In 1708, an anonymous poet recorded a day of great significance to the inhabitants of London:
“One evening, when the sun was just gone down,
And I was walking thro’ the noisy town,
A sudden silence through each street was spread,
As if the soul of London had been fled.”
What had happened? What caused the sudden silence? A news crier known to Londoners as “Bennet” had passed away. The world had not heard a voice like that since the days of Homer. But while Homer was blind, Bennet, “the prince of hawkers”, could not read.
Bennet was not the only hawker or street vendor to receive such a moving elegy. Think of Molly Malone of Dublin, for instance, who “wheeled her wheel-barrow/ Through streets broad and narrow/ Crying, ‘Cockles and mussels, alive, alive, oh!’”
Molly died of a fever, but the song imagines her ghost, in a typical mix of Irish humour and solemnity, making her way through the streets of Dublin. She utters the same cries as she always did: “Alive, alive, oh!”
The street cries of vendors have elicited mixed reactions throughout history. A man claiming to be Ralph Crochet wrote to The Spectator on December 18, 1711, that he wanted the civic authorities of London to create the position of a “comptroller-general of the London Cries, which are at present under no manner of rules or discipline”. He proclaimed that he was the best man for the job, possessing a strong pair of lungs, great insight into British trade and “of a competent skill in music”.
Turning to the history of street vendors and their cries closer home, in the city of Kolkata, one has to go at least as far back as the 1860s and 1870s for the earliest written accounts. In 1984, a delightful little volume titled Kolkatar firiwalar daak aar rastar awaj or The Cries of the Ferriwallah and other Street Sounds of Calcutta was written by Radhaprasad Gupta, who also made an archive of sounds of his own.
Shops which are stable and occupy a permanent or semi-permanent space rely largely on their displays. Mobile peddlers are recognised first by their voices or the sounds they make. It is curious then that many of the early records come from visual documents – for instance, the lithographs of Balthazar Solvyns, who in 1799, published a series which included several street vendors.
Most paintings and photographs of these peddlers strike a melancholy note, and literary accounts are often tinged with nostalgia, as in Abanindranath Tagore’s memoir Jorasankor dhaare (1941). Perhaps their daily ephemerality – the fact that they seem to come and go as they please, and often disappear without notice or explanation – is read as a more general warning for their unstable place in history. But the strange thing is that so far at least, these traders have not disappeared altogether, in the face of the many waves of urban development and economic re-organisation.
There is mention of the street cries of Calcutta in works like Kaliprasanna Sinha’s Hutom pyanchar naksha (1862) or The Barn-Owl’s Wondrous Capers, but probably the most detailed record was left by Shoshee Chunder Dutt.
Dutt, born in 1824, was the uncle of historian Romesh Chunder Dutt. He was a widely anthologised poet who wrote in English and worked for a significant period with the British administration. His account, published in 1878, is more than just a database of sounds.
Dutt recorded 32 different kinds of street cries in the “native part of town” alone, having devoted a whole day to listen to the street music of Calcutta. Broadly, the sounds are of three types: there are urban minstrels who sing songs of the “makhan chor”, the butter thief Krishna; there are those who sell and buy sundry items, called “Sissee bottole bikree”, or collectors of bottles and other vessels; and finally distinguished by their manner of producing their sound, utensil sellers who use their metal-ware to announce their arrival.
More than just sounds of the streets, Dutt’s essay captures a society that is in transition. Reading between the lines, one can learn a good deal about religious and caste identities and the boundaries which existed at the time. Apart from the social transformations that accompany cultural clashes, the relations between the public and private are also being negotiated afresh. The author registers his astonishment, for instance, that the bottle-collector carries in broad daylight “champagne, beer, and brandy bottles, with their labels on, without any attempt whatever at concealment”.
Surely, he notes, the Young Bengal, who were known for their attempts at disrupting the conservative social fabric of the time, cannot be bothered to hide their politics from plain sight.
We also get a sense of the culinary habits of Bengalis of this time. Speaking of the moong-ke-daal seller, Dutt notes that the Bengalis are more partial to their vegetables than to their daal or pulses, which is a relatively recent item on the menu. The man selling eggs has a particularly loud bawl. Once again, the Young Bengal is breaking custom by consuming “fowls’ eggs”, which “cannot be hawked about openly except in Mahomedan quarters,” the author writes, referring to the food-based segregation of Hindus and Muslims. The author doesn’t approve of duck eggs at all, but admits that the fowl eggs might be somewhat better. The idea of having them raw, as some doctors advise, “makes the blood run cold”.
The first peddler in Dutt’s account is the man who rescues items which have been dropped into domestic wells: “Kua-r ghotee tola”. Dutt explains that these wells have remained in Bengali households despite the municipal supply of water in most parts of town. He says, “Our Hindu ladies are so aquatic in their habits and delight so much in water” that the pipe-water is just not enough.
In the opening sequence of Satyajit Ray’s Charulata (1962), which he set in the 1880s (roughly around the same time as Dutt’s account), the eponymous protagonist goes from one window to another looking at the passers-by. She hears the utensil seller – “Dhong dhong dhong”. Street vendors also provided rare instances where the women of the houses, otherwise restricted to the inner-quarters or the andarmahal, were permitted to interact, usually through go-betweens, with outsiders.
The relationship of those who have written about street cries and the traders seems to be marked by good-humoured resignation. They become an integral part of each city, defining the urban soundscape. But their unique charm stems from the fact that despite being part of the public consciousness, they present themselves to people inside houses each as an individual, private experience. Sitting in their homes people hear their announcements, vocal or instrumental, and rush out to stop them on their tracks, before the traders can once again resume their journeys through other neighbourhoods.
Street cries are audible today in most Indian cities. Only a few days back a mobile cart selling idlis and dosas caught my attention with the characteristic clink of spoon striking metal pan. Kolkata still boasts of street vendors but their numbers are dropping. How long have such tradespersons walked the streets of the city and, one wonders, how much longer are they likely to be around?