A Succession of Wallas

BY SADIQA PEERBHOY

Decades before Messrs Amazon, Flipkart, Zomato and others patted themselves on their corporate backs for creating what they thought was a revolutionary era in home shopping, we had both home shopping and home delivery. And let me tell you, it was a darn sight more pleasant and personal experience.

These days, you press a few buttons and what you want is delivered to your doorstep. But our days, in a more leisurely paced Bangalore where daylight did not rush pell-mell into the night, began and ended with a succession of Wallas who made a fine art out of M2C (Read that as Manufacturer to Consumer).

Each of the Wallas had a particular call. For instance, the Breadwalla on a cycle, who also had biscuits and buns had a very strident rubber horn attached to his bike. He was always in such a hurry that he couldn’t wait beyond a few minutes even when called out from the verandah, “Wait we are coming”.

The Eggwalla now carried eggs in a basket on foot, because once when he fell off from his cycle on a hungover morning, about 400 dozen eggs smashed on the pavement and the spot smelled for days.

The milkman rattled his pails and his buffalo helped by a deep-throated mooing. He was a rare chatty one who talked all the time, that the milk was squirting into the pail and the lady of the house kept a vigil to see that he was not adding water with an undetected sleight of hand.

There was a curd seller who came with a mud pot on his head and used a chip of coconut to slice the thick curd with its bubbled creamy top. That curd with a sprinkle of sugar on it, scooped with a piece of paratha was a breakfast to die for. I can recall my husband’s querulous voice complaining, “Why is it that we cannot set curd like this at home?” Why, indeed? Because, as my cook would tell him, yet again, that undoubtedly, the curd seller stirred flour in his milk to thicken it. Or worse, crushed blotting paper into it.

Even just a few years ago, our Bangalore mornings had a vegetable seller who pushed a cart from home to home and was not averse to sipping a cup of a coffee offered by the lady of the house and engaging in a very satisfying haggling session that followed a predetermined format which sent both parties off feeling like they had got the best of the bargain.

There used to be a Cheelawalli who brought a mud pot full of pancakes made with fermented rice flour. A little like appam, but softer and frillier lace-edged, served with a dollop of mint and coconut chutney.

The tingling bell of the Ice Cream Man in the height of summer, like Pied Piper, drew all the neighbourhood children and stopped their games while they licked their ice cream sticks with joy writ large on their faces.

Some of the vendors were singers of no mean order, who had perfected the art of throwing their voices like trained stage actors. In Hyderabad, I recall an old man who carried on his head a black clay pot packed with ice and rock salt. In it were secreted metallic cones of kulfi, encrusted with dough. “Kulfimalaaeeeee”, he sang out, his contralto reaching deep into homes and sending children scurrying for the coins that would get them a treat moulded on a stick and ruin their appetites for dinner.

So much for the edible sellers. We even had a man going about with a long bamboo pole for all those regularly blocked drain pipes. And a cycle rickshaw loaded with spare parts for temperamental pressure cookers and stoves.

No one sharpens blunted knives anymore, I am told. But I recall the man who came along with a pedal-operated wheel that turned all old knives and scissors into new. Now all you can do is throw them away.

There was also the cotton ginning man who came twanging a string, asking for mattresses that were flattened thin with use. He opened them and twanged and sifted the cotton till it was airy and fluffed out. He then filled the striped fabric again till your mattresses looked like irresistible invitations to siestas.

In peak summers, when the Chennai Express wheezed in into the Cantonment Station when the dusk shadows lengthened of an evening, we could expect the Tatinungo man with his leaf-covered basket at the back of his bicycle. He brought the juiciest, most thirst slaking ice apples or palm fruit to the house. He knew the houses that bought them regularly and stood for minutes calling his Tatinungo cry in increasing decibels by the gate.

As a child growing up in Hyderabad, I was fascinated by the Suiyan Poth Wallees, women who sold needles and beads. It was a festive occasion when they made their regular visits once a month in the first week when the ladies’ batwas were fattened with housekeeping money. The word went around and the family collected – even calling on neighbours from over the wall to join in the mela-like atmosphere that ensued. Cups of tea did the rounds and the bargaining and the chatter along with free gossip thrown in by Wallees, who were privy to what was going on in most homes in the city added to the entire experience.

But beads and needles were not all that the chatty vendors brought in their battered tin trunks. Oh! the fascinating feminine treasures their trunks spilt out when opened with a flourish! Everything to delight a woman’s heart- from earrings and beads to saree borders, lengths of Banaras cloth, and tassels to attach to dupattas.

There was even a paste to restore virility to the bored husband, but then children were not supposed to know about these things which came out of a separate pouch. There were hairpieces to make one’s own plait longer and thicker. And the ubiquitous Afghan Snow, which many a young lady swore by in those days, and lipsticks and kajal—homemade with ghee and candle flame.

Now we have home deliveries and invariably the delivery boy is severely destination-challenged and calls up on an average of five times for directions at every turning, even with the complete address given on the parcel. After a painful process of guiding him from landmark to landmark, the final call comes from the gate. “I am standing outside your house, Modom” This is pronounced with the air of someone who has negotiated perilous mountain roads and swum rivers in spate and slain a couple of dragons on the way in the cause of duty.

By now I am usually irritated enough by the serial phone calls to snap, “What do you a want me to do? Welcome you with an aarti? Ring the bell dumdum!”

So much for home delivery!

After decades of creating brands, and marketing brands in advertising as a creative director, Sadiqa empowered herself to write what she herself loved to read. The result was fortnightly humour columns in a series of newspapers, short stories, scripts, and seven books of fiction. Sadiqa resides in Bangalore. She loves to paint and is an ardent learner of Hindustani vocal music.