India's Traditions Hold On With The Chapati Man On a busy street corner in Punjab's capital city, underneath the din of passing traffic, a rhythmic, gentle "slap-slap-slap-slap-slap" carries on a culinary tradition. But India is changing so fast that traditions seem to be disappearing in the time it takes to hit "delete."
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India's Traditions Hold On With The Chapati Man

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India's Traditions Hold On With The Chapati Man

India's Traditions Hold On With The Chapati Man

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This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. I'm Liane Hansen.

It's hard to imagine any places on earth that are changing as fast as China and India. NPR's Daniel Zwerdling visited the country once known as the jewel and the crown of England's empire, and he's in the studio. So I can ask, Danny, what were you looking for - the traditional India?

DANIEL ZWERDLING: Yeah, and these days, Liane, tradition is getting harder to find. For instance, one night I was strolling down the street in the city of Chandigarh - that's the capital of the state of Punjab in northern India - and I could hear it becoming a modern country.

(Soundbite of music)

ZWERDLING: This is a wedding party. The men are wearing traditional turbans and the women are all wearing saris. But the music?

HANSEN: This sounds - it's Bollywood. What happened to Ravi Shankar and his sitar?

ZWERDLING: Yeah, you'd have a better chance of hearing them in a concert hall in the United States. And, Liane, there are chic cafes springing up all over India. You can hear modern India there, too.

(Soundbite of song, "I Love You Just the Way You Are")

Mr. BILLY JOEL (Singer): (Singing) I want you just the way you are.

ZWERDLING: The tradition in India is when you get together with people you share tea, right? But now you go to clones of Starbucks - and, by the way, Liane, you want to guess what this barista's making?

HANSEN: I'm going to guess chai.

ZWERDLING: Frappuccino.


ZWERDLING: Mocha frappuccino.

(Soundbite of laughter)

HANSEN: Complete with Billy Joel. I love it. So, wait, so, did you find the traditional India?

ZWERDLING: Yes. I finally found it on a busy street corner one night. We're right in the middle of the city.

(Soundbite of traffic)

ZWERDLING: And there was the chapati man.

(Soundbite of slapping)

ZWERDLING: Have you ever eaten chapatis?

HANSEN: I think so, but only those found in, like, American Indian restaurants.

ZWERDLING: Well, that's close enough. Chapatis, you know, are probably the staple food in India, and they're one of the oldest foods in the world. I mean, people have been making flatbreads like them for thousands of years. And a grizzled old guy named Tarachand Singh is carrying on the tradition on this particular corner. He hardly has any teeth.

Mr. TARACHAND SINGH: (Foreign language spoken)

ZWERDLING: His son Parveen helps him. He's 19 years old. He says they show up every morning at this corner just after sunrise. They squat on the dirt under a big, beautiful tree, then they light a charcoal fire in a tandoor oven - that's a clay cylinder they bury in the ground. And they make one chapati after another until late at night. They take a ball of dough, slap it into a disc, bake it for a minute or two in the tandoor oven and they serve the chapatis with traditional vegetables.

HANSEN: Is this a restaurant, Danny?

ZWERDLING: Well, not really. The Indians call it a dhaba, and that basically means any roadside place that will sell you food. You know, there's no building or anything. I mean, there's not even a shack. But I asked his son, so, what's on the menu?

Mr. PARVEEN SINGH: (Through translator) We have too many options. One is one bowl of lentils and with that they give you five chapatis.

HANSEN: And how much does that cost, Danny?

ZWERDLING: That will run you 15 rupees, which is just over 30 cents. Or you can get two vegetables and five chapattis, and that'll cost you 40 cents. And, Liane, it's really good food. The chapatis are all hot and blistered and they taste a little smoky. Beside the lentils, Singh makes peas and cheese and spicy tomato sauce. He makes chickpea dumplings in a milk sauce. He dishes it all out on metal plates. And the night we stopped by there are always at least a dozen customers sitting there. They're mainly rickshaw drivers and taxi drivers and day laborers - and they're all sitting cross-legged in the dirt.

Why do you all like to come to this dhaba? What do you like about it?

Mr. MAHUMMAD ARIF: (Foreign language spoken)

ZWERDLING: And that's one of the rickshaw drivers. His name is Mahummad Arif. And, by the way, my interpreter is named Guyan Koli(ph).

Mr. GUYAN KOLI (Interpreter): Here everything is in the open. You can see while they're cooking, how are they cooking it. The vegetables here are very fresh. It's not like the other dhabas where things are not in the open. So what normally happens is that they sell their food from somebody else's leftover plate.

ZWERDLING: You're saying if I ate at one of these other businesses you were talking about, they would take my leftovers and give it to somebody else?

HANSEN: Danny, clearly, your chapati man has scruples.

ZWERDLING: Apparently. And the story of how he became a chapati man is important, Liane, because it reflects the huge changes in India.

Mr. T. SINGH: (Foreign language spoken)

ZWERDLING: Singh says he grew up on a farm that's been in his family for generations.

Mr. T. SINGH: (Through translator) I used to grow maize, barley, wheat, and it was real hard work.

ZWERDLING: And here's the bigger problem: Every time a farm family in India has sons, the parents have to carve up the land so every son gets his own piece. And every generation that comes along, each son's piece of the farm gets smaller and smaller and smaller. India's population, as you probably know, is growing faster than any country on earth. And Singh's son says his father's farm was tiny.

Mr. P. SINGH: (Through translator) It's actually very difficult to survive on small lands because you don't get enough money to sustain the whole family.

ZWERDLING: So, 20 years ago, Singh walked away from his farm and he came to this city. You know what, Liane? Tens of millions of Indians have left their villages and moved to the cities in the past few decades. And, actually, Singh's luckier than a lot of them because he at least has a job. He saw this patch of dirt and he became a chapati man. I want to ask him more questions, but he's getting grumpy.

Mr. T. SINGH: (Through translator) He wants to make the chapatis right now. He's getting restless.

ZWERDLING: So, I turned back to the rickshaw drivers who were having dinner.

Now, I've been driving around Chandigarh the last few days in a car and to me the traffic seems crazy. I mean, there's bicycles and motorbikes and trucks and cars and carts with horses and rickshaws, don't you get scared?

Unidentified Man #1: (Through translator) It is that the situation is very bad here. All the cars and all the big vehicles drive really fast and then they crash into the rickshaws. And everyone says that it's the rickshaw puller's fault and nobody says anything to the person in the car because he's rich and he's got more money. So that kind of injustice is there.

Unidentified Man #2: (Through translator) I'm also a customer here, and the problem is that everyone here - anyone can go and bribe the traffic officer and get a license - a driving license. They don't know how to drive. And that's the reason why you have so much rash driving in this town.

ZWERDLING: And that's an understatement. I calculated that India's death rate from traffic accidents is 35 times as high as in the United States. So, anyway, I'm standing here at this dhaba, and while we've been talking about the insane traffic, I've been hearing some music. And it turns out that one of the customers has been singing while he eats his chickpea curry.

(Soundbite of singing)

Unidentified Man #3: (Singing) (Foreign language spoken)

(Soundbite of applause)

ZWERDLING: Tell me about this song.

Mr. KOLI: I don't know this song because it's in a different dialect.

ZWERDLING: Oh, maybe he could tell you…

Unidentified Man #3: (Foreign language spoken)

Mr. KOLI: He's saying that it's a song about a girl who's wearing very tight jeans and who's wearing a very tight shirt, and you can see her figure very clearly and she looks like an atom bomb.

ZWERDLING: And what was the dialect that he was just singing in?

Mr. KOLI: This dialect is Pojpuri(ph). And dialect, the moment we go about 100 kilometers, the dialect would totally change.

ZWERDLING: It's about 10 p.m. now at the chapati dhaba. Business has been good. In fact, a man just drove up in a fancy car wearing an immaculate red turban. My interpreter says, actually, a lot of wealthy people come here because this corner's near an upscale neighborhood. And residents stop by with their own containers and they get carryout. But Singh's son says his father's not sure if their business can last.

Mr. P. SINGH: (Foreign language spoken)

ZWERDLING: Anyone can tell you that the city keeps growing. It's exploding. There are modern office buildings going up right next to shantytowns. Developers want every square inch. And it turns out that this chapati man has never paid rent on this patch of dirt. His son says they've been squatting all these years.

Mr. P. SINGH: (Through translator) The municipality troubles them a lot, so they don't know when they will be asked to leave.

ZWERDLING: The son is too nervous to tell us the details, but there's an acquaintance hanging out here. His name is Nabdi Arawat(ph). He speaks English, and he tells us about the chapati man's troubles.

Mr. NABDI ARAWAT: Basically this is not his own property. He's paying under the table.

ZWERDLING: Oh, he's paying under the table - to the police?

Mr. ARAWAT: Health department. Health department and environment department, all the people. Some policemen also come, but they are just eat and don't pay for the food.

ZWERDLING: So the policemen eat here for free?

Mr. ARAWAT: Yeah, it's free service for the policemen.

ZWERDLING: And, Liane, with that, the chapati man barks at my interpreter. He says, I want you and that foreign journalist to go now.

HANSEN: You were obviously on shaky ground there.

ZWERDLING: I know, and I felt a little bad about it, actually. I tried to thank the guy, but he made a face and turned away. And then one of the rickshaw drivers came over - this is funny - he was a very sweet guy. And he said, oh, don't let Tarachand Singh bother you. He can act like a jerk, but he makes really good chapatis.

HANSEN: NPR's Daniel Zwerdling, thanks a lot.

ZWERDLING: Thank you.

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