Thursday, August 02, 2007
Itinerant vendors' calls
As a child living in the city, I had as companions the calls and cries of the itinerant sellers of all kinds of wares and services. Like the automatic routines of nature, each day also consisted of the appearance of these itinerant vendors at one’s location, at specific times, to the accompaniment of their distinctive call and /or associate sounds (the creaking of a wheel of a cart, the hissing swish of a key-maker swinging his ring of keys, the twanging of the bow of the cotton-carding mattress maker...).
These calls had a persona of their own, and formed part of one’s universe of awareness. Each time of the day, for a child, has its own character and pace. The egg-seller going along hurriedly in the morning hurried one to leave for school. Some periods are languid and drag, with an undertone of unease and sadness. The street-seller’s call at that time would simply be part of that, made better known by that. Some periods beckon and are impatiently awaited, so particular calls buoyed up the spirit as heralds of that approaching time.
Scores of calls and sounds. One implicitly liked some calls. And the rest were all simply known, accepted as being part of the order of things. A distinctive sing-song of an old-newspaper buyer would be compelling, automatically making one sing along, silently, or quite loudly sometimes, with exaggerated flourish. Some made one rush to the veranda or gate, to have a look at the passing dancing-bear man, or snake-charmer. The piercing melody of some melancholy popular song from the one-string-violin-man; the occasional baul, with his belt of song pregnant with resonant words; the old violin-player, who just walked by slowly at night, playing a haunting tune, stopping at a junction and playing a while, and moving on; or the kirtan singers, single or in group, with just a pair of small cymbals, or quite elaborately equipped, with a harmonium and a dholok drum; or the pilgrims to Tarakeshwar announcing service at the holy feet of Lord Siva …; all these nourished one's sensory apparatus in so many ways.
During summer holidays spent at my grandparents' in Madras, though we lived in an apartment in a high-rise building, one was awakened in the morning by the cry of the vegetable seller on the road below, elaborately describing all the varieties of spinach he was purveying.
In one’s consciousness, each call was an entity, with a personality, that was often more real than the real person associated with that sound. Like a face, a temperament. If one – or one’s folks – had any interaction with a vendor, it was like getting acquainted with someone one knew about, from his call.
The writer RP Gupta had memorialised the itinerant vendors of Calcutta in his Kolkaatar Pheriwalar Daak (Calcutta’s Sellers’ Calls). One’s heart goes out to the man for paying this loving tribute to the companions of one’s childhood.
There are almost no more such itinerant vendors now. All kinds of changes have taken place. One is assailed by the blasting horns and roars of cars, motorcycles and buses racing by. Some vendors have adopted carts and have a cassette player and loudspeaker playing at an oppressive loudness, with an ugly electric syntheticity. But interestingly, some of these also do have a distinctive narration. And the same narration, for a magical balm brought out by a particular babu, promising instant freedom from chronic, torturous pains, is heard in another part of the city as well. And thus one realises that some disembodied voice now has attained wide electric outreach, beyond earlier possibility, through the efforts of other voiceless itinerants.
Photo: Itinerant Vegetable Seller, Kimbei Kusakabe,Yokohama, 1880.