“You see that man over there selling pani-puri? He’s been sitting there for hours and he hasn’t had a single customer.”
Seven year old Rohini sat next to her dog, Bittu on the steps of the verandah as she watched the man across the road sitting idly on the pavement next to his pani-puri stand. She ran a brush over Bittu’s long coat, and said to him “Maybe his pani-puris aren’t so tasty.”
Bittu yawned and rested his head on Rohini’s lap. He didn’t care much for pani-puris.
A little later, Rohini was getting ready to go cycling to the park. She opened the gate, pushing the cycle along by its handles. Bittu followed excitedly. The pani-puri vendor hadn’t moved an inch. His stall held a wooden box, three pots covered with lids, and a large bowl stacked with puris which he had covered with a transparent plastic sheet. She felt sorry for him, and reached into her pocket for the ten rupees she had been saving to buy ice-cream for herself and Bittu later.
“Five rupees worth, please” she said to the man. He stood up, and she saw that his shirt had a number of holes in it, and that his shoes looked as though they would fall apart any moment.
The man smiled without saying a word, and began to prepare the first pani-puri. He crushed a puri with his left thumb and almost at the same time, put the filling of potatoes, sprouts and onions that he had prepared beforehand. He then added a spoonful of tamarind chutney in the puri, immersing it in a small bowl filled with flavoured spicy water and handed it to Rohini. As soon as he did this, he started preparing a second one with equal speed.
Rohini took the puri and broke a bit of it to taste it.
“No, no” said the man, looking at her and shaking his head. “Not like that. You eat it whole. Go on.”
Rohini did as he said. It was the most delicious pani-puri she had ever tasted.
The man prepared four more pani-puris, which Rohini devoured. She handed him the ten rupees; he smiled and opened the lid of the wooden box on his stand, placed the ten rupee note in the box, and took out a shiny five rupee coin, which he handed to Rohini.
“Thank you” said Rohini.
“You’re welcome. Have a nice day” replied the man. He sat down again on the pavement, wiping his forehead with a red rag that he had hung on the side of his stall.
Rohini said “Let’s go, Bittu” and as she turned around, she saw a strange, dark man across the street, standing next to their gate. She stared at him because he had the longest and blackest moustache that she had ever seen. It looked almost as though the moustache didn’t really belong on his face.
A second later, she heard a loud bang, and the man fell to the ground. She turned around and saw the pani-puri vendor aiming a revolver in the direction where the man had stood. He deposited the weapon somewhere in his dhoti and ran across the street towards where the man lay on the ground.
Just as he bent down to examine the man, a white van stopped in front of the gate, blocking Rohini’s view of the two men, and a few seconds later, the van sped away. The fallen man was no longer on the ground.
The pani-puri vendor walked to where Rohini stood, frozen, Bittu by her side. He knelt down and said to her “Rohini, what were you about to do this evening as you came out the gate?”
“I was going for a walk with Bittu till the park.” She didn’t ask him how he knew her name.
“And what did you do?”
“I bought five rupees worth of pani-puris from you.”
“And what else?”
The pani-puri vendor smiled at her kindly. He had big brown eyes that reminded her a bit of her own father, who was presently at his office, and would come home at 6pm as always, asking Rohini’s mother for a nice, hot cup of tea.
“And then I went to the park” she said. “Come on, Bittu.”
She walked along with Bittu and looked back only once to see the pani-puri vendor pack up his things. She wondered where he hid the revolver now, and then realized that must have been what the wooden box was really for.
Rohini had a feeling she would never see the pani-puri vendor ever again.