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Where are the street charmers gone?

Illustration: Deepak Harichandan

Illustration: Deepak Harichandan  

They have become extinct, rendered irrelevant with the passage of time, and it was inevitable

The balloon-seller was a fixture each evening. He peddled his wares at the park and stopped by at houses. He walked around with a vertical prop, the tops of which bulged with balloons of all shapes, sizes and colours. The young ones hung around and followed him as if he were the Pied Piper! Such was his pull. Occasionally, parents yielded to a child’s whim and bought, maybe, one balloon. Mostly they took a different route out of the park so the balloon-seller wouldn’t tempt a child and cause tantrums.

It was not only balloons he sold. He carried bows and arrows gilded in gold, even a miniature ‘television set’. The TV had a little knob. Twirl it, and your favourite movie stars appeared on screen — now Amitabh Bachchan, now Rajesh Khanna, now Hema Malini. You get it?

The gadget was delicate. It worked a few times all right. But if the child gave a little more pressure to the knob, it cracked. You were now stuck with a non-functional TV which wouldn’t scroll anymore. Parents threw a fit for wasting money on the silly purchase. But no worries! You sliced the TV’s belly, pulled out the picture-scroll and saw the stars, all at once.

Another favourite was the “magic-window” contraption — a red-coloured paper with a glass at the centre. Depending on how you folded the paper — once, twice or three times — a different picture appeared on the glass. It was sheer magic, enough to keep the child busy for at least that evening.

Sometimes, a different balloon-seller came by, with a gas cylinder in tow. From the cylinder hung balloons, some taut and some straight. They were ‘gas’ (helium) balloons. But he didn’t appear to have much success. Parents kept their children away as if he were a child-snatcher. Rumours were rife that the gas balloons had so much ‘power’ that one child actually got lifted and carried away into the clouds.

It was not easy to get cotton-candy. We looked for him each day during summer holidays. It was a delight when the candy-floss wallah came to the neighbourhood. He carried a huge glass cube. Neatly piled inside the cube were candy-floss balls — pink and fluffy. No, you never got a full candy-floss ball. The man was a sculptor with magic in his fingers. He would pull out an umbrella mould and press the cotton-candy against it. What came out was a cotton-candy umbrella. He added a crown, a stick to prop up the umbrella, and with a flourish he handed it over to the child. If you paid a rupee more, he made a cotton-candy bird, complete with beak and crown, feathers and tail.

His creations were limited: it was either the umbrella or the bird. For a child, it meant the world as it dug into the cotton-candy with relish and had the entire face, cheeks, jaws and even ears, smeared a deep pink.

The quiet of lazy, summer afternoons was broken with a twang. The sound was unmistakable. It went twang-twang-twang continuously. Part the curtains and you saw a strange man carrying a weapon that looked like an oversized AK-47. The rest of the afternoon had a familiar ring. Out of every home emerged old bedding rolls that had become limp and thin since the cotton wasn’t fluffy anymore. The AK-47 fluffed up the cotton and gave the bedding rolls a new lease of life! But the whole neighbourhood was filled with a haze, wisps of cotton flying all over, an odious smell with it.

Entertainment was often on the footpath. It came looking for you when you lost interest in life. One afternoon the magician took over the entire footpath. It was not the good old Indian rope trick, but something similar. He had a boy step into a basket, and in full public view, had him disappear into thin air. The trick took time. The magician was a master story-teller, and stretched his trick for a whole hour. It served multiple purposes — there was a gradual build-up to the excitement and the eventual denouement. He waited till the audience swelled.

Once you were a spectator, you were simply hooked. You had to wait till the boy disappeared and miraculously re-appeared to collect the fee from a dumb-founded audience! It was an afternoon well spent; there was anyway nothing better to do.

Where have all those people gone? Where is the knife-sharpener wallah with his cycle-wheel that let off sparks, where is that bhaji wallah who knocked each door with his grocery basket? Where is that monkey-man who entertained us with his simians? Where is the cow that answered all our questions about the future with a nod of its head, so we knew exactly how the future is going to pan out? Where is that man with his cow and created a racket with that drum, which went boom-boom?

Where is that fiddle-wallah who sold coconut-shell fiddles which produced music in his hands? And the moment he transferred it to us, it croaked like a crow?

Where is that man who sat by the roadside working on his toothpick, whose only occupation was to give elaborate directions to anyone who lost his way? “Somanathapura? Turn rightu… turn leftu… turn rightuadhey!” He lost his job to Google Maps, of all things.

They’ve become extinct, rendered irrelevant with the passage of time? It was inevitable. But they live on in our memories of childhood.

I can feel it now, getting under the hood of the bioscope wallah, the black cloth draped over my head. As I strain my eyes and get used to the darkness, I can see each character slowly coming to life. It is a whole new world, fairy-tale-like and beautiful, with song and dance and revelry. I am there. Don’t bring me back.

shankar.ccpp@gmail.com

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Printable version | Feb 19, 2020 2:23:41 PM | https://www.thehindu.com/opinion/open-page/where-are-the-street-charmers-gone/article26967868.ece

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