Wednesday, July 07, 2010


Part of my childhood was spent in Calicut in Malabar where my father had a middle-level job in the Central Government. He was what is described these days as a Class III (Or, is it Class II?) employee. Were talking of the 1950’s when the take-home pay was meagre. With more than half a dozen mouths to feed, all he could afford was a two-room block. Ours was one in a row of seven such blocks, each sharing a wall with the neighbour’s.


We had one luxury: as it was at one end, it had three sides open; five of the remaining six had only two sides open. This, however, was not an unmixed blessing: the windows opened to a marshy area. In the rainy season, water hyacinths grew and mosquitoes bred there in abundance. It was home to a few water snakes and thousands of frogs which would croak all night.


In summer, it would become a marshland. In stark contrast to the sea of green and bluish purple that it was in the monsoon, it would turn a dull brown and grey, as the succulent hyacinths dried up.


Electricity was meant only for providing light – no fans! - in the nights. Kerosene oil was in short supply most of the time and cooking gas was unheard of.


Firewood was the only fuel even in affluent households. In the villages, they used to collect dried palm-fronds, but town-dwellers had no access to it. The saw mill town of Feroke being close by, saw dust which was available in plenty was the major fuel used. Vendors would visits residential areas come every Sunday to take orders. They would effect delivery during the course of the week – each locality had a specific day. The cart laden with huge jute bags containing saw dust would come to our area every Tuesday with its three-man strong crew – the heftier among them pulling it and the weaker two pushing it from behind. After parking the cart in front of the fourth block, the ‘puller’ would take a breather – he would climb onto the cart, lie down on the bags and take a nap while the ‘pushers’ would deliver the goods, carrying the bags on their back.


For obvious reasons, saw dust could only be stored in the open. This posed a grave problem in the rainy season: a lot of the inventory would get washed away. Therefore people would switch to firewood which was more expensive. That is when Gopi would be in great demand.


Well-built and muscular, he would push his handcart in the morning to the timber-yard, buy logs in bulk, pull the heavily laden cart back, selling it at retail prices to housewives who would request him to hew it for them. He would do that – for a price, of course – and move on. He had his regulars: those who would patronise him whether it was rainy season or not. Households like ours would entertain him only during the monsoons, but he never used to grudge that.


Gopi had a very bad stammer – in fact, I have never seen the person with as bad a speech defect as his. You ask him the price of a cwt of timber and his facial muscles would go into contortions in the strain he underwent to give a response, but not a word would come out for a long time. We kids would watch him open-mouthed as he struggled to get his answer out. In retrospect, I think the fact that we were watching him possibly made him even more nervous. And finally, when you gave up all hope, ‘the word’ would issue out. And he would beam, happy that his endeavour had borne fruit.


His was a one-man show – he pulled the log-laden cart alone and hewed the logs himself with none to help him. The muscles in his calf and thighs were firm and well-formed. The way his sinewy limbs moved rhythmically was a treat to the eyes. Our bedroom window provided us a ringside seat to watch the muscles move up and down as he heaved the axe to split the logs in the open space next to our block.


You could set your clock every morning when Gopi passed by, pushing the cart. Rain or shine, bare-chested, and clad in a lungi with a towel for a headgear that doubled as a wipe for the sweat, he passed by, pushing the cart every morning.


In the evening, you would see him amble along in a new avatar – a fresh well-starched and ironed shirt, sparkling white crisp dhoti, a cigarette dangling from his lips below his moustache like the one Bhagat Singh had. He would spend a couple of hours with his friends and return by dusk.


Sunday was the day out for his family. In the evening, he would be accompanied by his wife, with two kids in tow, all smartly turned out. They would spens time in the beach or Mananchira Maidan, or watch a movie or the circus, and return home in time for dinner.


For the young boy that I was, Gopi was the paragon of virtues a man ought to possess – a self-reliant man making an honest living by working hard during the weekdays, relaxing with friends in the evenings and enjoying the bliss of family life in weekends. He was very matter-of-fact and would professional in whatever he did. Have I really been able to lead a life that emulated his? I wonder.


Damu said...

Thanks to Santanu and you,KTR - My mind keeps skipping gleefully between Calicut and Calcutta of the 60's. Your post, read with Santanu's article in the Indian Express on "Sing-song Calls", awakens memories of Calicut of yester-decades. I can visualise the Sawdust vendor calling out - "EeeeeeeeeeerchhaPodiiiiiiiiiiii". I can also see before my eyes, our domestic help Padmanabhan packing the Sawdust Stove tightly with sawdust, using two well polished logs of wood, held at right-angles to each other inside the stove. Once the packing is complete, he deftly pulls out the logs, and lo.....the Sawdust stays put without caving in! I used to be awe-struck by the skill. Just as enchanting as watching our old-time coal-fired "Bucket Stove" of Calcutta, spewing out smoke for the first few minutes, before the coal radiated a glowing red.

Keep them coming.

wannabewodehouse said...


I was the 'Padmanabhan' in my house!
And let me assure you, he could not have done a better job than I did. In case you did not know, the trick that prevents the 'caving in' is sprinkling a few drops of water and making the saw dust damp. (It helps the stove burn an extra hour!)

I overcame the temptation to narrate the process of packing the saw dust because that would stretch the article which was already longer than usual. Thank you for filling in with the nitty-gritty.

anilkurup said...

Such characters are always etched in our memory.What ever be the time that may have elapsed.Would we find such person as Gopi in the present day?
I remember a wood- cutter who used to cut logs for our house hold,way back in the early 60's. And the stories I have heard of his virtue and honesty have made me believe that he was the avatar of the honest wood cutter in the fable of lore.

joven said...

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Balachandran V said...

Very evocative of my boyhood in the '60s. 'Gopis' were quite common in those days. Or is it our own youthful innocence that reflects on such characters?

Pardon me for asking, but would you be K T Ram Mohan? If yes, you might remember me.

wannabewodehouse said...

Thank you, Balachandran.

I am not Ram mohan, but you are not far from him: I am his brother, Rajagopalan, also known as KTR in my circle.

Santanu Sinha Chaudhuri said...

Absolutely wonderful, KTR.

And thanks, Damu.