Our Lambretta Scooter: A Family Member

September 30, 2010

Our Lambretta

Pic courtesy Goldenscoots.com

Our family vehicle had an international design. Neither Japanese, nor Korean which are currently popular in India. Those are hardly international, they are Asian, come on!! Ours was designed in Europe, and that too at the most happening design center in the world, Italy. While most other people in our city, Jamshedpur, had mechanical two-wheelers (read bicycles), ours was a mechanized one, it ran on petrol and it had gears. My father, we call him Pitaji, rode a scooter, a Lambretta scooter.

This was in the 60’s and 70’s of the last century. Cars those days were a luxury. They were very expensive and consumed lots of fuel. There were just two makes available those days, Ambassador and Fiat. The pace of life those days did not demand cars. Two-wheelers were fine, mechanized or otherwise.

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Our Lambretta was a versatile vehicle. It could transport Pitaji to his college for his lectures. He could also ferry one of us siblings to school in case we felt too lazy to walk or to cycle.  Why only one, five of us could squeeze onto the capacious machine if the need arose. Like, for example, visiting the local mela, or the odd dinner where the entire family was invited. You will wonder how four could “fit” in along with father.

The youngest (hence the shortest) of us would stand in front of Pitaji holding the handle close to the speedometer. Or clutch the metal “wall” below the handle if one was short to reach the handle. Sometimes even the shortest in the group was tall, tall enough to block the view of the rider. In which case he was instructed to tilt sideways so that his head did not come in the way of the rider’s line of vision. And if he got a stiff neck as a consequence, he or she would be commanded to crouch down, now holding the sides of the aforementioned metal wall! This too was uncomfortable, but it made for a safer ride. The person next in age/ height would squeeze-in right behind the rider on his seat. The remaining two would arrange themselves on the pillion seat. There was some jostling for space, but it would settle down soon enough. So now you see, 1+(1+1)+(1+1)=5. Neat equation, one rider, and four passengers! This was a little bit of a trouble of course, but this situation was a lot better than the prospect the city’s erratic bus service.

Did I say four passengers? There could be a fifth one too perched on the “stepney”, the spare wheel affixed nearly horizontally at the end the scooter body. Clutching passenger number four fervently!

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Lambretta did have competition, and that too from another Italian-designed scooter, Vespa. But in no way did the Vespa match the charm, elegance, sturdiness and reliability of Lambretta. We thought the Vespa was a puny little scooter, hardly the stuff which could ferry a family around. And, horror of horrors, it had only three gears against Lambretta’s four. Weakling! The poor Vespa had its stepney affixed vertically. So not only there could be no additional passengers, the two riding on the pillion would be even more constrained for butt-space! The Vespa was hardly the one to bear the burden of running a family!

Now consider our Lambretta. It was as close to being a family retainer as any inanimate object could be. (But I would hate to call it inanimate). Groceries over at home? Never mind. Just hop onto the scooter, rush to the market and carry back a few jhola-loads of groceries. Atta chakki and its load? No problems! Gas cylinder exhausted? Carry the empty one to the local gas cylinder depot, bribe the depot agent a few rupees and you are back home with a filled cylinder. It just took two of you to do the job, one riding the scooter and the other clutching the cylinder- empty or filled- depending on the direction you were travelling. If the pillion rider, the one who held the cylinder between himself and the rider, was smart enough, he would wrap the cylinder in an old sheet or towel lest it soiled his or the rider’s clothes with its rusty exterior. If he was smart, and strong enough, he could hold the cylinder on the “stepney” with his arms splyed backwards gripping the cylinder.

Like any family retainer, faithful or otherwise, the Lambretta too had its dark moments. It would sulk, it would growl, sometimes even failed to get “kicked” into life. Like it would not start, or it would stop midway abruptly, for some random reason! Solutions were ready at hand. As a first step, you could tilt the scooter towards yourself and give it a few furious kicks. More often than not, it would purr back to life. If this did not work, you had to just remove a side cover of the scooter, yank off the spark plug and clean the relevant parts with an old shaving blade, or a screw driver, scarping off the dirt settled into the crevices. You, of course, would remember to blow away the loose debris with light taps of the plug on the sides of the vehicle. The careful ones employed a handkerchief to unscrew and hold the plug as it would be hot. Either of these solutions, or a combination of both would solve the problem. If not, then there was the friendly neighbourhood mistry (mistry a local term for a mechanic), Mantu, who would take care of more complex things like carburettor cleaning or engine re-“boring”.

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Over the passage of time, both Lambretta and Vespa vanished. First from the market and then from the roads. Interestingly enough, the companies which bought the rights to the designs of these were Indians. Lambretta being bought over by an Indian government undertaking and Vespa’s design by Bajaj. Scooters India sold Lambretta as Lamby and then as Vijay (and variants thereof), and true to the nature of the PSUs then, the product died. Bajaj named the scooters as Bajaj, and it flourished. And how!! The waiting list for Bajaj scooters ran into 8-10 years, the premium to be made on selling a Bajaj scooter could fund a wedding. But that is the stuff for another post. (Remember the ad slogan, “Hamara Bajaj?”) However, Bajaj scooters had to be phased out- the scooter market was over-run by motorcycles, bikes from the Bajaj stable being one of the chief culprits.

And with the passage of time, Pitaji migrated from Lambretta to Bajaj. And through the years his brood of six moved away from Jamshedpur. Either after marriage or for pursue higher studies. When Pitaji reached his mid-seventies we persuaded him to dispose off his scooter. We were worried that if he got injured in an accident the recovery process could be painfully slow at his age. Finally he did sell off his scooter.

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Now if Pitaji has to venture out of the house, he walks. And if mai has to accompany him, they take an auto-rikshaw.

Over the last few years, we have offered to buy him a car and hire a driver. He has refused our proposal all this while. He says, “I have now graduated from two wheels (scooter) to three (auto-rikshaw). There really is no need to move to four-wheelers.”

And then he adds wistfully: “Those two-wheelers were actually quite nice”.

I agree.

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Reflections on small-town journalism

August 1, 2010

Returning to Bangalore from a trip to Jamshedpur early morning last week, I stopped by at an A. H. Wheeler news cart at the Tatanagar railway station to pick up a newspaper. What struck me was the plethora of choices. In Hindi and English, both. There was “Dainik Jagaran”, “Prabhat Khabar”, “Hindustan” and some others in Hindi and “Hindustan Times” and “Telegraph” as the English language choices. I had a four-hour long train journey to Howrah ahead of me (travelling from Jamshedpur to Bangalore is painful, it consumes the whole day; Jamshedpur to Howrah and then a rickety taxi-ride to the airport and then the long flight), and I ended buying virtually all the broadsheets on offer. I was sure I would have a co-passenger keen on borrowing. I’d rather lend an entire newspaper than end up sharing sheets of it as was common in the good old days.

(Mercifully, no one asked, maybe in A/c chair cars it is not a done thing!)

Browsing through the papers I realized they were like any other newspaper. There were important news stories on the front page followed by local (Jamshedpur-based), regional (Singhbhum-district based) and state (Jharkhand) news. It was a pleasure to read the local news from Kadma, Sonari, Bhuinyadih, Aazad Basti, Kharangajhar etc. The news itself was like in any other city paper, road accident, dowry death, elopement, murder etc. It was the fact that I was reading news reports about something which happened in-and-around the place I grew up in was exciting enough.

Silly stuff, you say? You wonder why I am making a great deal about it. Right?

So listen!

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I grew up in the Jamshedpur of 60’s and 70’s. It was a pretty town, with lovely tree-lined roads, street lighting which always functioned, crime rates were low, and on 3rd March, the birthday of Jamshedji Tata, the founder of the city, we all got sweets from TISCO management delivered right in our schools. You could drink the water off the taps (it was so clean) and power-cuts were rare. There was little traffic on the roads, the bulk of the commuters were cyclists. There were hardly any motorcycles and the ones who could afford it would buy a Vespa or a Lambretta scooter. Cars were rare. There were good schools and a great large park (Jubilee Park) right in the center of the city. This idyllic world had just one problem, there was no local newspaper.

Jamshedpur those days was a part of Bihar and the only two newspapers published in the state were “The Indian Nation” in English and “Aryavart” in Hindi, both from Patna, published by the same house. But Patna was twice the distance from Jamshedpur as compared with Calcutta. So it was the Calcutta newspaper most households subscribed to. The venerable “The Statesman” with a masthead in Gothic script was the newspaper we subscribed to. Some families took “Amrit Bazar Patrika”, I think it is defunct now. The Bengalis of Jamshedpur, and Jamshedpur had many such families, would buy “Anand Bazaar Patrika”. The Oriya-speaking community would get “Samaaj” published from Cuttack. Those who wanted to read their news in Hindi and could not stand “Aryavart” of Patna would buy “Dainik Vishvamitra” published from Calcutta. In short, most communities would get their daily news fix in their desired languages.

But there was a catch. The newspaper reached us from Calcutta only in the evening, around seven pm or so. It did take a long time for something to travel some 250 kms from Calcutta to Jamshedpur!

Not that we minded it. We, the neighbourhood kids, would do our homework well in time. When we heard the newspaper-wallah’s cycle bell tinkle- he had a special symphony, tring-tring, triiiiiiiing,  tring-tring we would all leap out of our homes, accost him and take our respective newspapers even before he would chuck it at our door-steps.

Once home, the newspaper would quickly get apportioned among all the eager readers in the family. The outer sheet with the headlines, the sports page and then the rest of it. I, for one, would always try to get for myself the sports page. That was the only way to see the score-card of the previous day’s cricket as one would have missed the commentary, the previous day being a school day.

“The Statesman” being a Calcutta newspaper, had considerable news of the city. We would know what exactly was happening there. Right from the success of Satyajit Ray’s “Goopy Gyne, Bagha Byne” to the bands playing at Mocambo and Peter Cat on Park Street, to the reports on football matches between Mohun Bagan and East Bengal to the latest offerings in New market. Even the comings-and-goings of ships at the Kidderpore dock! I first visited Calcutta when I was some 18 years old and I thought it was all too familiar, just that I was seeing the city physically for the first time.

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It is not that Jamshedpur did not have it own newspaper, it did. There was a weekly tabloid called “Azad Mazdoor” which I am sure most Jamshedpurians would never have heard of. While it called itself a weekly, I am not sure if it was indeed published every week. I think my father got it free- thanks to his friendship with the editor- and the paper would show up in the mailbox once in a while.

The big newsletter from Jamshedpur was the in-house magazine from TISCO, as Tata Steel was then called. It was a stylish, glossy, black-and-white affair published in two languages: “TISCO Samachar” and “TISCO News”. While this was meant to be an in-house thing, considering the profile of the city those days. Most were “company employees”, hence virtually each household got a copy. My father was not a TATA employee- he was a college professor- and was not entitled to a copy. But we keep ourselves informed of TATA’s corporate activities by borrowing copies from relatives and neighbours. “TISCO Samachar” was full of stuff as any good in-house magazine should have. The inauguration of a new mill, the record production by a Blast Furnace, visit of Chairman JRD Tata to Jamshedpur, suggestion awards (“Sujhao Puraskar”) given to employees (so-and-so has improvised on the coke utilization process resulting in a saving of Rs five lakh annually and he gets an award of Rs 10,000) and the all-too-common community development projects undertaken by TISCO.

The excellent production quality of “TISCO Samachar” has one useful application after it was read, it was used to cover books! Nice, strong and glossy sheets. One more. It was rumoured that one particularly lazy relative of our’s would serve roti and sabzi to her kids on sheets of the journal. This was to avoid washing dishes after the meal. Lazy, but brilliant! TISCO’s image has always been squeaky clean, be it their corporate performance or their in-house journal!

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I return home to Bangalore late night and when I wake up in the morning I see my family sprawled on the dining table devouring their quota of daily news. Over time, the number of papers we get has increased manifolds. There is this ubiquitous “Times of India” which gets subscribed to for the simple reason that it is ubiquitous, you have to read it to stay up with the Joneses (or, in India, with the Kapoors, Patils, Bannerjis, Reddys and Pillais). No choice there! I need to know the local news even better, so “Deccan Herald” is a must, I am the only person in the family who reads it. We started on the newly launched “DNA” newspaper just to check things out, and my wife got hooked onto it. There is this mandatory “Economic Times” for me, cant crib about that. And now the TOI chaps have begun giving the obnoxious tabloid “The Bangalore Mirror” free with the the paper. So we have reams of newsprint delivered to us at the crack of dawn now and there is enough for all of us, including the maid servant and the dog. Ok, we don’t have a dog.

Maybe I should get one.


Winter Musings: Part Two

January 3, 2010

Winter was a great time for eating. Mai was more liberal with poori and pulao in winter as compared with summer and monsoon months. Perhaps winters were supposed to be “healthier” than the other seasons. This coupled with the fact that in the winters the choice of sabzis was far more varied, and far more welcome. Summers and monsoons had all kinds of specimens from the gourd family creeping put: Lauki, konhada, turai, nenua, kaddu. To add to this evil- and foul- list were bhindi, sem and baingan. I will not translate these into English for those who do not understand these terms, let them suffer year-long servings of the aforementioned sabzis. Anyway, coming back to the winters, the royalty among the vegetables would surface: phool-gobhi, patta- gobhi, mooli , gaajar, matar, dhaniyasarson- ka-saag, and chane- ka-saag. A gourmet’s selection! (Remember, we were a vegetarian family!). So it could be an aloo-paratha for breakfast, pulao for lunch and gobhi parathas for dinner. What bliss! Especially if the dinner was crowned with gaajar ka hawaa, or more commonly, kheer.

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There was one coveted fruit, ber, which the elders tried to keep out of bounds for children till the Saraswati Puja. Ber has multiple species, thankfully only the light-green elongated one (called “Kashi ber”) was the one reserved as an offering to Ma Sarasawti, we could partake of the reddish-brown variety which grew readily in the wilds. In my early childhood days we stayed in a place surrounded by a forested area. And a prominent winter feature was a walk through the woods, as it were, hunting for bers. We would return home satiated with our fill of bers and with acres of our skins scratched by the thorny ber shrub! (To all you nerds reading this piece, the botanical name of ber is Ziziphus mauritania.)

Bhojpuri-speaking people in India have this universal “dish”, litti. If you have not had the pleasures of having litti in the middle of winter, let me tell you, you have not lived! It is not the delectable flavours of litti alone, but the entire process of preparing it on a bitingly-cold winter evening. To start with, litti is prepared outdoors, as much smoke is released when litti is prepared. If you want to know what litti is all about, then here is a rather pedestrian description: Atta is moulded into rounded hollow balls into which you fill a spiced version of sattu. (Sattu is a ground form of chana, it is not NOT besan, the preparation of sattu is a process by itself). As the balls are getting formed, you stoke a “barbecue” with dried cowdung cakes (gointha). The atta/sattu balls are then inserted into the smouldering fire with potatoes, baingan and tomatoes following it for company later. After sometime, the vegetables are pulled out manually, followed by the littis. The roasted vegetables are peeled off their burnt skins and mashed along with spices, salt and mustard oil. That is the “chokha”. The littis are sieved free of the ashes of cowdung cakes on a thin muslin cloth and served along with the chokha with bowlfuls of ghee. Aah, the joys of litti-chokha!!

Now that was a rather prosaic description. There were colorful sidelights as well. As the barbecuing happened, the entire men-folk would assemble around the fire and exchange all sorts of gossip as the cooking proceeded. Some puffing on their beedis. Many lolling around with their gamchhas tied around their legs, below the knee, and their backs; see-sawing on their butt around the fireplace.

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Waking up in the mornings was a torture. The waking up process would start sometime around 8 am and extend for an hour or so. Within that hour, I would periodically raise my head from under the rajai, glance around and once I was assured that all was well with the world, and that it was too early and cold to wake up, would promptly cover myself up with the rajai and drift off again. There were mornings I would wake up real early and stroll out into the open air savoring the bitter cold. Blowing clouds of vapors in the open air made me feel all grown up, as if I was smoking a cigarette!

And that remains one of the most abiding memories of my childhood.

(concluded)

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Winter Musings: Part One

January 3, 2010

The great thing about my school was the generous winter holidays we used to get. Those days our school sessions followed the calendar year- January to December. So the first week of December saw us appearing for our final exams, with a geometry box clipped smartly into the clipboard we used to carry to the classroom. The clipboard was employed to ensure that we did not drill holes into our answer sheets as they lay spread on the rough classroom desk. The temperature was still reasonably moderate till then, so we could get away with just a half-sweater. Some “weaklings”, as we used to call them, would come fully armoured with a thick full-length sweater and a monkey-cap!

Anyway, the exams were but a mere impediment to the 5-6 week long winter vacation which would follow. Of course there was the small issue of the annual reports to be dealt with but that was just an occupational hazard of being a school student. Thankfully my marks were pretty much ok and more often than not I would be one of the top three rank holders of my class. This meant that I was called upon the stage, in front of my justifiably beaming parents, to receive a prize from the school principal. Ours being a Jesuit-run school (Loyola, Jamshedpur), the prize ceremony also had the usual Christmas tableaux preceding the ceremony on stage. I remember being assigned different roles in different years. A tailor in one, one of the three Magi in the other. Or just a “Christmas tree” in another. And in good X’mas spirit we also would learn how to hum “Silent night, holy night”, “Rudolph, the red-nose reindeer”, etc.).

All good fun. In anticipation of the bigger fun which followed the prize ceremony, the winter holidays!

The one great thing about the winter holidays was that the books of the preceding 12 months were of no use. After all we were moving from one class to another! Hence, there was no homework either. What followed was an unadulterated month and a half of fun which got over only when the school reopened on the Monday after Makar Sankranti (14th January).

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Upon return home after the last paper of the final exam, I would have a quick bite and head-out to see what my neighborhood friends were up to. They would all be outdoors, playing in the sun. Winter season sports were varied. Cricket was, of course, the most popular one. We would all get onto the neighborhood field (an open patch with a sprinkling of grass on an undulating piece of land covered mostly with pebbles, really) attempting to become the next Bedi, Gavaskar or Vishwanath. Some would even fancy themselves to the next Salim Durrani who was the equivalent those days of Sehwag, if and when he succeeded in scoring some runs. Some other players who thought they were as agile as Eknath Solkar would end up with bloodied shins and elbows trying to take an impossibly placed catch right in the middle of a rubble in the “field” of ours.

The cricket session depended on whether the sole supplier of the cricket gear to our group was home or not. And if home, if he was in the mood to play or not. Often he would be found on the terrace of his house rubbing vigorously litres of mustard oil (sarson ka tel) on his body soaking in the winter sun before his bath. An application of mustard oil in winter was believed to give one strength to brave the winter onslaught besides of course making one’s skin more soft and supple.

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We never despaired if cricket was not possible, there were several options available. The two most popular winter season games were gilli-danda and marbles. Neither required any elaborate kit and we were not dependant on anyone to supply us that. We would fashion, impromptu, our gilli-danda with some branches cut surreptitiously from our neighbors’ guava or mango trees. If you do not understand what gilli-danda means you probably are reading the wrong blog and I shall not attempt to explain the sport to you. For those you do understand the game, you will agree that it was a magical day spent outdoors under the winter sun! Gilli-danda with all its multiple variants. Ditto for marbles!!

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The winter sun would set early in Jamshedpur, say around 5.30 pm. It would also get cold and there was no question of staying outdoors any longer. So off we trudged back home on our weary feet. Our grimy bodies longing for a wash, our parched throats aching for drink. A cup of hot Horlicks, more often than not. Our parents would also swathe us in elaborate winter clothing, the winters in Jamshedpur could be pretty severe. Suitably fortified with drink and clothing, I would proceed to my next- and very pleasurable- activity. No, not TV serials, there was no TV around those days. Books were what delighted me when indoors. As I lay tucked into my rajai.

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I have done most of my reading of Hindi literature during my school winter vacations. The very first day of holidays Pitaji would get for me some 8-10 books from his college library. Not only books written by Premchand, Dharmvir Bharti, but also translations of Bengali novels into Hindi; I then used to read the novels of Bimal Mitra and Shankar.  If the college library was not enough, there was another library those days in the city, the one belonging to Gandhi Peace Foundation which to my surprise had a lot of stuff even beyond Gandhian literature. Like American books on science and history. If there was nothing else available then there was always this library local Community Development Center run by the Tatas which had among other back issues of Readers Digest.

Winter, as you would agree, is a time for winter clothing. Those days these were confined to sweaters. Half or full. And nearly all hand-made. With balls of wool bought from a store in Bishtupur; “Dongarsidas and Sons”. There were the packaged balls, branded Modella (with the brand logo of a lion) if I remember correctly, and there were the cheaper “loose” wholesale variety. The store also helpfully sold knitting needles (called “kaanta” in common-speak). Mai and others spent many a winter evening knitting sweaters. The single-coloured ones with the following the basic patterns were the simplest to knit. There were more complex designs, the self-design in the single coloured ones, and they was also the dual-tinted wool. Women would kind of memorize the knitting sequence and would recite aloud as they sat knitting among their groups of friends, “Ek-ulta, do-seedha, do-seedha, ek-ulta.” Etc etc. And as the knitted piece of the wool lengthened, they would call whoever was available close-by to check the length.

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(To be concluded)


Books, oh Books!!

August 27, 2009

My obsession with books started when I was a kid.

Not the “text-book” type of a book, that was a student’s occupational hazard. What fascinated me were books of the story variety. Books which took you away from the routine and into a land of imagination and fantasy. Books which smelt good when they were new (and even when they were old), books whose covers shone with the radiance of a million promises, books which gave endless tactile pleasures. If they had a hardbound, laminated cover you would caress it before opening the book at random and inhaling the ambrosia wafting from within. Books would entertain, engross, educate and mystify.

Books brought you into a mystical communion with writers past and present. Books whose writers were not mere pen-pushers but confidants sharing life’s secrets and mysteries. A book was an entire package of life’s treasures and all its sensual goodness packaged into one volume.

I would ache to possess books. Just to get them into my physical proximity. But the catch was there was no money around to buy these books of my dreams.

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There was this Hindi “Baal pocket books” which advertised itself as a quarterly book-mailing club for kids. You could subscribe to the club’s membership at an equivalent of 10 paise per day.  Remember in those days children’s monthlies, “Parag” and “Nandan”, cost 50 paise each. The government publication “Bal Bharati” cost even lower. “Chanda Mama” and “Lot Pot” we considered infra-dig. “Champak” was too kiddish. While CBT’s “Children’s World” has hardly available in the market. The all-time favourite kiddies books by Enid Blyton were far more expensive. So was Alfred Hitchcock’s “The Three Investigators” series when I grew old enough to fancy them. The hardbound Hardy Boys’ series (there were no paperbacks of these then) were even more expensive.

There was this occasional monetary gift from relatives, initially in paises and then later in rupees. These were assiduously collected in an improvised piggy bank fashioned out of an old tin can. Money saved to purchase a new book. Yes, one long desired book, totally new. Wholly my own. The cheaper the book the better. Not cheap books, I assure you. (I did read some of them- the cheap ones I mean- but that was much later and certainly not with my painstakingly saved money.) I am talking about more-read-for-the-rupee, so to speak.

Some of these low-priced books were primarily sourced from the pavement stalls on Bishtupur Main Road, just opposite Central Bank of India. I refer to the magnificently produced books of a now forgotten publishing house from the then USSR, “Progress Publications, Moscow”. They had these eclectic collection of books right from the illustrated biography  of Lenin (in colour and on glazed paper!) to folktales from the distant corners of the Soviet Union to some excellent textbooks on the sciences. Many a weekend morning and much of one’s savings was expended acquiring these.

Then there was the ever popular and unbelievably inexpensive books from Geeta Prakashan, Gorakhpur. Mostly found at the railway station. That one publishing house which has done pioneering sevice to the spread and dissemination of Hindu religious literature. They also had publications for kids with stories from Ramayan and Mahabharat in a simple-to-understand way or some moral stories with a neatly packaged homily at the end of the story. All-in-all, entertaining, enlightening. And more importantly, very, very inexpensive.

Also available at the railway station were ELBS books, low-priced English language paperbacks from an institution called “English Language Book Society” which had taken upon itself the responsibility of selling low-priced textbooks primarily for the student.  Never mind the binding of these paperbacks wore off after a few weeks of handling. A book was a book, right? How does the fragmentation matter!

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I had the recourse to a substitute to buying books though. Not something which would enable possession of books but certainly I could get to read them. My father was a college lecturer and hence entitled to borrow a number of books from the well-stocked college library. Those were friendly days; no problem if I strolled into the library and borrowed a book or two (or five). The library was at a walking distance from the college staff quarters where I stayed. On Saturdays and during the school summer vacations (the college library was open through the summers) that was the place to be in.

Most of my reading of the classics by Charles Dickens, Alexander Dumas, Jules Verne etc. is courtesy the college library. And lots and lots of Hindi literature or Hindi translations of world literature. Premchand’s stories and novels,  the magical “Chandrakanta”, “Chandrakanta Santati” and “Bhootnath” series. Translations of Bengali novelists Vimal Mitra and Shankar. Marathi writer Sane Guruji’s “Shyamchi Aai”. Translations of Gorky, Chekhov, Camus etc. I am not sure how much of these I understood, probably nothing, but it was an honour and a pleasure to be holding these tomes and reading away! At the risk of sounding immodest, I admit that I was a bit of a precocious kid. My father, Pitaji, did nothing to discourage me.

Our school too had a most wonderful library which we were allowed to access only when we entered the high school. An extraordinary collection of books! The entire collection of Enid Blytons; all of her series including Mallory Towers  and St Clare’s which we young men thought were oddities in an all boys’ school, but we read them nevertheless. The most-in-demand “Hardy Boys” series and “The Three Investigators” series presented by Alfred Hitchcock. Biggles, Billy Bunter, William. Ripley’s “Believe it or Not”. Alistair MacLean and Desmond Bagley. The mandatory Classics. And tons of other books. And yes, shelves and shelves of text books too.

The library was under the stern supervision of Mrs Irani who could be immensely strict. You were punished if caught even whispering in the library. She would closely examine the books as they were being returned. I shudder to think of the punishment boys would get when they turned in a soiled, or worse still, a dog-eared book. But Mrs Irani could be utterly loving too, in her sweet parsi aunty kind of way. Ah, those endless hours spent in the library pouring through volumes of old National Geographic magazine! And the old, bound editions of Dharmyug. And browsing through Encyclopaedia Britannica.

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Sometimes in my early teens, in my pursuit of books, I discovered the “circulating” libraries. These were tucked into the bylanes of the interiors of Bishtupur market, diagonally opposite the famous mithai shop, Manohar Maharaj. These shops lent pulp-fiction for a pittance. And it is here that I got my quota of James Hadley Chase, Harold Robbins, Mario Puzo’s The Godfather and Peter Benchley’s Jaws. And so many others. Needless to say that these reading exploits were carefully concealed from my parents- or so I always thought- by covering these books in old newspapers and reading them only when I thought they had gone to sleep! Ah, those heady days of growing up!

Bishtupur also had two book shops, I am not sure whether they exist now. There was this “Sanyal Brothers” up the Bishtupur Main Road which would specialize in fiction and best-sellers. Down the road was “Sen and Co.” which sold mostly text books. These were holy destinations for me, Sanyal more favoured than Sen as it allowed window-shopping and browsing. There was one more shop tucked into the bylanes of the market, not far from the aforementioned circulating libraries. This was actually a fruit juice cum fruit shop turned into a book shop, “Bhatia Pustak Bhandar”. The sardarji there displayed a mouth- watering selection of fruits and books too! The books-cum-gift shop “Wasava Singh” at Kamani center happened much later, when I was in my high school perhaps, maybe even later.

******

The situation was not very different in my college days. The financial resources were still scarce, the love for books heightened further. But I had access to some of the best libraries and to some great book shops (for window shopping) in my college days. In those days of discovering myself the reading tastes swung wildly! Ayn Rand was an absolute must for all of us who had even the faintest ambition of being called thinking people. Then reading swung among sci-fi, Vedanta, psychology, politics, Marx, Sartre…. The more ecletic the better. Never mind if I could not understand most of what I read!

******

I became totally unhinged in my love for books when I started working and earning a salary. But that is a story for another piece!

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Ponga, pagaar, rokegaa ladeej; an intro to Jamshedpur patois

August 22, 2009
Section of Jamshedpur Skyline

Section of Jamshedpur Skyline

This post is on the colourful and unique words used in Jamshedpur in the days I was growing up there in the 60’s and the 70’s. Jamshedpur being an industrial town had migrant workers from all over. Bhojpuri speaking people, Maithils, Bengalis, Oriyas, the Andhra people from the northern part of coastal Andhra (called “telangis” in local parlance).  Of course the local adivasis speaking a myriad languages of their own; Ho, Munda, Oraon etc.

This, over time, produced a “language”, mostly unique to Jamshedpur. I list below a few of the words which have stuck in my memory over the decades. This list is by no means a definitive. I am sure there are many more words which I may have missed. I may have even got some meanings not–so-right.

Do read, dear readers, and let me know of other words which would merit a mention in a subsequent similar piece on the Jamshedpur patois.

Ponga:

Ponga refers to a grave sounding loud siren which would go off at periodic intervals thrice a day signaling the start of a fresh shift at TISCO, aka, Tata Company. At 6am, 2pm, 10pm.  These would beckon the Tisco workers to their work, “duty” as it is called. Or colloquially, “diuty”.

Shift:

A ponga heralded the start of a shift. As in an “A’, “B”, or “C” shift. “Shift” here refers not to a general lateral movement, but to the commencement of an eight-hour work period which was announced by a ponga.

The life of Jamshedpur was dictated by these shifts. Guests to a wedding dinner party would excuse themselves early, even before the baraat clarionetted (a clarion commonly called a “kilaat“) and drummed its away to the bride’s house, saying that they had an “A” shift the following day and they had to have an early dinner so that they could be  early to bed, in time for the 6 o’ clock shift. And their wishes were fulfilled with an earlier-than-normal serving of dinner.

Naga:

If the workers were not able to participate in their shifts, they had to perforce take a “naga”, a chhutti.  Commonly called a casual leave, a CL.

Off:

Refers to the weekly break enjoyed by the workers. Each of them had his “off” on different days of the week. Commitments to meet socially depended on the weekly off the workers had. “Kal biyafey hai, hamara off hai. Ham aayengey.” Biyafe being the Bhojpuri word for Brihaspatiwaar or Thursday.

Pagaar:

Pagaar was what the workers received as the rewards for their month’s labours. Pagaar, a salary.  Curiously enough the pagaar was disbursed not on the 1st of the month, but from the 4th to 8th of the month. Each “department” had a specific day for this activity.

And timing themselves with the day, the pathans, or the money-lenders (kabuliwala clones in my growing-up days) would position themselves at the factory gates waiting to recover their dues from the hapless worker who had the misfortune of taking a loan from them.

Double-Pagaar:

Double-pagaar meant the annual Puja bonus the Tisco factory workers received before the commencement of the Puja season. Puja was the time when the entire city went berserk doing purchases. Clothes, appliances, two-wheelers, books, what-have-you! In the weeks after the double-pagaar, the otherwise friendly shopkeepers would not  have even a moment to as much as nod back at you, the tailor would look the other way when his regular patrons requested him to deliver the tailoring in time for shashthi, the neighbouring “hotel-wallah” (called the halwaai in the rest of North India) would smile away deep-frying furiously the singharas and the jalebis.

Double-pagaar time was multiple fun times for the entire populace of Jamshedpur.

Giddu:

This appellation is for humans who are vertically challenged.

Yeh giddu kya khelega? Ek tho chhotey sa bowl hi uskey liye bouncer hai.

Gentler versions are “chhotu”, “bauna”.  If there is a gush of affection then the aforesaid bauna may be referred to a baunoo as well. In cases of extreme affection, Giddu would be converted into Gidua as well.

This word was often used depracatingly.

PS: “Tho” is a very Bihar word meaning nothing, just a linguistic crutch like the Bengali “ta”, as in “Ek ta”.

Single-haddi:

An epithet for humans with slighter stature. Patla-dubla in common parlance.  Also meaning durbal, nirbal, and well…. single (haddi). The precursor to the adjective “size- zero”.

Double- haddi:

Someone endowed with a generous weight. Of a healthy disposition. Mota!

Iss double-haddi goalkeeper key side sey football daal do, goal toh ho hi jayegaa.” (“The corpulent goalie would not be able to move his significant butt before the ball shot through the goalpost”)

Phutani:

An expression for unbecoming pride, vanity. Usually employed in the context of jealousy. “Phutani maarney waala” was a show-off. Rarely a term of endearment.

An explanatory sentence: “ Jab sey bell-bottom pehena shuru kiya hai, badi phutani marta hai”.

An explanatory ditty:

Hindustani, daal ka paani,

Chutiya rakhkar badi phutani.”

For those uninitiated, Hindustani was an appellation for a Bihari those days. It was often used by the Bengalis whose population in Jamshedpur has always been considerable. Daal ka paani refers to the watery version of Arhar daal which the Biharis relish with their chaawal (or bhaat as they call it). Chutiya can be loosely translated to a ponytail, the little twist of hair at the back of an otherwise clean-shaven pate. I have no idea why a chutiya-endowed Bihari should exude vanity.

The Hindustanis would retaliate against the Bengalis with an equally colourful ditty which went thus:

“Ai Bangali, ting-tingali

Pocha maachh khanewali

“Oh, ye Bongs, you smelly (rotten) fish-eaters”. My researches have revealed no specific meaning of “ting-tingali”. I suppose it is a device used to rhyme with the subsequent khanewali. As a matter of fact, I do not even know why the feminine khanewali was used.

Dangali:

Dangali refers to the branch of a tree. Dangali katna was a regular acitivity with families with overgrown guava, jamun or katahal trees in their backyards (more likely “front” yards). Katna= cutting, pruning.

The humble dangali too has it own uses!

Like the time in the early centuries of Anno Domini when the celebrated Sanskrit dramatist Kalidas was seen sawing-off the very dangali he was perched on. This led to a series of multiple events culminating in his marriage to a haughty princess. And the rest, as they say, is history (and literature!).

Thonga:

In those years before plastics, thonga was a paper container used to pack commodities in the local grocer’s shop. Thonga means a paper bag. This would be made of either old newspapers or with pristine brown paper sheets.

Thonga is not to be confused with the suffix “tho” which has an altogether different meaning as mentioned earlier. But it was ok to say “ek tho thonga”.

Butru.

Sometimes spelt as buturu as well.

This refers to a young lad, a male child. Often a child worker at a dhaba or at a roadside tea-stall. “Ei butru, yeh tabul ponchh (wet-wipe the table) do”, “ei butru zara ek cigarette khareed lao”.

The usage of butru was not confined to such workers but used for other kids too. “E butru o marad ka hai na?” (“This kid belongs to that chap”)?

Some butrus were even addressed as babuas, or babus. The female equivalent of a babua was buchia, a buchunia, or even a babuni. I do not know of a similar gender conversion with butru roots. Maybe female butrus those days were impossible to find in a road-side tea stall.

And finally,

Rokegaa, ladeej

Mini-buses were the blessing- or the scourge- those days, depending on how you saw them. Those early days of these devilish vehicles. They would torment all the road users.  With their very “artistic” swerves from the left of the road to the right or even vice versa.

And they had given themselves licenses to stop in the middle of nowhere should the conductor, or more commonly the khalasi (the bus attendant) feel like it. The khalasi was that guy swinginging on the door handle -mostly outside the confines of the minibus- trying to guide the destiny of the vehicle. And its passengers. He would shout and whistle for the minibus to stop, even in the middle of the road, should he spot a potential lady passenger.

Rokegaa, Ladeej”!


Aaj Pehli Tarikh Hai…

August 8, 2009

This post is on a song which we listened to when we were growing up. We would tune into Radio Ceylon’s music program at 7.30 in the morning just to listen to this song which was the first one played in the program. I am referring to the famous Kishore Kumar song called: “Pehli Taarikh Hai

I reproduce below the entire lyrics of the entire song, with some interjections and observations from me.

(the lyrics are from the blog atulsongaday.wordpress.com, many thanks for this)

—-

Din hai suhana, aaj pehli tarikh hai
din hai suhaana aaj pehli tarikh hai

khush hai zamaana, aaj pehli tarikh hai

pehli tarikh aji, pehli tarikh hai

This ode to the first of the month refers to the day when most salaried persons are paid their monthly remuneration. Well most of them in Jamshedpur of those days. That was an era far removed from credit cards. No easy credit for anyone. With these pieces of plastic each day of the month feels the same as far as buying power is concerned. In fact I have a few of my friends who time their purchases to some date in the middle of the month so as to be able to enjoy the lengthiest credit! They never existed in my childhood. Period!

The era I am referring to is from long, long ago. Late 60’s and early 70’s. When the month’s salary mattered to all. That is when you would get (hard-earned) cash for the forthcoming month’s spending.

Pitaji, my father, who was a college lecturer got his salary on the first of the month. But, for some reason, the bulk of Jamshedpur’s population who worked for various factories in the town (Tisco, Telco, etc.) was paid between 4th to 8th of the month. The word for salary in Jamshedpur was “pagaar” which I understood much later was of Bombay origin courtesy the Tatas who ran most of the factories in Jamshedpur. There was a cousin of pagaar, the double pagaar. This denoted the annual puja bonus which all factory workers got. Which unleashed some stupendous buying power into the city. The fabric/garment sellers in Sakchi and Bishtupur, the shoe-sellers, Sree Leathers in Sakchi and the Bata showroom on Bishtupur Main Road and the appliance (= radio and two-in-one’s) sellers, they all reaped a harvest those days. So did the tailors who were besieged with requests for a quick turn-around on their customers’ orders.

biwi boli ghar zara jaldi se aana jaldi se aana

shaam ko piya ji hamein cinema dikhana
hamein cinema dikhana
karo na bahaana, haan bahaana bahaana
karo na bahaana, aaj pehli tareekh hai

khush hai zamaana, aaj pehli tarikh hai
pehli tarikh aji, pehli tarikh hai

Our family could not afford cinema together. Not for all eight of us, parents and six siblings. And anyway, cinema was the fount of moral turpitude; or so we were told. We were told that good children (“achhey bachchey”) saw movies only once in a year, and only stuff like “Shahid Bhagat Singh”, “Sampoorn Ramayan” and maybe “Teesri Kasam”. And that too only at the end of the final exams for the year. Once in a while my elder brother, who was pretty movie- savvy, cajoled my parents to see movies like “Anand” or “Namak Haraam”. Perhaps this depravation was the reason why I developed innovative ways to catch up on movies when I went to high school. I have written extensively about my film escapades in my earlier posts.

The only pehli taarikh indulgence of parents’ was the dosa at Bombay Sweet Mart, Bishtupur, after ordering the month’s groceries at “Ashok and Co.” I was co-opted by parents into this expedition to “escort” the groceries on their way home on the cycle-rikshaw, so I too was treated to a masala dosa. It is another matter that in one of these trips mai saw a restaurant bearer scratch his back with the bunch of forks he held in his fist. And BSM was banned promptly for our household after that!

kis ne pukara ruk gaya baabu, lala ji ki jaan aaj
aaya hai kaabu, aaya hai kaabu

o paisa zara laana, o paisa zara laana
laana, laana.

o paisa zara laana, aaj pehli tareekh hai
khush hai zamaana, aaj pehli tarikh hai
pehli tarikh aji, pehli tarikh hai

Thankfully we did not have any creditors as far as cash was concerned. The only creditor we had was the local grocer. The chap from whom we would purchase the month’s supply of attadaal and tel. Our, grocer,Lalaji, who changed from “Ashok and Co.” at Bishtupur to the neighbourhood Bhagwati (of “Rajesh General Stores”) at Kagalnagar market had some ready customers, e.g. our parents. Pitaji used to buy all provisions on a month’s credit. And promptly on the 1st he would pay the bill. Lalaji who would extend this credit would also take this opportunity to push brands and goods where he would earn the maximum profits. He would dust an aging pack of some hitherto unheard of masala powder, for example, and tell my mother how great it was and that he had used it himself. Never mind that he had never used it and that he was pushing the pack only for the hefty margin this would earn him. But all were happy with this arrangement, my parents for the line of credit they got and the Lalaji for the extra margin he earned.

banda bekaar hai, kismat ki maar hai
sab din ek hain, roz aitwaar hai.

mujhe na sunana, haan sunana sunana,

mujhe na sunana, aaj pehli tareekh hai,
khush hai zamaana, aaj pehli tarikh hai
pehli tarikh aji, pehli tarikh hai

There were many in our extended family who had gravitated to Jamshedpur from their villages in search of a job. Some had managed to find one courtesy Pitaji who had some contacts in Tisco. The others, who were not lucky, would curse their luck, the Tatas and sometimes even my Pitaji for not having wielded his magic wand to get them the coveted Tisco jobs. They would line-up at the local employment exchange for years and spend their time ruing their luck! For them each day was aitwaar– Sunday- day with nothing to do!

dar ke saamne, aaye mehmaan hain
bade hi sharif hain, puraane meharbaan hain

bade hi sharif hain, puraane meharbaan hain
are jeb ko bachaana, bachaana, bachaana.
jeb ko bachaana, aaj pehli tareekh hai

khush hai zamaana, aaj pehli tarikh hai
pehli tarikh aji, pehli tarikh hai.

dil beqaraar hai, soye nahi raat se

seth ji ko ghum hai ki, paiso chalo haath se
are lootega khazaana, khazaana, khazaana.
lootega khazaana, aaj pehli tareekh hai
khush hai zamaana, aaj pehli tarikh hai
pehli tarikh aji, pehli tarikh hai

The first of the month also brought forth favour-seekers, people who wanted small loans to tide over their financial crises. All well-meaning folks, but their monthly expenses had far out-stripped their incomes. There were others too who would borrow odd amounts of money only to repay it in parts, and often never at all.

aye cinema waalon aao, aao khel mazedaar hai
ho khel mazedaar hai, ji khel mazedaar hai

agha hai bhagwan hai, kishore kumar hai
nimmi geeta bali hai, ashok kumar hai
nargis raj kapoor hai, dilip kumar hai
geeton ka toofan hai, naach
ki bahaar hai
naach ki bahaar hai

paanch aane ka das aana
paanch aane ka das aana
paanch aane ka das aana

are waapas nahi jaana, jaana, jaana
waapas nahi jaana, aaj pheli tareekh hai

khush hai zamaana, aaj pehli tarikh hai
pehli tarikh aji, pehli tarikh hai

I have referred earlier to the austerity around the household regarding movies. And the closest we came to watching films was hearing songs on Radio Ceylon on our Murphy radio! Never would we have paid the usurious “paanch aane ka das aana” black-marketeers rates to see 1st day 1st show. To the contrary, I even got my classmate, whose family owned the poshest cinema hall, Natraj, in the city to give us complimentary passes to see a couple of movies there.

mil jul ke bachchon ne, baapu ko ghera
baapu ko ghera.
kehte hain saare ki, baapu hai mera
baapu hai mera.
khilone zara laana.
khilone zara laana, aaj pehli tareekh hai
khush hai zamaana
aaj pehli tarikh hai
pehli tarikh aji, pehli tarikh hai.

The bachchas would have a myriad request in the beginning of the month. A new notebook, a fresh eraser (Sandow, if we were lucky!), even a new pair of shoe-laces. All these had to be met at the earliest! And what about a close friend’s birthday party? Some fresh brown-paper to cover the books? A set of coupons to a school fete, or even a day-long outing with the Biology Club would mean a request for an extra allowance.

din hai suhaana, aaj pehli tarikh hai
khush hai zamaana, aaj pehli tarikh hai
pehli tarikh, aji pehli tarikh hai

PS 1: This song is the basis of a new chocolate ad. In our days of growing up, we did not know what a chocolate was. And if my parents knew what it was, they would have frowned on it, anyway.

PS 2: This song is a comedy song from the film Pehli Tarikh. The film was released in the year 1954 with direction  by Raja Nene. He was also the lead starcast of the film. Voice for this song is given by Kishore Kumar.

PS 3: This was not a comedy song for us kids when we were growing up. It was a part-and-parcel of life.