This is the story of Saju. Except that his name is not Saju. And it’s probably not his story alone but that of many others.
I will do my best possible to tell you this story with as many details obfuscated to protect Saju’s identity. After all, I can’t have anything happen to my favourite samosa man.
See the problem is that Saju is not sure if he belongs. And for that reason he must remain invisible. There are many Sajus out there, each preparing the food of another culture. Like the Saju of a kitchen I once entered in International City, where he was twirling out parathas for a rich Pakistani breakfast.
Or the Saju I once met at a Chinese hotpot restaurant; he spoke Mandarin, loved body-building and could make the meanest dipping sauce of anyone I knew.
Or the Saju in a kitchen who was shaping intricate dumplings as I spoke to the Lebanese head chef. When I spontaneously pointed to a pot of simmering stew and questioned what it was, the chef had to whisper the question over to Saju because he didn’t know the answer. Saju knew of course, and I let it slide because we all know that sometimes the face and the hands of a kitchen don’t match.
But Saju the samosa man is the most public face of the few silent Sajus I have met. I spotted him once in the back alleys of old Dubai, selling “samsas” in brown paper bags in the yellow basket on the back of his cycle. Saju has a way of deleting vowels he thinks are superfluous, so samosa becomes “samsa” or kachori becomes “kachri.” But for all they lack in vowels, his samsas and kachris make up for in flavour.
Saju sells the Punjabi style of samosas – mushy clumps of spiced potatoes encased in a thick, pie crust-like shell. Unlike the usual thin-skinned, triangular, bi-dimensional samosas which often become soggy as they cool, Saju’s samosas have a flatteringly flaky, crunchy crust that stays so firm, his ‘samsa’ can sit proudly as a three dimensional prism on its side.
But never one to get too poetic over samosas, I admit to a clinical weakness for Saju’s ‘kachris’ – because no one makes a crisper, more subtly spiced kachori than the ones he sells. If a samosa is a triangular rocket filled to the edges with potatoes, vegetables or meat, a kachori is like a deep-fried, saucer-shaped UFO that is mostly hollow except for a perceptible sprinkle of a dry spiced lentil powder. And while a samosa can sometimes feel stodgy, a kachori feels light, crunchy, and far more amenable to dunking in chai on a rainy day.
As for pakoras – onions, potato and green chillies fritters – this is where Saju’s cycle races ahead of most other cafeterias in Old Dubai. The first of every Ramadan, my cavernous stomach lures me into nabbing pakoras from every cafeteria I stroll past before Iftar. By the time I reach home with bags bloated with pakoras, I realise my error. Everyone else’s pakoras always become chewy, mealy and overly doughy. None can match the impressive lasting crunch of Saju’s pakoras.
I remember once meeting Saju by the bus station. I watched quizzically as he cycled right past me, his features dark as night but his body glowing with a neon yellow high visibility jacket. He neither waved nor even acknowledged my hungry presence at the corner. A minute later I received a call – he wanted me to retrieve my stash from behind the station because there were too many “people” watching. I have never quite understood what Saju is afraid of – he has a legitimate job at a cafeteria that cooks the food he delivers on his cycle. But somehow, there is an inexplicable fear of being watched that is embedded deep into his heart, a fear that fades away the minute my friends and I want to photograph him on his cycle. In a split second, Saju becomes Shah Rukh.
Saju does have a slight touch of Bollywood stardom baked into him somewhere. Maybe in a different life with a different passport, he might have been one? But for now, he sells ‘samsas’ and kachris on his cycle, along with blue plastic bags full of chutneys. Those flimsy chutney bags are annoyingly radioactive. They are so tightly wound and knotted, that an explosive spill is etched into the destiny of anyone who tries to either neatly unknot them or brashly pinch a hole into the side. Exasperated, I once demanded that my chutney arrive in a container even if I had to pay him the sun and moon for it. Not only did Saju accommodate my request, he further saved me the chore of having to dip my fritters into two chutneys by combining them into one well-blended sweet-spicy chutney, just an effortless lid pop away.
Saju genuinely treats me like his ‘bhen’ (sister). He has never failed to wish me for every Eid and every Diwali. Occasionally, he will call simply to ask after my health – it’s a quick call to check in, with no ulterior motive or awkwardness in between. And to date, he has never told me the price of my brown paper bags’ worth of goods — “whatever you feel like” is always his standard reply. Some relationships on the street go far beyond numbers.
The only thing Saju doesn’t indulge me with is the recipe for those long-lastingly crisp pakoras. Maybe he is afraid that I will make them on my own and never return.
One day when the world is different, when people of different nationalities can be seen as equal, when politics fades into humanity, when you are hungry for the crunchiest pile of onion pakoras, I’ll tell you whether Saju really exists, and where to find him.