I am ashamed, for when Mohua Roy sent me the above picture, I had no clue who this person was, and decided to discard it for her idiosyncrasies. It was unfortunate that she died (Nandita Mitra, not Mohua), but why should I care? Neither the photograph nor the name rang a bell, after all.
Mohua admonished me later for not even asking who the lady was. And then she told me. And the sky came crashing down. This was her. This was the woman I have always wanted to meet but never made an effort to.
Though I had no memory of her name, let her refer to her as Ms Mitra.
For a long, long time I was annoyed at this Ms Mitra, especially during my student days. Her mantra was different from her competitors: though she, or her outlet, never mentioned, the moment you tried out her product you realised she would dish out quality (the best in the world, and I am not exaggerating) over anything else.
Unfortunately, this also meant her products were almost invariably out of my range during my school days. The pocket-money increased as I entered college — but so did the prices at her joint. But whenever I managed to conjure the money, or had managed to procure something as a gift, well, it was magical.
I cannot forgive myself for not knowing her name. I really cannot. For this seems as impossible as using Microsoft products for close to two decades and not knowing the name of Bill Gates. Or not being aware of the fact that Bloomsbury had published Harry Potter. Or not knowing of Thomas Bata (Tomáš Jan Baťa, to be specific).
I had probably taken Ms Mitra for granted. I had assumed the outlet was a nameless, ownerless outlet designed for me. Its products were created for me, and only me — something I knew was not true — for there are thousands, more, many more of them who have craved for that quality-over-everything-else aspect; for when Ms Mitra said quality, she meant it.
How to describe what she dished out for her customers — her immensely loyal fan base? I had made an effort, in vain, in one of my earlier posts. Let me copy-paste:
No chilli sauce. No tomato ketchup. None of that cucumber nonsense. Maybe a few minuscule strips of well-cooked onion, but that’s about it.
It gets unceremoniously dropped inside a brown-paper bag, along with a single green chilli and a slice of lemon. You bribe them and get her released. They do not bother: for them you are just another customer. For you, however, they are demigods who can be bribed to open the gates of the forbidden garden. Now it’s just you and that object of desire in your eager, impatient grip.
Your fingers clutch around the roll. You know it is hot, but you also know that rolls are at their succulent best when they scald the ceiling of your mouth. And then — after a wait that had seemed longer than waiting to catch a glimpse of your first crush on her balcony — you’re there.
She is stuffed it with a precision so magical that not a single cubic millimetre is left unoccupied by meat; your eyes shut automatically the moment your teeth dig close on to her, sending a thrill down your spine. It is like a kiss — only with more reciprocation than any human can dream of producing.
Take a moment here to appreciate the porota; the flour is never left raw, and not the smallest of squares is charred beyond edible limits. They somehow form an idea of the exact level of crispiness you want, they never over-fry, they go low on oil, and execute it with the precision of a surgeon performing a brain operation.
One bite follows another. You now face the infamous Roll-Eater’s Dilemma that has haunted mankind for decades: should you make it last longer or should you finish it while it’s still hot? Ultimately you end up sinning as patience gives in.
The chicken roll does not get a chance to cross the road.
And then, if you’re fortunate, you get a final moment of joy: once you’ve eaten your way to glory, you turn the wrapper upside down with your palm cupped underneath it in frantic hope.
If you have led a life of penance, if you have helped the poor and the needy, if you have never committed adultery, if you have always fulfilled every wish of your parents, if you have never cheated in an examination, if you have never taken personal print-outs at work, there may be a possibility that a piece of meat — the last survivor — may slide into your anticipating palm.
Ms Mitra owned Campari — the greatest roll boutique that has ever existed; and Campari owns me.
Rest in peace, Ms Mitra; you will not remember, but I am one of the many teenagers you had probably seen counting coins on the palm outside your shop in late 1980s and early 1990s.
Oh, and thank you, Mohua.