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!