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Updated: October 14, 2012 19:11 IST

The age of the Paharwala

R. V. Smith
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R. V. Smith revisits the times when people waited for vendors to bring their daily delights from across the subcontinent

When the hot weather ended, it was time for the turbaned Paharwala (mountain man) vendor to return to the plains. In childhood one could picture him descending the mountains with a basket on his head, wrapped in a blanket, covered with snow and making his way to the hospitable streets and lanes of Delhi, where children and housewives eagerly awaited his coming. He would make his rounds in the afternoon, calling out “Paharwala, Paharwala”. He claimed to be an Afghan and fruits were his speciality. The pomegranates were from Kabul, the apples from Kashmir and the grapes from Chaman in Balochistan.

Years ago he used to accompany his burly father to the city, where both of them found lodgings in Ballimaran. The fruits were stored in a room there and replenished from time to time with fresh arrivals brought by their countrymen, at a time when travel between India and Afghanistan was hassle-free. Balochistan, of course, was part of the country for there was no Pakistan then and getting grapes from Chaman was as easy as procuring them from Pusa now. This agricultural institute was originally situated in Pusa in Bihar’s Samastipur district. It moved to Delhi after the original campus was destroyed in an earthquake in the third decade of the 20th Century. Incidentally, Prithviraj Chauhan’s son-in-law was killed in a battle near what is now the Indian Agricultural Research Institute campus in the late 12th Century and his wife, Bela committed sati. A temple in Jhandewalan is said to have been built by her.

Looking at the sprawling buildings of Pusa Institute, who would imagine that this place was nazul (government freehold lease) land up to 1935, where wheat and vegetables were grown by the villagers of Todapur-Dasgarha. It is nestled on the Ridge, with its abundance of babool (prickly acacia) trees, under which women bathed their rickets-infected children and those suffering from diseases like measles and smallpox or convalescing after an attack of typhoid or malaria. When one asked why so many dried bottle gourds (lauki) were hanging on the tree branches the reply from a village matriarch was, “Sookhey ki bimari khatam karne ke liye” (to end the disease that made babies sickly and weak). The gourds were tied with saffron strings and healthy children and pregnant women were warned against walking under the kikar trees for fear of catching an infection that could affect even those still in their mother’s womb.

However the Paharwala did not venture that far even after his father died. His beat, like that of the Khan Bhai selling pastries, was the Walled City and the Gali of Hakims, not far from Ghalib’s Mir Qasim Jan haveli. The Hindustani Dawakhana, established there by Hakim Ajmal Khan, was a prominent building even then.

Hakims, after examining their patients prescribed unani medicines and a diet of fresh fruit and vegetables. Apples and pomegranates along with anwale-ka-murabba were the usual supplements to good, healthy food, along with papaya, both ripe and unripe. The latter was good for the liver, with best results obtained by keeping it immersed in vinegar. The ripe one aided digestion, as did the sirka (vinegar)-matured small onion, and was a sure cure for constipation. Anwale-ka-murabba was considered beneficial for the heart and anar was a great pick-me-up for anaemic women. Would you believe it that one such suffering woman, who had been restored to sound health, was nicknamed “Anardana” by her doting husband. And this unfortunately turned out to be the cause of much friction in the locality, with amorous young men shouting “Anardana, Anardana” (pomegranate seed) whenever the pretty woman went for shopping.

Another fruit then very popular with patients was anjeer (figs). These were grown in isolated pockets in Delhi but the best ones were brought from Meerut, Sardhana and Agra, where Semy’s Bagh was famous for them. Dried figs were prescribed for a number of ailments, including those of the digestive system, and could be had from the grocer’s shop where they were hung in garlands to attract customers.

Paharwala added some of the local produce to give variety to the fruits he sold and there was no dearth of people waiting for him to make his daily visits. Closely following him was Kalewala, the dark, tall, thin man, wearing a tattered paghri on which rested his basket of stuff like bers (plums), tamarind, goolar, coconut, shakarkandi (sweet potato), am-ka-papad, karonde and pungent amruk. Monkeynuts he carried in a bag hanging from his shoulder. Just after Kalewala had made his round, appeared the one-eyed papadwalah and Reti, a wizened old man who sold halwasond, gajak, dal-seo, salt and sweet sankhein. When Reti (actually Raoti) left, the bearded vadahwala entered the galis crying “Yeh tau dahi vadah / Yeh tau dahi vadah, Khake dekho / Yeh tau dahi vadah”, and urchins taunting him with “Yeh tau gir para / Yeh to gir para”. The Paharwala ceased coming long ago and so also the other vendors.

The children of today prefer popcorn, chips, chocolate, patties and ice-cream. So where is the need for the likes of the Paharwala and fellow-pheriwalas to make their rounds?


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