Saturday, July 22, 2017

Note Book of Ordinary Things 9: Combs and Hairs of all Kinds

Comb is a very ordinary thing but as essential as a bath towel for a human being who takes care of his/her body. In a decent hotel when you check in they provide you a comb, a shaving kit, a shower cap, a shampoo and a dental kit. Of the five items four are directly or indirectly related to hair and hair care. I brought in the case of hotels at the outset itself only to tell you that hair care is very important to anyone in the world that even the hotel managements do not take it lightly. At home everyone has a comb and perhaps by looking at a comb one could say how hygienic a person is. Hygienic among the human beings take special care to keep their combs clean and dry for this is one daily body upkeep too that comes in contact with a body part which is prone to sweat therefore wet and oily. Hairs are dead cells they say, so are the nails. Vampires, when they feast on the human bodies generally leave hairs and nails untouched (bones they crush, chew and suck out the marrows, which is said to be very tasty. I am not a vampire but I eat a mutton preparation called Rogan Josh one of the many dishes that people eat without really understand what it means. For instance Chicken 65). If you are a grave digger, they say, you get the hairs and nails intact. The latest in the news is that they dug up Salvador Dali’s grave to study his genetic details and the samples were taken from his illustrious moustache, which they said remained more or less intact).
Even if hairs are dead cells the living ones take care of it more than they take care of the other organic parts of the body. A smelly armpit is always caused by the sweat holding hairs though the hairs are the so called vent machines of the human body. I believe hairs are the parts that the God has left in the human beings to remember that they were evolved from the hairy animals. That’s why God has decided to hide hairs in the places where limbs join and has made it sparse all over and made the indication of the possible hairiness of the person through the mop of hair on the head. Perhaps the hairs in the hidden parts of the body do not demand the use of comb for many believe in shaving them off (again for hygienic reasons, but it is not a rule there are millions of exceptions in the world). The hair spread all over the body, however needs tending. Women get into painful processes like plucking, waxing and downright shaving in order to do away with bodily hairs. But they need different kinds of combs to take care of the hairs on the scalp. The more you have hairs on the head the more your trouble; and the more the time that you spend tending it. Men too are not different. They also need a comb not only to comb down or up their hair on the head as well as the facial hairs. There was a time when men folk carried combs (flattened like a piece of leather) in their hip pockets. Keeping the mop in a particular style is one of the major concerns of the men, women and boys and girls alike.

 Combs must be an early invention as we have combs made of animal horns, bones and teeth. These combs must have been made when other materials like plastic and steel were not available. Wooden combs are/were available. Today everyone, irrespective of class and social status use plastic combs fashioned in different ways and for different purposes. But the use of combs made of animal horns, bones and teeth has become rare for the rarity of the raw materials to make such combs. Misuse of animal teeth for example that of the elephants is now a punishable offence. Logical thinking takes us to those good old days when artisans crafted plain and dull looking wooden combs for the use of the ordinary people and intricately carved and crafted combs in rare materials for the rich and powerful. I can imagine kings and queens using such finely crafted combs, which now we could see in the museums. Wooden combs are still in use in the rural areas. But there was a time when most of the people used wooden combs with specially crafted ‘teeth’ in order to take out lice from the hairs. There was also a special kind of thick and slimmer at the end combs which were used for taking out the eggs of the lice. With the advent of the beauty industry and also with the availability of shampoo sachets both in the rural and urban market, these kinds of combs have become a thing of past.

 Hairs have both religious and political meanings. The latest of political meanings of hairs could be seen from the North Korea; there in order to keep the social order, the totalitarian government has approved around six styles of haircut which is predominantly the variations of the haircutting style of the President. In such a situation, you don’t really need a comb in the conventional sense but some appendage that would do the job of the combs. For many a hairstyle today does not need combs per se because they need a little bit of gel and a lot of caressing by the finger; perhaps you have to fondly your hairs throughout the day and supply with it sufficient gel when the ups and downs of it start to wilt. All the religious conventions have made certain strictures about hairs; some say it is necessary to grow hairs and some other religions insist that the people who are in the order should tonsure their heads and should do away with all the hairs. While the former needs ample use of combs, the latter need not even think of it. Sikh Religion insists that the followers of it, should grow hairs irrespective of gender. Besides, carrying a comb is also part of their religious identity. Hindu religion, especially the Shaivites believed in growing hairs and not tending it at all. This would help the hair turn matted and become dreadlocks. Rastafarians in Jamaica had adopted the dreadlocks from the Indian Shaivaites who went to the Caribbean islands as indentured labourers. Along with dreadlocks, it is said that smoking weeds and wailing out their woes also reached those far off shores, which they reggae musicians like Bob Marley adopted as ‘wailing music.’

 Today all the Shaivaites do not grow hairs. To see all of them in one go, one should visit the Kumbh Melas in one of the three major Kumbh Melas in India, namely Ujjain, Allahabad and Banaras. The wandering mendicants, bards and Bauls grow hairs and they do not need combs. The Black People all over the world give a lot of attention to their hairs and by 1980s it has become a part of politicized ‘body’ of the black people. In his ‘Welcome to the Jungle’, black theoretician Kobena Mercer speaks how the black hair, the Afro style took various shapes in order to be the emblem of the identity politics that the Black People in the United States, South Africa, Caribbean Islands and Europe held high in order to achieve equal rights and justice. Among the Black People also the use of combs became very important not only in terms of fashion but also with regard to their politics. It is also noticed that most of the political debates and discussions were carried out in those years in and around the Barber shops.
At times, I think that combs despite its religious and political relevance, are a moderate fashion tool. The people who have dreadlocks, that means they are the ones who have gone out of the mainstream lives and prefer to continue as nonconformist people, do not need combs because like the moderate and the mainstream people they do not intend to take care of their hairs. The other side of the spectrum we see bald people. There are two types of bald people who need combs and who need electric trimmers (only the filmy villains shave heads with razor blades. Rest of the baldies in the world use trimmers). The former lot has got major baldness and some semblance of hair in their heads. They need combs to ‘invite the hairs forcefully’ to the areas where there are no hairs. Those people who have embraced baldness boldly just need to keep their baldness on. They do not need hairs. Among them are also people who have half baldness who perhaps need a comb and mostly not. Bald people attempting to comb and sad people eating alone are the two sights that would make you philosophical; you just think about the flimsiness of all worldly gains. Having collection of hundred different kinds of combs from all over the world and having no hair on the hair is the saddest fate of an art collector. And eventually, having a beautiful mop that needs hourly care and stranded in a place where people have not even heard of combs is the fate of a romantic who always think of getting stranded in an island where he would find a beautiful girl with divine powers.

Tuesday, July 18, 2017

Note Book of Ordinary Things 8: The Magical Paperweights

Once upon a time paperweights had a purpose. They by using their weight held the papers firmly on the table. Those people who never used papers on their tables also used to buy and keep paperweights in their homes because as objects of curiosity they had some strange attraction. Children used to consider some of the paperweights as enlarged versions of marbles and they could simply look at it or rather look into it for a long time. There were different kinds of paperweights. These days nobody uses paperweights because except in the government offices papers are not used. Most of the people have shifted their work to computers and the Microsoft word files do not need a paperweight to keep them in place. Maximum you need to press control plus ‘s’ button together which would keep the ‘sheets’ in place, safe, secure and forgotten until dug out.

I do not know the origin story of the paperweights. Nor am I interested to check for it in the Google. Sometimes reminiscing about something is more fascinating than going for factual research. My conjecture regarding the origin of paperweights is about the close relationship of a writer (not a court writer or a chronicler in a court room but an independent creative writer) with an open window and various kinds of breezes. An open window is a must for a good writer. An aspiring writer could check the difference between writing in a closed room and doing the same near an open window. Open windows would allow a lot of breeze, which is the genuine comforting act of the nature, into the room and would waft the writer like the compassionate caressing of the beloved. She comes in unobtrusively and places her palm on your forehead without disturbing the act of writing, gives a small peck on your exposed neck and a pat on your back and retreats. But winds are not always caring as the beloved is. As moody creatures of nature they too would at times refuse to stick to their brief and would ruffle a few sheets that you have written and kept aside. It was then the writer for the first time thought of having a paperweight.

 What could be the first paper weight? It must be anything that has a weight to hold the papers under. Then I have seen writers collecting round pebbles of the size of a little palm and keeping it on their tables. They believe in what Tagore had told once, ‘you may keep the windows open for the winds of various cultures to come in but you should allow yourself to be blown away by that’ (words mine). Paperweights in that case serve the purpose of rootedness of a writer. He/she should not be blown away by the winds. Then when the market came to know that the writers all over the world were fighting against the winds that carried various cultures from different corners of the world, thought of making some weights to hold the sheets of their manuscripts. Then the paperweights of different shapes and colours started appearing. There was time when you went to some elderly person’s home who had the habit of reading and writing (once upon a time most of the literate people indulged in writing down their feelings not for publication. Even today it is true but most of the people write only to be put up there in the facebook wall so that they could get some kind of appreciation from the ‘like’-minded ones) you could see the paperweights and you as a young boy/girl definitely stood admiring those wondrous objects.

 It should be interesting to see how you viewed the innards of a paperweight made of glass. They were not simple masses made of glass. Aesthetically devised and carefully designed these paperweights contained different worlds of colour and surprises. Some of them had a splash of colour inside which made you think about the ways in which the colours have gone into it exactly the way you wondered how a miniature sailing ship had got into a glass bottle. You knew that from the ships the sailors used to throw bottles with messages meant for unknown recipients. But here the ship itself is in a bottle. It must have taken many years for you to know how they got into the bottles. Similarly, the paperweights also had colours sometimes they reflected the aquamarine life, sometimes a monument of your liking, sometimes a scene from the world, rarely a couple of lovers holding each other in a moment of eternity. As a child you could sit with a paperweight for any number of hours without disturbing the peace of the elders who would be discussing the serious world affairs. You see sometimes, a scar or a piece of glass chipped away from the surface of the glass paperweight disfiguring it forever. You could make out that the user of it is a bit impatient and often has the habit of dropping it while playing with inside his palms or in the worst case throwing it at someone in a fit of rage.

Times changed and the windows could have net covers and jallies. You could close it and still you could have the breeze coming in tamed. But by the time you have had your fans fitted in the rooms. Whether winds or no winds you have this fans running in high speed fighting the heat and ruffling the sheets of papers. There too you need a paperweight. With the advent of these fans too the paperweights did not go out of fashion. They evolved in different ways. Most of them preferred it in glass and they were of different shapes and colours. Some of them came in hexagonal shapes and had deep indigo colour which made you wonder how the glass as a lump gained that colour. Then came the transparent greens and whites that strangely resembled sweets. Then came the paperweights that looked like pieces of ice or crystal. Nobody could resist the charm of these paperweights and if you see it on anybody’s table, you would definitely play with it till you are admonished by the elders or the officer or doctor. And mind you, if you were an inquisitive child and you had laid your hands on a paperweight, it was sure that once you dropped it incurring the suppressed wrath of the doctor or officer which would carried over to back to you as a rough injection or a rude remark.

One of the strangest paperweights that I had seen in my childhood was made of cork. This was a paperweight come pin holder. There used to be these small pins that also helped in holding a bunch of paper together and could be called the precursors of stapler pins and guns. These minute little pins actually were mostly used in the government offices and I am sure that the cork paperweights were invented for holding the papers together and also to keep pins on it without falling all over. My mother was a government servant in a busy office where I used to go as a child and watch them working. These offices had large windows as well as grandfather types of fans hanging dangerously from the ceilings. So the flying around of the papers was inevitable and the paperweights became constant companions of these officer workers. In the boring moments these clerks who worked in the offices ran their cheap ballpoint pens on these cork paperweights making marks all over it. Eventually they looked like the walls of some primitive cave with indecipherable pictures all over. I am sure the office clerks were simply reflecting their minds on these paperweights.

Times have changed. Now nobody knows which time of the day is this once they are inside the office. Unless and until they look at the watch or the feeling of the grumbling in the stomachs they wouldn’t come to know about the time of the day because all the office buildings are designed for air conditioning. No day light comes in. Even if it comes in it must be coming to the higher up’s separate rooms with huge glass walls giving an overview of the city, a view always reminding them of their possible fall and the weight of the present job. With the air conditioners in place, no fans work in the officers therefore there is no need for paperweights. Still like the reminder of the good old days, some people still keep paperweights on their tables, simply to play with it. It is a sort of carrying over the past to the new technology as Derrida says in the case of the computers. We use Microsoft word file. But any related to the writing with a computer has the terminologies carried over from the good old handwriting and desk. A word format is in the regular A-4 size, you have clip boards, margins, pins, files and so on there. The age old handwriting habit was initially carried over to type writing and then to computers. There was an interim phase of electronic type writers where you type and the print out would come not in the A-4 size but in a size that suited to the printer. The past refuse to die. There is no future without the learning from the past. Paperweights are the living museum pieces that makes our lives perhaps a museum act.  

(Images sourced from the internet for representational purposes only)

Monday, July 17, 2017

Note Book of Ordinary Things 7: The Grinding Stones of the Yesteryears

Grinding stone sounds too English. So let’s stick to Ammikkallu. Those who do not know how it looks like let me explain: it is a flat granite block measuring a width of a foot and length of one and half feet. There is one cylindrical granite piece which is used as a roller to grind the spices and coconut to make the spicy paste and chutneys. Grinding stone or Ammikallu is a very primitive tool that came from the nomadic tribes to the kitchens of the settled family units and it remained as an important kitchen device for many centuries till mixers (called mixies) and grinders replaced them. Grinding stones are of different types and are still used by the rural people and also the nomadic people who live in temporary shacks in the abandoned plots. The name Ammikkallu comes from Tamil, where Ammi/Amma means mother and Kallu means stone. But in the rural parlance it used to have more intimate terms which conjoin both the pieces in a familial relationship. The granite slab was called Thallakkallu (Mother Stone) and roller was called Pillakkallu (Child Stone). So that means it is cryptic and symbolic form of our art historical Mother and Child. Looking deeply into the history of it I could say that this is an unbroken link from the Neolithic ages.

When I was a child, when there were no boundary walls between plots where houses stood, I could hear the music of Ammikkallu from different houses and could easily say which woman was now grinding spices. Ammikkallu were like heirlooms; it came with the making of a new house. Or the parents gave away their favourite stones to their children who made new houses. These grinding stones were not like other kitchen utensils which were renewed almost every year. The cooking pots were renewed with the annual village fair, spoons and paddles were changed annually. But these grinding stones stayed like the cave art of any place. But there was something interesting about these. Each grinding stone was different from the ‘music’ it made while in use. Granite stones have a particular tendency; if you use it for a long time, the timbre and tone of it would change and more subtle and sharp voices would come out of it. That’s why in the old granite temples, the vertical pillars develop a ‘sense of music’ over a period of several centuries. There were also master stone cutters who could actually tune in the seven musical notes into these pillars. Grinding stones were not different.

Thanks to daily use, these Ammikkallus generated music. While playing I could tell whether it was coming from my grandmother’s kitchen or from my mother’s kitchen. My mother’s grinding stone was rather new and it generated the noises of her impatience, irritation and anger for my father or his mother who stayed in the next house. But my paternal grandmother’s grinding stone was old, perhaps came to her from her mother and was like a smooth piece of granite slab with a slender roller with the smoothness of the idols and sculptures in the South Indian temples. When she worked on it, it created a twinkling sound which was very musical to us, even if my grandmother had not connection with music, but often evoked rebukes from my mother from this kitchen. I could also tell which housewife in the neighbourhood was now using her grindstone because all of us, children had access to any kitchen without anybody’s permission. At times we would be jumping over these hapless mothers and grandmothers while they worked in kitchen and we played in abandonment.

As time changed, the position of the Ammikkallu was ‘raised’ inside the kitchen. In those good old days women used to sit on the floor as the grinding stones were placed on the kitchen floor. These were the occasion where we children got to know how female shanks looked like for to sit on the floor and work at these grinding stone women had to roll up their lungis upto the knees. Though there was no sexual feeling to it, the sight of the smooth skins used to send electric vibrations inside many a boy who had seen such scenes. With the arrival of modernity and the changes happened in the general architectural modes, the grinding stones were elevated to the kitchen slabs so that women could stand and work at the grinding stones. Then came the period of mixers. It was early 1980s. There was no television but the magazines were filled with the advertisements of mixers. The first one to conquer the Kerala market then was Sumeet Mixie. Having a Sumeet Mixie at home was like having an SUV in front of your house. Shops and co-operative societies started selling these mixies on instalment. Soon the sonic ambience of my living surroundings changed. It was a sort of grating and irritating noise that went on for quite some time and subsided with the turning of the regulators.

There was a period when people had to live with both the grinding stone and the mixies. Human beings are like that. Perhaps because of emotional attachment or because of utmost pragmatism most of the people do not throw away the old habits all of a sudden. When they have new utensils and equipment at home, they continue to use the old and the new devices. It was visible when the STD telephone came in India. People where happy with the snail mail and they could wait for ten to fifteen days for even intimate communications. Telecom revolution changed the way people communicated in early 1990s. However, people refused to leave the old inland letters, post cards and airmails behind. It took some time people to switch completely to the new mode. Same thing is visible even today when people go to the banks to make entries in their passbooks. Even if everything is digital, seeing the amount in a printed book makes people reassured about their savings. Grinding stones also went through this period of mixed use. People refuse to leave their old companions behind. But mixies made the works of women easier so eventually they had to discard the grinding stones and along with it the physical exertion that was a part of making spices.

Women were strong when they were using traditional kitchen utensils. Each work had given them enough exercise for their muscles exactly the working class men got their daily exercise. But with the increase in education, with more women going out for work, with eased working atmosphere at home (mixies, grinders, readymade batter, ready chapattis, washing machine, driers, vacuum cleaners and so on) women too have now become the victims of life style diseases. The negative fallout of all these changes is this that while men find alternative exercise regimes in gyms and parks women are driven to kitchens once again and to the television sets making them lead absolutely unhealthy lives. Unfortunately except in big cities and big towns we do not have gyms for women in the rural areas. Even if someone dare to do some physical exercise in public, if she is not officially in the sport sector her exercising regime would not be largely appreciated by the families and public. True that girl children have gained increased mobility by using cycles and motor cycles, but again once they are married their exercise is reduced to kitchen work or general running around doing errands at home.

I am not a propagator of old utensils or tools. I could only look back with a sort of nostalgia and think culturally how these changes have affected our living styles. The major change that I observe by the retreating of these old utensils is in the architecture sector. Whether we accept it or not, everything in a society is intricately connected and in a very complex fashion, therefore discussing anything in an isolated fashion would yield only fallacious results. For examples, we cannot isolate the removal of grinding stones from our kitchens and discuss it as a part of the arrival of a new technology called mixies and grinders which are electrically driven. It has to be seen as a part of the general economic growth, education and the change in approach towards life. It also changes the equations in the gender relations though not in a very visible way. Grinding stones were in a way a sort of stones around the necks of the women. If you see, the traditional societies where women were supposed to do the manual works, were always connected something made of granite or stone in general. The worshiped at the stone edifices, they washed the clothes on the washing stones, made batter in the grinding stones, drew water from wells standing on the stone planks, women even urinated with their legs placed on a pair of stones. The stone therefore becomes symbolic of their cowing down by the burden of the household works. Hence, the arrival of the mixers should have been welcomed wholeheartedly by women in those days.

Definitely, the stone became soft as far as women were concerned. One after another life style products came into the houses via the television advertisement. This was what exactly happened in 1950s in the United States of America. The soap operas (the present day television serials) were created for selling soap powder. Women watched these sob stories and watched the advertisement where beautiful looking women keeping the homes so clean and impeccable only to receive their job-worn husbands with a smile, a deep kiss rising on the toes and then a cup of tea. The clothes that he wore should go straight into the washing machine. So washing machine became the central theme of happiness for women and to use washing machine you needed soap powder. That mean with the advent of each commercial product women all over the world become the slaves of it; only difference is that the heaviness of granite stone is changed into the softness of the products and the sentimental anchoring of women to home and relationships. This has reflected in the making of architecture too. Women, like Virginia Woolf had once asked, never ask for a separate room for themselves anymore. Instead they ask for a place to keep the washing machine, a power point for the mixie, a double door refrigerator, a separate work area for kitchen so that the kitchen also could be flaunted the way they do with the drawing rooms.

With the grinding stones going out of focus certain jobs also ceased to exist. There used to be stone cutters travelling from one place to another, making grinding stones and selling it in the local market. They have stopped now moving or working in large scale. There used to be people coming from unknown places by cycle calling out ‘Ammi kothaanundo Ammi’ (Anybody wants their grinding stones to be tended?). This maintenance of the grinding stones is done by making pin point incisions on the surface so that the surface of the stone remains a bit rough, making the grinding fast and fine. These men and women who used to make these stones ‘rough’ did it with such care and love that they made floral patterns on the grinding stones and the stone rolling pin. They took a paltry sum and some snacks and left. It took another year for them to come back as they know that those stones did not need weekly tending. There are so many trades and jobs like this that have gone into oblivion. However, I remember these stones with fondness and the music of those grinding stones still take me back to the good old days when boys and girls ran through many kitchens in the villages.

Saturday, July 15, 2017

Note Book of Ordinary Things 6: The Men Who Iron/Press Your Clothes

Many years back in school I had read Victor Hugo recounting the point of view of a cobbler whose shop is strategically placed below the ground level. From the small window of the place the cobbler could see the people walking in the street; not their faces but their feet and the shoes they wear. In the story/novel (Les Miserable) Hugo speaks of the 19th century France. Though the country had already two centuries into its colonizing efforts elsewhere, in the streets of Paris nobody had seen people from elsewhere. Hence, from that nether world of shoes the cobbler could identify each person who walked in the street. Shoes could tell the stories of the people who wore them. Vincent Van Gogh painted a pair of shoes and Martin Heidegger explained the life of farmhands by simply looking at those shoes. By looking at their Sunday best and the netted veins in the hands of those three black men in the photograph John Berger told us which class those anonymous personalities belonged: the working class. Despite their best clothes they cannot hide their coarse palms that tell the stories of their daily toiling with life. A quarter of a century back I was standing in a queue at the Baroda railway station, conversing with the friends who too were with me in the queue to book tickets to their home towns and were talking happily in English. A man in the next line looked at curiously and with a little bit of irritation told his companion, ‘Look, these days labourers too talk in English’. He thought our deliberate choice of proletarian clothes (which is a pupa state when you are in the university only to come out as tuxedo wearing professionals in a few years’ time) as a sign of our profession deprived of dignity and class. May be he was too repulsed by the coarse hands, though he had obviously not read Berger and we had!

I look at the ironing people on the road side. They set up their shops (often telas so that they could come from somewhere and go back to the same obscurity) as attached to some dilapidated homes whose occupants desperately want to add something to their income by subletting these verandas for these hapless young man who ‘press’ people’s clothes from morning to evening. In the North people pronounce ‘iron’ with the ‘r’ heard. So it is something like ‘airan’. In school we were asked to keep the ‘r’ silent. But later in life the upper class taught me to roll the ‘r’s in order to sound really educated. Hence, my friends started rolling ‘r’s’ even saying ‘Parippu vada’ and ‘sambar’ (dal vada and sambar respectively) with rolling ‘r’s cutting themselves magnificent fools before us. I should say I have never fallen for accents. Let people reject me for having that rough and thick Southern accent. But that is not the case here. I would like to make a connection between the cobblers in the 19th century France and the iron men (;-)) of India. With the Marvel Comics Iron Man has a different connotation and he has a face of Robert Downing Junior. Therefore I would choose the common parlance ‘Press’. But still there is a danger. The journalists perhaps would never like to be equated with the people who ‘press’ their clothes too.

Language is one place where we could harness or loosen subjectivities. Look at this people who ‘iron or press’ our clothes. They are simply called ‘Press Wala’ But again the problem is PressWala could be journalists too. So we extract the subjectivity from this act of ironing and make it a verb. Hence we say, ‘kapda pressing ke liye de dena’ (give the clothes for pressing/ironing). The people who press the clothes do not have any name or face. I always think about my childhood when each person who did a particular work in the village had his/her name. The press person was ‘Gopi Annan’, the one who plucked coconut was ‘Tulsi Annan’ so on and so forth. Even the fisherwoman had a name and still she has. In the cities we have only the names of the service and add a bhaya or bahan to the service the subjective of these service providers are formed. So the driver loses his name as ‘Ramesh’ or ‘Ghanshyam’ and becomes ‘driver Bhayya’, which at once connote a distanced respect which is far away from the proximity of real respect and many miles closer to the geographical locations from where these service providers come. Press walas too do not have face or names.

When I say that I make a particular effort to chat up with these people do not think that I am trying to place myself above the rest of the people who do not do that. To be frank I too do not know the person who presses my clothes every week. I make eye contact with him whenever I pass by that way even if I do not have clothes to give him for pressing. I simply call out to him and ask how he is doing. He tells me, ‘Going great’. This simple human contact makes him happy as well as my conscience at peace. I know a boy from one of the press families who later became my personal driver for a year or so. His parents and relatives used to set up their press shops in empty plots around which the apartments had already come up. They know where their service is required. They go door to door collect clothes and deliver it on time earning good will and good money. One day I asked him whether they could wash clothes or not. He got literally infuriated and asserted that his family was not Dhobi family. Dhobis are traditionally washers of clothes. And in India we have large scale Dhobi ghats. Before the arrival of the Washing machines (it should be connected to the growing middle class in India as well as the increase in the number of working women who used to be the unacknowledged in-house dhobis), dhobis were indispensible. Even after the introduction of foldable ironing boards and very sophisticated pressing machines, most of the Indians do not prefer to iron clothes for themselves. So this pressing sector is still alive.

Young people who really do not belong to the Dhobi families come to the cities and as they come to know that the people from their own villages are working as pressing people in various parts of the city, they would readily join the team first as apprentices and delivery boys and soon as expert press-men. As the living standard of the localities increase these people branch out and set up their shops in those areas and also recruit more youngsters from their villages. In a pressing place where people have developed some sort of faith in the person who does the job, more and more people start giving the clothes and the clever boys of this clan soon start placing their telas in the alleys and terraces adjacent to the main shop. So a pressing shop gets automatically branched into a few outsourcing units. That means you deposit your clothes in the shop and when you go to collect it, you may get it from a couple of alleys away. Strategically inclined entrepreneurs in this field try to get the ironed clothes at the earliest from the outsourcing units and keep it with them for delivery so that they clients wouldn’t go and start giving to the next alley press person. That means there are economic and strategic relationships and hierarchies in this place too.

My point is to tell that how the press walas could identify you slowly with your clothes. If you are sending your kurtas regularly even if you send it with your errand boy they would understand where it is coming from and whose it is. They would know the quality of the clothes, attitude of the person and how he or she conducts with them directly. Hence, do not under estimate a person who irons your clothes. He knows everything about you as your personal doctor knows how weak or strong you are. Looking at the ‘health’ of the clothes they would assess how parsimonious or extravagant you are. By looking at your clothes they could even imagine what kind of job that you must be doing. From a stain in your clothes they could understand what you were doing with that particular piece of cloth. The profession gives them tremendous insight about the people who wear those clothes. Any profession, if the professional is keen, would give indications and directions to the personalities, events and incidents. A press wala who toils day in day out is also a human being who braves the summer heat and the pinching cold. But he has an insight about you. When he irons your clothes, remember he is ironing your personality.

(Images courtesy the Internet, for representational purposes only)

Friday, July 14, 2017

Note Book of Ordinary Things 5: Lonely Cold Water Machines

Crowds are not mysterious even if crowds do not have any face. If crowds carry flags or weapons we identify them as the part of some groups about to create social unrest or lynch someone. Crowds going towards a common cause to build or rebuild a society is a thing of past now. They do not even deconstruct a society or nation, they simply destroy it. That’s why I say that crowds do not have any mystery. But lonely things are mysterious. Imagine a lonely tree in the middle of a vast stretch of barren land. Look at a lonely kingfisher waiting broodingly on an electric line. Follow the flow of a lonely bird up there in the sky. Sri Ramakrishna Paramahans got his first shock of enlightenment when he saw a flock of birds darting across a sky laden with rain clouds. But for him neither the clouds nor the birds were a crowd. The first wave of enlightenment was triggered in him because he saw the whole vision as singular unity; a lonely thing. Imagine such a scenario; alone in the vastness you stand confronting the immensity of nature. Yes, it was felt by Galileo, Benjamin Franklin, Einstein, Chaplin, Gandhiji, Tagore and all those creative people. As you know the lonely figures are the most mysterious visions in the world.

 While walking back to home at night I see this ‘Machine ka Danda Pani’ (Cold Water Machine) cart locked up to nothing and standing alone on the way side. Nobody is around and nobody is there to give or take water from it. The aluminium surface of the box fitted with wheels reflects the innumerable headlights of the vehicles that rush back to the welcoming hearths and homes. I stand there for some time and take a photograph and wonder whether it could be lifted off by the municipality vehicle and would be lost forever to the person who owns it or ekes out a living from it. But the relationships of the people who run wayside business are very intricate; they are more complex than the veins in the living body. The florist under metro bridge perhaps must be the caretaker of this ‘Machine’ for the night. He must be paying to the police a handsome bribe to continue his semi-permanent business there under the bridge. And he in turn must be taking an amount from the Machine Water owner and keeping a portion of it in his pocket and giving the rest to the police or the local goons who own the footpaths in the cities.

Recently in Kolkata I saw a provision store in a busy market near Belur where a roaring business was underway. Right outside the store, on the floor on either side of the store, I saw two people selling the same provisions (rice, sugar, jiggery, condiments and spices) from small jars and containers. There too people were thronging to buy things. I found the arrangement intriguing but to my analytical mind it became quite clear in a moment. I noticed the clothes that the people wearing up there at the store front and the one who stand at the wayside provision dispensing. Obviously the people at the shop front were decently dressed and were able to pay for the ‘shop price’ and those who stand down there cannot pay that so they get lesser quality stuff from the wayside but sold by the same shop owner through two of his subordinates. That means the shop owner was not losing any business to anyone else. He was in a way monopolizing the provision market through interesting decentralisation of sales. Cities are like that with its own ways of networking for survival.

 I have seen the ‘Machine Ka Danda Pani’ people coming from the fringes, the slums from where the so called middle class would never drink water or eat food not because they maintain some sort of caste system but because of the lack of hygiene. Look at any cities and its merry places. Machine ka Danda Pani and ice cream carts come from these places. They store their ice creams in the refrigerators fitted into custom made mopeds. Nobody knows from where the water in the Machine Ka Danda Pani comes. They claim that it is clean water. They use ice blocks to cool it and nobody knows how reliable these ice chunks are. But in the scorching summer people drink it. People relish ice creams from these ice cream vendors. Does anybody remember the faces of these ice cream vendors and water dispensers? Behind these wheeled machines they sit hidden like birds behind the foliages. The neon lights that lit up these machines and the charts of different varieties of ice creams, which the children of these vendors would never able to taste regularly, hide these vendors face. We are not living in the days of Kabuli Walas who have been immortalized by Rabindranath Tagore in his famous story. But these vendors are without faces.

However, I am interested in the lonely vehicles that they push back to their homes. They are mysterious. The lonely lights that move towards the fringes of the cities, to the slums and to the one room holes where they hide rather than live throughout the night and once again come back to light at the day break, are mysterious. I have seen lonely horse carriages, all decorated but with no procession to follow it, with no bride or king on it, but going back from a marriage ceremony or from  a seashore to the fringe localities where they live. It is too much an overwhelming scene to see a lit of horse carriage going through the corridor of darkness. I have seen it in art; Salvador Dali has done a painting titled ‘The Phantom Cart’. Similarly you see the lonely shadows and lonely girl running in the works of Chirico. Look at the painting of a bar girl in Renoir. She is in a crowded bar tending the needs of the thirsty ones. But in a moment she is alone and too absorbed. Any portrait is a lonely portrait, when the artist is able to catch the loneliness of the sitter in the likeness.

I do not know what would happen to that Machine Ka Danda Pani cart. They disappear from the city roads when summer recedes. They would be stacked up somewhere in the chawls; like their owners they would be chained to the other carts. The owners too are chained to their friends and the situations in which they live. The chains are so strong to break therefore they are not stolen. For almost six months they sit idle. Then they come back to the street. Nobody knows the water people drink for two rupees per glass is coming from an unclean and invisible tank which has been untouched for six months. Still people drink this water. One night as I was walking back to home from a Metro station, a lonely boy called me out from behind this machine; “Uncle, have a glass of water, just two rupees.” He was making a last minute sales pitch. I smiled at him and walked off. I never had water from these machines because...I still do not know is it a sense of hygiene or lack of faith in poor people.