So here’s the thing. I had this favorite pani puri waala back in the day. We are talking 1999. He used to stand round the corner near my place outside the flats of the low income housing board society in Shashtrinagar.
We never had money to go to fancy restaurants, and I mean never. But this one pani puri guy I used to get treated at every saturday evening while coming back from the garden my mom used to take me to, just for fun.
And I would look forward to this place. For one yes this was one of the few times that I would genuinely enjoy eating something I normally wouldn’t get. Second, the guy knew me somehow. I would only go once in a week but he knew me, this little kid who would come hopping along the street and coming by.
This was that time in 4th grade when I first got a piggy bank. Some rich kid in class gave a piggy bank to everyone on his birthday. It was fun to have that thing and to know you could store money in it, YOUR money. I had only seen it in books till now so it was exciting to finally own one. I still remember coming back home with it, being excited and showing it to my mom, asking for coins I could put in. She was sweeping the floor then, and found a 25 paise coin from under a chair and gave it to me. This is how my savings had started.
So this pani puri vendor, I still remember him, 5 feet something, slender man with a thin face that used to light up every time he would see me coming, just the way mine would. Sometimes he would ask me to wait so he could mash a new batch of potatoes for me. I did not like it too spicy, the way others did. And I still remember, every time, after my first pani puri, he would ask me “kaisa laga?” (how was it?) and I, with a mouth full of pani puri (I was a little chap) would just nod with my happy muscles torn in decision between chewing the pani puri and smiling in appreciation.
He was the first, and after that, for a really long time, the only, restaurant owner who asked for a feedback. And this was the routine until one fine saturday on our way back form the Pragatinagar garden, we found no stall there. I still remember being shocked and terrified of it not being there. My mom consoled me, bought me a chocolate. Sugar and a short attention span helped me forget about it.
The next week, there was a stall. I hopped along happily, the anticipation made me hungry, but as I drew closer, I realized, the man wasn’t the same. It was a changed guy. I was put off but my mom said I could still have the pani puri if I wanted to. I agreed because it was a once-in-a-week opportunity and the rarity of it won over the reluctance to have it from someone I wasn’t comfortable with.
I remember being disappointed at the taste. In retrospect, I am sure it tasted just fine but this time it wasn’t made for me, no one cared if I liked it or not, if the spice was too much or, whether I was having a good time at all.
As my mom ruffled through her purse to pull out a crumpled 10 rupee note and handed it over to him, I remember looking up, tugging his shirt and asking, “wo doosre waale bhaiya nayi aaye hai?” (where is that other man? Hasn’t he come today?) and he said, “nai wo bimaar hai, mai unka bhai hoon” (no, he is ill, I am his brother) I smiled to his response thinking that my love of saturday evenings was still in familiar hands.
A few more weeks passed with the same guy there. My reluctance was slowly turning into a complacence. I was getting used to it but somewhere in the back of my mind, I knew it wasn’t right.
There was this one Saturday, before leaving for our evening stroll, where I came out from the room with my little piggy bank, now heavy with all the coins I collected from under the chairs and tables, and looking up to my mom I said, “wo bhaiya ko hum de denge, unki tabiyat kharaab hai na” (let’s give it to the man, he is sick, he might need it) and my mom said that he would have enough to serve himself and I don’t have to worry about it.
I never saw him again, never asked about him until one day it all came back to me. This was a couple of months later. And I go up to the new man and ask him, “aapke bhaiya kab waapis aayenge?” (when is your brother coming back?)
And he looked onto me with a pause and said, “wo nai aayenge ab. bhgwaan ke paas chale gaye” (He is not going to come. He is with God now) First I thought he had turned into a saadhu (a monk of sorts) but it slowly dawned upon me that he was no more. And that there was this last time that he asked me if I liked the pani puri, I had probably not given him the full bandwidth of my appreciation, unknown of the fact that it was the last time someone totally unrelated to me would ever ask me how the food was.
I remember telling my mother how maybe giving him what was in my piggy bank could’ve helped. I remember feeling helpless, feeling angry, feeling that there was this little something that I could’ve done, but I did not.
Today someone asked me if there was a restaurant that I really missed. I thought long and hard about it but all I could think of was this one pani puri waala who couldn’t serve me anymore probably because he did not have the right health care. And how boring everyone else was because they never called me in with a smile.
So yes, in case you ever taste something at a restaurant or anywhere for that matter, and like it, make sure you call someone, no matter how socially awkward you might be, and tell them that they did a good job.
The worst thing in life is to live with regret and more so, a regret of things that could’ve been said, but weren’t, and can no longer be.