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Tuesday, December 14, 2010

Selling Out(side) and Hallelujah!

Selling Out(side) Indians and foreigners alike continue to be charmed --and supplied --by the country's colorful open air vegetable markets and strategically placed wayside fruit stands, as well as by the soundscape of street sellers calling out wares which they ply from bundles or baskets borne atop their heads, bulging bags hung on all bars of a bicycle, or temptingly displayed upon flat-topped, waist-high push cart, teetering along on four fat cycle tires.
One of the first vendors of the day, a woman bearing a damp bundle, leaves sticking out of spaces around the corners tied together at the top, declaims, "Aaaakuuralu,patsaakulu--gongorra,batsakura,menthikura,thothakura,aak-kuraluuuu........" [Leaves for curries, leafy greens--followed by rapidfire recitation of today's stock.] It's a clear cry, brightening along the compound walls as she continues steadily on her way unless a cook or housewife on a balcony or patio calls from the family or apartment courtyard. The pair exchange business-like comments or banter while our vendress unties her bundle, empties it on a garden bench, and advertises the freshness and quality of its contents. The housewife requests a particular variety or two, while the vendor urges more bunches and additional choices. Gongorra, a regional specialty best-seller, is usually sold-out early in the day.
One of the women greens-vendors, brash and agressive, adopts an insider stance with our cook, maintaining the banter while eyeing the karivaypaku chettu [tree] in our back yard, the robust and distinctive flavor of karivaypaku leaves being essential to South Indian vegetarian cooking. Cook subtly deflects the woman's inquiries about our household, and their conversation slows as the sale is completed. Veggie seller silently busies herself re-tying her bundle as cook gathers her purchases and carries them up the back steps to the kitchen. The screen door bangs behind her as the seller conveys the bundle to her head in an easy, well practiced movement, departs along the side of the house, and lets herself soundlessly out the driveway gate. Leaving the branches of the karivaypaku chettu bare.
The bicycle-plying vegetable vendor has a dedicated customer base, calls more gently from the gates of his regulars: "Amma, ii vella aym kavaali?" What'd you like today, ma'am? Our neighbor, still in her nightie-cum-housecoat, has been sitting on her verandah railing, reading the newspaper and working the daily crossword puzzle, for an hour. She rises, a wordless signal for the vendor to wheel his bicycle through the gate to her front door. Fully visible, on a patio higher than and overlooking our kitchen, where I am eating my breakfast upma [mildly spiced cream of wheat-like Bombay rava], the pair murmur and prolong their conversation until she has chosen and bargained the final price of items for a day or two's cooking. Each one turns to his or her next task without a further word. She looks over her selection one more time as she takes them into the house. He re-hangs and re-ties his bags and bundles.
There's a lull around eight. Doting mothers urge their school going children to eat something for breakfast, wear their uniforms, and double-check that schoolbags and children are ready before the bus, autorickshaw, or dad's vehicle picks them up for the day.. Fathers take a last look at the last newspaper and check their watches before getting out their motorcycles. A single bicycle-rickshaw passes steadily along the middle of the street in the morning sunlight, a desk-sized, wire-sided box, instead of a seat, affixed atop the rickshaw's rear wheels. The young man driving it occasionally glances this side and that, his hopes for filling the box behind him intoned at an even pitch:: "Ol-boxes, paper, whatever...."
One of the male vendors draws out his advertisement in a unique, loud twang like a highly amplified zing of an old fashioned telegraph wire. Later in the morning, a woman's voice is a higher echo of his prolonged, nasal zing. I have yet to decipher either one.
By mid-morning, a red and white-shaded cart's initial foray through the neighborhood is announced by the unmistakably happy ringing of a brass bell, punctuated by the seller's amplified English call in English, "I-yiss kree-yum-? O-o-o-e-e, I-yiss cree-yummmm!" at first two words ascending, hinting of excitement and query, then again descending, as though answering his own cry. He will return again and again and again, throughout the day.
Other vendors' voices recall, to my ear, coaches and spectators at a soccer game. Sugar cane juice. Re-cyclers ready to purchase old notebooks, clothes, or newspapers. Mid-to-late afternoon, just before tea time, a favorite snack, is emphatically announced as though 'half time,' or 'game:' "O-o-o-o, Sa-MO-saaaa!"
Every few days, a continuous bell, without a call, would be the old bangle seller, jovial and graying, his glass and glittering wares in boxes or dangling from bars behind the windows of his cart, a big, black, open umbrella fixed to the handle. Even though there are larger and more varied bangle and 'fancy' stores in the town, this itinerent vendor still supplies an endless market of women and girls who regularly purchase and wear his colorful eye candy. Are the glass bangles on your arm worn and few? Never mind, he will break them off in a trice, assess your size with a gentle squeeze of thumb and knuckles on one hand, and share familiar pleasantries, all the while smoothly suggesting other colors and styles of bangles for you and other women and children in your house and beyond. Should you object, saying that you need no more, "Just a look, see these..." is his reply. Before you are done, you'll have more than you bargained for--that too, at a fixed price.
Our favorite call, however, is that of the Krishnanagar neighborhood salt seller. The earliest of the morning criers, the salt seller's call resounds throughout the lane with an implication of entitlement. Indispensable, and an Indian icon, salt was the goal of Gandhi and other *satyagrahis' 1947 march to the Arabian Sea, the twentieth century parallel of the American revolutionary 'tea party.' The Indian version of salt is cruder, damper than our refined American salt. My first year in India, I was amazed to behold cooks and diners alike heap salt on by the large pinch in the kitchen or the tiny spoonful from mini-dishes set around the tabletop. Nowadays it's just another 'relative' thing to which my husband, now an American citizen, and I re-orient ourselves, each annual India trip. But when the salt vendor's singular voice is heard, we can only roll our eyes and shake our heads at his unfailing, "Oop-poooooh!" sounding for all the world like the onset of sudden vomiting. Is it ncongruously distinctive, or counterproductive?! Do we so urgently need some salt today, or will laughter do?? The spice of life! Who would have thought!!

* satyagrahi, truth seeker, name adopted by activists during India's 'Quit India' freedom movement in the 1940's._____________________________

Hallelujah (Still trying to distill the morning sounds topic into mere words...)
If there's never a dull moment in India, once the rooster crows and the first broom is heard in the morning, there's never a silent one, either. The birds awaken, cawing, peeping, occasionally throbbing, individually or in flocks. Hush, hush, a neighbor's household helper sweeps debris from the dirt right-of-way just outside their gate. All over the country, housewives, servants, and daughters-in-law daily bend to the task of sweeping away litter--tossed papers and fallen leaves--at the start of the day. Housewife or servant, each bows over the task, wielding an arm's length, loosely tied handful of stiff dry (reeds?) which is still the Indian broom of choice. Sh, sh, sh, sh! Our housekeeper sweeps leaves and dust from a sidewalk of grey, native flagstone.
Before or after she washes supper dishes (to the sound of steel on stone) and prepares breakfast (with a snap or two of the gas stove lighter), tea - Indian chai - is to be offered to each member of the household in turn. One by one, itinerant street sellers are heard touting their wares. But repeated attempts to serve head-of-house Tata (grandfather) his morning tea produce a soundscape unlike any other. Once the disciplinarian of a family of ten, now by turns reminiscent, anxious, querelous, consumptive, imperious, and peevish, Tata, at a hundred years, remains a force to be reckoned with. In both English and Telugu, he exclaims,
"Don't want. Let me sleep. It's still dark. Can't you understand?! Let me sleep! Brainless! Po!--[get out]!! Didn't you hear me? Get out! Who the heck are you, why did you have to disturb me? Get out, get out!"
One of the sons lends his voice to the task. "It's not dark. It's morning. Time to get up. Don't you want to drink your tea while it's hot?"
Housekeeper receives another tirade. Tata hacks and spits.
Son tries again, louder, insisting, in vain.
"You are not wanted here. Haven't I said? Get out, get out. Get! Out!"
Housekeeper again, "All right, well, here it is, and it's getting cold." as she leaves the cup nearby.
Muttering, less angrily now, Tata takes a sip. "Mm, right, right..." He finishes the tea in a few long sips, stretches up his arms, proclaiming, "Maho-o-nattuwanti Dayvooniki, [To Great God], stothram, stothram, stothram. [praise, praise, praise]" Then, in English, "Come to Jesus! All right! Hallelujah!"

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