Here is a piece about five domestic service providers from my growing-up days in the late 60’s and early 70s. My children would never encounter these gentlemen I think!
Hiraman, the barber, strolled the streets with his boxful of implements. Implements to prune and shape your hair, to shave you, to clip your nails. Carrying his green-painted wooden box he would walk up-and-down the streets of our locality, announcing his presence. He would walk into some homes knowing fully well that he was needed by the men-folk in the household that particular day.
Ever had the pleasure of getting a hair cut on your favourite chair, sitting in the warmth of your balcony on a winter morning? Such a joy that was! Hiraman was not only an efficient barber, he was also a great raconteur. He was an endless source of tales. I actually looked forward to his hair-cutting session. Always sensitive to father’s instructions, he would never use a razor during his operation (Razors were banned on us till we had our Upnayan Sanskar done), it was always the trimmer which was called a “machine”. But for the grown-ups he would use the razor with alacrity, stropping the razor ever so often.
Over time Hiraman went on to start his “saloon”, the word then in vogue for a hair-cutting establishment. “Hiraman Hair Cutting Saloon”, it was called.
I moved away from Jamshedpur for my higher studies. I would get sporadic information about Hiraman from my father who continued to patronize him. When I visited Jamshedpur last year Hiraman Saloon had gone, there was chemist at that location instead. Wonder where Hiraman is now.
Wherever you are, thank you Hiraman ji, you played a key role in my grooming through my schooling years.
He would come every Monday evening to pick up his load of clothes for washing. And to return the load of the previous week neatly washed and starched and ironed. Agnoo dhobi, our family washerman, was unfailingly punctual. Those were the days when there were no washing machines. No packaged starch liquid either. So father’s khadi clothes had no choice but to be left to the care of Agnoo. And our school dresses. And the home linen.
I used to address Agnoo as Spiro Agnew who was then the Vice President of USA under Richard Nixon (late 60’s to early 70’s). This was mostly to show off my general knowledge and partly due to the respect I had for Agnoo. Mr Agnew subsequently had to resign, under criminal charges, the only US VP to so. Our Agnoo’s performance was ever impeccable. No missed clothes, no burnt clothes, no misplaced clothes.
Agnoo was always clad in his white dhoti and kurta with a white turban on his head. He would reach the verandah, sit on his haunches and light up his bidi. A big smile played upon his moustachioed face. Father would take stock of the washed clothes returned by him as we would pile all the stuff to be washed. Agnoo would scan all the clothes for his special marking; two vertical parallel lines like an “equal-to” sign rotated by ninety degrees with dots on either end of the two lines. Those which did not bear the marking would be diligently marked with Agnoo’s code. He would pull out a flat black seed from his kurta pocket in which was embedded a pin. The seed had some kind of a permanent dye. He would remove the pin with a flourish and draw painstakingly his code on the new garment. He would then tie up all the clothes in a bundle, fasten it to his bicycle and off he would pedal away for his next customer.
Around the late 70’s when I was leaving Jamshedpur for further studies, Agnoo stopped coming. His place was taken by his son, a retired armyman. Agnoo was not in good health I was told. After I left Jamshedpur I forgot about him. I do not know whether he is alive now or not. But wherever he is, thank you Agnoo ji, for seeing me through my 11 years of schooling!
Flour Mill (Or Atta Chakki-wallah):
That was the time when readymade atta was looked down upon. There were no branded attas. No Shaktibhog, Annapurna or Pillsbury those days. Wheat was bought from stores, either red or white. Ration shops sold red wheat at subsidized prices and very often of “subsidized” quality too! In the 60’s and 70’s a ration card was eagerly sought after not for proof of being a citizen of India but to actually buy stuff. Like wheat, sugar and kerosene. In those days of mehengai and also short supply of essential products.
I was dispatched with a bagful (jhola bhar key) of wheat fastened to my cycle carrier to the nearest flour mill, or the atta chakki. The chakki-wallah would carefully weigh the wheat and would hand you over a little chit stating the weight. And you would place your bag in the queue of bags with wheat waiting to be ground. I would fascinatingly watch the mill owner tip the content of each bag on the hopper affixed to the top of the mill, stir the contents of the hopper a bit with his hands to hasten the passage of the wheat through the machine, occasionally shaking the output cloth pipe through which freshly ground atta would drop right into your bag. Once done, he would set aside your bag and proceed with the one next in the queue.
I would carry the bag, now filled with fresh hot atta to the weighing counter. The gentleman would weigh the bag afresh and deduct the standard percent in lieu of the wheat which may have “burnt-off” or “evaporated” in the grinding process. If did not belong to the school of thought which believed in this compensatory charge then you had to pay a higher grinding rate.
And I would return home ready for some hot rotis made of freshly ground atta.
Doodh, or milk, is what is delivered in neat packets early in the morning at home. You keep the coupons outside the door at night, 3 coupons if you want three liters of milk. When you get up in the morning and open the door and there you see the milk packets lying outside. Along with the morning papers. You get to see the doodhwala maybe once a month when he comes round at a saner hour to collect money for the following month’s supply of milk coupons.
There was no packaged milk when I was growing up. Milk would be delivered at home by the doodhwala every morning and evening. He would come on his bicycle carrying cans of milk slung all around the cycle. Some on the rear carrier, some on the handle bar and others elsewhere. He would choose the appropriate can for a household and walk up to deliver the milk. Each of his cans carried milk with differing dilutions catering to various differing rates he had contracted with the household. He would pull out his quarter liter measure (“pauwwaa”) and measure out the amount of milk required. And at the end he would pour in an extra fraction of the volume of the measure. This is called ghalua, or something served gratis.
There was an ongoing battle between the milkman and my mother regarding the dilution of milk. The joke for us kids was whether the chap added water to milk or milk to water. The cheerful soul he was, he would take all this ribbing with equanimity.
If one was hopeful of getting a better variety of milk then one would need to go closer to the source. This meant walking all the way to the neighbouring doodhwala, right next to his buffalo when the milking process began. Since this would happen early in the morning, only the elders would venture there. I remember going there a few times with my father. Customers would surround the animal and its “milker” as the milking started. They were always watchful of the fact that the ever wily doodhwala could still add water to the milk. The rumour went that as he squatted down to milk the cow, he would wear a tube filled with water across his waist and release this water surreptitiously into the bucket where the milked output was collected. And of course he had the possibility of serving the froth of the fresh milk into a customer’s vessel thereby severely reducing the amount of real milk he would serve!
The cat-and-mouse game between the customer and the doodhwala would go on and on!
In those days when there were no supermarkets and credit cards, Bhagawati, our friendly neighbourhood grocer was a saviour for us. He ran this little grocery shop “Rajesh General Stores” which was probably named after his son, Rajesh.
Grocery purchase for our family was a monthly affair, synchronized with Pitaji’s salary date. Eborate list would be drawn up by parents;10 kg wheat, 15 kg rice, 5 kg sugar, 6 cakes of bathing soap, etc. And off I would march behind my father to order the month’s supply of grocery Father would first pay up the dues of the prior month and then order fresh supplies. He would read off from the list meticulously written in his diary as Bhagawati would note down the stuff into long and narrow sheets clipped to a grubby cardboard base. He would always repeat what my father stated. And he even asked clarifactory questions. Like the following transaction:
Pitaji: “5 kg sugar”
Bhagwati” 5 kg sugar” as he scribbled onto his writing pad in a handwriting which only he, or his staff could decipher. Just like a doctor’s scribble in the prescription pad which only the chemist can make out!
“10 kg wheat”
“10 kg wheat”.
“Half a liter of coconut oil”
“Half a liter of coconut oil”, Bhagawati would interject, “Professor sahib, loose oil or the branded one?” My father being a college teacher was always called Professor sahib.
“Tata Oil”, my father would say.
“Surf, one packet.”
“Half kg pack or a one kg pack?”
And so on it went.
Once the list was done with, the piece of paper with the item names was transferred to Bhagwati’s staff and my father and the grocer would settle down to a chat on the goings-on in the world. Half-an-hour later, all our ordered stuff was ready to carry home. These would get loaded onto a cycle-rikshaw and then is when my role started. I accompanied the rikshaw on the short ride home while my father carried-on with various other activities in the market place.
I would also be dispatched to Bhagawati’s store mid-month if some essentials ran short in the household. This of course was bought on credit.
Maybe you have some other service providers to suggest. Do let me know.