Off Season Tourist - India Indian Institute of Management, Calcutta
Two weeks in India, 2003 Notes from the Off Season Tourist
The Appeal of the street vendor.
At night, the streets come alive in patches of oil lamp light.

Living in Joka, which is South East of Kolkata, required us to risk taxi drives into the city on a regular basis. We had risked riding the auto rickshaws, risked being the only tourists to be seen in markets and even risked the high water content cucumbers at dinner. Much as we loved the colours and intriguing smells of the street side food vendors, there was a missing hygiene factor that prevented us from dining on the street for the few rupees that would be handed over for what could at least be seen as a heated meal.

At night these vendor stalls begin to look more inviting because the night allows us to see with our romantic eyes. Visions of the hardworking vendor, spending his days searching for the best quality ingredients seem possible when you can't see the buckets of gruel sitting at his sandalless feet. He moves his toes away from the liquid draining from the pile of vegetable waste that was being eaten by dogs earlier that week and just today was turned down by a more discerning bovine with red painted horns that curved back from its forehead and curled behind its ears.

This vendor is set up at the corner of M. G. Road and Alipore Street. There is a third street, whose name we are yet to discover and which is impossible to navigate unless you ride in the cab of a particularly young driver, who has no license, and who drives with his older brother who is employed to ask directions of people when the brother stops at every main junction.

The vendor has a prime location since the construction workers, who often break from their task of moving dirt on the unnamed road, the city workers returning home from the city via Alipore Street and people from the outskirts coming into the city all pass by his corner. Many of them are drawn to the light cast on his wall from his oil lamp, which he has suspended, by its solid chain to the string above his stall that keeps his dual action sheet of plastic that protects him from both sun and monsoon.

The deep marigold glow of his lamp flickers on the red Bengali words painted on the white wall behind him. As with most signs in this country pride has been taken to make the sign unique. The Bengali script is always lovely (if only we could read it) and the scribe has written in the same bold red of the discerning bovine's horns. He has carefully shadowed each letter with a darker secondary line in a dye that was made perhaps from the less discerning end of the same animal. This shadowing of text is a standard effect of the sign maker in India and of any computer designer using Photoshop.

The Bengali script has a cursive energy to it; letters move more rapidly than the native speaker as they swiftly drop down from the constant flat line that continues across the entire word and roller coaster around themselves. The flickering light of the oil lamp adds to the energy of the eye catching sign and, as we sit in our taxi, waiting for a bus to navigate its way between a lorry an auto rickshaw and 20 people on bicycles and on foot I have the opportunity to watch the cook in action. On a 6 inch wide piece of wood, resting on a chest high platform in front of him appears to be a model of a domed temple. This small dome of steel has narrow vertical supports around its circumference that keep it raised above a pile of smoldering coals that lie on a metal plate which someone may have eaten on the day before. He reaches into the dark pot of gruel by his feet and proceeds to pat the gruel from one hand to the other until he has flat bread the size of the hot temple dome. With quick turn of his hand, and a turn of his face to spit the betel nut juice from his mouth into the vegetable heap below, the unleavened bread is cooking. Moments pass before his fingers pinch the edge of the bread and a second wrist flick turns the bread to be cooked on the other side. In the shadow of his lamp, as our taxi driver turns his engine back on and rolls over an awkward speed bump, I can see the ruddy brown dimples of the newly cooked bread and my mouth waters.

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