This was when I used to live in London as a student. Came summer, at 3 every afternoon I use to hear a tinkling jingling bell passing my window. That, I learnt much later, when I actually stepped out to see what it was, was the ice-cream van. Now the ice-cream van was the only thing I ever saw in the UK which came to where you lived. Unlike what one is used to in India (a I never tire of reminding my friends who live abroad) where everything comes home.
Not so much any longer though. Now I shut the door after my husband leaves for work; my maid is just leaving or has already left. And there is no one who rings the bell, almost no one who does it everyday at a particular time. I live in an apartment; the security guy keeps the vendors away and calls me from the gate to see if I do want to see any other visitor who may have dropped by.
Not like when I was growing up in Madras. Not in a match-boxy apartment, mind you, a sprawling house in a quiet tree-lined street deep inside the heart of Adyar. (we never found it easy to call it a bungalow, somehow it was only a house, it never measure up to our idea of a bungalow – when I describe it to my friends now, I always gesticulate with my hands to show two stories – palms facing down one slightly above the other). The day was one vendor after the other – and it surprised me now how I remember each of them by their sounds… even though I cannot remember any of the faces.
The tinkling jingling thingy then was the sonpapdi man – with his huge bell jar full of wispy, melt-in-the-mouth, come-find-heaven sonpapdi wrapped in a newspaper cone. And to off-set that lingering sweetness was the peanut vendor, his long flat spatula going clang clang against the large rusty (I know it now, who cared then!) kadhai on top of heated sand… And completely forbidden, the Joy ice-cream vendor with his kucchi ice (ice-cream on a stick) the thought of which makes me sick now. And made me yearn for when I was young. Especially since it was forbidden; who wants “good ice-cream from a shop”? bah! I want this white paal-ice (“milk” ice-cream).
Then there were the others I didn’t take such a personal interest in but found fascinating nevertheless. The knife-sharpener, for some reason called the saanai pidikkaravan (I have no idea what this means) with his large wheel what acted as whetting stone; nothing was use-and-throw then – those were the days of resharpened knifes and aruvamanai (which is an implement very difficult to describe – rounded knife, almost like a scythe, fixed to a wooden base – I used to astonished at the speed with which my grandmother, and to a lesser extent my mother, chopped all kinds of vegetables on it).
And in the early mornings also came around my own personal bogey-man, the cobbler. Now the cobbler was not in any way hideous or particularly frightful; his sales cry was jodi-repair (repair the pair – as I figured out much later) which when he uttered as his drawn-out booming cry sounded to my ears like jadi-peyi – roughly translated means, a ghost inside a jar.
The keeraikkaran in the mornings with his range of green leafy vegetables tied on either side of his bicycle. So utterly dependable I remember my mother putting the dal to be cooked on the stove and then waiting for him to turn up, so she could add the keerai to the cooked dal just in time for the dabba.
And the lovely old lady with her huge basket carried on the head on top of an old towel rolled as head support. If the keerai man was our morning supplier, she came by only in the late afternoons. Straight from the whole-sale market, she would insist. She practised all her English on me; all of seven, I was very impressed and we had several interesting conversations, I learning from her as much as she did from me (if she did, at all). Tender snake gourd, baby, tell grandmother. Stern grandmother of course never bought any of this tenderness and drove a hard bargain; baby in the meanwhile, too ashamed to admit she did not know what a snake gourd was, waiting till amma came home from work – amma, what is a snake gourd?
There were also once-a-month visitor visitors; the old newspaper and plastic buyer; my grandmother used to clean and save old milk bags till one day, after many many years of trying to stop her, my mother put her foot down firmly on this. And then the champion of all commerce – the paathirakaaran – the man who bought old clothes and gave in exchange a shining new but very small utensil. I suspect this was the chief source of entertainment for my grandmother and she used to await his arrival eagerly. Are there no clothes to throw away, she used to keep asking my mother. This is too small, I have given you so many clothes, give me that cup also. And the vendor – ayyo amma, I will become bankrupt, I have to feed my children… don’t do this to me. And so on it went for several hours.
The pookaaramma, Janaki paati; her son and daughter-in-law her thrown her out of the house and she made a living by going from home to home selling flowers. My mother was a regular; Janaki paati only had to drop by at our place every evening at five and leave the flowers on the gate. Unless we needed something extra or special, in which case I would be made to hang around the gate, waiting for her. She is one person I do not remember making any sound, she was seen, not heard – which is possibly why I remember her name and face till now.
She was the last vendor of the day; commerce for the day was considered officially closed after she left. And then all we had to do was to wait for the next morning, with its reassuring round of selling and buying to begin all over again. I do not see any of them now, not in Madras, not in Bombay – a few vegetable vendors perhaps but mostly stationed on street corners. Not the jodi-peyi man, not tender vegetable sellers. Not even Joy ice-cream.