Poha and Socialism

UNBELIEVABLE… ‘पोहा’ a delicacy from the Malwa Region of MP is stoking up social discrimination.

For ages, restaurants in the Malwa region of Madhya Pradesh have been serving a delicacy they call Poha. It tastes awesome and a plateful is within the means of the commonest of the common man. It is made using flattened rice and is traditionally savoured at breakfast with jalebi and tea. Some prefer to eat Poha with a glass of milk. The Indian Constitution is silent on the freedom of eating it as a part of any other meal than breakfast. The peace-loving docile people of Malwa have never protested against those deviating from the norm.


Etched indelibly in my mind are little flat plates of Poha garnished with fresh coriander and Senv—a local bhujiya which cannot be substituted by the likes of Haldiram and Bikanerwala. Standing by a thela (a typical roofed push-cart used by the Poha vendors) or outside a shack, people used to eat from enamelled plates with flimsy aluminium spoons. Bent at different angles at their necks, those spoons used to be cutlery marvels. Despite the crookedness, they enabled people to shovel measured quantities of Poha into their mouths without spilling. Using those deformed tools to serve their intended purpose of enabling eating was an art akin to using chopsticks. People of all castes, creed, colour, sex or status used the same plates and the same spoons; there was no discrimination. Socialism!

Over a plate of Poha and a cup of kadak chai (strong tea) folks used to discuss everything. Everything meaning, everything under the sun. They talked about the quality of leadership provided by Indira Gandhi as against that of Nehru or Shastri. They shared their concerns emanating from the Cold War and India’s leadership of the Non-Aligned Movement. They had opinions on whether or not Nawab Pataudi could lead India. Those unbiased views were based purely on the Tiger’s performance on the field, although some people doubted his capability because of an eye-defect. Some even felt that his marriage to Sharmila Tagore had affected his game. For better or worse—they were unsure. They even talked about what could be India’s strategy in the next war with China, if it took place ever. All this… over a plate of Poha and a cup of tea. And of course, in a very amiable atmosphere. They did agree to disagree on a few issues but never raised their voices or carried grudges. Poha united them.

Much of that has changed.

Not long ago, people began questioning the cleanliness of the crockery and cutlery used for serving Poha. They objected to eating from plates rinsed repeatedly with water kept in a discarded Asian Paint bucket. They were right in lamenting, “It is unhygienic.” But most of the Poha vendors did not afford the luxury of running water to clean the used plates.

At a time when Poha Culture, an activity that united the Malwi people and could have earned UNESCO’s recognition, was on the verge of extinction, the Poha Vendor’s Association of Malwa (PVAM) came up with an innovative solution which appealed to all and sundry. They recommended use of bits of old newspapers in place of the usual crockery. They also came up with an improvised paper spoon—origami at its best. Those who still preferred the enamelled (now ceramic) plates and the usual spoons (now made of steel and devoid of kinkiness), could be extended the service. All stakeholders were happy; it was a WIN-WIN situation. “Not really,” was the response of one of my acquaintances. “This change is damaging the social fabric of Malwa,” he was emotional. His voice choked; he couldn’t elaborate.

Curiosity led me to indulge in pseudo-investigative journalism. And, this is what I experienced when I visited Mahaakal Hotel on the outskirts of the holy city of Ujjain in the guise of a highway traveller last week.

Chhotu, the waiter (barely in his teens) didn’t know that I was there to probe a matter of national importance—an issue that could draw the attention of New York Times and sully, India’s image. He came holding five tumblers in a way that his fingers were dipped in the water contained in them, and literally banged them in front of me on the creaky table. He was unmindful of the water he spilled in the process. He bared his yellow teeth when I asked him to clean the table and promptly wiped the tabletop with a smelly rag which left parallel streaks of more water in front of me. Contents of the glasses were tad misty—Poha particles which had been clinging on to Chhotu’s fingers had parted ways and were now descending majestically towards the bottoms of the glasses. It was a beautiful sight; my thirst was quenched without taking a sip.

Exploitation of children concerns me. It pains me to see little ones working in hotels, homes and workshops rather than going to school. On numerous occasions, I have tried my bit to alleviate their misery but to no avail. More often than not, I have found that a child pulled out of the clutches of a restaurant owner ends up sleeping hungry with a school bag for a pillow. Free education—mere ability to read, write and do elementary arithmetic—and mid-day meal, is a good concept but does not find favour with those at the receiving end. Working in the hotels enables those children to earn not only meals but also cash to carry home. Occasionally, modest tips add up to a decent amount. Besides, the life’s lessons they learn while serving people are invaluable. That on-the-job training, I think, is one of the purer and more practical forms of education—more useful than crude literacy. I have come across a rare breed of employers, who treat children extremely benevolently. Some provide for all the needs of the urchins including their part time schooling. We also hear of the cruel masters as projected in Bollywood films. Honestly, I am unsure of my stand on the subject. In rare moments of solitude when I have a conversation with myself, my inability to do something gnaws at my heart. I try to overcome my guilt by tipping children who work to earn their livelihood.

Chhotu enquired if I preferred Poha being served to me on a plate, or on a piece of newspaper. “Both will cost the same,” he chimed.

“Get it on a newspaper,” I told him as I placed a rupee fifty note on his little palm. He thought that I was making advance payment for my plate of Poha but was pleasantly surprised when I told him that it was his tip. He looked around and pocketed it.

Mahaakal Hotel was strategically located on a fairly busy road crossing. Next to the hotel was an empty plot of land. More than half a dozen cars were parked haphazardly in that open space. There was a rare green Merc A Class, a passion yellow Audi A4, a black Skoda Ocatvia, an old grey Honda City and a couple of i10 and Maruti Alto class of vehicles. These were the Poha lovers who had travelled long distances from the heart of Indore and Ujjain to relish a plate of the popular Mahaakal Poha. They were honking to draw the attention of the waiters who were fluttering about like butterflies from one car to the other taking orders and effecting deliveries. The occupants of the yellow Audi were clad in white Khadi. When two of them stepped out to stretch their legs, their body language suggested that they were in the business of running the state government. I recalled seeing one of them on the cover page of Nai Duniya that morning. The waiters were certainly not indifferent to the customers sitting at the tables but surely, they were paying greater attention to the needs of patrons sitting in the cars.

Just then, I heard a customer at the adjoining table, whining. He was complaining that his order had been delayed and that the carwallahs were getting preferential treatment. Smelling trouble, the obese owner of the Hotel left his chair at the cash counter and tried to pacify the disgruntled man. “Please calm down, Sir” he said. “Your order will be here in a jiffy.” Then he added with deliberate stress for everyone around to hear, “Sir, for us all customers are equal.”

He then shouted on top of his voice, “Golu, chhallewali gaadi me poha dekar teen number table ko attend karo.” [Golu, attend to the customer at table number 3 after serving the guests in the car with rings (meaning Audi).]

After a little while, I overheard one of the Audi occupants addressing Golu jocularly, “Keep serving us tea like this… we’ll make sure that one day you become the Prime Minister.” This monologue was followed by a chorused chuckle.

Chhotu returned to me after all guests had been served and most of the cars had departed. “Can I get you anything else,” he enquired. He continued when I declined. “Sir, you must try a plate of our special Poha. It is really good.”

“What’s so good about it,” I asked.

“In addition to the usual Senv and coriander, we garnish it with chopped onion, boondi and fresh pomegranate. The helping is larger and it costs just five rupees more.”

I accepted the offer.

Chhotu got me a plate. Since there weren’t many guests at that time, he stood a little distance from my table and made a deliberate effort to engage me in a conversation. “How’s it, Sir?”

“Hmm, it’s good,” I said indifferently.

“Sir, those guests who come in shining cars always order Special Mahaakal Poha… I know they are VIPs and serve them on the glossy pages of English magazines or The Times of India newspaper. Others, I serve on the pages of Nai Dunia and Dainik Jagran.”

Chhotu’s salesmanship made me laugh. “But, your boss said, you people do not discriminate. All guests are equal for you?” I took a dig.

He gazed at me in a way which seemed to say, “Come on, Sir you must be joking.” Then he said aloud with all seriousness, “Sir, in theory it is alright to say that all customers are equal. But in real life, some customers are more equal than others… and, they have to be given their due.”

I am still waiting to conclude my maiden project in journalism.