CONTINUED FROM LAST POST “SHAHJAHAN PUR LIFE, LITTE BAZAR)
(More than half a century on, things must have changed a lot. But I am sure some things would still be the same in my beloved home town. This is an account of some of the Shahjahanpur’s life in the fifties.) Shahjahan pur is a city in U.P. (North India.)
If you were sick and could not afford a proper doctor, you could always resort to the local hakeem. His little outfit was very close to our home. For the medicine, the hakeem had different concoctions of khameeras and herbs. He would reach, while sitting on his heels, a corner of his dimly lit shop, grab a clay cup whose capacity is 5-10 c.c., blow in it hard to dislodge dust. Then he would reach another corner and grab a bottle. Use a spoon to scoop a quantity of the ‘khameera’ and transfer it to the clay cup. He had used the front part of his shirt to clean the spoon. The khameera is in fact a mixture of some spices and sugar and a little fat. He will then proceed to cover the top of the cup with a square paper. He first held the little piece of paper in one hand, strike it swiftly with a finger of the other so that the dust will scatter around in the shop. Then holding the cup in left hand and using a finger to keep the paper in place while with his right hand he expertly goes round the rim of the little cup folding the edge of the paper down again and again till he has run the entire rim. The result is a cup with a paper lid.
One anna was the price and the advice was, “ek ungly chato”. It means: use your first finger to scoop a little of the medicine and lick it off after each meal.
For the herbs also he will first shake them, blow over them before putting a few dried branches /leaves of several types of herbs on a paper and then wrap them up (such a wrapping was called ‘puria’). The instruction will be to boil them and drink the water warm before/ or after the meals. Or before going to bed, or first thing in the morning etc.
The medicines from the hakeem would never cure a general patient but they would psychologically satisfy every one involved that something is being done. He would also invariably suggest the diet plan the patient must follow. If the patient is weak, he would suggest lentil soup with thin part of the chapatti (daal ka pani aur roti ka chilka), or chicken broth with bread (double roti). Those who could not afford chicken would trap birds of which there were plenty in every house court yards (aangan). Avoid beef and rice was the standard advice.
Some local “doctors” also were tried at times who had half a dozen different coloured mixtures and some medicine powders. We were supposed to arrive with at least two empty bottles which we would either produce from our own home or would buy, at 1-2 paisa each, from a vender on the steps of the doctor’s shop (Doctor’s shop was never called a clinic). He invariably prescribed a combination of 1-2 liquid syrups and 1-2 powders. The coloured syrups will be poured in bottles supplied by the patient and the powders will be wrapped in paper. The ‘compounder’, (as the dispenser was called) would stick to the side of each bottle he filled with a syrup a paper strip that has as many notches cut at equal distances as the intended doses. For example, if the syrup was meant for three days two doses daily, (6 doses) the paper strip will have 5 notches. To measure a dose, the patient will pour syrup in spoon until the level in the bottle has dropped one notch. The dozes of the powder were wrapped separately in small papers, all of which were then wrapped up in a larger paper for easy carrying.
The low cast people were very useful in that hundreds of them were employed for pittance each to keep the city (reasonably) clean. They apparently agreed to these lowest wages for dirtiest jobs because the prospects of them getting any other job for any wage were simply zero. Yet they were supervised by people from higher cast men who were well paid and were well placed in the society. The municipality would release each morning an army of sweepers who would descend upon all the main roads and sweep them over using straw brooms attached to a staff. They would make small heaps of rubbish at regular intervals of 20-30 metres. These mounds of rubbish will be boosted by household rubbish by the owners of the houses along the road. This would happen just before the sun rise. Then a cart pulled by a tired looking buffalo or bull would appear. Two men are collecting in their baskets rubbish from the heaps and throwing same in the cart. The bull seems to sense a heap and would stop beside it and then move on till the next heap.
[added on 16 June 2013. An excerpt from V. S. Naipaul’s “Miguel Street” about Trinidad in the fifties]:
(After midnight there were two regular noises in the street. At about two O’ clock you heard the sweepers; and then just before dawn, the scavenging-carts came and you heard the men scraping off the rubbish the weepers had gathered in to heaps)
Amazingly Naipaul achieved in a few lines elegantly what I took a whole big paragraph to say!
The fire incidents being rare, the fire department used the fire engine to daily sprinkle water on the roads to keep the dust down and to cool the locality a little. The fire station had in its premises a well with a 30 metre sloping stretch of passage way over which a couple of bulls will pull down a huge skin full of water which will then be poured in to the waiting water tanker. The slope was built by first digging a sloping hole in the ground at a certain distance from the well, while piling the earth thus obtained on the intervening stretch up to the well. This wedge shaped pile, highest at the rim of the well and meeting just the beginning of the sloping hole, completed the whole incline. On this slope a pair of bulls would go down pulling the skin of water that contained about one cubic metre of water, over a huge pulley. The same arrangement was used in the fields to water the crops.
The summer was hottest and very dusty during the month 15th May to 15th June. Dust storms (aandhi) were common and one had to cover head and ears before venturing out during hottest part of the day, the afternoons. This was to keep safe from heat waves. People had a 30 min warning of dust storms as it was apparent by the look of the sky in the east, gloomy, grey or yellowish. Buyers would urge the vendors to hurry and hand over whatever is being bought as the aandhi is coming. Every one wants to reach home and be safe from the high winds and dust.
Come late June and July and the monsoons have arrived. The rain now is welcome relief from heat but the humidity causes stickiness and warm and uncomfortable evenings. Mangoes are favourite fruit and are in plenty. There are two main types of mangoes, the ordinary small ones and the large ones. The smaller ones, being juicy, are to be sucked where as the larger ones, which had creamy flesh, could be nicely sliced using a knife.
The smaller mangoes, called ‘tukhmee’, were sold by the hundreds. Several bullock cart loads of these will be parked in the small clearing opposite our home and we could hear all day long cries of the vendors soliciting custom. Cries will be to the effect of “come, 6 annas a hundred, or 8 annas a hundred’ (chhe anne saikda). The shouting accompanied the beating with a stick of tin cans to attract the people who milled around and knew not which cart they should patronize. We children were ordered to fetch a hundred or two and it is raining. We will take an umbrella or wear a jute sack over the head and take along a bag. (Plastic bags were not known yet, and every one must take a bag while going for shopping.) The vendor will use both of his hands to collect five mangoes, of assorted sizes and texture and count twenty times that he transfers these to our bag. He will then proceed and put few more mangoes as a bonus. The larger mangoes called qalmi were sold by the dozen or by weight. The scales used by all vendors were simple ones with two pans hanging from the extremities of a wooden stick. The middle of the stick had a hole through which a 10 cm long string is passed. This string had a thick and fluffy ending that will get stuck in the fist of the vendor as he will raise the scale to weigh the merchandize, one pan having the weights. Some poor vendors who could not afford a scale sold by the little heaps or by the cupfuls. The inspectors used to visit shops to collect the scales and weights for inspection. The weights if found lacking due to wear and tear will receive a shot of lead to bring them back to the correct measure.
The month of Muharram brings the season of Tazias. Shia sect of Muslims observed the martyrdom of Imam Hussain in Karbala every year by, among other things, ‘raising’ tazias (mock paper/ reed buildings of his tomb, of height a metre to 4 metres) and taking them to grave yard to bury. Sunnis did the same but with far greater vigour and enthusiasm. The sunni Tazias were a hundred times more robust, elaborate and grand and were taken to the grave yard with profound procession. It would take 24 hours for the procession to snail from the starting point to the finish a distance of about three miles. One route ran from in front of our house, as there were two places in different parts of the town where tazias related activities were traditionally done. The procession containing about ten tazias put forward by various sunni people who had various ways of putting one over the other. There was an undeclared war or competition as to whose procession was the grandest. Many would hire brass bands, some more than one to lead the tazia. It is supposed to be a sad event, yet these bands played gay tunes often of popular songs from films. Once we also saw a tazia being led by an elephant upon which sat people throwing food to the anxious hands below. The whole atmosphere was that of a mela (fair), complete with candies, toys, women vanities, food stalls etc. Some would organise stalls of sherbet (sabeel of sweet water) to be distributed free to any one feeling thirsty. This was a noble act and was meant to collect credit in the hereafter by remembering the acute thirst of the Imam and his companions at Karbala. Some tazias were lead by a dozen or so of men putting up a display with great zeal of torturing themselves with chains or knives. This was to emulate and to repent upon the suffering of The Imam.
40 days after this event, the tazias will return, this time with double the vigour and magnificence. In fact Shahjahanpur’s “chehlum” tazias were reputed to be the best of any other city or town.
Eid was a major event for most people, especially for the children. Almost every one would somehow manage to procure for themselves and for the children at least one new pair of clothes, a qamees and a pyjama. Ready made garments were unknown and the tailors would have a field day. Every tailor would wish for 30 days in Ramazan so he would have one more day to stitch clothes of clients and not be too late. Working very hard, still there were clothes unfinished till the end. If the moon was sighted on the night of 29th, they will work whole night to finish the job by the following morning. The tailors used buttons made from shells as plastic buttons had not been introduced. After the eid prayers which were done in two major places in the town, we children would hope to receive eidi (money). I too used to get some money which I would get to spend as I pleased. The following day is the main chinor mela (a fair spread in the vicinity of the main eid gaah (place for eid prayers). The merry go rounds, especially the ones that operated vertically (called hindolas) were too dangerous for me. Four hanging benched boxes seating four passengers each are pushed by two strong men that get the whole system, all wooden, moving, taking each benched box on a ride of a vertical circle, all the time the wooden axel rubbing on wooden rests and making great squealing sounds. I had a nauseating feeling even to contemplate riding these. The whole area was rife with stalls of food, drink, toys, cheap jewellery, magicians, acrobats, rides and men women and children milling around. All accompanied with smells and noises, the most prominent being the hindolas’ squeaks. The most favourite food I liked was called luchluchi, which was essentially a very thin wheat flour paratha fried in deep oil and the kebabs and halwa that go with it. This was not available any where else throughout the year.
Imagine a huge ladder some five metre long, made of bamboo and weighing some 30 klios. Also imagine a pair of wheels each 1 ½ metre in diameter, connected together by an iron rod, (axel). The ladder is balanced from its centre point on this rod and tied to it with a rope. You have a strange vehicle which is the emergency equipment of the energy department repairing electric faults. On a telephone call (5 % cases) or on a complain lodged by a runner (95 % cases) a team of two technicians will grab their tool box and some wires, tie them all with the ladder, push it along the roads of Shahjahan pur and reach the trouble spot in two to three hours depending upon the distance. One of them will climb the pole and do the repair, while the other will mind the ladder below. Power load shedding was unknown mainly because most of the houses and shops were without power in the first place. (Most people being unable to afford the connection fee (Rs 250) as against monthly power bill, for one or two bulbs, a fan, of Rs. 5 – 10) Telephones too were very rare and one needed to crank a handle several times before asking the operator to connect a certain number. Public phone call centres also were unknown and one had to find a willing person to allow you to make a call in emergency after paying him the cost of the call about 8 annas. Yes, you could send a telegram to other towns as long distance calls were very expensive and you had to go to the exchange or to the main post office. (to be continued)
There were two cinema halls in Shahjahan pur, Nishat Talkies and one other the name I have forgotten, for much of the fifties and sixties. Later a new one sprung up called Chitra Talkies and which had Mughal e Aazam as its opening film. The booking window for lowest class (6 anna) was barred like a prison and had two high walls run from it to a distance of some 10 metres that will allow one person to stand between them. The queue for a new film ran for much more but it was near the window that the action was seen. Some hard nut would climb over the men’s shoulders, brave the broken glass set on top of the walls and put his feet between any two persons in the queue and let the gravity do the job. He will sink down inch by inch squeezing the people in the queue harder and harder. The men in the queue felt intense pressure by people behind pushing forward and by the men near the window pushing back. The one at the window was busy buying the ticket with his one hand, while clutching with his other hand one of the bars to keep him from being pushed beyond the window before he has got his ticket. All the time the atmosphere was that of a riot, complete with people abusing each other for pushing, or for trying to jump line etc. I as a child was almost choked the only time I ever tried this window. I cried so they had pity and slowly eased me out. I still remember the relief I felt being able to breathe the air out side the walls. Never again will I try to buy a ticket from here, I resolved. Many people who bought tickets braving these treacherous walls were not there to watch the show; instead they made money by selling these precious tickets in black.
When I was in college I had bagged the prestigious tuition of teaching three naughty children of the collector sahib at his bungalow. These children had got rid of a series of teachers in the space of a few months and they used to relate the previous teachers to me as, “that yellow teacher”, or “that skinny one”. I was successful because I never tried to teach. Instead I used to play, draw pictures, tell stories and sing etc. In the process there was some learning happening. The children recommended me to the main peon of the collector, (Talli Ram) that he must help me get cinema tickets. So now I would telephone him from a police chauki and he will telephone the manager of the cinema hall. When I first approached the police chauki (post) near the Railway Station and asked if I could make a call to the collector’s house, they were more than cooperative, wondering what connection I had with the king of the district. Imagine that a peon had enough power to let me and my friend get the best seats in the cinema hall and free. (once in the circus Kamla which was India’s largest circus with three rings all showing the same item at a time, we got the front sofa seats, free again).
All the mosques had their own well and the worshipers would pull some water, pour it in earthen pots called badhnas, or qooza, and do the ablution. They would pray on reed mats or on the mats of palm leaves. Carpets had not been so popular yet. The wall clock was protected by a grill from thieves. (To be continued.)