I have been traveling to India for 17 years and am often asked what it is about India that brings me back time after time. If I'm feeling expansive, I'll talk about the friends I've made there, the work I've done,the feeling of mastery that comes with learning a new language, and learning to be comfortable in a culture not my own.
If I need a quick answer, though, I say that I return for the popcorn wallah.
It's not that I am a popcorn fanatic in my US life. I eat popcorn at the movies, for a late- afternoon snack, or sometimes for dinner if I'm feeling cranky and uninspired.
But when I am in India, I will eat popcorn daily if I can. I do this because I love the popcorn wallah.
Sometimes the popcorn wallah does double duty as a roasted-peanut vendor, and sometimes popcorn is his only ware. Sometimes he parks in a regular spot on the road, and sometimes he travels, clinking his iron stirrer against the pot to announce his presence.
His wooden pushcart has a metal canister wired onto one end of it – and in this a small fire burns. On top of it sits a large cast-iron wok filled with hot sand (or, sometimes, hot, gray salt).
He throws a handful of kernels into the sand, and he uses his sieve – a large screen, round and flat with fine-mesh wire stretched across it – as a shield to keep the popcorn from escaping. When the popping has ceased, he scoops the popped kernels up with the sieve and shakes all the sand out. Then he slides the popcorn into a bag made of old newspaper and hands it over.
If you say taaza (fresh) in a pleading sort of way, even if there is a mound of popcorn already popped and waiting, he might pop some fresh kernels – just for you. One rupee's worth is a taste – a large handful. Five rupees' worth is about as much popcorn as I can eat at one time, and so that's what I usually ask for. Ten rupees' worth is popcorn for a party.
"But isn't there sand in the popcorn?" people inevitably ask when I describe the popcorn wallah's methods in loving detail.
"No," I reply simply, because there isn't. Never once have I crunched upon an unwanted grain of sand, and – given how much popcorn I've eaten over the years – I think this should count as proof. Besides, I am convinced that the sand imparts some flavor that is sorely lacking from the ascetic air-popped popcorn mostly eaten here in the US.
A Westerner, perhaps especially a Western woman, buying popcorn can be an attraction in India. One afternoon in Udaipur, I found myself surrounded by a group of young Indian men, all watching me intently as I waited for the popcorn wallah.
"Do you find popcorn interesting?" I asked in Hindi, and they all laughed, the intensity of their gazes diminishing. When I walked through the streets afterward, popcorn in hand, the usual calls of "Excuse me, madam," seemed fewer, the popcorn serving, somehow, as a shield.
A few days later, I waited while the popcorn wallah finished a batch for five Tibetan women, all dressed in traditional dress. In turn, they all waited to make sure the popcorn wallah didn't try to cheat me, to tell me that a five-rupee bag of popcorn cost 10. Once they were sure I was being treated fairly, they left, tossing kernels discreetly into their mouths. If I were an academic, I might write a paper on popcorn as a cultural equalizer.
When I lived in Varanasi, I rushed out of my apartment to the roof terrace every time I heard a stirrer clinking against a pot, hoping I would see the popcorn wallah in the alley below.
Unfortunately, popcorn wallahs hardly ever seemed to make it to my neighborhood, so on days when I was grumpy and needed something to cheer me up, I would bike several miles in search of one.
The one time a popcorn wallah actually appeared in the nearby alley, I was so excited that I bought 10 rupees' worth instead of five and shared it with my landlord's children. For days afterward, the 9-year-old would look at me plaintively and remind me how much he loved popcorn. "But there is no popcorn without the popcorn wallah," I would say, and he would nod sadly, both of us popcornless.
On returning from every trip to India, I say that America would be a better place if there were popcorn wallahs here. But I'm not sure that's true.
I love the popcorn wallah because I love the popcorn. But even more, I love the popcorn wallah because he takes a mundane, familiar thing and makes it new. And this, of course, is one of the joys of traveling, of spending time someplace that is not home. I don't think I will ever tire of the ingenuity, the simple pleasure of the popcorn wallah – just as I still haven't tired of the occasional elephant lumbering down the street, no matter how many I've seen.
On my most recent visit, I was in the car with friends the day after I arrived in Delhi. I squealed upon my first sighting of a popcorn wallah. "Oh, popcorn?" they said, puzzled. "You want some? OK." And they handed some rupees out the window.
They didn't understand. They live in the land of popcorn wallah, and they can't see what I see.