Swara Bhasker on her lifelong relationship with fast food

I returned home to Delhi last week for a short break. At the end of a sumptuous meal presided over by my mother, she smiled and said, “Dessert is a surprise.” Always a sucker for dessert and abandoning my insincere resolution to start dieting again, I promptly took a bowl and spoon as ma brought out a takeaway glass of Nirula’s signature ‘hot chocolate fudge’ ice cream.

One bite of the cherished childhood favourite, and I felt the cliché moment of being transported by the familiar deliciousness to a time bygone. Nirula’s is India’s oldest fast food restaurant chain. Based in north India, Nirula’s first opened in Delhi’s Connaught Place in 1977; incidentally the year that Indira Gandhi withdrew the Emergency. There was always a sense of celebration and freedom (to choose) associated with the restaurant.

I encountered Nirula’s in the early nineties. It was the first few years of liberalisation and the Indian consumer market still wore remnants of the restrictions of the past.

My brother and I went to Nirula’s for the first time when I scored full marks in a test, and convinced my mother to make our father take us out for pizza. He relented, and we drove on his off-white Vijay scooter to Connaught Place. Soon the two Bhasker siblings were standing in front of the counter of Nirula’s, staring up at an unending list of food and drinks, and peering down into a display full of ice creams. My crayons didn’t have as many colours as the ice cream varieties that Nirula’s offered.

We knew this was a rare outing. Who knew when one of us would score perfect marks in a test again! At home, ma would give us choices—between two kinds of healthy dal and three kinds of green vegetables! The decision of what pizza to eat took on the weight of matters grave. “Okay, come now, decide you two!” prodded the father who must’ve wanted a smoke. We read the menu again and I decided on the mutton sausage capsicum onion pizza—now a Nirula’s classic. My brother decided to go for the golden corn chicken pizza.

“Ha ha tere pizza mein capsicum nahi hai (Your pizza doesn’t have capsicum),” I taunted my brother, overcome with the wicked delight that comes from the certainty that your sibling will have a less satisfying culinary experience than yours. Then scared that he, being the greedy pig that he was, would also want a piece of my pizza, and our father would ensure that I shared—I exclaimed hurriedly, “No sharing!” My brother frowned, because this was his modus operandi. Now he was worried that my pizza would be better. He turned to my father and said tugging his sleeve, “Papa, mujhey bhi mutton sausage capsicum onion pizza chaahiye (Even I want mutton sausage capsicum onion pizza).”

“Copycat!” I hissed.

“Shut up!”

“You shut up.”

“Stop it you two,” warned our father and we simmered in indignation.

Brother and I sat quietly awaiting our exact same pizzas. Fifteen silent minutes later two medium-sized pizzas appeared. We bounced in our seats as our father warned us not to burn our fingers and tongues and bit a little too soon into our respective pizzas. That taste of the first restaurant fast food I ate has stayed with me forever. We ate our pizzas, by the end stuffing ourselves only so father would not ration the amount down to one from two pizzas the next time.

I fell back in my chair exhausted from over-eating. Father looked at us and started to get up. My brother stared and whined, “Papa, ice cream!”

My father frowned and looked at me. My tummy had a dull ache from being stretched to capacity. But all children know that parents function on precedent. Not wanting ice cream was not a precedent I wanted to set. I nodded.

And, thus, began a lifelong relationship with fast food, a symbol of small joys, a prize for minor achievements and, in recent times, a consolation for the many heartaches, disappointments and difficulties that adult life brings.

The writer is an award-winning Bollywood actor and sometime writer and social commentator.