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The sounds you didn't realise your city is missing

Before skyscrapers and gated communities sanitised the urban auditory landscape, Indian neighbourhoods were defined by hawker calls through the day

A street in India circa 1965. The sellers of the era were storytellers too
A street in India circa 1965. The sellers of the era were storytellers too (Getty Images)

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Every weekend, the quaint F-block neighbourhood of Sector 50 in Noida, Uttar Pradesh, would wake up to the sound of a flautist. In my three years of living there, from 2019, I never saw his face, and I never heard anyone call out to him. Yet he was an ever-present part of the community—a surprisingly green, quiet and old-school part of an otherwise industrial, concrete-laden city.

While this rare musical intervention in a neighbourhood might seem an aberration now, decades ago, our neighbourhoods used to be defined by these auditory landscapes—so much that you could nearly paint a picture of a township just by the sounds around it.

In the 1990s, Dehradun, an old, sleepy valley town, very different from its present urban city-esque form, was not marked by the sound of tourists speeding towards Mussoorie. The occasional sound of rubber on pitch was the interlude. For those who stayed there, the immediate identifiers were hawkers with makeshift carts, the equivalent of kabuliwalas, who would traverse the quaint alleyways of Doon.

In my childhood, I was drawn to a hawker who would sell phalsa, the increasingly elusive Indian sherbet berries, every afternoon. I would rush to my balcony, as would many of my friends in the complex we stayed in. We would converse with him about our day at school—and his day. It was a friendship where we identified each other by face and voice, without needing to memorise each other’s names.

Suddenly, the sleepy neighbourhood would be strewn with conversations. The seller would rarely leave without making a sale, and I would never miss his cry.

About half an hour later, a cart with home-made ice cream would follow, and we would repeat the ritual. None of us knew the meaning of the hawker’s cry. Yet we would all know it was ice-cream time. I, for one, was particularly curious about the little bell on his cart.

The sellers of the good old analogue era were storytellers too—of tales both believable and far-fetched. While the ice-cream seller told some other children a heroic story of fighting off a tiger to win the bell, he reserved a different story for me. I was told of how he trekked far into the mountains, to be blessed with the bell by a sage.

Three decades later, the sellers—and their sounds and stories, immortalised by Rabindranath Tagore’s Kabuliwala—have largely disappeared.

Tagores Kabuliwala was later made into a film, and made hawkers part of popular culture. 
Tagores Kabuliwala was later made into a film, and made hawkers part of popular culture. 

Kurush Dalal, a noted food historian and archaeologist, recalls Diwali, a fruit-seller, from the 1970s. She would sit outside his grandmother’s house in Bandra, Mumbai. “She would always have the same spot—right opposite my grandmother’s balcony. This is from a time when Bandra was near wilderness. Her customers were regulars—the hand-counted residents of Bandra from five decades ago. During my childhood, whenever we would visit our grandmother, Diwali would cut a small piece of fruit and distribute it among all the kids of the house,” Dalal adds.

Diwali, he reminisces, always had a large smile on her face; she would be dressed usually in purple nauvari kashtis—traditional Marathi saris. Whenever she would enter the home of Dalal’s grandmother, they could always identify her by the sound of her laugh. That, together with her conversations, signified a moment of joy.

In Kolkata, the remnants of the kabuliwala’s traditions were easy to find even in the first decade of this millennium. Titas Basu, who grew up in north Kolkata, the old part of the grand old city, says that even today, the sounds of street hawkers have not disappeared. “There is this distinct twang that you can hear even now, of cotton and mattress sellers, in the oldest parts of Kolkata. These are lanes where, even today, most people stay in independent houses, not towering gated societies. The mattress makers carry a particular string and bow apparatus, which they use to hand-weave mattresses and repair old bedding,” she says.

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While Basu doesn’t remember his name, she remembers how the mattress hawker in the neighbourhood she grew up in would be called to her home twice a year—about two weeks before Durga Puja and around the second week of November. “The first one signalled the start of our holiday season, when all the cousins would be arriving home. In November, the day we would see him at home, we knew that winter was to follow soon,” she adds.

In the quieter neighbourhoods of Mumbai’s suburbs, such as in Juhu, you could hear such cries until a couple of decades ago. In the early 2000s, a hawker, who would travel with his knife-sharpening kit on a bicycle, would sing a mix of Hindi-Gujarati songs. Even if I never understood all the words, I would know who had come by.

On sultry afternoons, Kolkata’s alleys would echo with a ringing bell akin to the one you would hear at a temple. This would signify the arrival of a dosa seller’s cart. “As a family, we probably went to a restaurant no more than once in a year—that too on the final day of Durga Puja. The dosa seller was our willing friend growing up, since, for most of us in the neighbourhood, this was as close to eating out that we could get in our everyday life,” says Basu.

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Even today, the older residential areas of Delhi have street hawkers selling jamun (Indian blackberries) and phalsa in the late afternoon hours. They also sell carambola, known more commonly as the star fruit, says Delhi-based chef Kishi Arora.

“They are still quite popular in our neighbourhood of Preet Vihar in east Delhi and have a very identifiable, peculiar song that they sell their fruits with,” she says. For Arora, the jamun seller is a reminder of a childhood, when local candy sellers would ferry sweets with equally unfathomable but instantly identifiable songs.

Now, when you look around our ever-growing cities, you realise that even as we build more boundaries around our apartments and head upwards in skyscrapers, the remnants of the old hawker’s song linger in the air.

Vernika Awal is a journalist and food writer.

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