Saturday, January 22, 2011

Chana Jor Garam

It was a hot summer afternoon. Around the time of the monsoons. Our extended family had gathered in our ancestral home in a small town in Bihar. I did not grow up in that house. Nor did any of the small horde of cousins, that I was playing street side cricket with. But, my father, and all his siblings grew up in that large and spacious house that my grandfather had built, and decades after his death, once a year, we would still get together, to pray to our family deities, and spend a few happy days with each other. We all would get to bask in the sunshine of the collective wisdom of all my uncles and aunts. And, hear the nostalgic stories of their childhood, which did not seem to be very different from ours at the time.

And, while we were playing, we heard a bell ringing. And then, from the end of the street, emerged a man, who looked very similar to R. K. Laxman's common man. He was dressed in a spotless dhoti and kurta, and wore a neatly pressed Gandhi-cap. He was wearing cheap black shoes, that most of the working class in India wore at that time, but it looked like he took good care of them. And, hanging from his neck, was a square metal box, with a cylindrical opening at the top, covered by a lid. The front of this shining box was made of transparent glass, through which, we could see the mouthwatering contents inside. This man was selling Chana Jor Garam, one of the most popular snacks in India.

To say that Chana Jor Garam is simply pressed black desi gram with a sprinkling of spices, is probably a massive understatement. Chana Jor Garam is a part of the childhood of my generation, and probably even teenage and adulthood. Packed in conical paper bags,  this would be our indispensable companion in the Hindi movies we would watch after skipping classes in the college. I don't think any other north Indian snack combines the crunch of pressed gram with the rich and spicy flavor of garam masala so well. To all that, some people  like to add green chillies, chat masala and lime juice. There are different ways of experiencing heaven on earth, and Chana Jor Garam is definitely on the list.  Years later, as a fresh on board immigrant in the United States, the first thing I did in an Indian grocery store, was to look for Chana Jor Garam in the snack isle.Such is the power that this very Indian snack holds over my life.

So, as we gathered around the man for this mouthwatering snack, and a few of us ran inside the house to ask for some spare change from one of the elders, we got talking to the man. He looked sixty-ish , and very fit. He asked us who we were and why he hadn't seen us before. When he found that we were the children of the house he was standing in front of, he smiled and said, "I have sold Chana Jor Garam to your parents as well, when they were just as young as you." And right then, one of my uncles, who was a rich factory-owner, stepped out of the house. He stood there for a while, just staring at the old man, and then said, "Chacha, kya aapko meri shakl yaad hai?" (Uncle, do you remember my face?) 

The old man smiled and said,"Haan Beta. Aur yeh bhi yaad hai ke tumhe ek-aane ka chana jor garam becha tha, par tumne paisa nahin diya." (Yes son. And, I also remember that I sold you Chana Jor Garam worth one anna, and you never paid me for it.) Without a word, my uncle took out a ten-rupee note from his wallet (It was a lot of money in those days) and handed it over to the old man. The old man raised his hand and touched his forehead as a salaam. By then, the entire household knew about this stranger at our door. My uncles and aunts were gathering around this old man. At a time when their childhood was gone, this man had brought back memories of their happy days. And, the mouthwatering taste of Chana Jor Garam.

One of my other uncles was exchanging little couplets with the old man. Just nonsensical two-line poetry. But, in those days, people who sold Chana Jor Garam, were supposed to have great flair for song and dance, some of which is immortalized in Bollywood songs like this and this one. The mere presence of a neatly dressed old man selling Chana Jor Garam had completely changed that afternoon for us. It was one of the most memorable afternoons of my life.

Decades later, I visited my ancestral home. Old beautiful houses, that dotted the street, were now replaced with tall apartment buildings. At the end of the street, from which the Chana Jor Garam man had stepped into my life, I saw  a modern-style grocery store. Curious to find out what they sold, I stepped inside. In the snack isle, among other things, I located a shining pack of  Chana Jor Garam, from one of the major snack manufacturing companies in India. The grams were probably soaked, fried and pressed in an automated setup, and vacuum-packed in a sterile environment. The packet looked professional, with a shining picture of a plateful of the delicious stuff. I picked it up and proceeded to the checkout line.

That's all I had in my hand, and I was waiting for my turn to come. So, I started humming the "Chana Jor Garam" tune (from Kranti), while holding the packet. The gentleman in front of me in the line, had one look at what I had in my hand, and joined me in the humming. Very soon, the checkout clerk was smiling and humming with us. It was nothing like old times, but it is always nice to get company when you are humming an old tune. 

I think the old man, from that summer day, continues to live on in the rest of us. With his shining box of  Chana Jor Garam and the beautiful song that we all seem to sing. Once in a while.

1 comment:

  1. the unsaid and unconditional relationship between the village boys(after they grow up) and Chana Jor Garamwala reminds me a little of the beautiful relationship between "Kabuliwala" and "Mini".