The gorgeous snack, Alu Muri, brought largely by Bihari immigrants to Shillong was an intrinsic part of our childhood culture. It was an outcome of the mix of cut boiled potato pieces, tamarind juice, muri (puffed rice), shredded radish, onion, red powdered chilly, and a particular black masala which delivers the distinct taste of the snack. All of this results in a spicy and addictive snack which steals you away from conscious existence for the few minutes that you consume it.
When I first started falling prey to alu muri about twenty years ago, I’d buy it for 1 or 2 Rupees; now for the same quantity, I’d pay 10. One would eagerly collect the 1 rupee and 2 rupee coins, often given by charitable adults like grandparents,aunts and uncles and imagine the ultimate moment the coin metamorphoses into alu muri melting in your mouth.
However, alu muri was also perceived to be an unhealthy junk food, not so much because of the contents and their nutritional value but because it was a roadside snack. A few schools even started banning its consumption, calling it “unhygienic”. Perhaps the argument of hygiene was valid to an extent, perhaps not, but the way we were threatened by school authorities for being seen standing in the queue, waiting for the sinful snack was plain ridiculous. If there had really been an epidemic of school children falling ill, medically proven by this snack, I would understand. But there was no such thing as far as I remember.
So I shall safely assume, two decades after those delicious transgressions after school, that this aversion to the sight of alu-muri-eating school girls arose purely out of a disgusting middle-class sensibility. I remember some teachers and relatives scolding us saying that we girls, in the particular “honourable” (read “prisonlike”) uniform we were wearing, looked shabby and graceless. The alu muri it seemed, tainted and assaulted the dignity of our great school. This argument also becomes revelatory of the hypocrisy of this logic of care for students’ health, as promoted by the school since the same people would not say anything if they had witnessed us eating the snack in our home clothes. This, therefore, catalyzed the era of Lays and Uncle Chips consumption amongst kids- the junk food which were considered safe and dignified enough to match with the uniform.
Alu muri is a snack that is also a site of race politics, apart from class. Because it is sold primarily by Bihari hawkers, the flag wavers of Khasi identity (often men), would produce a rhetoric against alu muri in the name of hygiene and also the classic argument of “loss of livelihood” because of these “outsiders.” So the Bihari alu muri hawkers steal jobs of locals by selling a Bihari snack. Many would also attribute the dirtiness of the snack with the very identity of these hawkers, equating “outsiderness” with the lack of hygiene.
Till date, alu muri sellers are constantly harassed by State authorities, especially representatives of the Municipal. However, the snack lives on in the streets of Shillong, surviving against structures of class and race. And as I type this in my Delhi apartment, I salivate with unquenchable longing for alu muri and those recalcitrant childhood days.