His roadside stand is outside a tourist shop in McLeod Ganj, a half hour above Dharamshala in Himachal Pradesh, northern India. He’s alone on this side of a busy tourist street with no other vendors next to him. A general store to his left is shuttered for the night. The painted letters on the front of the stand says Momo – chicken and vegetable dumplings popular in towns across the lower Himalayas. Almost every restaurant and street stand in McLeod Ganj sells momos. The chicken or the vegetable is mixed into a batter in small batches a couple of times a day and then steamed or fried to order. I’ve already eaten dinner, but I wouldn’t mind a small bite.
He’s got a grown out buzz cut, fullish face concentrating on the potato fries in his iron karahi – a circular pot similar to a wok. The wind from the Dhauladhar range of the Himalayas is particularly fierce on this wintry night in March. I’m wearing layers under a heavy jacket, thermals and boots to keep me warm. He’s wearing a t-shirt and old trousers, a light North Face jacket and a pair of worn sneakers.
“Any momos?” I ask him in Hindi.
“All gone, sir, it’s late now, but you can have soup and fries,” he replies.
I’ll pass on the fries, but the man intrigues me. All by his lonesome self at nine o’clock at night on this busy street in McLeod Ganj. Across from him is a Buddhist temple, its prayer wheels silent for the night, absent worshippers. A few meters away, on the other side of the street is a musician, wailing into the night, accompanied by generous amounts of hash and dancing puppet dolls.
Tanzin Thapa is the momo man’s name. From Dharamshala, he says. He’s been making momos in Dharamshala and McLeod Ganj for the past fifteen years.
Before that, “Bahut kuch kiya, labor kaam kiya, khetibadi mein kaam kiya, bahut kuch kiya — I did many different things, I was a laborer, I worked on farms, many different things.”
He’s worked in numerous places, he says, including Mumbai. At Grant Road station in South-Central Mumbai. Three months managing a small restaurant, two months with his own pav bhaji stand at the train station. Pav bhaji is a roadside snack for those on the go – a thick curry of mashed vegetables served with toasted, buttered bread. Light on the pocket, heavy on some stomachs.
Tanzin has also worked as a laborer in the famous Haji Ali mosque off the coast of Worli in South Mumbai.
He’s forty-eight years old. Of Nepalese origin, and a Pentecostal Christian. His family lives in Dharamshala, a wife and two children – an eleven-year old daughter and a fourteen-year old son. He works around five to six hours a day.
“Seven days a week?” I ask.
“No, I work six days. On the seventh day, I take a rest, like the Lord,” he says with a smile.
Five to six hours of work each day is enough to get by, Tanzin tells me. Some days are better than others. Some days are tough. “Today I made only a hundred rupees. What to do?” He laughs. A hundred rupees is the equivalent of a dollar and a half.
A stray dog comes up, familiar to Tanzin. It gets a couple of fries and goes on its way. A couple more dogs come by, but they’re shooed away.
“Business is bad today, but I can’t give it all away to the dogs,” he says as he chases them away. “Tomorrow it could be a busy day and I need to have fries ready for customers.”
He waves at me, head tilted to the side with satisfaction, even with a hundred rupees from a full day’s work. I take his leave and wander off to the wailing musician with the dancing puppet dolls.
© 2019 Marlon de Souza. All rights reserved.