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Routine Masterpieces: the informal art of Indian food vending
Puddas, pudiyas and paper packaging. Words by Farah Yameen; Illustration by Samia Singh
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My favourite meal is not a dish, but a setting. It is late evening, after a fresh spell of rain, in a corner of my neighbourhood bazaar where a cigarette shop, juice stall, the best chat vendor in the world, and a bread-omelette cart congregate. Girls rattle glass bangles at the seller, threatening him to lower prices; boys tickle one another and argue over plates of momos. “Chutney pass kar, chutiye!” they shout at each other, brimming with affection. “Pass the chutney, asshole!”. As I wait for my masala cheese omelette to get made, I am grinned at, heckled, or flirted with – which in Delhi, is just a mix of both.
Everything I eat in this moment is spectacular, of course, because of how much fun everyone else is having. “My people” I think, becoming stupid and hysterical with fulfilment as more boys arrive on scooters engineered to sound like large motorcycles, the scent of their strawberry flavoured cigarettes causing the man who made my omelette to sneak me a look. All this happens in some seven and a half minutes, because that is how time works in most Indian cities. Only the rich have the constant luxury of any conventionally defined pause, of watching the world pass by with a meal. For others, stillness is an act of will, sought through participation, which is often through eating and buying food with others, and diving into the thick mesh of life.
What bickering Delhi boys and bazaar-banter are to me, the pudiya — conical newspaper packages filled with spices, sweets and rice — is to Farah Yameen, the author of today’s newsletter. Farah tells of the splintered intimacies that make up buying and selling food in South Asia, where one transaction can be made of multiple economies, emotions, textures and moods. It is in the moment in which the pudiya is rolled, spruced up, and filled with wonderful things that Farah mediates pleasure, and pause. But the story of the pudiya, Farah writes, is more than a nostalgic one of “simpler days” and “sustainable packaging”. It is one of how millions of Indians, those ignored and neglected by the global corporate food economy, negotiate agency when they buy and carry food home. Even though artistry often needs to be codified and recognised by the elite, this doesn’t matter to makers of the pudiya — in which art itself becomes automatic, accessible, utilitarian, beautiful, and routine. SD
Routine Masterpieces: the informal art of Indian food vending, by Farah Yameen
It is the 1990s in Ranchi, India, and an understated thriller unfolds at Hari’s four-by-three-feet bhel-puri cart. He piles the chutney-drenched muri (puffed rice) into a tightly wrapped cone, which he’s made using glossy 80 GSM paper from a 1999 edition of Cosmopolitan – the same one my sister and I once nicked and stored under our mattress. Where the paper hasn’t been licked by puffed rice and chutney, the heel of a Jimmy Choo is visible. Its price is available ‘upon request’. I dig the carefully torn seven of diamonds card Hari hands me and scoop the bhel from that edge; my education in luxury footwear begins here.
In Ranchi, a city in India’s eastern Jharkhand state where I grew up, we lived on a diet of small-town drama and big-city aspirations which was brought to us on paper packaging. This is where we first learned of the 20,000 rupee shoes and slender legs that we were convinced all big-city girls possessed. One day, we would tell ourselves, we would live the stories that arrive on serendipitous paper scraps.
If the paper package was conical, we called it a pudiya; if it had been glued together to make an envelope for larger purchases, it was a pudda. Like Hari’s Cosmopolitan cone, there were stories draped across pudiyas and puddas wherever we went. A man had returned from the dead on the folds of a pudiya containing twenty-five grams of cumin. Who Was Shah Rukh Khan Seen with Near the Hotel? asked a headline on a pudda of flour, happily oblivious to the age-appropriate content-censoring that defined the rest of our lives.
I’d like to say I was fascinated by the art of the pudiya as a child. That I marvelled at the speed with which the sheet was tightly cocooned around the garam masala. Or that I’d watch with undivided attention while the chaat vendor laid two sheets across one another, making a square package that would hold my batata puri until I ripped it open at home. These lies would prop up my ability to see art in the ubiquitous; give me something to add to my bio, even: Farah Yameen is a curator of found stories captured in wrapping ephemera.
Tempting as that is, to claim it would be woefully untrue. I was far more interested in the neat triangles of silver-foiled Laughing Cow cheese, the Quality Street chocolates in tins that became my grandmother’s sewing kit. Neat and symmetrical, without the uneven edges of the pudiya, these slickly packaged presents from ‘foreign’ were the packaging I wanted in my life.
Yet it is the pudiya that stays in my mind, and its impact on me goes beyond a nostalgia for ‘sustainable packaging’ and ‘simpler days’. The art of the pudiya not just about the drama you can find on its packaging; rather, it is an unossified skill of labour born of the need to carry food home. It tells the story of how an informal artistic language without traceable provenance developed, allowing millions of Indian families to negotiate how they choose to purchase their food every day.
Every year, in the run-up to the anniversary of the Prophet’s birth, my cousins and I would cook batches of flour into glue; this substance would hold together our puddas, which we made from old newsprint, and which we would use to hand out sweets. (My aunt awarded the winning pudda the princely sum of ten rupees.) But proud as we were of our creations, they had none of the easy sturdiness that would safely hold the finest of flour on its journey back from the kirana store. Even as the pudiyas and puddas from the store were deftly designed, back then, they were simply camouflaged into ordinariness, the paper disappearing in an instant when the package arrived home.
I spoke about this with social scientist Sarover Zaidi, who called the phenomenon the ‘soft intimacy of paper’. ‘Plastic and foil never produce this vanishing act’, she said. ‘A scrap of newspaper wraps the food, doubles up as tissue, and ends up forgotten in your pockets, until it emerges in freshly washed clothes days later.’ The mortality of the paper pudiya is its essence. Plastic and foil, on the other hand, so jarring and alien, refuse to disappear, ending up in bags that bulk up behind kitchen doors.
Most importantly, however, the pudiya allowed subjective purchasing; the largesse of ‘buy as you need’. In the subcontinent, where incomes are often small and volatile, selling without standard, pre-ordained measurement is integral, deriving from the communal understanding that purchasing capacities are often smaller than the standardised volumes of pre-packaged food. Large boxes of processed food are scaffolded by concerns about adulteration and hygiene, sold with the explicit instruction that their contents are ‘not to be sold loose’. At the small town and village grocer, however, the boxes come undone, as do the dictates of Western capitalist uniformity. Though they may be ordained, they are rarely obeyed.
And so, women in floral polyester sarees walk home with fistfuls of dal, which have been weighed on scales using smooth stones. The stones’ values are known only to the grocer, they are measurements of a community economy that works on trust and faith. This is what I remember from Kamal Bhaiyya, the grocer from the corner kirana shop in my neighbourhood who I have known since I could barely call my order over his counter. His shop-front was warm and bright with sunlight streaming in, its recesses pitch-black. Kamal Bhaiyya sold everything imaginable – rice, dal, spices, indigo, salt, sugar; even pickles and kerosene. Above his head hung lurid coloured sachets of shampoo, liquid detergents and chewing tobacco. The counter against which we tiptoed to get a look at him was an array of glass jars containing candies in vivid pinks, greens and oranges, plus the occasional cream roll for children like myself.
The neighbourhood I grew up in was poor, with only a handful of middle-class homes (ours was one of them). For those who worked on daily or weekly wages – as domestic workers, electricians and plumbers – food had to be purchased on a smaller scale, and sometimes on credit. For these situations, Kamal Bhaiyya had a thick ledger, adapted from school notebooks, that kept track of everyone’s tabs. Even though, growing up, Kamal Bhaiyya’s shop was my favourite place to escape to, at the time I did not really notice his dexterous crafting of pudiyas. But I remember it now: the way his practiced fingers crafted the cones, each one like the last, as he scurried around. Kamal Bhaiyya had no qualms about tearing open a bag of detergent to sell a few scoopfuls of washing powder to a customer, or opening a packet of kalonji or nigella seeds to sell a handful that would be used sparingly on a puri for special occasions.
By the 2000s, other kirana shops, only a kilometre away from Kamal Bhaiyya’s, were selling sealed bags of neatly weighed flours, rice and spices. This was post-economic liberalisation – when wealth and aspiration had begun to trickle into Indian cities and minds. Houses in our neighbourhood could not expand horizontally, so they shot skywards. Some teenagers (to whom I was a sad outsider) had mobile phones, and we began to know about the Backstreet Boys and Britney Spears. We hastened to pick up fake accents, added ‘ing’s to our Hindi verbs and ‘s’s to our plurals to sound like we spoke English. We purchased ill-fitting, low-riding jeans à la Spears, worn under our kurtas that we shortened as far as we dared.
At home, we hankered for Kellogg’s cornflakes as a breakfast treat and discovered soybean nuggets, called by their brand name ‘Nutrela’. (They tasted like washing-up sponges, but who could dispute food in a box?). We couldn’t wait to be in a spick, new urbane life, unencumbered by the embarrassing poverty of reuse that defined our everyday.
Kamal Bhaiyya’s shop caught up, too. It filled with new boxes of chicory-heavy coffee, branded teas, sugary drink mixes, an assortment of children’s health drinks, half a dozen brands of refined oil, rice, and new spice mixes. Along with them came plastic bags, which arrived in pink, yellow and blue, displacing magazines and newspapers and other paper as primary packaging. In the evening, these bags flew over terraces tied to kite lines; in the morning, they speckled the trash, blocking our drains.
When it first arrived, the plastic bag did not replace the pudiya. Instead, it offered another layer of packaging, meaning you could carry several pudiyas and puddas at once. But in the years that followed, the pudiya gradually faded. In post-liberalised India, which aspired to the exactness that mimicked manufactured Western lifestyles, the emphasis on standardised packaging increased, the price of paper rose, and plastic was cheaper than before. By the end of the 2000s, we saw fewer and fewer sheets of newsprint nailed to Kamal Bhaiyya’s walls.
Something similar happened in 1960s and 70s Japan; here, although the mass-produced new packaging often nodded to old forms, it reduced the idiosyncrasies, aesthetics and actions of wrapping food to the transactionality of visual merchandising and safe compliant supply. In his two volumes, How to Wrap Five Eggs and How to Wrap Five More Eggs, artist Hideyuki Oka, who documented the wrapping traditions of Japan, grieves the loss of wrapping practices, which he believes signify care – not just for the food, but for the person receiving the food. He writes:
Just what are these packages on whose passing we lament? They are difficult to define in words. Actually, the best way to understand them is to see and experience them. Such packages were not the products of contemplation, nor yet of theory. They assumed their shapes over years and years of unselfconscious use and experimentation, which is to say that this packaging is one form of Japan’s cultural heritage.
In his work, Oka also articulates the ineffability of our everyday relationship with this art that emerges from an undefined practice. He notes that losing something so utterly ephemeral can mean that it barely registers.
Outside Indian cities, the wrapping material changes from paper to leaves, bamboo and straw – taking different forms, holding different objects, but producing the same unselfconscious artistry. Architect Shakeel Hossain remembered a woman with a basket of pani phal, or water chestnuts, sitting on the edge of the street in a city in Eastern India. The chestnuts were piled in a mountain on a woven bamboo tray, purple-black in colour after being cooked to help ease the skin’s grip. The woman had shaved a narrow strip along the centre of each chestnut, revealing their smooth, pearly interiors, and arranged them in circles on top of one another. Shakeel was struck by the effort she put into something that would disappear before the day was over. ‘She has peeled each one simply for the visual effect. It rivals Sottsass’s Memphis pattern!’ he said.
This idea, of everyday art present in unobtrusive street corners, is critical to vending in the subcontinent. It is what sociologist Amita Baviskar calls, quoting a vendor: ‘location and look’. The vendors she describes use everything – bright colours, photoshopped celebrity images, artistic geometric arrangements of their goods, and catchy phrases – to get attention. Sarover noted this too, stating that ‘the vegetable vendor who borrows flowers… from the flower vendor [to decorate,] to make a heart over his cart, is creating art.’ On the street, one must amp up performance to be seen amongst the bustle. When I think of the woman with the water chestnuts, I think about how, in a few weeks, the season for the fruit will have passed, and she will move to piling mountains of hara chana or green gram on her woven bamboo trays. She will line these with a smooth red cloth to set off the grams’s bright green, until the seasons demand a new display.
I notice these performances and branding strategies only retrospectively. I remember only now how the vegetable vendors in my neighbourhood in Delhi organised their vegetables in cascades of contrasting colours, propping pineapples behind apples and oranges. I think of how the chaat vendor in Karol Bagh, who vended in steel carts, displayed yellow, green, pink and red fruit – both sliced and whole – offsetting the blinding metal in hot sun. In the market complex in Ranchi, the chana seller had only a small box hung around his neck from which he sold his dish, but his tuneful baritone advertising the snack he sold was so distinct you could not think of the market without him.
As India has progressed into increasingly standardised packaging, many things have faded, as they are wont to, and there has been a gradual silencing of whole lineages of wrapping traditions in their many forms. Kamal Bhaiyya’s shop has moved to a steel-shuttered, glass-fitted space. The cream rolls have acquired plastic boxes and now sell in sets of three. There are packaged, branded loaves of bread, rusks, cakes and soft drinks, which sit beside 5- and 10-kilo bags of Ashirvad Atta and Dawat basmati rice. Despite this, Kamal Bhaiyya hasn’t stopped selling loose. ‘One must walk with everyone. Some of my customers cannot afford big bags of food,’ he remarked to me sagely when I visited him this year. And so, he continues to purchase a small stack of pre-cut sheets to make pudiya for those who request it, rolling them in that traditional way.
Although the pudiya is gradually withdrawing from Kamal Bhaiyya’s shop, its bigger cousin, the pudda, has inspired several alternative businesses and contemporary lifestyle brands to come up with recycled paper bags. But their intentional design and elevated arguments of sustainability remove them from the unobtrusiveness of the pudiya. They become another statement for ‘conscious, sustainable living’ without the quiet economy of care and continuity that the pudiya begets. Pudiyas have not disappeared, as today’s boutique revivalists suggest – they have just become more muted. But with this mutation, the intimacies of dawdling over the counter, deliberating an unnecessary purchase; the shared moment, of holding a large wrap together as another person secures it with twine, are lost.
Most of all, to Kamal Bhaiyya, to countless shop owners, and to me, the pudiya offered pause. It provided a sliver of time in which each package was rolled, allowing conversations to flow across the counter. Time slowed down for a moment, welcoming the calm of deliberate repetition. Among many things, the pudiya is a chronicler of how time works in the subcontinent – warping into stillness when the paper cone is being rolled and filled with food, and bursting into sudden speed when it is taken into the madness of the bazaar.
Farah Yameen is a public historian who writes about our lives organized around food. If you meet her she'll talk to you about food to cover-up social awkwardness. A year later she'll write about it. That is how this article came to be. You can find more of her work at https://farahyameen.com/
Vittles is edited by Sharanya Deepak, Rebecca May Johnson and Jonathan Nunn, and proofed and subedited by Sophie Whitehead.