February 29, 2020
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Song Of The Streets

Before the advertising jingles filled our heads with nagging tunes, there were the calls of vendors and some of them have stayed with me...

Song Of The Streets
The first human voice I hear every day floats up with the thump of the newspapers landing on our balcony. Accompanied by birdcalls from the park, it sings out in impromptu rhyme, "Lo ... o ... o ..." he always yodels, "gajaar ... mataaar ... tamataaaar ... o ... o!"

One summer morning out of curiosity, I stuck my head out and checked his offerings. He had no peas or carrots on his thela and only a dozen tiny tomatoes sat apologetically between glistening brinjals and spinach. But the sabjiwala still sang on with the optimistic invitation of all pheriwalas.

Before the advertising jingles filled our heads with nagging tunes, there were the calls of vendors and some of them have stayed with me longer than the odes to Thums Up and Bajaj. Most vendors prefer elongated vowels delivered at the top of their voices except one sabjiwala who used to wander in Green Park. Always clad in white dhoti-kurta he would push his cart into our lane in silence and then suddenly bark out in a staccato baritone, "Sabjay!" Silence again for a while and then again in that burra sahib accent, "Sabjay!" It was like an army havildar snapping out "’tenshun!" and it always made people turn and look at him.

Then there was the jeera-pani man in Daryaganj who got us out of the house on summer evenings, thirsting for his tangy, fiery drink. The earthen pot on his rickety cart was wrapped in a wet, red cloth and garlanded with lemons. The old man’s thick glasses magnified his eyes as large as a cat’s and every year he lost some more teeth but the song came mellow as monsoon showers, tuneful and seductive: 

"Lo dekho yeh agai bahaar
Hamare chale aana
Yeh jeera pani wala!

How can you resist someone singing, "hamare chale aana..." even if he is half blind and toothless? And the muddy brown jeera pani was tart with lemon juice and chilled to perfection. My father often wondered how it would taste with a splash of scotch.

Luckily for the Dilliwala, the vendors are still with us. My Sundays would be so dull without the kabariwala’s serenade and the "Karpayat!" of the Kashmiri on a bicycle cart, perched precariously on rolls of carpets. And there is the thin gent on a bicycle with mysterious bits of metal hanging all around his handlebars. It took me a while to decipher his call, he repairs, "peshun cookkaar... sto...o...ve!"

Some vendors have vanished like the man who put lead lining inside brass pots and called out, "Kalaaai karwa lo!", the chaatwalla and his "paani ke batashay" and the pavement entrepreneur announcing, "banian garmiyon ki shaan!" I miss the Jat villagers, with faces like carved statues, who came carrying giant bow-like contraptions on their shoulders, twanging the metal string like itinerant minstrels. They were the dhunaiwalas who fluffed up old cotton wool that was stuffed into quilts. As the courtyard echoed to their twanging, bits of cotton would float about like snow and it said, "Winter is here."

I discovered a unique vendor one afternoon while hanging around the Indian Oil Bhavan on Janpath. The cacophony around the stalls selling clothes was unbelievable. One man jumped up and down yelling, "Tee-shirt le lo pachas rupaye!" The next one had a chorus of two boys thumping away, "Sub kuch le lo ... pachas rupaye!"

In the middle, in an island of utter calm, stood a Sardarji solemnly holding up a placard that declared, "Rs. 50/- ONLY". He stood there, grim, unblinking, expressionless and completely silent. And people would stop, stare, smile and walk up to his stall. Maybe in this maddeningly noisy city, the best way to drum up business is not to drum at all.

This article originally appeared in Delhi City Limits, December 2007

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