Chikoos are a non-descript fruit; many foreigners would walk past the motley, brown-skinned food without a second thought. Not this gringo; I’d run a mile for a kilo of ripe chikoos.
Though it looks like an unappetising potato, appearances are deceptive. Beneath that thin skin is an exquisite taste sensation – like a cross between a perfect pear, and sweet brown sugar. No fruit salad has ever tasted quite up to scratch without chikoos since I first discovered them.
I may run a mile for chikoos, but I’d definitely think twice before buying a kilo in the midst of a religious procession again. It could cost lives.
A great annual festival was in progress in the South Indian temple town, with hundreds of thousands of pilgrims attending. A cauldron of ghee fired on top of the mountain is the climax of the event , and every day preceeding the lighting fuels the anticipation.
Enormous chariots bearing towering shrines, garishly painted and festooned, are drawn through the streets, pushed and pulled by the faithful with much singing and shouting, banging of drums, chanting of mantras; all help to manoeuvre the contraptions through the crowded bazaars.
With madness in the streets, we weaseled ourselves into a prime position adjacent to the temple gates at first floor level, out of the chaos and overlooking all. Below, the street was packed, with pedestrian flow strictly controlled in each direction; anyone defying the pattern was promptly brought to order by an army of grim-faced policemen .
The white-skinned group gawking down at the procession attracted plenty of eyes; people watching people watching people – the international sport, amusement for free.
In the distance a fruit seller was weaving his way through the crowd, balancing a large basket on his head. Chikoos. Fruit of the gods; a temptation too good to resist.
“Hey! Chikoo-wallah!” He looked up in the direction of the call, grinned in recognition, and edged towards the comparitive calm at the edge of the street.
I hurried downstairs to negotiate. He lowered his basket to the steps, almost full of the blessed nectar balls. We squatted on our haunches to haggle.
“Ten rupees – one dujen.” Moderately exorbitant, to be expected under the circumstances.
“Very expensive. Ten rupees?”
The vendor smiled, almost apologetically, and I accepted. He began selecting a dozen while I rummaged for the price.
The transaction took less than a minute, but a crowd of a couple of hundred had gathered. Foreigners have wandered India for centuries. The sight of one quite ordinary Australian buying a commonplace fruit must have been seen before by most of the throng. No reason to attract special attention, you’d think. Wrong.
I was totally encircled. They gaped and gawked, pressing as close as possible. Enthralled.
It was disastrous. Ten more seconds and the sale would have been completed, the crowd dispersed, but one policeman saw red. The meticulous order of the chaos had been disrupted!
With bamboo staff flailing at everything and everybody, he waded into the crowd, shouting and screaming. Crowd dispersal, Indian style. Bodies went everywhere; children and geriatrics, nursing mothers and bicycles, all head over heels in a mad scramble to dive clear of the heavy stick of the law. The policeman kept coming, working himself into a lather, lashing out furiously.
“One dujen, take it.” With disaster looming, the chikoos were thrust into my hand, the cash pocketted. We swapped meaningful glances – retribution time.
The policeman arrived with eyes bulging, his anger still boiling. My attempt at apology was ignored contemptuously, his attention fixed on the cowering chikoo wallah. Slap, thump, thwack. The poor man warded off the blows ineffectually. No time for hanging around, else I might cop some of the same medicine.
Back up the stairs in a flurry, wondering if the law would follow, to pummel or extort. He didn’t, and I reached my companions shaken and dazed.
The street below looked much the same as it had before the chikoo-wallah arrived, though our viewpoint was definitely the focus of attention. The vendor was hurrying away as fast as his legs would allow. He was no doubt battered and bruised, terrified, but apparently in one piece. There were apparently no other victims of the stampede, more by good luck than good management. We withdrew to the shadows.
The chikoos tasted lousy.