Wednesday, October 03, 2007

The Business of Newspaper Cutlery

This post of Scott Adams about newspapers becoming extinct in the near future got me thinking. Nope, not about the pace of technological development or the future of the publishing industry but about the very nasal presence of the moongphali waala (peanut seller).

Now the moongphali waala is a very typical character in many Indian cities. This chappie sells hot roasted peanuts and groundnuts. You will find this chappie at bus stops, railway platforms, the more enterprising ones on the train. They'll be dispensing warm peanuts and groundnuts at Re. 1 or 2 a cone. This snack caters to the millions waiting on bus stops and railway stations, for trains and buses, tired faces that look temptingly at the auto rikshaws and cabs that pass by slowly, trafficking their wares to the bus-travellers. The moongphali (also called sengdana) is a quiche snack that fills an empty stomach at a cheap price.

The great thing about eating moongphali from the moongphali waala is not just the warm groundnuts and peanuts, sometimes even offered with a spicy topping of raw onion, thinly cut green chilies, some red chilly powder and a sprinkling of chaat masala. Its what you get after you finish your snack. Not just the contended feeling of a full stomach but the added mystery of "whats the cone made of today?"

The cone here is the perfectly shaped paper cone that holds the peanuts. The making of a perfect paper cone is itself an art. The seller's deft fingers shape and twist and turn the paper into a perfect cone in less than 3-4 seconds. It is typically made of a piece of old newspaper, and in the case of a seller whose business is doing well, its made from the glossies. The mystery comes from the fact that you never know what piece of newspaper has been used to craft that particular cone.

In Mumbai where I have devoured hundreds of moongphali cones, the newspapers varied not just in content but also in language. You could get Hindi, Marathi, English, Gujarati, Urdu, or even Tamil or Bengali. You could get a political news update, a stomach churning crime story, a story on the education system or a glossy on the newest scandal in Bollywood. It could be from last weeks or last month.
Thus for the princely sum of Rs. 2, you not only got a full stomach but your own little news widget on a platter.

It was the perfect way to spend the waiting time. Eat your fill and then squinting in the light of the street light, devour the contents of the used newspaper. You never knew what information you would learn. What forgotten piece of history would leap out at you from the annals of newsprint. And not only did you learn something new or got reminded of something long forgotten but you got to look at it with the fortunate backing of hindsight. So you probably knew what happened just after that piece of news had happened. Or how it affected other events in history. If it was a bit of sensational news, you would probably think back to where you were when you had first heard it.

Through the stages of evolution, the newspaper cutlery practice has diversified to cones of larger diameter that resemble large soup bowls. These are used by the bhel waalas - another important character in the lives of road side eaters.
Here you normally can't read the newspaper after eating because it normally gets soggy because of the chutneys. However the piece of newspaper is very useful once you are done eating to use as a tissue paper to wipe the remanants of chutney, spices, lemon juice off your fingers.

Though these examples leap to the mind, newspapers are used on the roadside to serve vada-pavs , dabelis, bhajiyas, samosas and umpteen other road side delicacies.

Now, as experts toss around debates on the extinction of newspapers, I cannot but feel fear about what will happen to the roadside vendors cutlery options.

Footnote: Yes, I know, bowls made of leaves or expensive and boring paper plates are often used as a substitute, but these are normally found at the more upscale road-side vendors. And tell me, what leaf bowl or paper plate can ever substitute a bowl/ plate, reading material and tissue paper all rolled into one?


rads said...

None my dear, nothing can replace the excitement of discovering reading material after a stomach full :)

grr, now I want chaat :(

Anonymous said...

Very refreshing and innovative blog...
Now i am off to the foodcourt for a bhel in metal plate...
Tooo sad :(


janaki said...

Hi, nice one. long time after i read yr blog tdy.

Do u know that moonphali is sold as "timepass" in local trains in bby ... vendors shout "timepass, timepass" (not TP as in tdy's lingo, though)!