Damini Kulkarni leaves Mumbai for new beginnings in Pune. And while she can't help but compare her new city to her old one, she does find an unexpected love story.
Pune is not an easy city to befriend. If Mumbai is the jovial aunt who slaps your back, and offers you a hug, Pune is the quiet kaku who will take her time to decide if you’re up to snuff.
When I moved from Mumbai to Pune in pursuit of a PhD, I was puzzled by the smaller city’s vaguely hostile streak. Striding powerfully along the leafy bylanes and green cul-de-sacs of Pune, I stood out as vividly as a crisp red chilli on palak dal. I presumed, at first, that it was my attire that attracted derision; maybe Punekars were all beautifully ahead of time: correctly pegging my khadi kurtas, long earrings and loose curly hair as a hopeless cliché.
It took me a while to understand that it was not my plumage — it was my hurried walk. Pune is not meant for brisk trots aimed at predetermined destinations. But it isn’t meant for aimless ambles either. Pune, with its densely floral foliage and profusion of cafes, libraries and bookstores, demands a focused but relaxed stroll. And it was Pune’s street food which first served me this aphorism.
While walking to Pune University on a hot and dusty day, I stopped for sugarcane juice. A couple was working the mechanical wooden machine that extracted juice from the canes. While the stern-faced man provided the physical labour, the woman added in lemon, ginger and sugarcane as the juice slowly trickled into a vessel below. It tasted nothing like the juice extracted from the commonly seen electric-machines. When I remarked on the difference of the taste to the vendor in my heavily-accented Marathi, he responded to me with a wide grin. “That’s because we take our time with the extraction, and the juice drips slowly. It has time to chemically interact with the ginger.” That, perhaps, was my first lesson in Pune’s personality. It takes its time, but is focused on getting the job done. And a kind word will tease out its friendly nature.
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I re-learned this truth many times at the countless neera vendors across the city. As I began to pause and converse with the vendors in Marathi instead of striding ahead to my next task, I began to feel less alienated in my new city. The chaiwallah near Ruby Hall Clinic, the bhurjiwallah next to him, and the vada pav vendor a little distance away. These nondescript little shops don’t sell anything particularly remarkable. In fact, to my Mumbai-chaat schooled tongue, the food here still tastes a little strange. But when I speak to them while eating their food, the unfamiliarity slowly dissolves.
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I was fighting off desperate homesickness when I stopped at a completely unremarkable pani-puri vendor near the Starbucks in Aundh. He sold pani-puri in six different flavours, with dubious names like hajma-hajam and lasoon, and I felt several shades of trepidation run along my spine. I asked for a plate, and tasted all the flavours gingerly. I blanched when I tried most of them. Then I asked for another plate, and then one more, with the man serving me smiling secretly. Five plates on, I had acquired a new love for abominable paani flavours. That pani-puri glavanised my tongue, but lightened the hard ball of tears in my throat. It didn’t taste of home at all, but it reflected Mumbai’s need for variety in blazing technicolour.
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It is a truth well acknowledged (and often lamented) among the older kakas and kakus of Pune that the growth of the Information Technology sector has changed the landscape of the city. It has vastly altered the foodscape, as well. Apart from bustling pubs and fancy restaurants, Pune’s streets now boast of a vibrant momo culture. Although Mumbai’s street food is beautifully diverse, it has not yet fully mastered the Art of The Momo (much to the chagrin of Delhi migrants). If I wanted good momos in Mumbai, I ‘d have to go to a restaurant. Pune does not have this problem. As I began to eat indiscriminately at momo stalls across the city, my street food diet expanded to include ridiculously cheap and good momos.
Now on this rabid journey of discovery, I stumbled on a food cart selling flavoured kheer in Aundh. Utterly bourgeois and unapologetically gentrified, the cart serves rice kheer with Nutella and Oreo, Brownies, Gulkand, Coffee, or Mango. Something about this outrageous innovation comforts me. Each time I stop to buy kheer here, the irrational big-city woman in me is lulled by the idea that Pune is not removed from postmodern proclivities. Mumbai might be serving cutting edge (and undeniably delicious) gastronomic experiments, but my new city was trotting along just fine on the fusion bandwagon.
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Despite the flecks of postmodernism, Pune remains completely unmoved in its love for misal. A combination of lentils, spicy and watery gravy, farsan, and potatoes (in varying proportions), misal is made differently in every part of the state. There are several iconic misal restaurants in Pune, each tinier than the last, but infusing their own particular flavour into the dish. The misal culture also trickles down onto the street. Since I have moved to Pune, I have eaten missal from at least four of the city’s countless street vendors, and it tastes different at every outlet. But unvarying is a discernible layer of oil that floats up on the rassa of every variety, and with it, Pune’s deep and abiding love for its roots.
When I first moved to Pune, I visited all the famous food places in the city: the much-vaunted Vaishali on Fergusson College road which attracts love from Pune’s residents and derision from Mumbaikars, Kayani Bakery in Camp where I bought enough butter cookies to feed an army, German Bakery in Koregaon Park with its lovely omelettes, Goodluck Café with its softer-than-a-baby’s-butt bun maska, and Durvankur on Tilak Road where I got a thirty-rupee discount because I finished all the food that was served to me in my thaali. I left these places gastronomically satiated, but emotionally unmoved.
But when I finally graduated to embracing her street food, I began to understand Pune’s little contradictions. It is cautious, but not unkind. Sedate, but not slow. Innovative, but not entirely modern. It is defiant, refusing to be homogenised with its louder and more popular cousin just 300 kms away. It refuses to learn lessons from the mistakes of her cousin, bent on making her own. It conforms unapologetically to tradition, but has found strange ways to rebel.
If street food is the synecdochical equivalent of a city, I can safely say that I have finally managed to befriend Pune. Kaku it appears, has found me a worthy candidate.
Damini enjoys cinema, food and writing, often simultaneously. She is pursuing a Phd in Media and Communication at Savitribai Phule Pune University. Her writing has previously appeared in publications such as Economic and Political Weekly, Scroll.in, Arre and New Woman.
Illustration by Roanna Fernandes.
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