Street-calls and street-vending are still so much with us that we barely notice them. They just about touch our sub-conscious.
This side-show of life in India's suburbs is slowly becoming extinct. Should that alter how we view it?
With shopping malls coming up in neighbourhoods enticing us with glitzy hoardings, lights, air-conditioning and, in Chennai, even with piped Carnatic music, buyers of daily 'perishables' are resorting increasingly to 'malling'. The marriage of the Indian middle-class and 'malling' is like the couple whose highly visible love amounts to what George Orwell called 'washing one's clean linen in public'. What is the street vendor's future?
My mother recalled seeing, as a child, an itinerant Chinese vendor come regularly by their Chennai home crying, 'Silk! silk!'. She would rush out to see him and his yards of silk, only to be asked to come right back inside. As a teenager I used to be drawn to the call of a darner who walked down our street on Gamdevi in Bombay crying, "Rafuwaalaaa-en, rafuwaalaaa-en...". The lifted and nasalised 'en' at the end of his self-proclamation having no role in language but a great part in street-calling.
My attraction towards this wedge of human concourse has been centred on one facet of it — its phonations. The street-calls come straight, no microphone is used. They come from a moving point, no pre-positioned 'speakers' direct the sound. The callers are simple people without any training in voice-modulation, voice-throw.
All this they do by instinct. And practice.
In Thiruvanmiyur, the suburb of Chennai where I live, street-calls virtually set the day.
The most strident of these street-call vendors is a gaunt man who comes on a tricycle laden with his niche ware, leafy greens of every description.
Keerai-k-keerai! Ara-k-keerai, mola-k-keerai, paala-k-keerai, mana-k-keerai, vaazhakkaa, vaazha-p-poo, vaazha-ththandoy Keerai-keeroy!
Phoneticised into Englibberish the call would sound like: Clearay-c-clear! Are you clear? Molecular, Polycular, many-a-clear, Are you clear, Very-c-clear, very pooh, pooh-pooh, Clearay-c-clear,hey hoy!
Keerai is the generic Tamil name covering greens of the paalak type. He also brings banana plant stalk and the 'banana-flower'. Wagner would have placed the keerai man as a bass-baritone. Gilbert and Sullivan would have considered him for their musicals because of the richness of his voice's pitch, the powerful declaiming of his wares and for his ability to vociferate. The 'oy' that he introduces to end his call amounts in punctuation terms to an exclamation-mark with the suggestion of 'Hey,watch out!'. You can't miss him.
In marked contrast is a demure little man,who comes not on but with a bicycle, peddling a single stock-in-trade. This is the finely ground rice-flour with which hearths are decorated, the kolam. This wizened gentleman walks along with his bicycle on the backrest of which sits a sack with its finely-powdered ware and an iron measuring-cup, saying but not shouting
Phonologically this call bespeaks brevity, appropriate of a single-product announcement. Musicologically, it swings between two nishaad-s, corresponding to a very sober judge saying, "Order,Order!"
There is another one-stuff caller in the more congested alleys of Thiruvanmiyur. This is the seller of a ready-to-eat breakfast number, the idiyaappam better known in Sri Lanka as the 'string-hopper'. Our string-hopper seller brings his cooked delicacy in a large lidded bin cannily balanced on a bicycle.
The ingenuity of street-calling tells him that a dull consonant will dullen his trade. Hence, the 'o' and 'ohm' at the end of his call. This hyperbolises his call and gives to it what in voice classification is termed tessitura or texture. Entirely appropriate for as tender breakfast food as the string-hopper.
A rare visitor is the unshelled groundnut seller. Pushing a cart bearing a mound of his ware, ver-kadalay in Tamil, this gentleman personifies mobile plenitude. His call is lullabic, invoking a never-never-time when there was peace,plenty and peanuts. He mumbles his words but I take them to be intoning kadalay and ver-kadalay.
"Kadalay, kadal-ee, ver-ver kadalay".
Which an English family during the Raj would have transcribed in letters being written home as Cuddle-A, Cuddle-B, Very-Very Cuddly.
Sellers apart, like all neighbourhoods in the city, Thiruvanmiyur has not one but several buyers of a product that come street-calling as well. And in what criss-crossing variety !
The paperwala's call can be matter-of-fact as in:
Insistent, as in
Indifferently sing-song as in
Payyyyy-ppo, payyyy-ppo, pazhaiya paaay-ppo!
Querying as in
Or just plain frantic.
The preponderance of paperwalas over the other street-calling vendors who sell, points to the shift in our lifestyles. We are bringing into our homes from burgeoning shops and malls, more than our homes can hold, more than our bins can hold. Insistent or even frantic as paperwala's calls may be, so are our needs to throw and pocket a couple of tenners in the bargain. There is a solitary woman vendor in Thiruvanmiyur. She walks erect, a sinngle basket resting on the coiled piece of cloth over her head. She too sells keerai. "Keerai,keerai, ara-k-keerai,mana-k-keerai," she calls loud enough to be heard, yet not so loud as to sound coarse. A difficult time she must have in this all-male bastion. But she needs must vend. And with what dignity she does it!
In Delhi's Nizamuddin area, where my daughter lives, one sees not just vendors of wares but of rare services as well. One of the regulars is a bead-stringer and another a bread-loaf slicer. Both come calling their skills and render their specialised help at the doorstep. When will showrooms and boutiques, bars and baristas convert these expert street-callers into cameo-posters? Very soon, I suspect.
So, why are calls to be preferred to malls? Not just because they are disappearing, good enough reason though that is. But because they are symbols and representatives of a lifestyle which too is disappearing, a lifestyle where life is more important than style.
Gopalkrishna Gandhi is a former administrator, diplomat and governor
The views expressed by the author are personal