This was first published on Spring Tide.
Done that? Good. Let us get going.
Imagine chicken, mutton, or beef of a superlative quality, chopped patiently into neat juliennes, neither overcooked nor rare, spread inside oversized stainless-steel bowls, waiting sullenly for their inevitable destiny. The Occidental heathens call them tikka, but we refer to them as pieces. You know them by heart: the light-brown ones are chicken, the darker ones are mutton, and the really dark ones are beef.
Now try to visualise a globe of white flour dough being flattened into a thin paratha thanks to a wooden rolling-pin and powerful yet articulate wrists. It’s as perfect, smooth, and uniform a circle you can imagine.
A crate of virgin eggs lie in a corner of the counter. Trusting them may not be a good idea: they go amazingly well with meat and may end up turning your taste-buds inside out and forcing you into making further investments in the same outlet. However, since you have not asked for egg-chicken or egg-mutton the crate remains untouched.
A hand produces a plastic container of oil out of nowhere. The lid opens, the container is tilted at an angle, and a glistening circle forms on the humongous pitch-black skillet. The oil simmers in eager anticipation and reacts in mock anguish (almost in the jaao ji, tum bade woh ho tone), as the flat white paratha is carefully placed on it, ultimately embracing it in a smoking, searing heat.
The disc gets flipped as soon as it turns nicely golden: then, as the other side gets slow-cooked it is taken off the skillet. The oil — or what is left of it — has one last go in pursuit, but gives up as the paratha lands on the countertop. The succulent pieces of meat are then arranged along the diameter in a clinically perfect straight line.
No chilli sauce. No tomato ketchup. None of that cucumber nonsense. Maybe a few minuscule strips of well-cooked onion, but that’s about it.
You watch fervently as the fingers roll up the paratha, now full, into a meat-filled cylinder; a translucent bit of paper is wrapped around its abdomen, perhaps reminding you of Kajol in mere khwabon mein jo aaye; then, with a swift motion of the fingers, the end of the paper that was jutting out is now rammed inside the roll.
It now gets unceremoniously dropped inside a brown-paper bag, along with a green chilli and a couple of slices of lemon. You bribe them and get her released. They don’t bother: for them you’re just another customer. For you, however, they are demigods who can be bribed to open the gates of the forbidden garden. Now it’s just you and that object of desire in your eager, impatient grip.
Note: In case you have not followed the alert in the first line, this is the time when you can use a hair-dryer to good effect.
Your fingers clutch around the roll. You know it is hot, but you also know that rolls are at their succulent best when they scald the ceiling of your mouth. And then — after a wait that had seemed longer than waiting to catch a glimpse of your first crush on her balcony — you’re there.
Stuffed it with a precision so magical that not a single cubic millimetre is left unoccupied by meat, your eyes shut automatically the moment your teeth dig close on to the roll, sending a thrill down your spine. It’s like a kiss — only with more reciprocation than any human can dream of producing.
Take a moment here to appreciate the porota (or, as the non-Bengalis call it, the paratha); the flour is never left raw, and not the smallest of squares is charred beyond edible limits. They somehow form an idea of the exact level of crispiness you want, and execute it with the precision of a surgeon performing a brain operation.
One bite follows another. You now face the infamous Roll-Eater’s Dilemma that has haunted mankind for decades: should you make it last longer or should you finish it while it’s still hot? Ultimately you end up sinning as patience gives in.
The chicken roll does not get a chance to cross the road.
And then, if you’re fortunate, you get a final moment of joy: once you’ve eaten your way to glory, you turn the wrapper upside down with your palm cupped underneath it in frantic hope.
If you have led a life of penance, if you have helped the poor and the needy, if you have never committed adultery, if you have always fulfilled every wish of your parents, if you have never cheated in an examination, if you have never taken personal print-outs at work, there may be a possibility that a piece of meat — the last survivor — may slide into your anticipating palm.
Rolls go back to the 1930s — an era when the British ruled over India. The British were cool people: they drank tea, watched cricket, and spoke in English. These traits made them significantly different from the upper-middle class Indians, who drank tea, watched cricket, and spoke in English.
The British rated punctuality very highly: this obviously clashed with the ideals of the locals. Breakfast was seldom prepared that early at home; the commuters wanted a decent, filling meal that they could consume on their way to work. On the other hand, the British, interesting as they were, often turned out to be reluctant to touch the meat with bare hands.
Nizam’s, a restaurant in Esplanade, the heart of Calcutta, had come up with a brilliant idea to solve both problems simultaneously: they rolled up the meat in parathas. There have been rumours regarding a naked man running with a roll in his hands across the busy Calcutta streets, shouting “Eureka!”, but subsequent researches have proved that this was an urban legend: a proficiency in spoken Greek has seldom been a common trait among Indians.
The word spread like fire. As the British quashed one freedom movement after another they slowly began losing out in the battle of fast-food. With the roll at the helm they had no chance: the hapless roast beef sandwiches fought out of their skin, but came a distant second to the champion of the undisputed emperor of street-food.
Then came the double whammy — the Second World War and the attack of the rolls. Hitler and rolls were too strong a force to contend with: they went for the easier opponent and attacked Germany. They ended up conceding India as a result.
The doors opened up soon after Independence. Delhi was quick to embrace the concept: it was, after all, the capital, and was hence open to all capital concepts. They renamed them to kathi rolls — and carried out new experiments, the main among them being replacing the column of morsels with a long sheekh-kabab; within decades kathi rolls took over the mother of all nations.
The translucent paper was replaced by aluminium foil or plastic wrappers in parts of the country; the vegetarians were given the paneer-packed respect they deserved; and customers had to be explained why fish tikka rolls and fish-rolls were two entirely different concepts.
But all that is history. The glorious saga of rolls continues.
The legacy continues through children in school-uniform with one hand in a firm grip of their mothers and the other wrapped around the magic wand; through the daily commuters who catch quick bites on their way to the station to catch the first train back home; through the interview candidates who turn up an hour early with that familiar lurch in their stomach.
There are the three classmates dishing out whatever remained of their pocket money on the last day of a month and sharing a single roll, arguing passionately over who would get the last, meatiest bite.
There is that shy student taking out the last notes from his wallet and then counting his coins, one by one, before he becomes financially eligible to join the queue on his way to the tuitions. Maybe he will have to walk back home when his friends will take the bus.
There is the boyfriend who has asked his belle to meet him for an ‘appo’; she is supposed to fast all day for some obscure religious reason; the hunger has left her fuming. She blasts it out on the helpless boy for fifteen minutes. He knows. He smiles. Then, from the ubiquitous bag on his shoulder, he brings out a greasy brown-paper packet and stretches his right hand out, nodding.
Diamonds, you see, are nothing more than allotropes of carbon.
There was a Nor’wester — the raging storm that rips East India apart in spring — about a decade back. The first blast usually hits you hard and there is a high possibility that the sand and dust might pierce your eyes like shards of glasses unless you have them covered. It was one of those days: I waited under the protrusion of a shop along with a few others, letting the storm subside.
Then, just before I could smell the moisture in the air, something spherical flew past us and hit the counter of the shop with a soft thwack. We took a look and immediately recognised it, and our faces twisted into a knowing smile.
Yes, it was a greasy, translucent paper curled into a ball. I knew I was not the only one of the lot who looked at the neighbouring shops with hungry eyes.
Rolls in India don’t need a Royce to get suave. They are born that way.