Indians have come up with a very simple and genius way of using common nouns rather effectively. We use words like ajji (grandma), kaka (uncle), dada (brother), or tai (sister), to address practically anyone who fits the general age bracket. Traditionally, it may have started because it is considered more respectful to address someone as kaka, rather than call them by their first name, whereas using Mr so-and-so would be too formal; and us Indians like a bit of loveable informality or the illusion of closeness in our random interactions!
Keeping true to this simplification of ordinary life, there are plenty of terms used to describe a tradesperson.
Dabbawala is the person who brings you your dabba (lunch)
Bhajiwali is the lady who sells you your bhaji (vegetables)
Lightwala is the electrician
Dadhiwala is the barber (dadhi = beard, as in the one who shaves your beard)
Doodhwala is the milkman
Rikshawala is the rickshaw driver.
You get my drift.
This is the story of my favourite bhajiwali, Indutai Sathe, whom I only ever called ajji or grandma. Everyone in her little pocket of the world knew her as that. There are thousands of mini fruit and vegetable markets scattered across the country, ensuring that you never need to walk more than a few yards to find fresh produce. Indutai has one such stall near where we used to live.
I was 15 when we moved from quite a remote, industrial area in the suburbs of Pune, to the big city. It was my job, as the oldest of three, to buy fresh vegetables when we needed them. Perhaps because it is the first vegetable stall after a long line of fruit, I always stopped at hers first. Seldom did I need to go further, as her crop was always the best. I'd often see her grandson sitting at the back of the stall, reading or doing math homework. If she was short of something I was looking for, she would send him across to one of the other stalls to bring it for me. And although we never spoke beyond business, there was always an exchange of smiles, and ordinary small talk.
I have enjoyed cooking from an early age, but it becomes a real labour of love when you start working with food. Striving for perfection each time makes you think about the ingredients you use, the practicality of cooking a dish; cost, yes, but also the motivation behind a dish. I am a real sucker for sentiment, and every dish on our menu has a personal, sentimental value to it.
This trip to India (August 2018) was intended to be one where I went back to some of my roots: where I learned about food. And it felt natural to go looking for my bhajiwali ajji, to see if she was still here after I had been absent for nearly 13 years, and speak to her about more than business.