It was the best of times, it was the worst of times.
I only said that because I wanted to quote Dickens for no reason. Oh well, because I had a wonderful year away from home, which meant I led a life spanning two cities.
I was in Delhi, the city that has been built (or rebuilt, I am never sure which one is correct) seven times. I was a student from Kolkata, which meant I owned neither a car nor a gun (for Kolkatans are too lazy to purchase guns); this probably meant I should have had issues maintaining a proper status in the greatest city of India — one that has been built (or rebuilt) seven times, and whose laddoos are, for some mysterious reason, considered synonymous to marriage.
I added to the infestation level in a hostel infested by Bengalis. There we were, marvelling at the broad, Boroline-smooth, sun-baked roads of the capital, home to politicians and bureaucrats and power-cuts and water problems. Thankfully, we managed to avoid all four during my stay in the city barring a slightly uncomfortable 18-hour ‘load-shedding’ in summer.
But let us not digress.
We were pursuing our Master’s, and shared the hostel with wannabe PhDs. These people, despite being infinitesimally more knowledgeable (by this I mean serious stuff; you probably get it), chose to treat us like fellow humans.
They were really nice people, that lot — all of them.
So nice that they decided we should have proper Delhi food. They took us out, and made sure our wallets never left our pockets. I kid you not. Yes, in a city where people have traditionally murdered fathers and brothers, we had the most amazing seniors. In fact, they were so nice that we often thought there was a catch somewhere.
A month or so had passed since our arrival. The seniors seemed genuinely concerned by the fact that we were reluctant to step out of the campus (all we seemed to enjoy was playing cricket in the lawn under floodlights), and decided to take us out. Since the nearest place of any significance was Sarojini Nagar, the destination was a no-brainer.
We loitered around Sarojini Nagar and the market nearby, which was named, rather imaginatively, Sarojini Market. Given that Delhi boasts of names like RKpuram (and, of course, Ghitorni, which I was to find out over a decade after this stay), this came as a major letdown.
The seniors, of course, were disappointed at our lack of enthusiasm. They decided to treat us to something capital (see what I did there?). There was a brief discussion before they came to a conclusion. They suggested something that translated to cold tea.
Mind you, this was 1998. Eating out in Kolkata was restricted to a selection from the Chinese package (chicken fried rice, chicken chow mein, chilli chicken, and chicken Manchurian), the Indian package (biryani and/or naan with a ‘gravy item’), or, on excellent days, continental. Barring dosa and idli, our exposure to food from other states was genuinely limited. Cold coffee (of course, with ice-cream) was not unheard-of, but cold tea?
Yes, I was surprised to find that kulcha was not cold tea, or any form of tea, or anything remotely close to ‘cold’ in temperature. I must have looked extremely foolish, and got away without being ridiculed only because the sex ratio at our institution has traditionally been unfavourable to youthful men in full vigour.
Did the seniors guess something? Perhaps, perhaps not. The kulcha was, of course, delicious. It was unlike anything we had tasted before, for it was a Delhi kulcha, and had probably been created (or recreated) seven times in pursuit of perfection, so our honest, innocent faces (one look at my current photograph will reveal my honesty and innocence) must have glowed in satisfaction.
We came back happy, for we had eaten well (yes, we were satisfied easily back then; contentment started to vanish as adulthood crept into our lives without a warning). Our seniors were happy, for we were happy. And Delhi, the great city with whom the number seven is associated in some way I am never sure of, was happy as well.
A fortnight later, we made the same trip, this time with a purpose: we actually had to buy a few things. Afterwards, the seniors — those wise, generous men — decided to treat us again; and once again they insisted on paying.
We were told it was a delicacy that was new even in Delhi (this was true). This was true, and surprising, for Delhi is the city of all cities, and something had been done it to it a whopping seven times. We were told it was dispensed in a manner we have never seen before (this was true as well).
I asked what it was called. After all, not all names sound like variants of tannin-rich liquids. One of them smiled and enlightened me.
“Softy. It is called softy.”
It was kulcha all over again.