Gram flour, rice flour, salt, pepper, and a little water to bind.
Shakunthala uses one hand to pull back her windswept hair and the other to mix the ingredients. She could use a spoon or a spatula, but this is the way I’ve always seen it being done. She evens out the clumps in the mixture; her hand more thorough than cutlery. She turns the ingredients into a smooth ochre paste and then shifts her attention to the large vessel that sits on a portable gas stove.
A burning match ignites a ring of fire, and Shakunthala empties half a can of oil into the pot. As the oil seers, tiny bubbles cling to the inner rim of the vessel.
The sun has set behind her, and the fluorescent lights of her makeshift stall finally overpower the vermillion sky. The sea breeze sends the hanging rows of ornamental chilies into a flying dizzy.
“One plate, Mixed,” I tell her.
She prepares for the order. She slices potatoes, chilies, plantain and onions with the dexterity of a pro-chef. Though her tools aren’t quite as impressive – she uses the scarred back of a plastic plate and a bendy knife – she gets the job done. She douses the vegetables in the paste and then gently slides them into the burning oil. The familiar sizzle can only mean one thing. The bhajjis are ready, served with a side of spicy tomato chutney.
“Mixed Bhajji,” she says, handing over the plate.
I let my toes sink into the sand and take a hurried bite. I burn my tongue, like many times before – the searing strings of onion lashing on my taste buds. The outside is fried to crisp perfection; the inside is soft and nubile. Street stalls like Shakunthala’s are many on the iconic Marina, a 13 km beach in Chennai. And in the days before malls or multiplex cinema halls, this is where the city came to unwind, where lovers united covertly and families let their children run wild.
“It’s the second longest beach in the world,” I would say to visitors.
“It would be the longest in the world, longer than even Florida. But most of the beach is underground, you know” I would always add.
It seemed like a fair argument at that time, one I had borrowed from cousins, uncles, and grandparents.
As Shakunthala fervently slices more plantain, the plastic stools around her stall begin to fill up. I compliment the perfect batter.
She calls it second nature. She has been doing this for fifteen years now.
“Aren’t you bored of Bhajjis?” I ask her.
“ I love it. I eat it everyday,” she says.
“And when I’m sick and I don’t open up the stall, I’m miserable.”
“I can’t wait to come back,” she giggles.
Shakunthala, like other vendors on the beach, has her regulars. But I ask her about her most loyal clientele and her answer is but obvious.
“The lovers” she quips with a knowing smile.
Chennai is still a largely conservative city; the most touching you’ll see is the interlocking of fingers. Yet within the borders of these sands, the rules of conduct don’t seem to apply; the caresses are bold, the kisses abundant and the passion unbridled.The lovers come looking, without access to backseats of cars or last rows in empty theaters, for intimacy in an oddly public place. They hide behind collapsible food carts, man-powered merry-go-rounds and fishing boats – pretty much anything that will cast a shadow and stay steady. And when they tire themselves of the clandestine cuddles – they entertain themselves with a much more publicly accepted gesture of new love – feeding each other. The dining options are diverse – roasted groundnuts, spiced raw mangoes, roasted corn and fried fish. But the bhajji stalls are as iconic as the beach.
And Shakunthala, much like the Marina, plays her part perfectly. She knows a lot of her customers by name – she doesn’t need to write down their preferences behind a plastic cup to know what they want. She’s seen lovers turn into spouses, loud children into louder teens. She’s a veteran of these sands, feeding stomachs and facilitating romances.
I pay her twenty five rupees, the price per plate.
It suddenly seems like quite a bargain.