Food

 

 

 

I was hungry. But I wasn’t that hungry. My travelling companion, Tom, grinned and threw an oil-stained food package at me through the back window of the bus. I ripped away the wrapper and looked sceptically at the brown, deep-fried twists with flecks of green. My intense hunger, after a five-hour bus ride, battles a childhood tendency for travel sickness. Flies buzzed around the package. The accompanying bottle of water he tosses in my lap is tepid. I know if I get sick, a mouthful of lukewarm water would offer no respite.

 

I love street food. My real hesitation about eating this kind of street food is that it has been grown in the small obscure town of Pokaran, located in the Indian state of Rajasthan and strategically, near the Pakistani border. The town is not far from the underground site where India conducted its first nuclear tests. There might be radiation in the soil, and the ingredients for my dinner were grown in that soil. The gnarled pages of my Lonely Planet lampoon the nationalistic pride taken in this small town. However, it offers no guidance about whether it’s safe to eat the food.

 

My stomach rumbles. Hunger wins out. The onion bhaji crackles and crunches as I cautiously begin to chew - it's hot, and my mouth salivates instinctively. I gulp my first mouthful . . . nothing. No third eye materialises. No green tinge appears on my skin. I am, in effect, fine. And it’s actually pretty tasty. The motor roars, and the passengers jump back on the bus. Belly full, I settle in for the remaining two-hour ride through the desert to Jaisalmer. The bus is now almost empty, which allows us plenty of room to stretch out across the back seat.

 

As I watch the desert begin to change into deepening shades of red, I happen to glance over my shoulder. A vehicle is following us. I whack Tom to get his attention, not shifting my gaze. It shouldn't be so surprising to see the Indian Army travelling on roads located close to its much-disputed border with Pakistan. But then, being directly eye-level with the barrel of a tank, tailgating you at high speed, is a bit daunting. I swear and laugh hysterically as our bus driver flatly refuses to pull to the left to let the tank pass. After a kilometre of playing nice, the tank does what it is designed to do - heads off-road. It overtakes us partially on the shoulder, before veering back onto the road and cutting us off.

 

Our driver swerves and swears to avoid a fender bender. We brake hard, blinded by dust from the tank's tracks. Bags, water bottles, chickens and people heave forward. Perhaps it's a mixture of staring backwards and the violent swerving, but I get that sudden gulp in my stomach. My dinner makes a spectacular return appearance that I just manage to aim (mostly) out the window. Tom falls over himself laughing: "Mate, I told you you shouldn't have eaten the radioactive food."