Food for Joy: Imagining a 'Tasteless' City Narrative
A part of the series titled 'City and Space'.
Written by: Rhiddhit Paul
Illustrations: Pallavi Yadav
The sun rose up above The Forty-two and dust trickled meagerly through the stale, dry air. Tito and his group of delivery boys and girls cycled through the sun-baked streets of Calcutta, weaving through the hunger pangs and waves of nostalgia, eager to simply earn their rations, skeleton legs pedalling relentlessly to deliver the brown-paper parcels and then get back to headquarters. Street lights flickered to a weary stop as abandoned thelas were plunged into the shadows. It didn’t seem quite likely that they would be used again any time soon, courtesy - the ‘Food Revolution’. Artificial food synthesis had been a blessing at the time, and in many ways, it still was. The ability to 3d print any food item from any menu in the world had been instrumental in eliminating starvation in developing countries as well as in eradicating many food-borne diseases. By eliminating human error from food production, accurately calculating the quantities required for next-to-zero food wastage, and working with artificial intelligence, production of one of the most vital human resources had been stabilized. And while stomachs began to fill, a new crisis emerged - the extinction of food poetics. True - the city was finally fed-up and full-filled - not a beggar on the street asking for money - but somehow the nation had been starved in other ways.
Tito cycled past a pile of smashed terracotta cups lying by the pavement. He was immediately reminded of foggy winter mornings when he and his friends had drank their chai at crooked wooden tea stalls manned by the captain and his hand-painted menus, of evenings when they had dragged themselves from Deshapriya Park after a sweaty football match for their plate of Sharma's famous Kochuri, Alur Dum and Lassi, scouring glass shelves of Pantua and Sandesh as splattering oil fried delicacies, quite literally, in the heavens above (or in this case the cramped up kitchen loft). The food he ate, and the places he had dined at, had embedded themselves in his memory, adding to his dictionary of nostalgia, regardless of whether he liked it or not. It was the memory of food that Tito had eaten with his friends and family that narrated poems of comfort now, years later, as the rain poured down and trapped him in unfamiliar abodes of the synthesized soup.
After the revolution, Tito had worked hard to be part of ‘The Delivery’ as soon as he had heard the rumour. He had put his heart and soul into absorbing any fragment of knowledge that could help him save the city and its culture of cuisines. His eyes had run along every word of CJ Lim's ‘Food City’ more times than he had bothered to count. He had analyzed page after page of Steele's ‘Hungry City’ and Orwell's ‘Animal Farm’, hunting for a pivotal idea or a remedy for the revolution. And with this buffet of knowledge, or so he hoped, Tito had finally found himself secretly recruited by The Delivery. Although the crisis had hit each and every nation, it was India, with its network of dabbawalas, panipuri vendors, biryani huts, and chaotic streets of parathas and mithai that had definitely lost a lot. Food just wasn't the same without the emotions of human touch, and the diversity in cuisine that India had previously portrayed just couldn't be matched by new technology.
Tito recalled what his mother had once told him years ago after he had thrown a tantrum about eating with his hands. Why couldn't they just use forks and knives, or chopsticks even, like everyone else? He felt embarrassed to stick his fingers into his rice and dal when all over the world people did it differently. And then as his mother flipped the chapati on the stove, he heard her say "Tito, when I turn this roti with my hands, I put all my heart into it, and all that love reaches you when you tear a piece from it with yours." From then on, whenever Tito visited Tiretti Bazaar for its Chinese breakfast, or Das Cabin for a Fish Cutlet, or the 'parar Biriyani-r dokan' (neighbourhood Biriyani shop), he would be involuntarily immersed in an invisible aura that resonated from the stalls and their chefs, and entered him through his fingers as he picked up a delicacy to relish. Tito understood what his mother had meant. But now, with the new trend in food production, it was rare for fingers to meet food at both ends of the cycle.
As he rounded Park Street, Tito prepared for his first delivery and he saw his teammates do the same. A few years ago, he would have been hit by the smell of fresh Chicken Rolls being served up as soon as he turned the corner, but now he had become accustomed to the lack of aroma. Park Street had once been a hub of food lovers across Calcutta who had come here to experience the English breakfast at Flury's or the amazing grape juice by the tiny Quality Walls stall along the way. Some even came to simply enjoy the music at the Hard Rock Cafe, or at Moulin Rouge while they dined, or even at Trincas where the live music scene of India had started so many decades ago.
But after the revolution, Park Street had lost an incredible amount of its visitors. Without food to fuel it, Park Street had become the haunt of pirated book sellers and CD vendors. The India Hobby Centre had shut down as soon as ice cream had been banned, unable to stay above open without the parlour that had gathered so many families together. Olly Pub, which had once been packed with people enjoying a cold beer and steak was now no more than an abandoned building, shutters drawn down and locked, newspapers fluttering by across its facade, with headlines that read of the extinction of yet another revered recipe.
Tito could see his target up in the distance. It no longer possessed the same charm that it once had, and in place of shelves of cakes and croissants, it now housed an army of cobwebbed chairs and tables, each waiting for the day they could once again host their diners. Yet, Tito knew that behind its derelict state, Flury's was one of the few places in the city that held hope for the future. As Tito drew closer to the dusty glass facade, he rang his bell thrice - the signal. Almost immediately, a young boy donning an old, sauce stained apron ran out of the decaying restaurant, anxiously taking his marked spot on the sidewalk. A few passers-by looked up, surprised to see the doors of Flury fly open again after ages. Tito quickly reached into his delivery basket and took out a brown paper parcel labelled 'Flury's English Breakfast'. It smelled of sausages and grilled tomatoes and hashbrowns, fried in a real frying pan, and it instantly made Tito’s mouth water. The Headquarters had reproduced the smell of the recipe close to perfection. He quickly threw the parcel across the road and into the young boy's hands as he cycled by and waited for his mouth to dry up again. For an instant faces lit up as a bullet of aroma shot across the street. Delivery one - complete. The boy took the parcel and quickly rushed inside to carry out his part of the culinary revival.
Tito checked the mobile application for his next delivery, but today it seemed there was only one. The app he used was old - once utilized as a food delivery applications that connected restaurants and diners. It held all the old menus and contained the most efficient routes between the old restaurants. Sometimes Tito would hardly be able to recognize a restaurant if not for his mobile – the signboards were mostly rusted, with paint chipping off, windows sealed shut with wooden planks. But the application was one of the last remnants of what the food map of Calcutta had looked like - donuts and chicken rolls, deep dish pizzas and maggi stalls, mio amore - it was almost like an encyclopaedia for the team, with all the original logos. For today, however, he had seen enough of the app. With no more deliveries left, it was time to head back to Sienna before too many people noticed what The Delivery had been delivering.
As Tito pedalled upto the Sienna Cafe, he felt a fearful pride for what was going on inside - undercover chefs working somewhere in the kitchen to rediscover lost recipes. Walking into the old cafe, he smiled recalling the stories of the transformation it had faced.It was here that food had helped revive architecture, turning the rundown building on Southern Avenue into a beautifully quaint cafe and craft store. Exposed brick walls and wooden tables welcomed him to a small courtyard that had once been packed with diners, but now lay quiet. He took a seat at a table tucked in the corner, shrouded in the shadows of a bougainvillea plant, with his head in his hands - tired after the morning ride. He could hear cycle bells in the distance as more Deliverers started to arrive back at the headquarters. Tito knew that it was at the Sienna that architecture, art and food supported each other. If anywhere, it would be here that a breakthrough would be made. And as Tito thought this, he closed his eyes and imagined his mother turning rotis in the kitchen, the smell wafting up into the air above.
'I put all my heart into it' she had told him, and he wished she had been here to cook the City of Joy, a big hearty breakfast.