THOSE GOOD OL’ DAYS

‘Sriram kanna, nillu da [1]. Patty is becoming old’, cried  Seetama, the septuagenarian erstwhile first lady of Lakshmipathy Madam. Four- year old Sriram, the uncrowned master of the house stopped briefly, gave his great grandmother a look of unrivalled pity and then resumed his ride on the tricycle, humming loudly, “Dirrrr…Pam-Pam…Dirrrr…” The 4-year old bus-conductor commanded with all the might, the squeaky voice could muster, ‘Nageswara Park, get down fast.’

Seetama wondered at the imagination of her great grandson, who had not left the house in anything less than the sturdy Ambassador. The old-lady said to herself, “Shambo Mahadeva! Sriram has acquired the intellect of his thatta[2] ”. She hoped that the little prodigy would surpass even her beloved- the late Chockalingam Iyer, whose status in the village was next only to the presiding deity- Lord Shiva. ‘Sriram kannan[3] will become a Periya[4] Collector, like his thatta’, she mumbled to herself. Meanwhile the aspiring bus-conductor zipped through in his Pushpaka-Vahanam from the verandah to the hall. Seetama, accustomed to the routine of the pocket-dynamo directly went to the dining hall, the final stop of ‘Shaktiman Bus’.
            With the food for Sriram in one hand and the other on her protruding chin, Seetama reminisced about the past, when her husband, Chockalingam Iyer IAS was always surrounded by a retinue of people, ranging from the humble petitioner to the ubiquitous policeman and the occasional politician. She vividly remembered the day when the newly-wed couple had gone to a concert of a prominent vocalist during the Madras Music Festival. The couple had been received so regally that humble Seetama had immediately shot a prayer above, ‘Mahadeva, let not this royal treatment go to my head and I forget you.’ Meanwhile, as the couple were seated in the first row, right infront of the performing artiste, the hesitant new wife could not resist asking Chockalingam, “Ean Na[5], why are we being accorded such a rousing reception? Have you helped the Sabha authorities monetarily before?” Chockalingam, a connoisseur of Karnatic music, was then dissecting the song into its barest atoms and was absorbed in analyzing it like an alchemist. No wonder the young Seetama received her first rebuke as the former muttered under his breath a clichéd Tamil proverb, “ Kaidei ki theriyama karpoora vasanai,’ which here roughly translates to-‘Can the donkey appreciate the arts?’ This unfair comparison awakened the musician in Seetama, a talented vocalist herself. Thereafter she also merged into the same wavelength as her husband’s, as the couple devoured the ambrosia flowing out of the renowned Bhagavathar.
            Later, as the couple were returning in their chauffeur driven Chevrolet car, Chockalingam seeing the gloomy face of his young wife softened and he himself revealed the truth, “Your husband is an IAS Collector. Hence.” It was then that Seetama truly understood the significance of the term “Collector”. The awe of the term ‘Collector’ was imprinted in her mind then. A kind of obsession took root in her mind that atleast one of their offspring should become a Collector. Since by nature, she was not of a stern disposition, she did not force her views on her six children, who were perfectly satisfied to excel in other fields such as the arts and economics and were not lured by the prestige of becoming That. Even though one of her grand-daughters was enterprising enough to try her hand at becoming That, the results did not match the efforts. Always a firm believer in destiny, Seetama consoled herself. It was of some consolation to her that the granddaughter eventually became a High-Court judge.poda
             Though she did not openly admit to others, the ‘Collector’ desire was still lurking in her heart, acting as a catalyst to her activities on the earth, but hindering her passage into the beyond. She was jolted out of this stupor by Sriram who commanded, ‘Patty, quickly give me the food.’ Seetama fondly queried, ‘Is my sweet-heart hungry?’ ‘NO!’  responded the thunderer immediately, “POGO”.

Old that she was, Seetama misheard POGO as PODA, a harmless profanity in Tamil if uttered in conversations between equals but serious enough to elicit attention if said otherwise, especially if by a four year old toddler. Seetama gently corrected,    ‘No Sriram! You should not say bad words like that.’

She cursed herself for allowing Sriram to mingle with the son of the gardener. The young fellow was understandably perplexed and quite unlike himself, quietly gulped down the food. Though somewhat concerned by the strange subdued obedience of her grandson, Seetama after the last helping patted the latter’s head and asked, “Kanna[6], will you become a Collector?” Pat came the reply, ‘Patty[7], I will become a conductor’. “Mahadeva! At this young age, the little fellow dreams of becoming an IAS Collector. It is the genes of his thata” exclaimed Seetama in unalloyed bliss.

Meanwhile a tricycle was heard running with the driver humming, “Dirrrr…Pam-Pam…Dirrrr.. We will watch POGO.  New stop POGO, POGO POGO”.  In the background trailed Seetama’s voice, ‘No, Sriram. Collectors don’t utter bad words!.”


[1] Nillu da-Stop dear

[2] Thatha– grandfather

[3] Kannan- beloved, dear

[4] Periya- Very Big/renowned

[5] Ean Na- Ji in Hindi

[6] Kanna- Laadla in Hindi

[7] Patty- Grandma

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A DAY IN THE LIFE OF A HAWKER-part 3

click for Part 1, Part 2

“No evil-spirit ever came near a devotee of Karuppu[1] Sami”, was one of this oft-repeated dialogues to his wife. The veracity of this statement can be debated for another day. Today, he had first spotted a male…. And hoped that it was anyone but a young man. As it always happens on a bad-day, hope instead of propelling a soul drowns it.

Before the impulsive ones implicate Thangappan as an incorrigible pervert given to dealings only with lonely ladies, the morality of the old-veteran should be stressed upon and he was anything ( a newspaper included) but a womanizer. The reason for his withdrawal from a window of opportunity to mint the much needed black-paper is a strange one.

clip_image001 A couple of months ago, as Thangappan was wheeling through ‘Sarojini Nagar’, he was stopped by Asha Varma ‘madam’. His eyes gleamed at the sight of a substantial catch before him. As was the case in these parts, the super woman immediately inside to attend to more pressing needs. Since there was no soul to even remotely witness his ‘crime’ (Thangappan another favorite term courtesy villains), the old fox had already decided to evade more ‘blak-paper’ from the lady. As soon as the mere formality of the weighing operation was completed, out came the young son of Asha Madam. There was a deep regret inside Thangappan about his failure to establish personal bonds with the influential ‘Sarojini Nagar’ residents.

He decided to remedy the longing and enquired, “are you studying, son?”

‘Yes’ came the curt reply.

‘In Plus 2, I guess’, continued Selvi’s father.

Pat came the hurt response, “No..No… 3rd year in St.Stephens Engineering college.”

Here was the much needed link to establish a firm-bond, thought our man and with his toothy grin blurted out, “I go those parts once a month. There is always a substantial collection of used beer bottles, in your Men’s hostel.”

However contrary to Thangappan’s expectations, no immediate reply came forth and the boy barely muttered, “ oh, I see “ and thundered ‘HOW MUCH WEIGHT?’.

The veteran giggled and said, “30 kg beer-bottles, quite a collection, you know”.

The teetotaler boy who had not relished even the earlier association was now fuming with anger as he ordered, ‘hey Paper, I asked the weight of the collections from my home’

“8 kg newspaper and 3 kg magazines” replied a baffled Thangappan.

“What! clip_image002 Only 8 kg newspaper… hey Paper, just 3 months ago a similar collection had fetched me 25 kg at Kumarans’. Let me see you weigh again”.

“Master, I have been around for 20 years. You can ask your mother about my fairness” blabbered a terrified Thangappan.

“What have you then to fear? Just demonstrate” came the matter of the matter of fact reply .

At the first step, the boy tolerated the precarious balancing in favour of the 1 kg weight. But the moment, Thangappan pulled out the next step in the trick of his trade, the boy protested, “Hey’Paper’, this will not do. Either take a 2 kg or a 5 kg weight and weigh enmasse”.

‘I have only 1 kg weight” came the feeble reply.

The situation took a turn for the worse as the boy abruptly concluded, “you can go. I will myself sell the papers at Kumarans” and went inside dragging along the potential bumper catch of ‘black-paper’.

Barely had the wounds of his first ‘business failure’ healed when a second one followed soon after. About 4 days after the ‘Varma Boy’ incident, as Thangappan was ambling along in Tamil-Mozhi street, his services were called for by Chintaamani Ammal. Since his business had been below par that day, Thangappan was pleasantly surprised at being stopped by Chintaamani; a very rare customer. More exhilaration greeted him, when bundle after bundle of newspapers and magazines were stacked one over the other. The magazines were stacked one over the other.

The experienced eye could discern at first glance, a super bumper of 30-35 kg weight. The malefactor was giddy with delight having serendipitously nailed almost 11 kg of ‘black-paper’ when out rung a voice from inside- “Amma, today I will definitely go to Kumarans’ and sell the papers.

Chintaamani shot back, ‘Enough of hearing the same nonsense for over 2 weeks. Seeing newspapers everywhere is getting to my senses and also earning me a bad name from visitors. The ‘paper-man’ will save you the trouble and auto-expense.’

Out came the defeated boy with a purpose and demanded of Thangappan, “What is the rate per kg?”

‘Rs 4 for newspapers and Rs.3 a kg for books’ came the quick reply.

‘No. this will not do. I normally get Rs.5 for newspapers and 3.5 for books at Shanmugam Scrap & Co.” countered the experienced young man.

“Ok Master, I am prepared to give 4.5 for the newspapers”

The boy was not impressed.

Like a salesman, Thangappan raised the stakes, ‘Rs.5 for paper and 3.5 for books. Final’.

The unexpected and unaccustomed catch had lowered the guard of the veteran, who had decided that the margin of the substantial ‘black-paper’ will offset the losses from the higher cost price. The alarmed boy seized the moment, ‘Hey ‘Paper-man’, your pricing is amusing; fluctuating like the stock-market. You are raising the rate without me even bargaining for it. There is something fishy’.

The boy quickly leafed through the various bundles as if hoping to find some long-lost diamond necklace. The distraught Thangappan was dealt a killer blow when the boy pronounced, “You may go. I will myself sell the bundles at Shanmugams’.”

clip_image003As the despondent Thangappan got onto his bicycle, the final nail was driven when he overheard the boy pacifying Mama dearest, “Amma, crookedness was writ large on his face. Don’t you ever call that fellow, could be a member of those gangs inspecting houses for theft. Shanmugams’ will give us a better price.”

Ever the believer of omens and patterns, Thangappan decided that the whole tribe of male in the age group: 14-22 were fatal to his career and that he was better off dealing with the female of the species. A new theory was also formulated by our man, “the behavior of women change according to their economic conditions. But male teenagers are the same everywhere.”

Reverting back to the present, Thangappan wisely decided to follow the adage: “Prudence will be better served than aggressive soliciting.” The old-fox comforted himself, “Kanagamathi can be trapped when alone.” His resolve was steeled as he dwelt upon the truth, “ a bad-time will followed by a good time.” The ups and downs of his business over a long career, had developed within his mortal frame, a certain indifference which struggling spiritual aspirants would envy. It is another thing that he draped the cloak of indifference, only if pushed beyond a certain limit and was yet to develop the equanimity throughout.

The business pattern continued in Rama-Rao Street and Bhajana Kovil Lane and others. But as mentioned before, the anxiety of expectations was now subdued and he calmly continued his trade song- “Papeeeer…. Pazhayaaaa-Paper ”. The jinx was finally broken at his last stop-Justice Sundaram Iyer Street where he got to do 3 transactions. However, Thangappan reacted to this ironical change of fortunes only with a chuckle, in tune with the calmness prevalent inside. It was around 3:30 am as he reached the Corporation. As Kumaran was weighing the day’s collections, the serene Thangappan was smoking the leafy beedi reflecting upon the impermeance of luck, misfortune, business, life and beyond. The contemplative yogi was awakened out of this stupor, by Kumaran, “Enna Collector, dull business? You are not even glancing at the magazines.” The ‘fountain of peace’ replied, as he accepted the Rs.145, “This too will pass.”

A puzzled and worried Kumaran enquired as the latter kicked aside, the stand of the bicycle, “Thangappa, what next?”

“Kamadhenu Talkies. A film starring Rajini and M.N.Nambiar[2] has come” replied the enigma as he peddled his way towards his ultimate call of unalloyed bliss.


[1] A demi-god in rural TamilNadu, India.

[2] M.N.Nambiar- Top villain in old Tamil movies

A DAY IN THE LIFE OF A HAWKER-part 2

click here for Part 1

clip_image001The old warhorse-“Hero-Champion” creaked along and somehow reached the Corporation. Kumaran was heard bargaining with the scrap-iron dealer, “Hey Collector[1], you don’t know the market rates. The prices of iron have crashed owing to the Iraq war and share market is also down”. He paused and concluded authoritatively, “The chairman is always fair. Take it or leave it”.  The diminutive figure at the receiving end squeaked, “OK Kumaran..er…. chairman. How am I to know the repercussions of a war taking place in Eerak? It is all the result of ‘Shani Dasai’, conspiring to deprive an illiterate man of a margin of Rs 25”. Thangappan was even more in awe clip_image002of Kumaran. The fellow in addition to knowing everything had the wonderful knack of always getting his side of the bargain. Thangappan was all admiration for the man, who got his way even with the hardened, experienced ‘collectors’ like himself. . clip_image003

Kumaran turned around and addressed,” Thangappa, you are early today. Collection below par?”‘Yes Chairman, only boni so far.’-replied the devotee and continued, “Hope paper prices are not affected by the war.” Kumaran, a most unscrupulous shrewd dealer usually did not lie to the former, atleast until he could marry his pretty young daughter Selvi.

“No collector, paper prices are stable” came the reply to which was added nonchalantly, “Selvi’s +2 exams next month illa? After that, it is time for her marriage. Isn’t so Thangappa?”

Sighed Thangappan, “Amam Sir. A good boy has to be found. Hope the girl’s two brothers help with some money too. Selvi is smart, you know. The only member of my family to reach upto  +2.  She says that ‘Amman School’ will give her a job as a teacher, after she passes out.”

Kumaran chipped in, “Don’t be too fussy about the age difference between the couple. Up to 15 years[2] is reasonableclip_image004”. The wily 33 year old Kumaran decided that this should be enough for now and his basic instincts took over as he commanded, ‘Thangappa, quickly put in your collections on the balance. I have other work to do.’

After Thangappan pocketed in the Rs 50 offered by the Boss, he attended to his favorite activity of leafing through the film magazines, gazing dreamily at the photos of  heros, heroines (the plump Rubyclip_image005 was his most desired) and ofcourse the villains- his perennial idols. This was a legal and reasonable leisure, he afforded himself after a sweating it out in the sun. This was one of the reasons, why he gave the Corporation, the most favoured status (MFS). “Nobody has more colourful and raunchy film magazines than Kumarans’, he swore.

clip_image006After refreshing himself with  the customary tea and snacks at Nair’s , Thangappan started on his second round- Ramakrishna Street, Tamil Mozhi lane, Poornam Extension and other middle class localities. This was physically the most trying session; “Slogging around for 2.5 hours until 3 pm  in the hot sun is tough” , he would proudly  proclaim to his docile wife and rebellious sons. However the sheer expanse of the territory covered guaranteed him the necessary volumes of black-paper and so the 2nd session was the major contributor to his bottom-line.

Even the din and the noise of the title songs of the mega-serials could not subdue the reverberation of “Papeeeer…. Pazhayaaaa Paper”. Seethalaksmi Ammal, the diminutive wife of Subramanian  B.A.B.L was the first one to be hypnotized by the elixir of the song. “Thangappa, stop” cried the lady, as she hurriedly dragged the bundle of Tamil newspapers. After all, each commercial break during the afternoon soaps lasted only for 5 minutes compared to 10 minutes during the prime-time slot in night. “Amma, why no Kumudam, Vikatan[3]and others? “ queried the old fox. “No, my in-laws have come and are reading them”, replied Seethalaksmi Ammal with a mixture of pleasure and regret. One thing which spurred Thangappan during the afternoon session was the subtle human bonds, he shared with his customers. Unlike the high class localities, here, he was almost always addressed by his first name. Also on the odd occasion, some ladies were generous enough to offer him watered down lassi, though he would have asked only for water. Not surprisingly at such tender moments, the innate tenderness of his heart cursed the trader in him for duping the lady of ‘black-paper’. But Kali-Yuga had matured enough to mask the primordial kindness in all.

“6.5 kilo paper which comes to Rs 26” pronounced Thangappan after the familiar routine. This was his only prey in Ramakrishna Street. The poor fellow, who was a firm believer in omens and patterns lamented above, “Karuupa ! clip_image007 Is today such that, I get to do only 1 business in a street”. The believer  pondered over and exclaimed, “Aha ! Today I woke up and  first saw the face of my second son, the one born on Ammavasai[4] ”.

At Tamil-Mozhi lane, he drew a blank. The situation was better in Poornam Extension, where Radhika Madam, the fat wife of the Seth, offered quite a collection of newspapers and magazines-both Tamil and English. “The residents of Poornam Extension, though not the rich, were the highly educated lot who liked to be surrounded by the smells and opinions of the vernacular press”, Thangappan had reasoned over the years. The reasonable collection  of 5 kg of black-paper inched him closer to the halfway target. The hard-core believer did not expect another catch as he lethargically blared out his sonata. The ‘Hero-Champion’ had almost turned around the corner, when Thangappan suddenly remembered that Kanagamathi, the dweller in the house near the Puliamaram[5] had called for him on the Saturday that  went by. The  irony was that, the affairs 2 days ago were so favourable to old Thangappan that he had uncharacteristically postponed this deal after the ‘Hero-Champion’ groaned under the burden of success of black-paper. Also the ‘Collector’ was settled well-enough to take the day off on Sunday. Thangappan wondered from where the reminder had suddenly come and prayed that the naughty spirits of the Puliamaram were not his benefactors. “Everything happens for good” chuckled the old hand as he raced towards the panacea which will break the jinx. As the bicycle chugged along, the smile on his face turned to despair and finally to terror. He turned around cursing his second son”. 

click for part 3


[1] Collector is the slang for Indian Administrative Officer(IAS) in India.

[2] For people from the poorer strata of society, age difference of 10 plus years is common especially if the groom is rich

[3] Entertainment magazines in Tamil

[4] Ammavasi– New-moon day regarded as inauspicious in certain parts of India.

[5] Puliamaram– tamarind tree,  where according to superstition, spirits are alleged to live

A DAY IN THE LIFE OF A HAWKER

Part-I

Papeeeer…. Pazhayaaaa-Paper[1]”- cried Thangappan, in his patented sing-a-song manner. Whatever be the other sources of sound pollution-the cawing of crows and beggars, barking of dogs and auto-drivers, the hoarse cries of the vegetable vendors included, his primordial song contrived to catch the attention of all. Attribute it to his baritone, the only thing of substance he inherited from his father.

clip_image001[12]

It was now 11 am  and just about the right time when the ladies of the big bungalows of Sarojini Nagar will be relaxing after packing off their husbands and children to various establishments around the world. Thangappan, though illiterate was smart enough to know the timings of the mega-serials and tear-jerkers. Unlike the middle-class ladies of Ramakrishna Street whose TV timings were from 11:30am -1:30 pm, the upwardly mobile ladies of Sarojini Nagar in general  were addicted to only life-style and travel related programs on the English channels, starting from 1pm onwards. All this information was privy to Thangappan, courtesy his ears and his contacts with the fortunate servants of Sarojini-Nagar.

He slowed down his old ‘Hero-Champion’ bicycle as he neared ‘Santhi-Niketan’ , the house of the dentist, who practiced in the outhouse of his bungalow. Out came the lady of the house, Mrs. Latha Viswanathan who cried, “Hey, you ‘Paper’, stop!” Though this was the way, she always addressed Thangappan, yet the unlettered one never failed to wonder, whether his face resembled, of all things, a newspaper in any way. As could be expected from an active dentist’s house, a huge variety of newspapers, magazines and old-coffee table books soon piled. Though this was routine, even Thangappan could not suppress a toothy grin as he eyed the catch, which lay before him.

The lady commanded, “Quickly calculate the weight”. Thangappan took out the tools of his trade-a weighing balance and a 1 kg weight. The modus-operandi was simple and time-tested. First, the 1 kg weight was roughly balanced with a pile of newspapers at the other end, with the balance precariously tilted in favour of the former. Next, the 1 kg weight was placed on the pile of newspapers, already placed in the other pan, to make a 2 kg weight. The sly operation would be repeated at the end of it all, Thangappan pronounced” 10 kg newspaper, 4 kg magazine”. As a rule of thumb, the measured weight was two-thirds of the actual mass. Even before the transaction had taken place, the industrious fellow calculated that he has made a profit of 5 kg  and 2 kg of newspaper and magazines respectively. Combine this with the Rs 5.50 and Rs 4 paid per kilo, by the wholesale dealer for the two items, it was not a bad start.

clip_image001[14]The old hand, shivered with thrill and fright at having acquired 7 kg of “black-paper, a term the cinema buff in him had coined after being bowled over by the machinations and glamour of the on-screen villains, who seemed to derive their power and charisma from black-money and gold-biscuits. It is a different thing that Thangappan had little idea of the meaning of black-money and the poor fellow did not dare ask anyone, not even the all-knowing wholesale dealer Kumaran, for fear of his passion for villainy being discovered. However, Thangappan from a concocted  understanding of black-magic, religion and the best rational reasoning his brain could conjure up with, had somehow concluded that the term-BLACK was the X Factor and so prefixed ‘black’/’Karuupu’ to every term of monetary value. He fervently believed that  Karuupu[2] Sami (a demigod in rural TN) would reward him for his mad faith in the power of BLACK. By his standards, 7 kg of black-paper was a good booty and this combined with ‘SanthiNekatan’ being  an assured catch every fortnight, made Thangappan refer to  it as ‘SuperStar’ à la bluechip stock, again a result of his adulation for a particular cinestar. clip_image003[6]

To be fair to Thangappan, he was atleast impartial- the same con-job was dished out to everyone irrespective of caste and class considerations. But social justice was delivered in the next stage, the ladies of Sarojini  Nagar and other upper class localities were paid Rs 3.00 per kilo while the middle-class localities were given Rs 4 for the same. Here too, the statesman in Thangappan used only economic conditions as criteria. Not that he cared a damn about balancing economic inequality, it was just that the middle-class household ladies knew when they were being swindled as opposed to just being fooled. As he gave Mrs. Viswanathan the sum of Rs 47 in crumpled notes of five and ten, Thangappan shot a prayer, “ Karuupu Sami, gratitude for giving a boni[3] of Rs.50 to a man, who is making a living as honest as practical”.

Thangappan did not get any more opportunity to mint ‘black-paper’ in Sarojini Nagar. He had earned a fifth of his average income for a day. As he ambled along from his ‘BlueChip’ Nagar, he could not help feeling that Karuupu Sami had flattered his ‘boni’ to deceive him. It was almost noon and the next stop was ‘Kumaran Corporation’- a ramshackle of a scrap shop, whose proprietor Kumaran- a semiliterate rustic, was a compulsive day-dreamer , who referred to himself as Chairman and was generous enough to address those around him in grandiose terms too.

click for part 2 and part 3


[1] Paper….Old-paper

[2] Karuupu is the name of the colour Black in Tamil.

[3] Boni- first sale.