You are here

XVII. The Tribe Errant

In the more thickly-populated quarters of the city of Bombay--quarters that are rarely explored by the European, a succession of criers and hawkers pass through the streets from morn till eve and sometimes far into the night. In the early morning, before the house-sparrow has chirped himself and his family into wakefulness, you catch the doleful and long-drawn cry of the early Fakir or Mahomedan beggar, whose object is not so much to wake the Faithful and bid them remember "the prayer that is better than sleep" as to be the earliest bird to catch the mouthful of Moslem charity. Watch him as he awakens the echoes of the quarter by repeating in the most melancholy tones Ali's famous gift of his sons to the beggars of the Hegira or some other great tradition of the generosity of Ali, set to verse for the special behoof of his brotherhood by some needy poetaster like the famous Nazir of Agra. He is followed by another who chants in deep bass tones a legend explanatory of the virtues of the great saint of Baghdad. But Ali is the favourite of the beggar-tribe, because forsooth the beggar runs no risk in singing his praises. If one glorify the other three Khalifas in a Sunni quarter, it is well with one, but not so in an area devoted to the Shia population: and so the beggar chooses Ali's name as a convenient and fitting means of opening the purse-strings of both the great Musulman sects.

As the day dawns, sturdy Hyderabad chorus-singers pass along the streets chanting the "prayers for the Prophet" in voices that awaken the denizens of the dark garrets and hidden courts of the teeming chals. And after them come the beggars of that class which is the peculiar product of Mahomedan life in Bombay. As the majority of the middle-class Musulmans and all the poorer class live in chals or "malas," each family occupying one or at most two rooms in a building, the passages, corridors and staircases of these human warrens become the chosen paths of those astute mendicants who disdain not, when chance offers, to turn their hand to a little quiet thieving. Even as they fare upon their rounds, you catch the welcome call of the vendor of "jaleibi malpurwa," who sells wheat-cakes fried rarely in ghi and generally in oil, and the "jaleibi" a sort of macaroni fried likewise in oil. These crisp cakes are a favourite breakfast-dish of the early-rising factory-operative, who finds himself thus saved the drudgery of cooking when he is barely awake and when moreover he is in a hurry to reach the scene of his daily labours. The vendor of these dainties is truly "a study in oils," and his hands, which serve the purpose of knife and fork for the separation of his customers' demands, drip--but not with myrrh. Though a vendor of oleaginous dainties, he is himself far from well- nourished. You can see his collar-bone and count his ribs and almost mark the beatings of his poor profit-counting heart. A dirty dhoti girds his loins, and upon his head is a turban of the same questionable hue which serves both as a head-dress and as a support for his tray of cakes. If a Musulman, he wears only a skullcap, a shirt or jacket and a pair of soiled baggy trousers. Once he has called, the jaleibi-vendor has a habit of presenting himself every day at the very hour when the children of the house begin to clamour for food, and calmly defies the angry order of the householder not to appear unless bidden.

Next comes the vendor of "chah, chah garam, chaaah garaaam" or hot tea, who is unusually an Irani. For having introduced tea into Western Asia the inhabitants of the land of "the gul and the bulbul" claim the secret of making a perfect infusion of the celestial leaves. He is no longer the embodiment of Tom Moore's Heroic Guebre, this tea-vending Irani, and his apron forbids the suggestion that he has any association with Gao, the subverter of a monarchy and the slayer of the tyrant Zuhhac. He has sadly degenerated from the type of his Guebre ancestor. If he owns a shop he combines the sale of other commodities with the tea business. He has an ice-cream, a sherbet and a "cold-drink" department; and he touts for customers, singing the praises of hot and cold beverages in a language redolent of Persian. It does not pay him to use fresh tea-leaves from Kangra or China; so he purchases his stock from small traders, who in their turn obtain it as a bargain from butlers or stewards. The latter dry them after one infusion by their masters and, mixing some unused leaves, make up a fresh box and dispose of it in the markets. As for soda-water and allied beverages, he gets his supply from the cheapest manufacturers; while his ice-cream contains probably more water than milk and is flavoured, not with vanilla, pine-apple or orange, but with some article which he declares is a complete antidote against internal discomfort. He prepares his tea a la Russe in a brightly-polished samovar which compares favourably with his tea-cups and country-made tin spoons. He charges his customer from two to four pice for this delightful mixture which has a flavour of hot-water and iron-rust rather than of tea.

Here too comes the itinerant fruit-seller, very often a woman, who hawks fruit of all kinds from the superior mango to the acid "karaunda" of the Ghats. For the sale of country-mangoes a place of vantage is required; so she takes up a strong position on the roadside or on the doorstep of a house and sets to work to pick out her best fruit and place it on the top of her basket. She is generally a Deccani, either Musulman or Hindu, varying in age from 20 to 40 and is fully capable of conciliating the Lord of the Bombay pavements, when he somewhat roughly commands her to move on. "Jemadar Saheb" she calls him; and if this flattery is insufficient she offers one of her ripest mangoes with a glance that he cannot resist. It is too much for the sepoy: he smiles and tramps off, and she holds her position undisturbed. If she be a Hindu, you will probably notice the bright-red mark on her forehead, joining brow to brow, or, in the words of a Persian poet, uniting two Parthian or Tartar bows into Kama's Long-bow. The male mango-hawker is a Deccan Hindu or Musulman gardener who purchases a stock of showy inferior fruit from the wholesale dealers. After the mango season is over he becomes a vendor of Poona figs or Nagpur oranges. He is often a small, dark, muscular man who began life as a day-labourer in the highly-cultivated fields of the Deccan and has journeyed to the city with his modest savings tightly tied up in his waist-cloth in the hope of eventually cutting as big a figure in the village home as does his friend Arjuna, who some years ago returned to his village as a capitalist and is even now the bosom-friend of the Patel.

The itinerant coffee-vendor is a characteristic feature of the Musulman quarters of Bombay. Of Arab or Egyptian origin, this coffee-trade immediately proved attractive to the Musulman public and, inasmuch as it requires little stock or capital, has been a boon to many a poor Mahomedan anxious to turn an honest penny. The "kahwe-wala" has no cry and yet manages to proclaim his presence by sounds which are audible in the inmost darkness of the chals. He is the beetle of the pedlar tribe. He does not sing, he does not cry--he stridulates. Carrying in his hand a large number of small coffee-cups, fitted one within another, he strikes them together like a string of castanets, while in the left hand he bears a portable stove-like article on which rests his tin or copper kettle.

His entire stock-in-trade, including the ground coffee in his kettle, does not as a rule exceed five rupees in value. The "kahwe-wala" belongs to three nationalities, Arab, Negro and Native Indian. If an Arab, he may be a disabled sailor or the retired body-servant of some Arab merchant; if an Indian, he is usually an old resident of the city, experienced in the wiles of the urban population and sometimes perhaps a protege of the local police. He has a perfect acquaintance with the intricacies of Bombay galis and back-slums; he is a creature of jovial temper, being hail-fellow-well- met with most of his customers, and he is not a grasping creditor. His account, which he notes down on whitewashed walls, sometimes reaches the sum of Rs. 10 to Rs. 15 where thriftless wives are concerned. Generally the score is paid: but if it be shirked or disputed, he never thinks of invoking legal aid for the recovery of his money. He has an abiding faith in the doctrine of "Live and let live."