Just another evening in Trichy. October is almost over and the cool winds of the next month are edging closely. The days die out sooner now, just in time for the prayer call at my neighbourhood’s Mosque. As the Muadhin recites the azan, I walk towards the bus stand.
Chatram Bus Stand sings a different song altogether. It sings with the pacing of feet, the buses choking their engines into life, the conductors whistling. The vendors sing with their wheel carts, heating pans, cutting with knives, and balancing scales.
I found him between the buses.
At five in the evening, Raja usually turns his stove on. He’d arrange the small packets and larger bottles of mineral water, huddled together like a plastic family. He’d unload the peas, brown and yellow set aside from each other. Then he’d sing the song of smoke and spices--he cooks. When it gets dark, he’d light up his little kerosene lamp. His cart is then a firefly.
“You’d think I’m outside a temple, giving prasadam to the devotees,” Raja says playfully. He might as well be. Sundal, Raja’s speciality in making roasted peas garnished with garden vegetables, is also what temples in Trichy serve as religious offerings to the gods, and so to the worshippers.
The temples have been serving them for centuries now. And Raja for the past twenty years or so. He’s forty years old now, his hair greyer and his laugh lines wider. The lamplight helps.
“I make two types of Sundal,” Raja informs me. He takes a square of newspaper to make a cone. “And depending on which ones you choose, I’d know what kind of a night-person you are.”
“People change at night. Especially at bus-stand, where the night is at its strongest. I certainly change. It’s the urgency that comes with knowing that another day is just about to end. There are two kinds of people, and I know what kind you are.” He offers me the paper cone of Sundal, topped with a spoonful of lemon-soaked onion and chilly. “Because I know which Sundal you chose.”
He didn’t get to explain right away. “Raja!” called someone. We look to the left to find a little girl poking out of a bus window. “Sundal!” she smiles. Raja returns the smile and asks, “Which one?”
“The lighter one!”
And Raja makes a paper cone. Then from the right, passengers from another bus mill out. Pretty soon, Raja is making paper cones after paper cones, Sundal filled in them, one lighter, one darker, never both together. I open mine.
Raja’s home is only a few miles away. His family is quite small, just him, his wife, and daughter. His daughter is staying at a hostel for now though, completing her degree in Nursing.
“Pretty soon, my daughter would be earning,” Raja says while he serves. He smiles. “She wants me to stop coming out here at night once she gets a job. Hah!” His eyes might have wandered around. “This is my nightlife.”
“You chose the darker one,” he said, a little after the crowd dwindled. “So you enjoy the night. You aren’t in any rush to get through it.”
I couldn’t see the logic in that.
“Here is how it is” he tells me, his hands resting on the cart, leaning forward. “If you are in no hurry for the night to be over, you’d choose the spicier snack. And the darker Sundal is much spicier than the lighter one. But when you’re in pain, you would just want the opposite. You would want the night to be over soon. And you certainly wouldn’t want spice on your tongue. Do you know that spice is not a taste? It’s actually just a sense of pain. My daughter told me that.”
I simply blinked.
Raja laughed. “Oh, don’t worry about how this works. It just does.” He pumps the kerosene lamp as it dims, letting it burn further. “But then again, people change at night. Maybe they change every night. Maybe tonight you choose the darker peas, and the next night the lighter one.”
I nod, but pause and ask, “So what kind of a night-person are you ?”
Raja looks at me, then munches on some Sundal, some lighter, some darker.