The Street-Music of Calcutta c. 1880
Author of “A Vision of Sumeru and Other Poems,” etc.
“This truth he boasts, will boast it while he lives,
No poisonous drugs are mix’d with what he gives.” Garrick.
I devoted a whole day to listen to the street-music of Calcutta, and reprt the result for the information of my readers. The cries to which I refer are to be heard daily in the native part of the town. Those peculiar to the European portion of it are of course very different.
Almost the first cry every morning is that of the Kooar-ghotee-tolláh. Be the day ever so cold or so rainy there is the man ready to extricate from the bottom of the well whatever you may have dropt in it, though the cry speaks of brass lotahs only. The Moorish lady cries her heart out for the earrings she had dropt in the well, which she could not recover. There must have been no kooar-ghotee-tolláh in Spain in her day, for earrings, or nose-rings, or finger-rings, are all picked out of wells in Calcutta with the greatest facility. Look at the man as he stands before you – an elderly, stout fellow, with elephantiasis on one leg – and you would hardly think him capable of the feat by which he earns his daily bread. He must dive at least five or six times a day to earn a decent pittance, for two or three pice is all he gets each time; and the frail steps on the well-side by which he gets down are not contemptible dangers to brave for the price paid to him. Talk of old Bazaine’s escape from Fort St. Marguerite! It surely was not half so perilous as these incessant descents into wells kept as dirty as can be imagined and in indifferent repair; and yet who has ever heard of a ghotee-tolláh having died in the execution of his duty?
But have not water-pipes superseded the use of wells in every family-residence in Calcutta? asks the English reader, entirely innocent of native ways and doings. No, Aryan brother, they have not. The supply of Municipal water is little to be depended upon, and fails frequently at very inconvenient hours; and our Hindu ladies are so aquatic in their habits, and delight so much in water, that an unfailing supply of it from 4 a.m. to 10 p.m. is an absolute necessity of their lives. Almost every act of housewifery requires the washing of hands or clothes, and many make entire ablutions of the body imperative; and since the filtered water of the Municipality is not to be had at all hours, there is no alternative for the mass but the well and the ghotee. They speak again, of the compulsory setting-up of metres in private houses to regulate the supply of water according to the rate paid for it. The idea is not particularly liberal; to our thinking the supply of water, like that of air and light, should be unchecked. But, as our sapient commissioners seem to think otherwise, “don’t fill up your wells yet” is our warning and advice to all whom it may concern.
This is a song of the boyhood of Krishna, when that mischievous urchin used to go about from dairy to dairy stealing butter. The itinerant singer goes, Homer-like, from house to house, singing the delinquencies of the little god, that the morning might be commenced auspiciously by all, with the achievements of the deity fresh in their recollections. It is rather odd giving lessons in thieving to business-people at this early hour, as the instruction is not unapt to stick in the minds of those who buy and sell, and to influence their actions throughout the day. Songs about Rámchandra are also sung. For these regular reminders the singers claim a small buxis (varying from four pice to two annas) at the end of each month. The songs are good to hear, and some of the singers have very musical voices; and so, for one reason or another, the imposition is tolerated by all families.
The begging appeals in Calcutta are intolerable nuisances that recur from daybreak to dusk; and there is no means of putting them down, as the police will never interfere. I don’t object to an old woman, or a blind or lame man, appealing to one for charity; but for two real objects of sympathy that accost you, there are four or six stalwart claimants whose only plea for appeal is that they are Vysnubs, which they think gives them a right to demand alms. They actually give you gállee if you send them away empty-handed. “What, such a Burrá Báboo, with such a house to live in, and not give alms! Remember there is another place to go to; for he that turns away the beggar from his door gets no admittance in Vycant.” Cheek of this sort is constantly given; and as you can’t condescend to resent it, you are obliged to submit to it with the best grace you can. Often, very often, a sturdy beggar will refuse to leave your door without a reasonable dole. If you ask the páháráawállá to eject him, the man of authority laughs at your face; if you tell your own people to push out the applicant, there is an action for assault, sometimes resulting in a fine: at all events, I remember having once read of such a case, in which the learned magistrate held that force should not have been used for expulsion, without laying down however how the expulsion was otherwise to be effected when the party to be dealt with is strong-limbed, obstinate, and clamorous.
Of course, as I have said, there are many real objects of charity, who, in a city where there is absolutely no provision for them, well deserve the attention of the humane. But, when your temper is once upset by the stubbornness, it rarely happens that you are able to do your duty to the rest. “Don’t admit any of them,” is the snappish order the master gives to his door-keeper; and so many a poor woman loses the pice or grain that she would otherwise have received.
This is an expressive cry, a proof of the march of civilization as represented by the brandy-bottle. From house to house the Bikreewállá collects all the empty bottles, in broad daylight, as a matter of course, and without any attempt whatever at concealment. The cry is constantly raised that Young Bengal is afraid to avow his liberalism; but surely the avowal, as regards the consumption of spirituous liquors, is distinct enough. Sissees (medicine phials) are, of course, also asked for; but you see every Bikreewállá passing by loaded with champagne, beer, and brandy bottles, with their labels on. It is an every-day and every-hour matter now, and the number of Bikreewállás is so large that one is staggered in attempting to compute the amount of consumption it represents. If you detect me in giving out bottles from my house, I have my answer ready: “Some rose-water bottles only, which I do not know what to do with. But pray, don’t smell them; bad gasses may have generated in them, and you may fare the worse for doing so.”
What a stentorian voice that bearded Mahomedan has who every morning cries out at your door for old newspapers! Do the worthy gents of the fourth estate know what their bad grammar and worse taste actually sell for second-hand in the Calcutta bazaárs? Fourteen pice the quire; not a cowrie more! I haggled very hard once for 4 annas; but the devout Mahomedan swore by Alláh Bismalláh that he barely gets that rate from the shopkeepers, and could not therefore give me more than the fixed 3½ annas a quire. Twenty-four sheets of an Indian Thunderer for fourteen pice only! With this data given, will any B.A. or M.A. work out for us how much each furious leader is appraised at? I am not a dab at figures, but my calculations give just 9½ cowries for the biggest thunder – English or Patriotic. Some of these thunder-makers have sought sedulously for immortality by having blind-lanes named after them. The immortality of the whole genus will be found in the shops of the Pánchunwálláhs, if they will only seek for it there.
Akin to the above cry are the cries of
There is no such thing as destruction in the world, says the philosopher. What we consider as such is only change. Your old iron, your old cháttá or parasol, all your tattered rags, are marketable articles: there is no destruction for them, but a salutary change? The broken padlock will do service again in another shape; the cháttá will receive a new era of existence after it is mended and a new cloth put on to it; the rags will be converted into paper – probably to print some big daily, to be sold again at 3½ annas a quire! O tempora! O mores!
There goes the Kánsári’s music! A cooly carries with him all the articles he has for sale. The gong and the bell are for poojáhs, if you are particularly fond of them; the thállá, or dining plate, for your first-born, if he has commenced to eat rice; the lotáh, the pilsooj, the gároo, anything you stand in need of, sir! But I don’t want anything; still the infernal dhong! dhong! continues. It is enough to awaken the dead in their graves!
The Kánsári is a man well to do in life. He has a shop in the nearest bazaár; and both in going to it and in coming back from it he makes it a point to carry a cooly’s load with him, if only to try the temper of the people whose houses he passes by. Braziers from other places, especially from Jagganáth, also frequent the streets, crying Thákoorbáteer bássan go! Thákoobáteer bássan! But this you don’t hear every day, probably because the sellers are few in number, and perambulate different parts of the town by turns.
This is a horrible voice between a bawl and a screech. I wonder how much the man makes a day by this cry. Who on earth requires grinding-stones to be recut and repaired? And yet here is a man who makes his living by cutting them anew.
Here is poetry for you, reader; the serpent-charmer’s poetry, as he goes about with his baskets full of serpents, a baboon following at his heel that will play many tricks with the serpents, if you will pay a trifle for the tamáshá. It is, of course, well-known that the serpents are fang-less; but what if one of the reptiles escapes while being played with and burrows in your house? Won’t it get new fangs in time? Why then is the play permitted in a densely-crowded city? I never could look at serpents without dread. Our native dress at home gives us no protection against them if they are unwarily crossed, and I would unhesitatingly vote for the expulsion of all such players from the town. I know that there are many who take a delight in looking at the reptiles – particularly children. The impression left on these little fellows is various. One child, after such a sight in the day, woke up at night in convulsions, with the cry of “Sáp sáp,” and with froth foaming in his mouth. But this was an exceptional case. Generally, they are well pleased with the play so long as its last, and forget all about it afterwards; what especially delights them being the music of the charmer, which certainly does charm all simple-hearted listeners – including the serpents, of course. These charmers, they say, can charm out serpents from their holes and capture them. I saw one attempt myself, but that was a failure. The serpent did come out to listen to the music, but snapped at the charmer every time that he approached it; and, as it was a rather large-sized cobra, the man did not much like the idea of cultivating any intimate acquaintance with it. But there is no doubt that they do capture many serpents in this way, for many good people have seen them do so.
A very good edible is Moong-ke-dál, the Arabicá Revelentá of the doctors, which has been known in this country from time anterior to the flood as a very wholesome food for the convalescent. The man who sells the dál is an up-country man, and the grains are very clean and have been well picked. The Bengali does not know, or does not care, to clean his grains in the way these up-country people do it. The fact is he is more partial to his fish and torkáree than to his dál, though the dál is both more wholesome and more strengthening. Altogether, in the matter of food, the natives of Bengal are very much less particular than up-country Hindus. The former will take anything they can get that caste rules allow, and then hurry on to money-making; while the latter, though not less fond of money-making, will still find full time for cleaning and cooking their dinner well.
How loud the man bawls! His custom perhaps is not as profitable as it used to be of old. Young Bengal is more fond of Morgeer Deem (fowls’ eggs) than of Hánsayr Deem (ducks’ eggs); but of course the former cannot be hawked about openly except in Mahomedan quarters. The Hánsayr Deem is a loathsome food. Of fowls’ eggs I have no personal experience, but they are said to be better. Both are taken by some people raw!!! and I have heard that doctors advise their being so taken. The idea makes the blood run cold.
The first may pass without comment; but Áloo (potatoes) and Piáz (onions) selling together in the streets of an orthodox town! Oh Menu and Vyasa! what are we coming to! There was a time when people lost caste for eating onions; while now potatoes and onions are carried round in the same basket from door to door, and even widows and Bráhmans buy the potatoes quite heedless of their unorthodox contamination.
The cry is drawn out in lengthened sweetness, and reaches a great distance; and very great is the demand for the dohi. All people who can afford to pay for it buy it eagerly, for it very much facilitates the taking of rice – particularly when the days are hot. It is also very wholesome, notwithstanding some medical opinions expressed of late to the contrary. In bowel complaints it acts as a charm. The other variety of it, called Málye Dohi, is less digestible, and is only liked because it is more acid. They both sell in the streets with the greatest promptitude.
Play-things to sell! What a crowd of ragged children follow in the wake of the seller; all anxious to buy, but having no pice to pay! And what a variety of nick-nacks the man has got: birds made of coloured rags and decked with tinsel, paper pálkees, ghárries, umbrellas, trees, flowers, whistles, bells, cards, balloons, looking-glasses; everything, in fact, that is likely to catch a child’s fancy. With villainous pertinacity these are displayed ostentatiously at every door. In vain do poor mothers tell the man to pass on, not having the pice to pay for what their children clamorously ask for. The man knows that the pice will be forthcoming, and generally succeeds in getting it out.
What a sweet melodious voice that girl has who goes from house to house selling choorees, or bracelets made of sealing-wax or glass! But all the poetry evoked by her voice vanishes the moment you get a full view of her face. The phiz of Medusa could scarcely have had a more petrifying effect. You close your eyes involuntarily, while the ear continues to drink the melody that floats by. Chooree libee, go! Yes, my love, I will buy up all your choorees if you will go on hawking them in your own pretty way; but don’t break the spell by turning your face towards me, or you will convert me into stone. Throw a veil over your features, and you will enhance the value of your wares.
No, man, no! I have no broken utensils to repair; pass on, please; your pertinacity is most annoying. Who can possibly require a tinker at his door every day of the year?
These shrieks and screeches are very trying indeed. There is no poetry in the voices. They are all matter-of-fact calls, for things or services which you cannot possibly stand in need of more than, say, once, twice, or four times a year; and yet you have to bear with the calls every blessed day of your existence, and fortunate is he who does not receive each more than once in twenty-four hours.
A good long yarn this, and rather melodiously bawled out, gawking for sale chutnies and acids which are dear to every epicure and gourmand.
We pass over all these cries as calling for no particular remark.
Immediately after them follows the cry of
Your syce is a great scoundrel and steals gram; the horse is getting thinner; you are afraid of being some day hauled up before the Magistrate by the Cruelty-Prevention-Society, which is so vigilant. But where the deuce does the gram go to? Ask this man and you will know. All the stolen gram is converted into Chánáchoor, which, made hot with chillies, is much valued by drunkards both of high and low degree. Brandy-páwny and Chánáchoor Gurmá-Gurrum comprise a feast for the gods, leaving aside the exquisites of the Calcutta University. What Young Bengal is there who has been able to resist the temptation of sharing them with his syce or his sirdár-bearer, if not in worse company?
And there is the Burophwállá coming in good time to cool down both the liquid-fire and chillied-gram! Does any one wish to have revelations of pandemonium or the purgatory without the intervention of the Planchette? Let him accompany a Burophwállá for the nonce, and he will see both places with his open eyes and learn all that he may require to know. Oh, what secrets these Burophwállás could divulge if they had a mind to!
Night now closes up the city of palaces, brothels, and iniquities for a brief while; and no calls but those of the Páháráwállá and the jackal will be heard for the next few hours. I may therefore close for the present with –
Which is announced by a broad flaring light in the hands of a bearded fakir, who goes about from door to door, asking for that dole in the name of a Mahomedan saint which no Hindu housewife dares to refuse. All Mooshkill, or difficulties, will be made áshán, or easy. Child’s sickness, husband’s irregularity of life, crustiness of old mother-in-law – every impediment to happiness will be removed at once. And what is the price to pay for this? One pice only!