May 22, 2009

Leaves Of Life

In the early hours of the morning before the sky lights up over the horizon the city wakes up to urgent feet scrambling to make their rendezvous with street-side markets in Dadar, and elsewhere.

Fisherwomen hugging baskets of fish board local trains on their way to suburban fish markets along Central and Western railway lines that bisect the city into ‘West’ and ‘East’ sections. They must start early for the markets, accounting for the travel, and be in time for the first customers hurrying to impromptu stalls on the roadside where it is not uncommon to find women sitting together in groups of three or four, their baskets of fish at their feet and choppers at the ready on makeshift wooden boards. Cats, those creatures of habit, will be up and about awaiting their arrival. Like the fisherwomen they’re fixtures of city mornings.

To the south of the city, fishing boats land their catch at Sassoon Docks. Elsewhere, among several other landing points, fishing trawlers bring in their catch at the beach in Vasai, home to the Kolis, a fishing community known to be among the earliest inhabitants of Bombay and liberally portrayed to love their drink and dance in Bollywood films of yore.

In the shadow of the Vasai fort whose ruins add a surreal whisper to the sea off the coast a hundred-odd metres away, and hidden from view by the earthy homes of the Kolis, there is little evidence of the hectic activity along the coast until the narrow lanes zigzagging through the settlement deposits one on the beach.

Excepting the Cuckoo dallying from the trees in the summer months, newspaper vans split the morning silence before all others.

Large stacks of newspapers make their way across the city, offloading at street corners where groups of youths huddle around them and quickly sort them in time for the delivery boys who then fan out to building complexes and drop off newspapers on door mats in time for office goers to have a quick look at them before they take the elevator down and hail a rickshaw for the railway station to board the local train on their way to work.

The milkmen hit the roads about the same time as newspaper delivery boys.

About the same time trucks and tempos from Vashi and surrounding areas bear their load of vegetables into suburban markets where wholesalers take delivery of the produce. Fierce bargaining is not uncommon at the point of delivery. Then the wholesalers sell the produce to retailers who in turn ferry the produce to their shops or vegetable carts operating on the streets.

In the commotion of vehicles ferrying in milk, vegetables, and newspapers, and the brisk haggling at roadside fish markets, invisible are the hands that quickly pick out small green packs from their bags, flowers neatly wrapped in leaves and secured by thread, inserting the small bundle in the door handle before stepping away to the next apartment. There’s rarely a presence to be sensed until the door opens to the fragrance of Jasmine. Flowers are routinely used in early morning prayers and also in adoring the hair.

Villagers, mostly women, from far flung suburbs set out for flower markets in Dadar and elsewhere with bundles of fresh leaves foraged from the woods, supplying street-side vendors with leaves for use in wrapping short lengths of garlands among other uses.

Depending on availability, leaves of the Teak, the Palas, and the Jackfruit are commonly used for the purpose.

Before dawn breaks over Bombay’s cluttered skyline, local trains pulling into Dadar from as far as Karjat, Kasara, Assangaon, and Titwala empty of vendors who quickly get off the train with their produce.

In a single flowing motion the women hoist large bundles of leaves secured with slender lengths of tree bark onto the head and make for the exit in a single file, swaying as they glide up the incline and onto the public footbridge on their way to the phool galli (flower lane) where they will settle to the side of the lane and sort the leaves into smaller bundles for sale.

“We've come from Titwala,” the elderly woman flanked on either side by fellow vendors said as I bent to have a closer look at the leaves they were sorting out.

Titwala lies on the Central Line, 56 kilometres from Dadar. Local trains headed for Kasara, and Asangaon halt at Titwala, a little over ten kilometers from Kalyan in the direction of Nasik, the latter is served by the same line. The three elderly women sat with their bundles of leaves to the side of the path that led under the flyover.

The lady quickly reached into the bundle, and held out a neatly stacked section of the leaves for five rupees.

“How many leaves have you included in the stack?” I ask her.

She turns to look at her fellow vendors before smiling at me. “I don’t count the leaves, no need to. This much is what I sell for five rupees,” she said, drawing my attention to the stack she held in her palm between the thumb and the rest.

I quickly counted the leaves in the stack and said, “About twenty leaves for five rupees?”

Only a few days earlier I was quoted ten rupees for six leaves by a youth on the staircase that leads down to the phool galli by the flyover. He took one quick look at me and decided I knew next to nothing of the rates before quoting his price. I left him standing by his bundles of leaves lying on the steps to the side of the staircase.

She nodded and shrugged her shoulders. “Yes, about twenty leaves.”

“Larger sized leaves will cost more,” she said. “These are the Palas. The same leaves used to make patravali.”

Patravali is a leaf plate made of dried leaves tacked together by pieces of stem. The leaf plates are commonly used in villages to serve meals, and discarded after use, finding their way to garbage dumps where cows and buffaloes gather at noon time and polish them off along with the leftovers of meals.

I mistook her reply for Phanas, the Jackfruit tree.

“No, no. Not Phanas, but Palas,” she corrected me. The Palas is also known as the Flame of the Forest for its dazzling flowers that break the often bleak summer landscapes in deciduous forests of the tropics.

Leaves used in making patravali differ from region to region depending upon the availability of trees.

The Flame of the Forest is not as commonly found in Goa as the Jackfruit, so leaves of the Jackfruit are used to make patravali in the tiny state on the West Coast on India. Jackfruit leaves are not the most ideal of leaves to use in making the leaf plates but considered adequate enough for the purpose. The leaves of the Teak are used for the purpose as well, chosen more for their easy availability in Goa whose climate is conducive to Teak plantations.

Though rare, the use of lotus leaves is not unheard of either.

In North Karnataka leaves of the Muthla tree are used in making patravali. The leaves are dried in the shade until they turn brown, taking over a week or so. The shade helps keep the leaves from curling up.

On my yearly travels to the north of Karnataka during summer vacations from school, I grew accustomed to having my meals on patravalis while visiting my relatives along the route. It took me some time to eat off the leaf plate without swallowing the short stems that held the leaves together.

In time I learnt to make patravali at the home of my ancestors in the village. In the afternoons we would gather in the hall flanked by rooms on either side and sift through heaps of dried Muthla leaves and arrange them in the shape of a circular plate, overlapping the leaves to cover openings to prevent curry from seeping out and messing up the floor.

We took our meals sitting cross-legged on the floor, backs to the wall. The elderly Brahmins, clad in white dhoti held tight at the waist, took their meals bare-chested as is the custom, eating their meals off the leaf plates or patravalis. I used to call them ‘Yogic meals’.

While one of us would fashion Jowar stems into tiny pieces for use in stitching the dried Muthla leaves together, another would sift through the stack of leaves and separate even sized leaves appropriate for the size of the leaf plate.

The rest of us would then fashion the leaves into a circular shape each and stitch them together with small pieces of Jowar stems. I was still at school and oblivious to any cathartic benefits to be had from what is a uniquely rural exercise with few or no exceptions. It was just another exercise I reveled in in addition to helping my aunt milk the cows, and collect dung cakes for fuel while I was not pestering the farm hand into teaching me the art of making ropes from lengths of coir and tree bark. Eventually I learnt the craft well enough to make my own ropes.

Keshava, the farm hand at the time passed away years ago, leaving behind memories of his good natured patience while I struggled to come to grips with the rolling of lengths of raw material into ropes, turning my thighs red where the rope rubbed the skin while I rolled individual strands into rope pattern.

Making patravalis was easier, for Muthla leaves presented far fewer problems except maybe when I had to stitch them together into leaf bowls. Curry and buttermilk are served in the leaf bowls that are fixed to the leaf plate with rice. Occasionally the leaf bowls, if weakly secured with rice at the base, would topple over, spilling curry or buttermilk all over the patravali, drawing disapproving looks from the elders.

The Muthla tree is commonly found in the northern districts of the state, namely Gulbarga, Raichur, and Bidar.

Speaking with my uncle I learnt that Raichur is big on supplies of the Muthla leaves for making patravali. “Alanavar, near Belgaum, is well known for Muthla leaves as well,” my cousin added.

The small stems that tack leaves together into plates are sourced from Jowar stems after the crop is harvested and the hay kept aside for cattle fodder. In the arid regions of North Karnataka typically two crops are harvested in a year. Mungari Jowar sown in the early monsoon months of July and August, and harvested three months later, is preferred for fashioning the stems to tack the leaves, and not so much the Hingari Jowar. The stems of the latter are not known to lend themselves to easy fashioning of short, slender pieces appropriate for stitching leaves together. The Hingari crop (Rabi) is sown in September or October.

Elsewhere the Mungari crop (Kharif) is sown in the months of June-July around the time the first rains come calling, especially along the West Coast where the South-West monsoons make their first landfall. However to the north of Karnataka the first rains strengthen their patterns much later.

Typically 15 Muthla leaves went into the making of a patravali on the average. Now I’m told each patravali costs one rupee, prices having gone up in the village from years ago when I first learnt to stitch leaf plates together. Moreover it is unlikely most villagers will take the trouble now to stitch together a patravali from Muthla leaves, preferring instead to buy them off the market, a set of fifty leaf plates costing fifty rupees ($ 1.00) at one rupee per leaf plate.

Unlike steel plates, leaf plates do not need washing, instead providing fodder for cattle after meal time. They provide employment to poor villagers who set out to gather leaves in the woods while womenfolk stitch them together into leaf plates, in turn empowering women in the village. And unlike steel there is no processing cost involved, including the mining of earth for raw material, in the making of leaf plates. In the end they break down into organic elements that enrich the soil and nourish the many life forms that make the soil fertile.

When we ran out of patravalis banana leaves were brought out at meal time. It is easier to eat off a banana leaf than off a patravali stitched together. In time, like with everything else, practice makes perfect, and leaves cease to matter, receding to the background, giving way to the fragrance of the outdoors rising up from the leaf plate, indulging the appetite for the meal at hand.

Flanking the flyover opposite the Dadar railway station on the Central Line are two narrow lanes that conduct travelers out of the station. Flower vendors run small hole-in-the-wall outlets that line the two narrow lanes on either side of the flyover, crowding the passageway with customers shopping for flowers and office goers hurrying past. Through the day suppliers truck in sacks of flowers, supplying them to vendors in the lanes. The lanes are known locally as phool gallis (flower lanes).

Early mornings see hectic activity in the phool gallis with flower vendors busy stitching flowers into garlands, occasionally calling out to passing travelers to buy garlands and flowers. It is common to see children help their parents with the task at hand, pottering around while their parents stitch the flowers into garlands, using leaves to bunch the flowers together as well as display lengths of garlands for interested customers.

Garlands made of Mogra (Jasmine) flowers and priced at five rupees a length, were neatly laid out for passing travelers. Taxis honked in the narrow lane dodging early morning travelers hurrying to work.

“Will your stock of leaves last until evening,” I ask the lady, pointing to her basket overflowing with Palas leaves.

“No. There’ll be little or nothing left by evening,” she replies, turning her face to acknowledge a fellow vendor who hails her on his way past.

Small time vendors selling garlands, berries, jamuns, and sundry fruits from cane baskets settle down on the railway footbridge that passengers exiting the Dadar railway station take on their way out of the station. Often customers will stop by the vendors and buy jamuns or flowers or other produce on their way home.

The vendors use the leaves to arrange berries, often using them to pack the berries as well if the quantity is small. They source the leaves from fellow vendors. Here the vendor was selling berries bunched on leaves for rupees five a 'bunch'.

Some will line their cane baskets with the leaves, sprinkling water every now and then to keep the flowers fresh and inviting.

Others will use them to lay out flowers while they stitch them together into garlands, using the same thread to secure the flowers wrapped in a leaf before handing the 'leaf package' over to the customer.

Where there’re no Palas leaves to be had any will do, even those plucked from the tree under whose shade vendors shelter outside the Virar railway station, by platform One where trains from Virar start for Churchgate.