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Chaat in a jiffy

Conjuring up delicious puchkas and pav bhajis, the chaat walas, mainly from Bihar, have integrated well with Chennai's rich cultural ethos.

IT IS Sunday evening. There is a delicious aroma in the air and a long queue to savour the variety. Bhelpuri, dahi chaat, alu chaat, samosa, dahi puri, pani puri, pav bhaji, grated carrot, freshly chopped onion, sliced capsicum, boiled potato and a huge tava with vegetables being sautéed atop a burner — a delectable and colourful array of food is displayed on a long table.

Welcome to the chaat shops that are a vibrant part of the city's restaurant business. Walk into any locality and you will notice that a chaat shop is a permanent fixture. From ice cream parlours opening a chaat window to a three-star hotel setting up a chaat corner, chaats have arrived in a big way in Chennai.

And who are the men behind the business? Migrants from Bihar run most of the chaat shops. Conjuring up delicious puchkas and pav bhajis, they have integrated with Chennai's rich cultural ethos that assimilates and reflects aspects of different cultures. Bhirender Singh, who works in a hotel, makes a plateful of bhel puri in minutes. He has studied up to Class X. ``But the others who have come with me have not studied that much,'' says Singh, fiercely proud of his educational status. He has made Chennai his home for the past three years. The hotel he works for takes good care of him, he says, but he has not brought his family along with him since his wife doesn't know the language. Instead, he visits her once a year when he gets an annual leave from his employer.

``There are more than 5,000 of us who have come from Bihar, especially from Nawada district,'' says Ishwar Singh, who has travelled throughout Tamil Nadu before making Chennai his home. Ask him about the migrant population, and he says that the Bihari population in Chennai is perhaps much larger than his estimate, going by the spread of the city. ``Don't forget that some of us also sell those special mitha paans,'' he says.

Chotelal did not know how to make chaats and samosas. But when his relatives told him it was a lucrative business, Chotelal decided to come to Chennai. ``Chennai is so far away from Bihar. I would love to work in Kolkata.'' But he acknowledges that it is distant Chennai that has provided him with an opportunity to eke out a livelihood. ``Language is a problem, but more people talk Hindi these days. A Bihari friend, who has been residing in Chennai for the past 10 years, now speaks fluent Tamil. I have picked up a smattering of the language," says Chotelal.

Most Biharis feel that the lifestyle in Chennai is quite different from that in Kolkata. Though Kolkata is closer to their hearts, they feel that people in Chennai go out of the way to reach out to them. ``Quite a few customers make it a point to tell us that what we have prepared is very tasty and this makes us happy.''

``Though I was not happy initially, I have begun to like Chennai now,'' says Bhirender Singh. Adds Ishwar Singh, ``I save whatever I earn and send the money to my village for my children's education.''

Come Durga Puja, most of the Biharis meet at the Bihar Association, which organises cultural programmes on all the five days. ``We even get to hear Bhojpuri numbers, as the association arranges for artistes to come all the way from Bihar to Chennai. After so much mazaa it is back to the business of making chaats,'' says one of them.

LATA RAMASESHAN

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