Radio-Activity

May 22, 2008

One of the closest friends during my growing-up days was Murphy. A loyal friend, always reliable (well, almost always) and ready to sit up with me through the night as I struggled with the exam preparations. (I have always been a night person as you can guess). And Murphy was one loyal entertainer! Now a long forgotten name, Murphy used to be a leading brand of radios in those days. And we had one of the most gorgeous sets ever, valves and all. Squarish one, with round knobs for volume and frequency setting. A knob for shifting from Medium Wave to Short wave 1, 2 and 3. The panel also had a neatly printed list of stations the set carried; Dacca, Hyderabad, Delhi, Lahore, Karachi etc etc. It never failed to amaze me as to why the cities, long separated from India still found a mention on the panel. Maybe the radio was produced so long ago, maybe not. I wonder why I never questioned this of my parents.

 

Good old Murphy was the only source of entertainment we had. Never mind it took some two minutes for the valves to warm up before we could hear any sound. No TVs those days, record player with its 33 1/3 speed discs out of reach, cassette players were few and far between. (The days of WaIkman, Ipod and MP3 players were far, far, far away!!)

 

And Mr. Murphy lay nestled on my study table ready to provide all sorts of entertainment. There was this BBC Hindi news to start with at 8 pm with the much adored Ratnakar Bharatiya coming on at 8:10 pm just after the news. After Sri RB’s extensive commentary on the day’s events, it was time for the 8:45 pm Hindi news on AIR. If the news was riveting enough, I would continue onto the 9 pm English news to hear the husky voice of Lotika Ratnam or the baritone of Mellvyn D’ Mello. But of course all this was to lull the parents into the belief that I was onto some knowledge-gathering exercise… listening to news and all that. The real trick was to log in as quickly as possible to stations broadcasting Hindi film music. It was Radio Nepal at 9.20 pm, half an hour of good film music with Nepalese ads interspersed. The one jingle I remember even now is the ad for Vicks Vaporub which the voice-over claimed as the one remedy prescribed by the docs. And then followed (now that parents were deep asleep) the search for more stations broadcasting Hindi film songs. There was this “Bela key Phool”, followed by the foreign broadcasting service airing songs to the Pakhtoon (or was it Baloochi?) audience, Then the broadcast to the Russian audience and so on…) I remember that till four in the morning one could go on tweaking the frequency dial to coax more and more stations out of Mr. Murphy.

 

The key trick was tweaking (pardon the alliteration). It required years-and-years of practice the deft turn of the wrist to turn the dial not in degrees but in minutes and seconds. Each gut-wrenching and (micro) muscle-bending twist would unveil for me a new frequency and consequently a new “station” to enjoy music from. As if the frequency dial was not villainous enough, I would have to reckon with the treacherous “aerial” end which had to dexterously engaged into the fixture at the back of the radio so that the painstakingly tweaked waves would find their way into the radio. There were some bad days as well when despite the dial manipulation and the aerial adjustment, all we could hear was the static on the radio. The key trick was to bear this out till such time, some station, some frequency would yield the mellifluous notes of Lata Mangeshkar’s ” Jhoom, jhoom dhalti raat…”. Or “Duniya mein jab aayein hain toh jeena ho padega…” The organic chemistry book filled with aldehydes and ketones and alcohols (still a 2 dimensional version in the chemistry book) would be cast off to drift away……..

 

The greatest delight our Murphy offered was the undiluted pleasure of listening to Binaca Geet Mala… Wednesday-after-Wednesday. Amin Sayani was the most awaited guest in my room for the entire week. The whole week was filled with debates with friends and classmates as to which song would top the charts that week. Home work would be done well in advance even much before the Vishesh Jaimala for the soldiers ended on Vividh Bharti. A well-thumbed diary would be pulled out along with a pen. A fresh sheet of the diary would be marked with the date and the vigil would begin for Amin Sayani. And then he would sweep in at 8 pm sharp preceded by the signature tune of the program. How I wish I could write down the notes of this tune, that nerve-tingling overture to the program. And then his dulcet voice would croon into our ears (volume being kept at a reasonable low despite the fact that parents knew what I was upto at 8 in the evening on Wednesday), ” Behno aur Bhaiyo …” The magic would start! I would keep a careful note of the ascending and descending “payadaans” (steps) and the hour unfolded its set of revelations on the top-ranking sixteen songs for the week.  The “sartaj geets” and the “super-sartaj geets” were all reverential noted down with the erratic strokes of the “ball-point” pen. His jokes would be laughed at, his Aunt-Wendy kind of advice would be filed away in memory (in our grey cells, there was no computer C drive those days!!), and all his Jhumari Talaiya listeners (or the Raj Nandgaon ones for that matter) would be envied as they would find a mention in his interjections. Ah what a joy a toothpaste and a radio could get into our lives.

 

The radio proved to be our most loyal companion all through the night!

 

And then happened the real radio-activity.

 

One night (early morning, really!) my mother happened to wake up something like three in the morning. Wondering how my bedroom’s light was on, she marched right in. There I was, slumped in my chair, trying to coax out a Baluchi or a Russian out of my Murphy.  Half asleep. A quick shove to Murphy and down it went, along with all my dreams. The end of Murphy sahib. Fission at its cruelest. Murphy fragmented and broken heartlessly. The panel, the knob, the aerial fixture and the radio cabinet.. all given to the considerable fissile forces thanks to mother’s shove to Murphy off the table! Murphy sahib. RIP!

 

The “Bush Baron” bought subsequently after all our requests could hardly match the magnificence of Murphy. Would love to hear from anyone who has had an experience otherwise!

 

 

 


Cinemania 3

May 22, 2008

I have always been an avid reader and a quiz buff as well. So it was natural that I would devour film magazines and ferret out all kinds of trivia on movies. There was Filmfare and Cine Blitz. And in Hindi, Madhuri and Mayapuri. And Picture Post. Not to mention the movie columns of sundry family magazines, Dharmyug, Sarita et. al. Buying the magazines was out of the question, renting it out from the local circulating library was the done thing. Old man Bhatia of the local “Bhatia Book House” would even give me credit! ( As an additional revenue generating exercise he also inducted me into reading adult literature, both in Indian English, and colourful Hindi- you understand what I mean, but more about those at a later date!)

 

And then there was the great venerable film weekly from the Indian Express group of publications, Screen. Screen was a broadsheet and if you are not familiar with it then let me tell you about it. If you were a Screen reader, you were one of the following: someone seriously involved with film-making (making is the operative word here, this was not for actors but for people who were involved with the making process and had to keep a close track of what was happening in the industry), or a serious movie buff, or perhaps a lunatic! Maybe I was a mix of the last two. This paper carried detailed stories with headlines like “Serious Shortage of Raw Stock Facing the Industry”, “Yashraj Films’ production no 4 goes on the floor”, “Mukta Arts Combines’ 3rd schedule completed” “Last song of XYZ movie recorded” and other such matters of grave importance. Gossip, you would not find any at all. Not a word on Dharmendra/ Hema, Amitabh/ Rekha. Nothing whatsoever on Katy Mirza (oh dear!!) unless she was completing dubbing of her movie or taking part in schedule 5 of production number 3 of Banner X. All this would be read thoroughly by me week-after-week-after-week.

 

There was another attraction in Screen; the weekly Q&A column. Serious readers with serious intentions would ask serious questions to a serious columnist who would give equally serious answers. “Scrutator” was the columnist’s name! Not the type of frivolous Q&A indulged in by Shatrughan Sinha in Filmfare. Sample this: a reader from Kota, Rajasthan, asks, “Is the film industry closer to heaven or hell?” Scrutator’s profound reply: “It depends upon the state of the individual”. Amen! The best question of the week would fetch the enquirer a prize of Rs 25! Before you scoff at this amount let me tell you something. Those days the cinema ticket cost Rs 3.15. Add to that 15 paise for the cycle stand charges and 25 paise for a cup of chai in the interval you arrive at a per movie cost of Rs Rs 3.65. So that gives you at least six movies, and some change to spare for subsequent copies of Screen.

 

In an inspired moment I too dashed off a question to Screen, an inane question about popular film heroes coming from the North and popular heroines from South. And in an equally inspiring moment the columnist gives an equally inane answer about how the South Indian heroines dance their way into the hearts of people and that this was the film industry’s contribution to national integration!!  But more importantly, Scrutator selected my question as the best question of the week! Good news did not end here; no question had been awarded the prize the previous week, so I was warded the jackpot, Rs 50!! “Double pagaar” as they would say in Jamshedpur! Much joy on seeing my name in print plus winning the jackpot as well! I do not quite remember what I did with this money except that I treated my sister to “Madhumati” at Regal. The rest of the money must have funded some more movies and magazines. Or some such constructive stuff.

 

I zealously followed this up with four questions in one postcard to Screen. All questions got published but no prize this time. And then something happened! My brother who was then studying away from home was alerted by one of his hostel-mates that one Santosh Ojha of Jamshedpur was a frequent contributor to the Q&A column in Screen. Prompt came a mail (those days mail meant a hand written letter, chitthi) to me admonishing me on such activities when I should have been concentrating on my studies! I was much chastened, but did not give up! With a never-say-die attitude I continued with my queries, but now under aliases. A couple of the aliases I remember are “O. Pandit” (as in Ojha Pandit) and “O. Santosh”! Some questions got published, some did not. But never any prizes. I could never have a repeat of the beginner’s luck, ever again!!


Cinemania 2

May 22, 2008

The earliest memory of my love for Hindi cinema is chasing the black-and-yellow taxis promoting the newest film release in town. That was the way movies were publicized in Jamshedpur. A taxi would criss-cross the streets with a speaker installed on the taxi roof. (Remember those speakers….dark grey steel cones with an extended snout in the center?). Songs from this forthcoming film would blare through the speaker and an announcer in his raspy voice would announce the date of the film release and the timings. I have always wondered about why they ever announced the timings; all movies in every hall would always start at 3pm , 6pm and 9 pm. There were just three shows a day. The biggest attraction of the taxi chase was the fistfuls of movie handbills they would scatter on the streets. I can remember movies like “Shahid Bhagat Singh” (the Manoj Kumar one) and “Bhoot Bangla” getting publicized thus. All of us kids would scramble- trampling over each other- to grab as many of these crumpled handbills as we could. A fierce competiton really…. “my-collection-is larger-than-yours”! Once home, these handbills would be tenderly patted flat and placed under the mattress for “ironing”. Handbills of course were letterpress printed on cheap semi-transparent paper. I wish I had preserved the handbills. They certainly would have made me a lakhpati in this era of film memorabilia auctions! Sometimes I am astonished to see my sons exchanging Pokemon cards; this is exactly what we used to do when we were kids. But the objects of desire then were those handbills!!

 

There was something else I possessed which would had certainly made me a millionaire, my collection of film song booklets! Song booklets were a big thing for movie buffs those days. These were printed on letterpress on yellowing newsprint paper slightly larger than your standard A4 sized paper. Hawkers on the pavement just outside the theater would sell them for 10 paise (MRP later raised to 15 paise). The “cover” would have a smudgy still taken from the movie (nothing printed on such paper could ever be non-smudgy!). As you unfolded the “booklet” you could read the lyrics of the songs of the movie. One idiosyncracy of the booklet publisher (someone in Tardeo, Bombay) was his economy with words. Like, for example, if the song went “Gapuchi-gapuchi, gum-gum, kishi-kishi, kum-kum” (remember this Trishul song?), what you would see in the booklet was “gapuchi-2, gum-2, kuishi-2, kum-2“). I am serious!! The digit always in Devnagari and not the Roman script. Thankfully, for “Kabhi Kabhie” they did not write the movie name on the cover as “Kabhi-2“, perhaps the official differential spelling of the two Kabhi’s misled them into believing that these were not the same words, who knows! I assiduously collected booklets of all movies I would see. Once in a while when I would be rich (like when close relatives would gift me Rs 10 or so) I would also buy film song collections which went under names like “Kishore Kumar ke Behatareen Naghme“. But I can tell you these collections were not as exciting as the booklets. (Recently, when I compiled a CD of my Beethoven favourites as a gift to a friend of mine and labelled it “Beethoven ke Behatareen Naghme” my friend did not like this nomenclature one bit! Poor soul!!). Unfortunately, in a moment of insanity, during a pre-diwali cleaning exercise I threw out the collection. The yellowing, decaying paper was becoming difficult to handle. Maybe I should have had these preserved chemically. I certainly would have had I known there would a great demand for such stuff later.

 

There is something I have preserved. While it will not fetch me any money in an auction, this one is a treasure trove for anyone researching the movie-goers of Jamshedpur in the late 1970’s! A 1977 diary, edges cracked and the sponge and the cardboard below the blue rexine cover peeking out. And, as you peruse through the diary, you would notice the meticulous manner in which the diarist has captured the ongoings of the period with utmost diligence. You will find a listing of all the movies I have seen during the period, complete with the date and the cinema hall where I saw it. You will know, for example, that yours truly watched first watched “Amar, Akbar, Anthony” on 8th October 1977 in Jamshedpur Talkies. And that this was repeated at the same venue on 12th October and on 30 November. (It may also be interesting to note that the first two viewings were just days before the final ICSE exam and the third viewing was the day of the completion of the exam. I did a reasonable job with my ICSE, thank you for asking!). On further perusal you may also notice that I saw a re-run of “Mughal-e-Azam” March 2008 on 3rd, 6th and 8th, all at Natraj. (Much after my ICSE exams, thank you once again). And if you were to be really adventurous and would plunge further into my diary, you would notice the annual listings of “Binaca Geet mala” (The title song of “Ankhiyon ke Jharokhey Se” was the numero uno song of 1978. (and you would notice in a small highlighted box on this sheet that Kishore Kumar had the highest nomber of songs -solo and duet- in the 1978 countdown; 15 songs, Rafi had 10. The music composers Laxmikant Pyarelal had 11 songs, RD Burman, 7 and Rajesh Roshan, 6, Bappi Lahiri merely 2!!). Mail me if you wish to know about the lyricists’ successes?

 

My elder brother, as usual, had the last word on this. In another context he saw a sample of my meticulous record-keping and wondered if I was planning on a career as a store clerk. And that was my end of record-keeping!


Cinemania 1

May 22, 2008

Edifices of Ecstacy: The Cinema Halls of Jamshedpur

 

The cinema halls of Jamshedpur were where we would be ensnared into the magical world of Bollywood. You may want to know that this was the era of the 70’s, far removed away from the TV, internet and video games; our only entertainment outlets those days were radio and cinema. Dharmendra was still garam; and what was even more “garam” were the quartet of Amitabh, Vinod Khanna, Shashi Kapoor and Shotgun. And for the more curious readers we shall talk about the garam actresses of the era later!! This story is not about heroes and heroines but those silver screens where we would see our favourite actors- the cinema halls of Jamshedpur!

 

Jamshedpur those days had just five cinema halls, Jamshedpur, Karim, Basant, Regal and the then pride of the city, Nataraj. While Jamshedpur, Karim et.al. were called “talkies”, Nataraj had the singular honour of being called a “cinema”, Nataraj Cinema. This alternate descriptor somehow endowed to Nataraj a “new-age” feel. And new-age it was. Nataraj was touted by us as the international face of Jamshepur; an airconditioned cinema hall! And by virtue of this Nataraj would command a premium for its seats. The class which would otherwise cost Rs 3.15 uniformly across all theaters would be priced Rs 3.75 (actually an exotic amount like Rs 3.72 or something). What’s an extra 60 paise for the air-conditioned comfort. The added advantage of watching a movie at Nataraj was that one could stroll into the popular Bombay Sweet Mart right across the lane from the cinema hall and partake of some good masala dosas. (BSM was also the favoured snacking joint for the family on our rare-rare outings to Bistupur Main Road till one day my mother discovered the waiter using the bunch of forks in his fist to scratch his back. That was the end of BSM for us!)

 

Jamshedpur and Karim were perhaps the oldest halls in the city and probably also the most primitive in creature comforts; ripped seat-cushions (sometimes no seats, just a seat number!), creaky fans and leaky urinals…. you get the idea, right? But the redeeming thing about these two halls was that they happened to screen all the hit movies (Sholay, Amar Akbar Anthony, Hum Kisise Kum Nahin etc etc). And if the movie was a super-duper hit then it would play on both the screens, Jamshedpur and Karim. These two halls were located together and probably shared the same projection room. (The precursor to multiplexes?) So I can well imagine the projectionist putting reel one of a movie in, say, the Karim screen while the manadatory “newsreel”/ Vicco Vajradanti ads were screened on the Jamshedpur screen. Then when the reel one got over at Karim, he would place it in the projector for the Jamshedpur screen. Or some such arrangement.

 

Regal was housed in a magnifient building right next to the (then) called Regal Maidan. (I think the maidan is now named after Mr V. G. Gopal, the Tisco union chief). Regal somehow managed to get not-so-hit movies. It also had this curious pricing strategy. Typically cinema halls price the front benches the cheapest and the rows away from the screen would be priced more. And then the floor above this is the balcony class priced even more and then came the DC class (which I think was there only in Nataraj those days). Regal had yet another floor above this and curiously enough was priced only slightly higher than the front benches! Actually once you succumbed to this so-called “bargain-class” balcony you would know why they had priced it low; level of this floor was so high that I reckon one looked at the screen at a downward angle of 70 degrees which, to be frank, was rather taxing on ones visual alignment. One lasting memory about Regal is about the day when we were seated inside Regal waiting for the Rajesh Khanna starrer “Aashiq Hoon Baharon Ka” to start. Just before the lights were to dim, a man leapt on the stage (yes, the hall had a stage in front of the screen) and slashed the screen with a large knife and quickly ran away. What was remarkable was the calmness with which the seated public took this episode; no panic, no rush, no tension. It seemed as if this was a pretty common day-to-day affair! (not quite true in my experience. I had seen knives come out a couple of times outside – the bone of contetion being jumping the queue, but never inside a hall). We all filed out of the hall and lined up to take back our refund. Of course we returned to Regal after a few days to watch the movie. We could notice the stitch marks across the screen. When we were coming out of the theater after the movie was over, I told my friend, ” Perhaps that slasher the other day was not a vandal, but actually a good samaritan; that was his way of telling us to save our money by skipping this lousy movie!”

 

Basant Talkies, located at the most vantage point in the busiest market place (Sakchi) had doleful crumbly look about it. The frontage of the theater was a large collapsible grill which gave the building an even more hideous look. And the concrete edifice in which the grill nestled was forever plastered with film posters, old and new. Basant perhaps specialized in family fares, or maybe I have this impression because of the movie Jai Santoshi Ma which ran there forever!

 

Did I say five cinemas in Jamshedpur? There were actually eight if one counted the ones in the outlying areas as well. There was Star (run by the Jamshedpur/ Karim conglomerate I was given to understand) near the station and Goushala at Jugsalai and Shyam Talkies at Parsudih. These cinema specialized in re-runs of old movies and were pretty heavily patronized by me in my zeal to catch up with the “oldies” which I had missed as I was born a few years too late to have watched them in their first run! So what if Star and Goushala talkies were rather far away from home, I had my faithful Avon cycle to pedal on! (Shyam Talkies, Parsudih was a bit too far even for a person of my enthusiasm) particular remember watching a re-run of Padosan at Gaushala. I had gone with a close friend of mine who (unfortunately for me) had seen the movie earlier. Before Kishore Kumar (or Mehmood, or Sunil Dutt for that matter) would appear on the screen and unleash the next funny one, my friend would exclaim “Arey, beta, ab dekh kya hoga” and would slap me on my left shoulder. (he was sitting to the left of me). And the slaps would be rather hard coming as it did form this dear friend who was the school javelin throw champion. After the interval I was glad to be able to interchange my seat with his so that my other shoulder would now bear the burden of his excitement!

 

May one should add the ninth cinema hall, the travelling cinema! Yes, we still had the travelling cinemas those days; I am not sure whether they exist anymore, at least in Jamshedpur. Some club or society would decide to raise funds for their use and would pitch a tent in an available open space (it was perfectly the done thing to block off a street as well.). The publicity was via a broadcastor moving about sitting in a cycle-rikshaw announcing the time and the location for the cinema. We would descend on the location well before the start of the cinema and occupy the sheet metal chairs (upper class) and sometimes squat on the dhurrie right in the front of the screen (lower class). There was another way to watch the movie free-of-cost which I never had the courage to try: perch on the nearest tree overlooking the screen! (Old timers may immediately notice the similarity of this arrangement with what they would routinely notice outside the Beldih Club walls on weekend evenings).

 

Multiplexes these days are fine, I love going to them with my wife and kids and spending half my monthly salary on popcorn bags and Pepsi glasses, not to mention the ticket prices in serious three digits. But will I ever have the joy of sitting with other sweaty fans, eating chiniyabadam and welcoming Amitabh Bachchan with claps and hoots and whistles as he appears on the screen ready to light the explosives with his bidi and intoning in his baritone “Jo har roz apni maa martay huey dekh raha hai use maut se kya dar lagega….”? Probably never again!


Street Calls 2

May 22, 2008

Just after noon and Bhagat ji would appear up the road, clanging his bicycle bell. Rain, thunder or lightning, Bhagat ji, our local postman, would appear, ever his smiling self, distributing mail to all the lucky recipients. Entire families on the road would lean out from their rooftops (“chhat” in Hindi) awaiting their mail. Bhagat ji was sensitive to their needs and would console the unlucky ones by telling them “Aaj nahin hai, kal aayega zaroor…“! The young boys (and girls) who would be expecting love letters from their dearest ones would  already have visited the local post office and claimed their letters from Bhagat ji from near the mail sorters’ window. Ditto for all the retired folks who were expecting money-orders from their sons working in distant lands!

 

Somewhat around the same time reached the much awaited newspaper-wallah. The arrival of this most welcome vendor would vary depending on the time Steel City Express arrived at Tatanagar from Howrah. You see in those days no newspapers were printed in Jamshedpur. We would rely on the Kolkata (then called Calcutta) editions of “Statesman” and then subsquently “The Telegraph” for our daily news fix. I clearly remember the tinkle of the newspaper person’s bicycle was distinctly different from that of Bhagat ji‘s cycle. And if there ever was any shred of doubt, confirmation came through a gentle thwaack of the rolled newpaper landing onto our chhat. Sometimes the otherwise impeccable throw of the paper-wallah  would go awry and the newspaper would descend on the top of the ventilator of the ground floor or worse still, on the terrace above our floor. God forbid if this happened during the monsoon season; it would take us a whole hour untangling the wet newspaper and ironing it into some readable shape!

 

The icecream guy had this knack of appearing late afternoons when kids were getting back from their schools. Pushing a boxy cart rolling on old scooter wheels, this guy would bang hard on the cart-lid to entice the kids to buy his lollies. Price points varied but were eminently affordable. Three paise for the coloured sweetened bar of ice (the colour would leave a nice, pink, lip-sticky effect for hours after the candy was consumed). The five-paise bar had some milk component and the ten-paise one had, in our opinion, real cream! There were icecreams in cups also, but these were generally unaffordable. We would rationalize that biting the icecream off the stick was a far more enjoyable experience right from the first bite (which left the teeth tingling) till we sucked the juices off the bare stick bereft of any ice. Sometimes even chewing it a bit to facilitate near hundred percent extraction of the juice! The cleaned-up icecream sticks were collected (some off the street as well!) for school where they used to come in handy for the maths teacher to teach us units, tens, hundreds and thousands. The teacher would carry a slotted box to the classroom. A bundle of eight sticks (tied together with a rubberband) placed into the second slot of the box (“tens” place) would assume a value of eighty while the same bundle in the first slot (“units”) would be mere eight in value! You get the picture, right? (So that was a classic case of “aam key aam, guthli key daam”)

 

A much awaited street visitor would appear on the street, heralding the start of a fresh new evening. This genial person pushed his glass-walled wooden bakery cart up the road (it always amazed me why he pushed it up the road and not rolled the cart down the road). He had this pink rubber horn attached to the cart handle which went “poooon…keee, poooon…keee..”. Depending on his urgency, the horn could rapidly go.. “poonki-poonki-poonki….” like a beathless runner taking quick gasps of breath. The cart itself contained the most pefect bakery items. Two paise for the rusk, three paise for the pink asterisk-shaped biscuit and five paise for the creamy flat one. Kids would rush down clutching coins and take their pick. Those who could not manage the funds would just hang around the cart gaping at the goodies inside. Many of the elderly customers would buy the wax-paper-wrapped loaf of bread which went, I think, for 25 paise. Bread consumption was reserved in our family only for the ill or the convalescing.  An erratically “toasted” slice (toasted on a tawa) was soaked in a bowl of milk, a spoon of sugar added and had by the spoonfuls. This is what even the doctors recommended when the mandatory question was popped to him after he scribbled out the prescription. “I do not feel hungry doctor sa’ab, what do you suggest I eat?” And sure enough the recommendation was the bread+milk combo and when once the strength begun returning (taaqat waapas aa jaye), rice and watery daal. Barley water with a twist of lemon was another favourite advice of the doctors.

 

A little later in the evening appeared the Madrasi vendor duo, one selling jasmine flowers and the other the dosa-wallah. Madrasi, of course was the descriptor of all those from the south of India and speaking in a strange language. An alternate to this was Telangi which I much later discovered was an appelation for the Telugu speaking people (from Telengana?). (It was even more later- only when I begun working- that I discovered there were different regions within Andhra Pradesh: Telengana, Coastal Andhra and Rayalseema!). Anyway, to return to our vendor duo, the first to appear was the flower seller, carrying his basket of malli poo (jasmine flowers). “Malli poo, Malli poo” he would cry out at regular intervals inviting ladies to buy the flowers from him.

 

Soon after him followed the much awaited dosa-wallah. This guy would push his open cart equipped with an oven (chulha) and a hot dosa-making tawa. His way of announcing his arrival on the street was to bang the spatula with a well-practiced unique beat (clang, clang, clang. clang-clang). A quick “ai dosa-wallah” from the customer and he would stop at the gate while the former ran up to the cart with a plate and a bowl to carry the dosa and the sambhar for a pre-dinner repast. I swear that the Jamshedpur dosas are the best in the world; and I am saying this after having travelled into the deep interiors of the South in my working career. The Jamshedpur dosa is much thinner than what you would find in Chennai or Bangalore. The batter is slightly fermented lending a unique slightly-sour taste. The potato filling is well-seasoned and generous with no lumpy pieces inside. This with a generous helping of the thick spicy sambhar would make any other snack pale in significance. ( It was only after a bit of haggling with the doas wallah that you could get more than his initial serving of sambhar and chutney; in fact the haggle was a routine part of the dosa buying experience!)


Street Calls 1

May 22, 2008

It is fascinating how some sounds stay with you forever. Stray, everyday, mundane and inconspicuous sounds. Never noticed when in close proximity. But when far away in time and space, they come back to you with an intensity which amazes you. Personal, distant. Urgent, languid. Call-to-action, or just informative. Aromatic, bland. Melancholic, euphoric. These sounds keep coming back all the time. Sorry, maybe I sound too poetic, or silly, or worse still, both! So let me tell you what I am talking about.

 

Mornings would start with the milkman (gwala bhaiya, or Yadav ji (or in our Bhojpuri-speak; Jado ji), depending on the relative age difference between the addressed and the addressee) banging a stick against the cluster of cans of milk he carried around the sturdily-engineered rear carrier of his black Hercules bicycle. He would recline his cycle against the telephone pole in front of our house and would give a loud whack to the can (called “cane” in colloquial Hindi). He would choose the requisite vessel in which he had the optimal milk-plus-water-mixture commensurate with the price-per-liter he had negotiated with my father. We were free to chose the rate of “milk” (Re 1 to Rs 3 per liter, while he was free to choose his most profitable milk+ water mix!).

 

This guy indeed had a charming smile and would also have a word of encouragement for the kids in the household and  respectful salutations for our parents. He would even tolerate silly jokes we used to make on the quality of his milk supply: “Do you water to milk or milk to water…?”. His roots, called “des” colloquially in Jamshedpur was close to the place where my parents were born and hence a commonality of language and lots of kinship. He would also periodically deliver, gratis, fresh milk of newly lactating cows. This would be converted with ladle-fuls of sugar into a delicious dessert over low flame by my mother after hours of stirring.

 

There were frequent arguments about the quality of the milk delivered the preceding day. My mother would alternately insist that the milk curdled, or the milk tasted sour, or that the milkman had added far too much water into the milk. The standard answers, delivered always with utmost respect and a deferential bow were: curdling could be due to trace presence of unwashed detergent in the milk vessel, sourness is a matter of personal taste at a particular point in time so why blame the milk, and the milk he provided to us (the dialogue “sirf aap logon key liye, khaas kar” delivered in the most emotional way) was the purest- with no trace of water. The standard allegations, the standard answers and the standard threats to discontinue the services of this milkman; life continued as usual come the next morning’s supply of milk!

 

The milkman’s visit was quickly followed by a loud “siren” at 6 am from the TISCO ( popularly called Tata company) factory premises calling the “A” shift workers to duty. (The subsequent sirens were at 2 pm and 10 pm for the “B” and “C” shifts respectively). “Sirens” in Jamshedpur were called “pongas” and the Jamshedpurians were perhaps as proud of these as the Londoners are about the chimes of Big Ben! The shift system, punctuated by the “pongas“, defined the socializing norms in Jamshedpur. It was not uncommon to hear guests at wedding parties requesting an early dinner service (even before the baraat landed) as they had the next morning’s “A” shift to attend to, or the “C” shift to rush to in a couple of hours. Also guests trooping in on a weekday as it was their “off” day. And if they had taken leave on a particular day, they had taken “nagaa”  and they were free to do pretty much as they wished.

 

If one would stir out of the bed with the general cacophony around the house and reach the terrace, one would hear some great bhajans wafting from the temple a kilometer away from home. Only that the bhajans would be composed to the tunes of the latest Hindi hits. Nevr mind which of the Holy Trinity was being worshipped, the music score had to be from the latest Dharmendra/ Hema Malini starrer!

 

Winter mornings were punctuated by calls from the food stuff vendors roaming the streets. “Joi-nogorer mua” seller purveying the delicious sweet balls of the special jaggery and muri. As the seller walked down our road, the cry would get louder and louder. And if he could not get a good buyer, the more insistent…”Joooooi-Nogorer Muaaaaaaaaaa….”. “Patali gud” sellers roamed around selling just the seasonal patali gud. And then the sonorous call of “mehidanaa, sondesh” reverberating across the street. “Mehiiii danaaaa Sooooondeeeeesh…..! Talking of Bengali street vendors, this one has been a perennial favourite. A grave-looking duo marching down the street, the guy in the front carrying a bundle of wares wrapped in a white sheet on his head and the guy trudging behind (obviously the maalik). The maalik was invariably dressed in a white dhoti, a light blue kurta (long ones with buttoned sleeves) and black shoes. He would announce his wares with a prolonged “Shaadi, Jamaa, Kapod”! Great cotton sarees and other material from Bengal. And there were these merchants on bicycles who would exchange old, used garments for shiny stainless steel katories and plates. The smarter women would keep a handy magnet in their households and would check out the plates etc with the magnet. If the twain atrracted each other the stuff was not stainless steel!

 

The winter season also brought in the weavers (“julahas“) through the day with the clanging of the cotton-beating apparatus to convert your moth-eaten, decaying rajais and mattresses into freshly done winter coverings. Once they got the business and the rate agreed upon, they would spread a grubby sheet on the pavement, rip apart the old sources of cotton on it and clang away their apparatus to glory. What a fascinating sight (and sound this was).. clang, clang, clang this went, with the eagle-eyed adults keeping a close look on the proceedings to ensure that “impure” cotton was not added to this pile. (Impure cotton dreaded to be hospital waste or even worse). The other keen onlookers were excited neighbourhood kids, circling around the julaha, soaking in all the sound and action and chasing the occasional errant fluff of cotton which would fly around.