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     Volume 7 Issue 33 | August 15, 2008 |

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Under the Same Sky: Part VI
Memories II

Perveen Ahmad

There are many songs in Uttar Pradesh on the malen, the gardener. She rose early, collected the fallen blossoms from sweet smelling bushes of jasmine, chameli and plucked beli and would thread garlands to give to the lady of the house. Our malen, Radha was a charming person, lithe in body with a swinging gait, eyes lined with surma and she wore a silver girdle around her waist. There was also the milk maid or doodhwali who supplied goat's milk brought in elongated alimunium containers called latkan. Rekha too was a source of lively conversation and jokes as she peddled her commodity with promises of the benefits of good health and long life if one drank her goat's milk.

The milkman Shubrati the doodhwallah, used to bring his cow along with him, milk her right in front of the valued customer and weigh the liquid with a long handled one pao mug. I remember the sound of squirting milk into his small brass bucket and the way he would soothe the cow with sweet words saying "Meri piyari Lullo, memsahib ko khush kar do. Woh tum ko baksheesh dengi" (Sweet dear, Lullo dear, give good milk, memsahib will reward you). Even burglars had a humane face and were the topic of much speculation. There were day thieves and nighttime thieves who had to be dealt with. Petty thefts like stealing clothes off the washing line in the backyard, stealing fruit off the compound trees, walking off with hens and goats that strayed onto the roads were met with alarms of chor-chor raised by the Colony servants who might be passing by during the siesta afternoons when the sahib's were at rest. If caught they were let off with a good thrashing and a traditional penance by holding their ears and crouching on their haunches asking forgiveness and saying 'tauba-tauba.' Poverty and sometimes the culprit's addiction to ganja and gambling was the reason for such acts. The wives of the culprits would come and apologise for their husband's behaviour, ask for mercy and promise that he would never steal again.

One night at about 3 am my mother heard the sound of rummaging in her almirah drawer and discerned a person standing about ten feet away from her bed. She leapt up screaming chor-chor and my father shouted pukro-pukro (catch him) trying to grab the bloke. The thief was wearing only a loincloth langoti, and when my father tried to grab him he found that the fellow was oiled all over. By then the servants were awakened as we all started screaming together and our khalasi boy cleverly threw a sheet over the thief and grappled with him. When he was cowed down and we could see his face my parents were amazed to see that he was a railway electric mistri who had done some repairs in our house. When asked why he had come to steal he said he had been married a year ago and had promised his wife a silver nose ring. As he had not enough money he thought he just had to arrange the funds! It was a case of beg, borrow or steal! My father and mother decided to let him off and even gave him the extra Rs. 10/- that was needed to buy his wife's first wedding anniversary present!

Household linen was the proud handwork of every home. Every girl was taught embroidery and sewing in those days both at home and at school. Elaborate and exquisite needlework adorned cushions, bed covers and framed picture decorations. Beautiful linen from China, applique work, cutwork and shadow work were peddled house to house on bicycles, by Chinese immigrants fleeing the upheavals of their country in the 1940s. The delicacy of Chinese embroidered organdy tea cosy tray cloths, and napkins enhanced the serving of tea and summer drinks served on Burmese lacquer trays or ivory in-lay Kashmir wood trays.

The smiling Chinese vendors carefully unpeeled layer by layer of exquisite linen items from inside the tin trunk. He was never in a hurry and repacked every item meticulously. The cost of an organdy tea cosy tray cloth set was Re 1 and eight annas and a dining table cloth or bed spread embroidered in fine cross stitch at four corners could be had at a bargain price of Rs 10.

With tremendous ingenuity and regularity the Box-Wallahs brought us a variety of fun, entrainment and news items.

Chinese vendors began to cycle up to our houses bringing their wares in wooden boxes. They were the Box-Wallah's who carried the exquisite hand embroidery of far away China, hand fans, paper lanterns and toys. It became a great fashion statement to use Chinese house linen. Any housewife who kept a beautiful home displayed Chinese table cloths and napkins.

The peddlers trade in all big cities of India had been affected by happenings of the ongoing world war. Displaced people took to any earning that came their way. As children, we would look out for the clay toy sellers who brought the most exquisite painted clay dolls, birds and animals, vegetables and fruits, but now we were offered new wares such as celluloid dolls, badminton rackets, rubber balls and squeaky rabbits, cats and bears.

There were trinket Box-Wallahs who delighted girls with enamel painted hairpins, butterfly broaches, diamente buckles for evening dresses and laces and pipings of all kinds. The buying and selling was a session of persuasion on the side of the peddler and reluctant interest on the part of my mother, who took care not to let us express our excitement too much over the attractive wares.

Box-Wallahs also brought comic books, magazines, knitting needles, fountain pens, imitation jewellery, elastic, rick-rack binding, ribbons and celluloid hair clips. The man who sold attar or perfumes had a wooden box, fitted on the inside with sections that held the sparkling coloured liquids in precious bottles, in aesthetic display. As the box was opened a heady aroma met the nostrils and as children we could never understand how my mother could distinguish between the smell of a 'arq-e-gulab' (essence of rose) or 'khas-khas' the green extract of a grass that cooled a body by application to the temples. I remember, these oil based perfumes when applied to clothes, would last for weeks.

Then there was 'Pastry and Biscuit wallah' whose tin box had glass sides so his tempting eats could be seen while strapped to his cycle carrier. He would alight, unstrap the trunk and open the lid revealing a tray of icing layered pastries, sponge cakes and lemon and jam tarts. If mother did not like to buy those he would remove the top tray uncovering a lower tray filled with ginger biscuits sugar, sprinkled biscuits, coconut cookies and crunchy mocarrum biscuits. The flavours were out of this world!

In the late afternoon, around tea-time, we would await the pastry-wallah's bell and children would run out with one anna coins clutched in little hands to buy the most delicious sponge cakes or icing pastries.

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