Tuesday, November 22, 2011

Lost vendors of Lahore by Dr Tehseen Aman

LAHORE has grown from sober to intellectual to zinda-dillan. But for one old lady, it is nostalgic to reminiscence of the days gone by. At the time of Partition, Lahore had little to boast about except the Mughal architecture such as Shalimar Gardens, Badshahi Mosque and the Fort. The Zoo and the museum were an added glamour for the Lahorites. The old and young went to these places when they wanted an outing, otherwise they mopped round their mohalla, had charpoy talks and ate thanday golay served by vendors on hot summer days.

The ice golay wala was announced by a ringing of the copper bell and little boys and girls would gather round him, to buy ice gollay with fruity flavours or just ogle at him while he rang his bell and called out in a melodious voice “gollay danday wala aya jay.” The most spectacular vision was when he shaved a block of ice by moving it back and forth over a large razor and shaping the shavings by hand into a ball, while piercing a small round stick into it. Then he would squirt coloured sweet syrups from bottles onto the ice balls.

Such street vendors brightened the otherwise dull afternoons. These were days when Pakistan was in its infancy, innocent but alive, throbbing and pulsating with future hope. These vendors were an integral part of Lahore’s simple everyday life.

Then there was the ‘toffee candy’ man, who never lagged behind. He carried his gatta on a long bamboo and could create magic on a small stick. He would weave magic with his fingers and soon the soft candy would be twisted, prodded and turned into a horse, peacock or even a soldier complete with his cap and bayonet. The children named the image and got it. The candy would not melt or finish off quickly as did the gola. You could suck on it for a full day, keep it under your pillow for the night and again suck it in the morning. The sweet taste of both the gola and the toffee candy lasted for a long time, and both the vendors did a roaring business roaming the streets of Lahore.

Winters, on the other hand, were marked with corn cobs and long stems of ganah of sugarcane. There were no machines to prepare popcorn or to extract juice from the sugarcane. For popcorn, there was the danay bhoonnay wali mai. After the harvesting of the corn crop, she would set up a special bhatti for the roasting of corn. A simple wood fire beneath a metal wok, a metal garwi and a sieve were her main tools. The wok was half-filled with fine grey sand from the riverbed. The corn was added to the sand and fresh fire was conjured up by dry wood.

The delicious aroma tempted both the young and the old to savour the palatable roasted corns, rubbing them between their hand, blowing the chaff off and popping a handful into the mouth. Sometimes, the mai would also cook wheat grains with gur in a similar fashion, thus bringing sweet temptation on a dull, cloudy and chilly afternoon.

Traversing the streets of Lahore was another vendor, the lachaywala. His voice would mesmerize little ones. When his musical voice rang loud lal mai da chata khao, children would run out to see who this lal mai was and how they could eat her chata (hair). No matter if the children saw the chata every day, they would always be intrigued by his voice. Though this vendor is still found standing in the big bazaars of Lahore, now it has become candy floss and it is wrapped in polythene bags and only very small children, when they look at it, are enticed by the colourful floss.

These were the vendors who sold eatables, but there were others, too, like maashki and the qalaiwala. The maashki was the man with a goat-skin bag. He would carry and deliver water from far-away wells to houses in the walled city and even outside because there was a lack of taps or water tanks on rooftops. The maashki would come to the door and call out loudly. The women would go in purdah, while he would be allowed into the house and fill big copper matkas or earthenware ones. He would come twice a day, in the early morning and in the evenings, just round Magrib prayers. The maashki was given flour as payment.

Then there was the annual visit from the qalaiwala. He knew exactly which houses needed qalai polishing for utensils. He would gather the copper pots of the house round him, set up his coal fire by digging a small pit in the ground and stocking it to the required temperature with a pair of ancient leather fans. Then he would put the stained and pitted metal utensils on the fire, heat it, put a little bit of tin on the surface of the utensil and quickly rub it with Ammonium Bicarbonate, with wool all round and inside the utensils. Behold, a glistening new white utensil lay before you!

There was another vendor who charmed mostly girls and women alike, the chooriwala, with colourful glass bangles. No plastic or metal was used in those days. He had a big stand with six to seven rods on both sides. Specially before Eid he would roam the streets, calling in a melodious voice. Women would peep through their doors, call out to him and then start choosing various colours. Thus, Eid would be made more colourful at the very doorstep. 

How can the cloth vendor be forgotten? The main attraction was his gabardine, which the women bought for winter and his latha and sheent for summer. Only for a special occasion could pure silk be bought. Synthetic cloth was not in vogue. He was most awaited round special occasions such as Ramazan, Eid, weddings and even deaths. These vanished visions of Lahore will never return as we move into the 21st century.

This article was first published in Dawn

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