Who knew that making an ice lolly is a patented art, each maker leaving his own signature? Saakar shaves the ice, the gnashing sound of the blade making sure that the little crystalline granules are big enough not to melt and soft enough to plunge the candy stick into. And as it sits in a cone mould, he pours the luscious, dark purple jamun juice into a glass, a syrupy treacle that slips to the bottom at its own sweet pace. A squeeze of two lemons, a sprinkle of home-ground masala, just a dash of soda, a vigorous shake and the sherbet is ready.
Then Saakar plunges in the ice cone, dribbles some more syrup and watches it trickle down, colour and juice up his most satisfying creation, the kala khatta chuski.
There’s something about slurping and hissing off a chuski, a bit of a dare on the India Gate lawns, with the cold evening embalming you from the canals. And that’s when you need its sweet and tangy tartness to perk up and dribble down your senses, reminding you of all the lollies that you’ve ever had since your school days, cheat days and warming you up with memories.
This is higher than any sugar rush. Saakar has been an ice candy man since 1986, ever since he was a young boy, and has mastered the art of sizing up his customers by just looking at them. “I know who wants an extra dash of lime, an extra scoop of masala, a half teaspoon extra syrup,” he says. Aptly, his cart is called “Lovely Chuski” because he wants everybody to go happy.
He’s lasted through the years as have the grounds despite the changes from Rajpath to Central Vista and Kartavya Path. He’s mapped people’s preferences, changing many syrups and even creating low-sugar options. But he hasn’t compromised on the kala khatta, the one true thing that has held together the street food culture at the India Gate through the seasons.
In fact, vendors like Saakar remind you why an upgrade can never take away the soul of a place. So while they may use payment apps and have an automated voice rattling off prices of their items on a boom box, families still crowd around them after their long walks along the pavilions, bridges and greens. The groundnuts, the papaads, the bhelpuri, the tikki chaat, paani puri, momos, patties and burgers, no matter how cliched, continue to do roaring business.
As fresh-off-the-griddle, crisp and spicy. And the 10 odd chaiwallahs in a 200-metre radius still manage to make enough money. Perhaps it is their familiarity in a rapidly changing world. Or perhaps because they have seeped into a Delhiite’s DNA. Maybe it is because the settler’s dreams began here, fortune seekers and big city beginners finding it an affordable space where indulgence doesn’t remind you that life is still a struggle.
Surprisingly, no Black Friday sale or food app alert has been able to beat the art of mind-reading or live salesmanship as each vendor gently nudges you to indulge in forbidden sins.
Like having an ice cream. Except now they come in “low sugar” and “lactose-free” versions too.
Bhanwari Lal’s cart is an example of food democracy. While everybody has the usual hot sellers of chocolate vanilla, butterscotch and kesar pista, he keeps every kind in the hope that the discerning just might want to indulge their taste buds. So his ice cream has flavours like nawabi, rajwadi, Rajasthani, Kashmiri, gulkandi, Ratnagiri, badshahi, rabri, rajbhog, shahi anjir and paan nawabi. He even has a more exotic-sounding almond fudge and caramel. “We get tourists from all over India, international ones too. Who knows who might want what?” he asks.
It is coincidental that the amphitheatre hosting the story-telling festival, Kathakar, has a guest visitor and actor Sanjay Mishra talk about food being a part of our personal histories. “I remember shooting non-stop at Sonepur and taking a three-four day break in between to drive to Nepal. Some of us from the crew picked up a handi of Champaran meat that was prepared specially for us. And took it all the way to the border town of Raxaul, making sure that the pot didn’t toss and turn at all, and shared it all together,” he tells the audience.
He also remembers how a homemade apple juice that his grandmother loved and was habituated to, revived her from severe illness. “That’s what the food you grow up with does to you. It is hugely comforting. She had stopped eating anything but guzzled two litres of that apple juice,” he says.
Much like the food on the India Gate grounds that you get addicted to. All you have to do is remember.