August 31, 2007

Stopping by Hassan's on Onam

In my previous post there is no photograph of Krishnadas, the Keralite coconut vendor, for I never got around to taking his picture. In this post there is one of Hassan, a coconut vendor from Kerala whom I met in Mumbai on Onam earlier in the week while on an errand. Hassan is a Muslim. I was drawn to the pookkalam, flower decoration, that he had put together on the footpath by his cart piled high with tender coconuts from Gujarat, wishing passersby ‘Happy Onam’. On August 27th Onam ushered in Chingam, the first month of the Malayalam calendar (Kollavarsham). Onam is also known as Kerala’s harvest festival.

“Tomorrow I’ll get the new load from Mysore,” he said when I asked him ‘How come you don’t get coconuts from Mysore while others do?’ Like Hassan, most coconut vendors that I meet in Mumbai hail from Kerala, and largely source coconuts from Mysore in Karnataka. Hassan buys tender coconuts from Gujarat and Mysore every alternate day, an unusual arrangement I thought.

I couldn’t quite catch his name the first time he pronounced it. Even a common Muslim name like Hassan sounds different when pronounced by a Malayalee (a Malayalam speaking native of Kerala). He smiled at me and said, “Call me Babu, everyone calls me that.” I knew another Keralite years ago who was nicknamed ‘Babu’. He used to amuse himself by peeling stickers from his new underwear and sticking them to the front door of the rented dwelling he shared with his elder brother and Bijoy. I used to visit Bijoy after school to go cycling. Out of earshot Bijoy and I took to calling him ‘Pintex’ after the brand he wore and whose sticker stared at me each time I knocked on the door to rouse Bijoy from his afternoon nap!

The festival of Onam owes its origins to the legend of the Asura (demon) king Mahabali who ruled Kerala benevolently, and was much loved by his subjects. He was a staunch devotee of Lord Vishnu. However, the Lord was concerned for Mahabali for, King Mahabali was full of ego, believing nothing to be beyond him. To rid his devotee of ego and humble him, Lord Vishnu took the guise of a dwarf Brahmin, Vamana, and approached King Mahabali. Deluded by his abilities and blinded by ego, King Mahabali, oblivious of Vamana’s real self offers Vamana anything he would care to ask for, believing he could grant any wish asked of him. Vamana asks the King for three paces of land, to which King Mahabali agrees.

Vamana measures out his first pace and it spans the skies, his second pace spans the netherworld, covering all. Astounded and realizing that Vamana’s third pace would cover Earth, possibly destroying it and with it his kingdom and his people, King Mahabali offers Vamana his head for the third and final step to save his people. Before banishing the King to the netherworld with his third pace Lord Vishnu grants Mahabali a boon. The King asks to return from exile once a year. It is this homecoming of its beloved king each year that the state of Kerala marks as the beginning of the Malayalam calendar, coinciding with August-September in the Gregorian Solar calendar.

A variation of the legend of the Asura (demon) King Mahabali records the desperation of the Devas (demigods) upon losing control of the world to Mahabali, leading them to seeking Lord Vishnu’s help in defeating the demon King. The part narrating Vamana’s wish for three paces and the consequences it held for Mahabali is common to both.

Onam sees Keralites welcome the king with elaborate flower decorations and festivities that spans several days.

Hassan has placed coconuts around the flower decoration to alert passersby and prevent them from stepping on it. The Hindu festival of Onam derives from a common heritage, predating Islam by hundreds of centuries. Keralites around the world celebrate Onam irrespective of whether they’re Hindu, Muslim, or Christian. Pre-conversion religious heritage binds the population in a rare camaraderie that transcends modern day differences in welcoming the Malayalam New Year on Onam.

I ask Hassan if he misses being home for Onam. “Yes, I do, but what to do,” he replies, flashing a quick smile. Hassan is from Trichur (Thrissur) in Kerala. While I check my camera and fiddle with its settings, a steady stream of vehicles motor along the road adjoining the footpath before bunching up bumper to bumper for the light to turn green. A customer walks up to a makeshift table by his stack of green coconuts to use the PCO. For one rupee you can make a local call. He pays Hassan the rupee and walks off after making a phone call. Hassan turns to face me while I take pictures.

Hassan’s father came to Mumbai (formerly Bombay) from Kerala eighteen years ago to make a living selling tender coconuts. “I used to visit Bombay during my school vacations to be with my father,” Hassan says, pausing in front of the stack to pick a tender coconut for a customer who has walked off the road to Hassan’s. A wooden bin fashioned from planks nailed together serves to hold empty coconuts, discarded kernels and sliced coconut shells.

Hassan places the tender coconut on a narrow wooden plank held up by two short wooden poles nailed to one side of the improvised bin and expertly chops at the coconut to expose the white underside near the top of the coconut. A quick chop across the exposed top half opens the tender coconut, coconut water is visible within. Hassan picks up a orange coloured plastic straw and plants it in the opening before passing it to the customer.

“No, no,” exclaims the customer, exasperated somewhat. “Don’t cut it open. I need to carry it home, just chop at the top half and expose the white underside; I’ll open it back home.” So, Hassan passes me the tender coconut instead and while I drag on the straw, taking in the flavour of fresh coconut water, Hassan picks up another tender coconut from the pile on his cart and placing it on the narrow wooden plank proceeds to repeat the process as sliced shell parts drop into the wooden bin. Experienced coconut vendors use their bare knees for support while slicing coconuts with expert chops; a few others use their open palms. Hassan plays it safe. The choppers are razor sharp.

Hassan left Kerala for Bombay for good after his father died nine years ago to carry on the tender coconut vending business that his father left behind in Bombay. As he speaks the traffic on the street where the footpath ends drowns his voice.

Talking of his native place I’m reminded of my own trip to Kerala with Naguesh years ago. I had carried my camera along, and one photo in particular captured for me the essence of that trip. It was a picture I took by the backwaters off Cherthala near Ernakulum while Naguesh, Manoj, and Rose waited in the distance, a light breeze carrying snatches of their conversation to where I lay on the ground in wait for a candid moment in the open patch facing me. Not far from where I waited, a woman sat patiently by her black cow while it drank water from a metal bucket.

Three coconut trees on the periphery of the open patch rose as if in a Guard of Honour to a village woman walking on a narrow mud path along the backwaters fencing off the open stretch of land. Blue skies stretched across overhead while I lay on my stomach on the ground, struggling to maneuver the camera quickly enough to capture the trio at an angle while the woman walked past. Looking back now I feel that were I to try hard I might actually be able to recollect the smell of earth of that day. Maybe it had to do with the serenity, maybe it was the blue skies, or maybe those three coconut trees had something to do with it. I’ve no way of knowing for sure. Since then I conjure up Kerala in that one picture (above) I took that day.

“Kerala is beautiful,” I tell Hassan, to which he smiles and says, “Khubsoorat hai par kya karey.” (“It’s beautiful, but what to do”.) I suspect that his expression, particularly his wry smile, betrays a latent longing for a home long way down South. He finds Kerala expensive, the one reason that might explain why he made Mumbai his home, at least for now.

“Back home, everything is costly,” he explains. “If one is ill, they need to be carried long distances, and private clinics there charge anywhere up to 400 rupees. Yahan pe sau rupai mein kaam ho jaata hai," (Here, (read Mumbai) it gets done within 100 rupees). Hassan reels of more figures, pausing to attend to customers stopping by his cart while on their way elsewhere, and refreshed by tender coconut I imagine their feet acquiring sufficient spring to negotiate Mumbai streets. More empty coconuts pile up in the wooden bin as the setting Sun breaks through the clouds, casting faint light along the footpath from between former British structures across the street.

I finish drinking the tender coconut and drop the empty shell into the makeshift bin. It has stopped drizzling. I pay Hassan for the tender coconuts and with a small wave of the hand I turn to leave. He waves back, lending his smile to the flavour of the moment before the noise of the traffic lays claim to my thoughts once again.

August 13, 2007

The Coconut Vendor

I get off the back entrance of the bus, and look in the direction of the mass of people awaiting entry passes to get into SEEPZ, then dodge honking cars, rickshaws, buses, and people, and head for Krishnadas’ stall, the Keralite coconut vendor who sells tender coconuts sourced from Mysore in Karnataka on the footpath that runs along the wall fencing off SEEPZ from the traffic. On the wall behind him Krishnadas has nailed a small, framed picture of goddess Durga astride a tiger, and carries out his business under straggly branches that reach over the pavement from behind the wall which fences off SEEPZ from the outside world.

When I squint incomprehension on hearing him pronounce the name of the place he hails from in Kerela for, it sounded like Palghat, Krishnadas smiles at me and says, “Not Palghat. It is Palakkad, T. N. Seshan ka gaon. Main uska gaon ka hai,” he says with discernable pride, referring to the legendary Tambram Election Commissioner from Palakkad who doggedly took on the Indian politicians and is largely credited with significantly cleansing Indian elections of unbridled corruption and large scale thuggery. Tamilian Brahmins are nicknamed Tambrams, and are widely known for their intelligence, academic brilliance, and accomplishment in the arts. Down South many will credit their achievements in academics and the arts to ‘oh, it runs in their genes.’ That may well be the case.

“Palakkad borders Tamilnadu,” Krishnadas explains. In the 1700s, Palakkad saw a migration of Tamil Brahmins from the border districts of Tamilnadu. It was a large migration considering that Brahmin population in India is significantly lower than other communities making up the Hindu majority.

I lean forward to make out Krishnadas’ voice over the noise of traffic in the morning rush hour.

Kaunsa chahiye? Pandrawala? Choudawala? Ya terahwala?” (‘Which one? Fifteen rupees? Fourteen rupees? Or the one for thirteen rupees?’) Krishnadas asks me in Malayalam accented Bambaiyya Hindi as I look at the mini mountain of green coconuts piled up on a makeshift table, and try to make sense of them by their sizes. To his left a shoe-repair vendor carries out his business from under a tarpaulin cover held in place by two bamboo poles placed between two pairs of stone blocks that were road-dividers not too long ago. The tarpaulin is strung to the wall by two coir strings tied to two rusting nails. To his left, a barber has set shop. His mirror hangs from a nail in the wall and faces a wooden chair. I’ve rarely seen the chair empty.

“Give me a paani wala, with some malai (white pulp layer),” I tell Krishnadas, asking for a tender coconut with fair amount of coconut water, and some sweet taste to it. Without malai, tender coconut water tastes flat, almost sour. He nods, casts his eye about the pile, picks one up, taps it, then places it on his knee, and taking a shiny, narrow-bladed knife from the three placed on a jute rag spread on the coconut pile, he proceeds to chop the coconut expertly with short, quick slashes, turning it over with each slash, exposing the upper part of the shell. Then he exchanges the knife for a broad-bladed one, and gently taps the exposed upper part, tracing a narrow circle as he rolls the coconut around in his open palm, eventually splitting it with a hard tap of knife before lifting the upper portion with the steel tip. Two office-goers step up to his cart, their identity cards dangling from their necks, IT workers.

He manages to sell over 150 coconuts each day. “I get them for Rs. 10.40 each, only occasionally do they reduce the price by twenty paise,” he tells me. “About 4-5 coconuts turn out bad in each lot. Then twice a day, I have to give two local policemen tender coconuts to drink for free.”

The bright orange tika on his forehead contrasts sharply with his dark skin. He replenishes his supply of tender coconuts daily; a truck with Karnataka number plate, ferrying coconuts from Mysore, stops by and offloads coconuts. “Sometimes they supply more, so I do not take in a fresh load the next day,” he explains. Tender coconuts left over from the previous day are sweeter; the pulp layer having thickened and hardened slightly, but if left longer the coconut water reduces in quantity and turns into malai, losing its sweetness. “Pandrawala nariyal kam jaate hain, din mein pacchas ke karib,” he says. “Log therawala jyaada lete hain.” (‘The coconuts priced for fifteen rupees do not move fast, only about 50 get sold each day. People prefer buying those priced at thirteen rupees’).

He passes me the coconut and a plastic straw. I turn to face the mass of vehicles heading down the road as I take a deep drag of sweet coconut water and swat at flies circling empty coconuts piled up in an open plastic tub on the footpath, and on his makeshift table fashioned from planks sourced from discarded wooden crates. The flies are feeding on tender kernel. I forget for a moment that I’ve tasks to complete as I lose myself in the cool of a hot day.