Home Delivery by Wandering Vendors & Door-To-Door Service Providers

After I wrote in ‘Nostalgia’about the people who no longer wandered the streets of Bangalore, delivering a range of services and goods, someone else came up with more of such people. I have met these people but I did not remember them when I wrote Nostalgia! Which means they are slowly fading away in my and possibly other people’s memories too. I do want to record their existence for many many reasons.

I want to record them because these folks & professions are now dwindling to extinction or are already extinct.

Because I have seen them but am already forgetting them. I am sure others too are forgetting them and soon no one will ever know they existed. I want the future generations to know they existed.

Because I want the new generation to know how life was in Bangalore…decades before they were born. Because I want people outside of Bangalore to know these people lived and were a part of the fabric of Bangalore.

Because I want a record of these people and professions somewhere…There may be a tiny possibility that these people have figured in some movies in passing or mentioned in some books. They are the ordinary folks who eked out a living by serving Bangaloreans for decades. And with the advent of new technology, new markets & shops, they slowly faded out of the picture. I assume, hope and pray that their kids went on to better jobs and living. (Did you ask me why I assume these people were married and had kids? That’s because, in those days, everyone in India, got married and had kids…be they ever so poor, jobless, handicapped or whatever! I have seen people with leprosy and beggars who were married and had families. Marriage, family, kids…. was a must in India in those days. Protest, as much as you like, yet, your parents, dragged you to the altar!)

The peep show guy: This guy appeared at fairs and Santhes and also wandered the streets carrying an ancient slide projector which provided peep shows. (I am not sure if this thing is called a slide projector). For a small fee (i.e. five paise or ten paise which amounts to less than one US cent today) he would let a person peep through a small hole at a few pictures he showed by rotation. There were a few photos of movie stars and one or two of nude women which were displayed very briefly! The magic for the kids who saw his peep-show was in the machine and also in the pictures. Though I have seen several little boys run up to this guy’s machine, I have never seen little girls run to see this peep-show.

Welder: Another door-to-door person was a welder who went door to door and welded (with lead or tin I think) aluminum and copper pots which had holes in their bottoms. I don’t think , he did a good job, as the hole would open up again in a few days! But it was magical for us kids to see the red hot glow he produced on an itsy bity fire he made outside the house.

Gujriwala: There was another guy who went door to door collecting any old iron in exchange for sweets. He never gave money, however much iron or valuable iron you gave him. People got rid of all their broken iron stuff through this guy.

Yelneer guys: These were men who loaded their bicycles with tender coconuts and walked, pushing the bicycle slowly on the streets of Bangalore. When a buyer came along and selected a nut, this guy made a hole at the top of the coconut with the sharp axe he carried. After the buyer drank the tender water, and returned the now empty nut, he would cut it open with a few deft strikes and scoop out the tender-sweet white flesh of the coconut to eat. The sweet tasting water was cool and refreshing for the thirsty…. and eating the white flesh after the water would fill my stomach and I felt like I had had a full meal! Tender water of coconut is one of the things in India I miss the most!

In palymra season, the yelneer guy sold these purple coloured nuts too. This small purple nut had 3 small fleshy edible fruits per nut. I am not really crazy about this nut as it was bland and had no sweete water like a coconut. He would cut it open with his ax, like the coconut and hand the three fruits to the buyer ; some buyers would but the nuts and break it open themselves at home.

Sonpappdi man: There was also an ancient looking old man, who carried a glass box with a tin lid on his head, selling a sweet called ‘soon papdi’. Needless to say, he walked the streets yelling ‘soon papdi’ as he walked. He dipped his palms in the box and scooped the fibre/straw like stuff when we bought it and packed it in old newspaper or notebook sheets. Today, I would be horrified by the hygiene issues and not buy from him I think!

I have never seen this person I am about to write about but apparently he did exist! This is a guy who went door to door, offering to clean your ears by pouring ‘peacock oil’ in your ears after heating it! I have of course , seen the guys at city market, who sit by the road, cleaning ears of people and some guys also doing dental work on the dirty, busy, crowded streets of K.R.Market! It is terrifying for me to watch so many people routinely offer their ears and teeth to these men, and pay them for the work they do. I do not know how many people have suffered from infections and damage after these cleanings’.

Another set of people are those who carry saris on their heads, wrapped in a white cotton cloth, selling them. Housewives invite them in and look at their saris and buy them if interested. These men tell that the saris are from Coimbatore (a city in the neighbouring state of Tamil Nadu, famous for it’s cotton saris), and extol about the beauty, colour, weave of these saris and also how inexpensive & durable they are!

Of these wandering sales and service people, the person who spends the most time in your house is the guy who makes/stitches your beds. These men are usually muslims and they wander round the city, on cycles, carrying sacks of cotton. In India, beds are made of cotton which is stuffed & stitched in a thick cloth. After years of use, the bed would flatten out into a thin mattress and no longer have the soft cushioning effect. Then the cloth would be ripped open and the cotton beaten manually, with a stick or fluffed up with a hand held machine. To this, additional new cotton would be added and the cloth would be stuffed again and restitched or new cloth would be used to stitch up the bed.

The person usually took one to two days to make the bed and he would sit in the veranda busy with his work and with cotton floating around him. Of course, the women would haggle about the prices and accuse him of using less cotton or worse, using cotton discarded from hospitals! My suspicious grandmother never accepted the cotton given by the bed-maker; she would instead, make him use the cotton she had bought in shops or from a farmer. Thinking, of the bed-maker now, I realize, his lungs must be severely affected by all the cotton and dust particles he breathed in while working.

Another person who would come home periodically to work is the guy who would climb the coconut tree, pluck the nuts and remove the dead leaves and dry twigs for a price. He would of course take the dead leaves and wood for his firewood and a few coconuts besides money as payment. This man would scan your tree while walking on the road and if he thought he could get work, he would knock on your door and offer his services.

In this context I have to mention the crow’s nests he would remove from the tree. The unusual feature of the crow’s nests in urban cities when compared to the nests in rural areas is the material they are made of. From a distance the crows nests of both villages and cities look similar but boy are they different! The urban crow’s nest is heavy and weighs a lot as it is not made of twigs and straw but made of what it finds in the cities….iron wires, copper wires, nuts , blots, plastic, anything it finds and can fly away with! The inside of course is lined with soft stuff like rags, cotton and soft straw or grass but the external part is full of metals and plastic.

Coming back to plucking nuts from the tree…..

My dad was plucking the coconuts from our trees for many years and refused to hire this guy, though the trees got taller (and so more dangerous to climb) and he got older. He finally stopped doing this job himself after dropping an entire bunch of coconuts on the electrical wire and causing power outage for all the houses in our street!

Dhobis were another set of service people who came to our door to serve us. Some men who were fussy with their grooming, would not iron the shirts and pants themselves at home but give it to a dhobi, who would deliver it home. Women, gave their silk saris and the expensive cotton saris which needed starching and ironing to the dhobi as it took ages to iron at home. Remember also that our iron boxes were not heavy, while the dhobi’s iron iron-box, weighed a ton and would flatten out a crease with just one run of the iron box on it.

The snake guy or lady, who went round the streets, carrying a lidded basket with a cobra in it, displaying the cobra… making it sway to the tune on their eerie sounding pipe is another memory. Women and children would ask in awed tones, if the snake did not bite and was it safe to carry the snake (on her head)and child(on her waist). She or he would say how they were protected by the snake gods, or that they had a special herb which would heal if the snake bit or they would say that they could handle the snake without getting bitten.

Dasaiahs who walked on the streets with their single string musical instrument, singing verses in the praise of God or about philosophy or a folk song were another set of people, one no longer encounters in the busy streets of Bangalore today. They had powerful voices which carried far, without the aid of a mike! These singers are still singing for money at railway stations, buses and bus stations and fairs. Some are only kids; some are singers with some handicap such as blindness, not having legs or arms, and so on. Unfortunately, many have terrible voices, which hurts my ears and I would sooner pay them to shut up than sing! I know this is a cruel comment but they were cruel first, with their singing.

There are several wandering astrologers too who predict your fortune and your future. More often than not, they predict gloomy things and ask you to give them money to do a ‘Pooja’ to fix it!

Of course, if you wander in the busy areas of Bangalore, you will see many people making their living on the roads, sitting on the pavements. I suppose you will see such people in any country with superstitions and any country which is still dependent on labour and human skills than technology. Let me write here about a few you will encounter in Majestic and K.R.Market area. Cobblers who repair your shoes and slippers. (In Canada my slippers or shoes have never torn when I was walking. In India on the other hand, so often my slippers broke walking on the uneven pavements with poor quality slippers. If I was in a busy section of the city, I would always find a cobbler within a short (hobbling) distance who would fix it for me immediately!

People selling a variety of street foods…bondas, samosas, sugarcane juice, peanuts, etc are seen in all busy parts of Bangalore. It is heaven to stop (after shopping)in front of a sugarcane stand on the pavement when one is hot, tired and thirsty in the 30 degree Celsius in Bangalore and have a sugarcane juice, squeezed freshly from the cane along with lemon and ginger! Of course the flies buzzing around the cane, the suspicion that the glass has not been washed in running water but dipped in a bucket of greyish water does rattle me a bit, but I put my OCN away for a while to enjoy the juice!

Palmists, astrologers, astrologers with parrots in cages (the parrot daintily steps out of it’s cage picks a card and your fortune is on that card) are another common sight on the streets of Bangalore. In Majestic area, there are men selling semi-precious stones and Saligramas too on the pavements, which supposedly bring you good luck and keep off evil.

Here are three links to disappearing professions in India

Nidhi Duggar Kundalia's book called The lost generation

Since the last several years, a whole lot of plastic household goods too are sold on the streets and I am not going into that. Stuff like plastic bags, plates, electronic items, etc.

Most of these sellers do not have licences to sell on the streets and do so illegally. I feel so bad when I see the police cracking down on them. They hastily gather their belongings and run quickly and those who are not quick enough fall prey to the police. I use the word prey for that is exactly what they are. They are let off after giving a bribe and I do not know how they can afford to give bribes regularly and yet have money to live! Sometimes the police make a huge deal of their ‘crime’ and haul them off to the station. This happens if someone has complained about the pavements being taken over by them and the pedestrians not having any place to walk on except on the streets.

If one walks on the streets of Mysore, especially near the palace, one can see vendors with wares spread on plastic sheets on the street….antique wares such as old coins, old brass, copper and rarely silverware such as vessels, statues, etc. The prices are fancy and these goods are probably meant for the tourist crowds.

Some stuff sold on the streets are related to festivals and are not sold daily. These include things like mango leaves, banana leaves and flowers.

Decorating the front door of the house with a garland of mango leaves on festival days is considered auspicious. Hence people buy mango leaves and vendors sell them at exorbitant prices, carrying them door to door on cycles.

Tying 2 banana trees at the entrance of a house on festival days is auspicious. Also eating on the banana leaf instead of a plate is common on festival days. So you have huge amounts of banana leaves and plants being sold on the streets on in some shops just before festival days.

Items specific to each festival are sold in shops and on the streets before each festival. For example sugarcane is sold before Sankranti, clay idols of Ganesha & Gourie are sold before Ganesh Chaturti; clay lamps are sold before Deepavali, and so on.

These people probably sell on the streets so as to avoid the overheads; they sell on the streets as these items are sold only seasonally and not daily. Also many of these items need huge places to store (such as the banana trees which occupy considerable space; the sugarcane which are over 10 feet long, uncut) and what roomier place than the pavement!

Travelling to other parts of India, one will see other interesting things sold on the streets which are unique to that place. If you visit, villages and cities by the sea, you will see a variety of fish being sold on the streets. Travelling to remote areas near forests you will probably see forest products such as honey from hives, wild fruit and berries being sold in the streets of the towns nearby.

I find things sold on the streets of Bangalore fascinating! The sellers are interesting people themselves, eking out a living. Once I found an old lady selling fresh twigs from the neem tree, tied in a bundle. When I asked her what I should do with it, she told me that it is for cleaning my teeth and that it is better than any fancy smancy, modern toothpaste! I bought her bundle and used a couple of twigs for a few days and then gave away the bundle. In Delhi, I have seen wonderful paintings by poor artists (the artists were from some tribe in Rajasthan) on fabric, done in the Mogul style being sold for peanuts to tourists. Many hand crafted items are sold on the streets in many parts of India by the artists themselves. Not just India but other places too. I just remembered the artists I saw on museum mile in New York, selling their amazing amazing art work to the people on the streets. I felt both guilt and admiration seeing them: guilt about their struggle and admiration for their creativity.

A friend of mine who goes trekking in the Himalayas every summer had told me of semi-precious and precious stones being sold on the streets in Nepal and Tibet and near the foot hills of the Himalayas. I was amazed and could not believe her stories. The fact that there were such huge quantities of precious and semi-precious stones, being sold so casually on the roads was itself amazing. But even more amazing was the honesty of the people there. They would not take their wares back home in the evening but leave it there, with a cloth spread over it and return the next morning! I do not know if this is still true, but I sure hope it is! This place seems idyllic.

This bit about semi-precious stones reminds me of two other things. One is the ‘bandli’(bandli is a wok like thing, made of iron, often used during building construction to carry concrete mix) of assorted semi-precious stones I saw kept on a chair just outside a shop in Udaipur. The casualness of it floored me! The amount of trust the shop keeper had in people must be huge!

The other thing I remembered is the history lessons we had covering the reign of Sri Krishna Devaraya. Apparently precious stones such as diamonds, rubies and emeralds, were sold by the weight, on the streets during his reign! I do know that in mining towns all over the world people are to this day selling precious metals like gold or precious stones like sapphires on the streets but I still find it mind boggling!

I am trying to understand what made me go on and on about street vendors and selling on the streets. I think buying and selling on the streets implies simplicity & directness. And simplicity is something so rare these days. Nothing is simple or direct anymore. There seems to be a whole sequence of things preceding the simplest of transactions in life. Nothing is simple or natural anymore but all things seem to be so processed and over processed now

Simplicity was something I took for granted or maybe I even had a bit of contempt for simplicity in the past. But not anymore! In these days of increasing complexity & decreasing naturalness, I treasure and seek simplicity in all transactions, events and people