somehow Sanjeev grit his teeth and stayed back. He turned into a watchman for sometime taking care of the godown where the construction material was stored. He was thankful to the contractor for the opportunity and he lived there. Back in Mumbai his brothers-in-law were hit badly as well. At a point taxis resumed service but the pav-bhaji stall was closed for a long time. Somehow they all managed to cope up with the struggles and life resumed after the PM announced the opening up of services.
When the second wave hit the country again. The contractor was better prepared. He had received adequate funds from the property developer and ensured that all workers were fully taken care of – additionally, work did not come to a complete halt. For a majority of the time workers worked at 50% strength in shifts. This gave people adequate time to rest and no one was unpaid or hungry. The big benefit was the vaccination camp that was arranged by the developer. Sanjeev had a tough time convincing several young labourers that it was important to get jabbed. Rumours of infertility and impotency were rampant and Sanjeev had a tough time coaxing the young men and few women who lived there.
The commercial establishments were part of the latest block of apartments that were constructed. The ground floors were leased out to different businesses. There were mini-restaurants, a barber shop, a pharmacy, a couple of grocery and vegetable shops; the township was now almost like a self-contained living space. Sanjeev had a lot of thoughts in his mind as he walked towards the tea-stall. Then he stopped in his tracks. There was a familiar fragrance. Butter melting in vegetables and buns sizzling on a tava. The new quick service restaurant had added pav-bhaji to their menu. “No tea or vada today. Perhaps no dinner tonight as well,” he thought. He walked up to the shop. He was conscious about his soiled clothes covered with cement and sweat. He asked the shop-keeper – “Anna ek plate kitna?” The shopkeeper said “Sau rupyae” (Rs 100). Sanjeev did some quick calculations. Biriyani was ruled out this weekend. He was completely enamoured and tempted by the aroma of the spices in the bhaji and the pav that was sizzling on the tava. He smiled, took out a hundred rupees note and said “Anna, ek plate pav-bhaji dena?”.
In our township, there have been a succession of quick service restaurants or rather hole-in-the-wall type restaurants that have come and gone in the last couple of years. Covid has hit them really bad. Of the shop-keepers only one Muslim man from Calcutta has been able to sustain as he diversified into chats, rotis, meat preparations and biriyani as well. All other businesses kept changing hands and someone or the other would operate a tiffin stall and provide meals during lunch. Recently, a new shop opened. It is managed by a Brahmin family. An elderly uncle and his wife and their daughter and son-in-law run the show. They sell dairy products, bakery items, and accompaniments for lunch – sambhar, rasam, kootu, poriyal all neatly packed in food-grade plastic covers. Mornings at 9:30 AM sharp these accompaniments would be ready for sale. In the evenings, there is one snack every evening that is prepared freshly and sold. They have a WhatsApp group where they share the menu details. Today it was pav-bhaji. People who know me know my love for pav-bhaji and it is one of my favourite snacks. So that’s the photo above of the pav-bhaji and a short story to just break the shackles of the idle mind by typing something other than lessons for American kids and technical posts on learning strategies.
Do you like pav-bhaji?