If you have a problem, fix it. But train yourself not to worry, worry fixes nothing. - Ernest Hemingway

Wednesday, 3 June 2009

Street cries

Irwin Allan Sealy writes in his novel Red about an imaginary city: ‘Once upon a time the city, any city meant light: now it means noise.’

Having grown up in an overcrowded metropolis called Kolkata, my immediate reaction to this was: how can a city be quiet? Aren’t cities more sound than sight? Isn’t quiet city an oxymoron?

But then I recalled, once, as I walked alone from a Toronto suburb to the nearest train station four miles away, I heard no sound except cars whooshing past; and I didn’t come across a single soul. But such a conurbation is unthinkable in India.

Light and colours are relatively unimportant in our cites. Many of our houses have faded paint; the shanties that dot our cityscape are invariably in varying shades of dull grey. But we are never short of people or sounds.

A deluge of sounds rushes in as I think of my childhood. …

We lived in a main thoroughfare, where the morning was ushered in not by the Sun God, but the clang of the first tram rolling out unfailingly at 4 AM. The sibilant sound of roads being washed by water jets followed soon. At a street corner nearby, vans would unload newspapers.

Relatives from quieter places found it impossible to sleep in our house. Those who slept doggedly and survived the first tram had to wake up soon: the newspaper vendors would fight noisily to get their quota of papers. And crows kept cawing in the background.

The cinema flash opposite our house was a perennially noisy place. During intervals, vendors sold a variety of small eats, yelling the quality and price of their ware. Not a word of what they said could be figured out, but the place came alive thrice a day.

But not all sound was noise. The tinkle of the bell in the rickshaw puller’s hand had a quaint musical charm.

Lazy afternoons would come alive with lovely street cries. In my childhood, there was a popular barter system in which vendors exchanged old clothes for utensils. Afternoons were their preferred business hours. They would announce their arrival with lovely singsong calls. The barter system survives to this day, but one doesn’t hear them calling out.

Besides, there were men who would offer a range of services like duplicating keys, chipping grinding stones, sharpening knives or engraving names on utensils. Each of these tradesmen had their characteristic cries. The key maker needed no verbal effort: he would clank dozens of keys dangling from a huge key ring to announce his arrival. The men who roughened grinding stones with a chisel shouted: sheeel katta-a-ai. Neither the words nor the tune ever varied. The engravers sang out, basone naam lekhabe-e-e-e-n! Their voice would trail off slowly, only to accentuate the loneliness of the afternoon.

The man I remember most vividly called out mala-a-a-i bara-a-af in a calm, unhurried voice. Punctilious about time, he would pass by exactly at midnight. I never saw him as I was tucked in well before that hour; but whenever I woke up in a dark night hearing his mysterious voice, I would also hear the wall clock gong twelve times before I drifted off to sleep again. In my somnolence, I imagined a slender old man in white dhoti and short kurta trudging along, carrying an earthen pot of kulfi malai on his head.

I often wondered who would buy kulfi at that hour, particularly in rainy nights. One day, when I asked the question to my friend Ravi, he said, ‘Don’t you know? He’s heard, but never seen.’

‘But, why?’

‘How can you see him? He’s only a spirit!’

Looking back through a prism of fifty years, I think maybe, Ravi was right. Perhaps the frail old man in white was actually not human. Perhaps he was a visitor from the netherworld, who reminded us of the long cold icy night that awaits every one of us.

(4 Feb 2007)


  1. Absolutely delicious, my dear Santanu-da and I'm lapping it all over once again but why did it have to stop so soon ? And yes, as I was talking to my very, very, young friend Sayantani, the other day, do you remember the frail man playing on the Ektara during the hot, summer afternoons,,, the tune so magical and mournful and out-of-the-world emanating from his deft fingers? He didn’t seem to be a typical vendor, haggling for a price his ware could fetch, but a being from the netherworld, perhaps, as you have said, deeply engrossed in his strains as if they fused into one! She says she must have seen the same old man in Jadavpur and has even bought a little piece from him, much to the unexpected delight, writ large in his wrinkled face!

    And I could almost hear the strains of "Chai Kancher Gelas, chai kancher gelas" slowly drifting away in the distance and the logman making such longish cries, "Kath chai kar,,, kaaa…ath?"? Most families used to buy fuel wood then, for their cooking chores.

    And the crispy, wintry, sun-bathed balconies , with cricket commentaries of Kamalda, Ajoyda, Pushpen-da being aired in the radio, would invariably liven up by the far-cries " Joi nogorer mowa, nolen gurer sondesh" and we would be looking askance at our aunts, dida….. and swapping anxious glances among us, cousins.

    And talking about the barter, yes, such plaintive calls with a deep blissful, barytone , "Powder-er tin bikri korle duto khelna paoa jaye" resonated in my ears from the simple, long lost, charm of the days we have bid a quiet adieu, Santanu-da.
    Are the long, icy, cold nights already here?

  2. Thanks Kaushik. You have completed my little piece. And I have enjoyed reading your comments as much as you enjoyed reading my post. Thanks once again.

  3. That was lovely post. You have summed up pretty much of past 50 years, through a prism. Your post had a feel akin to reading R.K Narayan.The cacophony of reverberations is so Indian, that it’s the one of the first things a person misses when he moves out of India. And the thriller like twist in the end was just fabulous. I would wait for a short story from you. Cheers:))

  4. Dear Sir,

    That was so beautiful. I have never been to Kolkata but you brought a piece of alive for me! Thank you very much! I still remember the old newspapers guy who used to cry out "paaaaeeeepaaaaaar" in our old neighborhood. This is a beautiful post and reminds one about one's own city's street cries. About how they are all at once similar and different :)

  5. Your piece reminded me of Madhabi Mukherjee watching the street sights in 'Charulata' which I saw just the other day on my mother's DVD player, sitting in my home in Kerala.

    The post took me back to the summer of 1973 when I lay in the hospital bed in South Calcutta wondering what the loud strum I was hearing was. Being a new arrival in the city straight from Kerala, I had not heard the sound made by those who 'fluffify' the cotton in the hard mattresses and put it back was- I hope you get what I mean.

    I 'heard' it in the night again and the sister in her white uniform assured me, like your friend did, that I was hearing things!

  6. It’s so strange that even the spirits could identify the difference! The kulfi-malai vendors have retreated into some long lost world, it seems, unable to endure the heat of the X-generation glitz, perhaps with a sad resignation but permitting no damage to the esteem of their art. It’s a pity, they have stopped visiting the city now. Though, in the present time, I don’t know, if it’s a characteristic of the Jadavpurian neighbourhoods only, but we get to hear these whistle-men, producing an unearthly whine that sends a shiver down your spine, sometime past midnight. They are guards – not-at-all-looking-like-guards guards – trying to ward off dunno-what, who walk with their lathis beating the ground with a monotonous uncanny rhythmic beat in accompaniment to their whistle-moans. But, yes, unlike the kulfi vendors, I’ve seen them, though never their faces. They walk with their heads down – a drooling melancholic stride...

    Calcutta, it seems, gave an ethereal abode not only to her human dwellers but also to the untouchable, un-see-able, sublime nuances that formed her spirit, making her a living, breathing, beauty. But, is Kolkata blessed with this subtlety? The answer is not known. I’ve known only two street cries that try to breathe in life to her: the feriwala, as Kaushik-da has mentioned, and a doodhwala, who passes by the street, facing our mess, during the early hours of dawn, singing: “Bhaja gourango, koho gourango, loho gouranger naam re...”

    But, whether ‘Calcutta’ or ‘Kolkata’, the city is the same,,, and the city seems to say with a sigh, “I’m tired”...

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  8. Thank you all. I have a few things to say in response. Let me start at the end.

    Sayantani, Your comments are so sensitive, I greatly enjoyed reading it. What you’ve said about the disappearance of the kulfi-wallah is perhaps true! His departure may be a more significant change in the life of the city than the arrival of the metro.

    Let me add one point. In my childhood, there were no night-watchmen (at least in our area). That doesn’t mean there were no thefts; but possibly, there was less crime.

    KTR, While translating Manab Jamin, I got stuck at this word. After a brief struggle, I discovered that the activity of “fluffifying” cotton is called “carding”. The 13th meaning of the noun “card” in my Oxford ALD is: “(technical) a machine or tool used for cleaning and combing wool or cotton before it is spun”. And the verb means “(technical) to clean wool using a wire instrument”.

    English apart, you have reminded me of something that I missed. The winter in Kolkata is not complete without the dhunuris. (The craft is called “dhona” in Bangla.) Like the key makers, their street cry too was/is instrumental. They strum their card like massive bass guitars and you can hear them from miles. But you hear (and see) them only during the day. They are creatures of the sun. If you have heard one of them strumming his card at night, well, well, … . The nurse was possibly right!

    Vaishnavi, I am happy to present a piece of Kolkata to Chennai. The city badly needs a good press!

    And of course, I missed the men who called out “khabarer k-a-a-go-o-o-j” in vernacular on Sundays. The buyers of old newspapers cheated as a matter of routine. And I used to wonder why the elders who supervised the transaction overlooked their obvious tricks. Now I know: these men were so wretchedly poor. Often, they wouldn’t be able to pay for the paper they bought; they would leave their balance and weights as security, go away, sell the papers and come back to pay.

    Z, thanks. I will try.


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