Last male bastion - panipuri vendor - falls in Nepal

Panipuri

No market, beach or tourist site in India is complete without the panipuri stand where the man behind it deftly deals out the puffed dough ball stuffed with a mouth-watering mixture of smashed potato and spices and dunked in tamarind water that is a hot favourite with the young and old alike.

The culture of the panipuri, also known as gol gappa, has spread to India's northern neighbour Nepal with Indian vendors from Bihar and Uttar Pradesh carrying their ware across the open border. Panipuri, by tradition, is made and sold by men and eaten by women. While men may join the queue of eaters, the panipuri sellers in India are exclusively male.

This is where Nepal, where women form more than half the 29 million population, scores over its bigger neighbour. A group of teenaged students, jaunty in red caps and T-shirts, are now slowly taking over the sale of panipuri, the last male bastion.

Pavitra Karki, a 17-year-old commerce student, is not aware that she is a pioneer. After appearing for her high school exam, the perky teen, like many of her peers in Nepal, began to look for a job till her results came out. She heard that a new sweets and snacks shop in Kathmandu's Maharajgunj area, close to the famed Bhat Bhateini department store, was hiring shop assistants. She went to Misti, the new shop, to try her luck and was selected along with four other teenaged girls.

"I hired five girls to sell panipuri because women have really come up in Nepal in the last few years," says Anand Shrestha, the 32-year-old civil engineer from Bangalore University who, along with a partner, opened the eatery late July.

"They have this amazing can do spirit. Now the government has reserved 33 percent seats for women in all sectors and we have a woman deputy prime minister. Also, women make better employees, being dedicated to their work."

The girls were trained by Raghuveer Sharma, who had been working with Rajasthani sweetmakers Bhikaram Chanmal in Kolkata's commercial Burra Bazaar area, on how to make the filling for the balls and serve them adroitly.

Around 9.30 a.m., the girls arrive at Misti and collect the raw material, including the balls, which are made in Misti's factory, and other props of the trade. They are then dropped at the five locations where Misti runs its panipuri stands.

Besides the parent shop itself, the stands are to be found at the upmarket Sherpa Mall in Durbar Marg, the Blue Bird Mall at Tripureshwor, newly opened People's Plaza at Khichapokhari and at Bhat Bhateini.

The girls are more decorative than the traditional panipuri seller and merge easily with the mall ambience. Also, as Shrestha points out, they are more hygienic.

"Our shop and stands are spanking clean," he says. "And the girls wear gloves while doling out the panipuri. So though a plate of our panipuri costs NRS 45 while the street seller is vending them at half the price, we think the hygiene and cleanliness-conscious will come to us."

How do customers behave at the sight of women panipuri sellers?

"I am delighted," says the wife of an Afghan diplomat who doesn't want to be named. "Since women are the biggest patrons of panipuri, a woman vendor makes them feel at home."

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