SunriseT. SHER SINGH
Sunday, August 19, 2012
Each day in our home in Patna began in a routine manner.
The door bell would ring at 5:00 am or so. It was the job of the servant whose room was closest to the front gate to open it.
Half-asleep, while the rest of the household was still oblivious that the day had begun, he would meet the first visitor of the day on the porch.
The milkman, of course, was accompanied by the cow.
It had been determined a long time ago that our milkman could not be trusted: he had a tendency to add water to the milk when he used to bring it from his home, for the simple purpose of increasing his profit. So my mother insisted that he bring the cow with him and milk it right there and then, outside our home.
That seemed to work for a while, until we discovered that the milkman had got into the habit of wearing a bicycle wheel inner-tube around his waist. Unknown to the world at large, it held water and he would pour it into the milk bucket, as he milked the animal.
My mother figured out this ruse before long. That gave rise, to our servant’s consternation, to the requirement that the latter sit right beside the milkman with eyes agog while he milked the cow and take charge of the product immediately upon production. There was to be no time lapse or opportunity to dilute the milk.
Twice a week, the milkman also brought along a buffalo. Since its milk was richer, it was needed for making butter and yogurt.
The servant would barely have the milk boiling on the stove -- it had to be pasteurized before it was declared potable -- when the door bell would ring again.
The vegetable vendor.
A shrunken, shrivelled old woman with a large, flat wicker basket on her head, brimming with wares: a handful each of a variety of vegetables picked no more than two hours earlier, the dew and dirt still clinging to them.
I rarely got to see her face. All I would witness, having been woken up by the commotion by this time -- my room was on the mezannine floor, while the rest of the family lived on the floors above me -- was a basket with green shoots sprouting from it, magically floating above the top of the railing, and gradually sailing up and around the stairwell.
The crone would be followed by the egg vendor.
He was middle-aged, but looked mysterious and wise, probably because of the scars he wore on his face from a bout with small-pox a long time ago.
He carried his total inventory - about four dozen eggs stolen that very morning from his chickens - in a fragile basket made of wire, deftly balanced on his head with the aplomb of an acrobat. I would wait for him because I loved watching him walk up the three flights of stairs with the eggs precariously perched on his head, desperately hoping that he would once, just once, drop them. He never did.
He would squat on the floor outside the kitchen and carefully take out an egg from the basket. He would hold it against the bright sun which was already pouring in by this time. He would close his left eye, hold the egg in front of his right eye, and turn the shell around a couple of times and then jiggle it ever so slightly.
I was told he was testing them. If they were “bad”, he explained once, he could detect it against the sunlight. He would thus choose a dozen “good” ones and hand them over in a bowl to the servant.
It wasn’t until years later, when I grew up, that I found out that our egg vendor was stone blind in the right eye -- as a result of the small-pox he had contracted as a child.
The house would be in a bustle by now, as the egg vendor left, again with deftness of an acrobat.
Suddenly, another ring would be heard, this time from a bicycle bell.
We, the kids, would tear down the stairs and out of the gate. He not only brought our daily loaf of bread, barely cool from the early morning oven, but also our individual orders of freshly baked cookies and yes, the pastries. And the cream-rolls and the hot-cross buns.
They would be stacked in a large tin trunk strapped on the back of the bicycle. It was his daily challenge to keep the contraption upright while we plundered through it, having already forgotten the admonitions of the previous morning.
The race to and into the baker’s trunk was not a frivolous one. At stake every morning was a prize: it was the little, hardened, biscuit-like rectangular tab, no more than an inch long and slightly less wide, which was invariable ensconced on the top of the loaf of bread.
It was a daily challenge as to who would beat the others to the finish line, one of my two sisters (there were only two then!) or I, grab the loaf of bread, tear off the wrapper, rip off the little biscuit from the loaf, and pop it into the mouth, all in one swoop.
Total chaos and mayhem followed -- loud complaints galore! -- at the hands of the losers, which would wake up my parents, and the day would begin in earnest.
* * * * *
This was our daily routine for most of my childhood and teenage years, and remained so with the least variation … until the very morning in the hot summer of 1971 when we left town for the last time to make Canada our new home.
Conversation about this article
1: Balwant Singh (Chandigarh, Punjab), August 19, 2012, 7:17 AM.
Beautifully evocative! You have transported me to another place, another era. There are still many places around which retain some of these practices, but too much has changed around us ... the ever-present cell-phone and the domineering TV presence are but two examples of things which have invaded our lives and left them poorer. Life seems to have lost its serene moments. Thank you for bringing it alive for me. I'll be thinking about it all week!