Translator's Note: Discovering Prasanta Mridha's essay series "Lost Livelihoods" was a delight. The first one I spotted was about black market Indian mill-woven cotton saris—a flourishing business during the early eighties. I was instantly transported to my childhood.
There were many products being smuggled from India, but saris are the contraband I have a direct memory about. Bangladeshi mill cottons, according to my grandmother, had not achieved the softness of Indian cottons. (She has revised her opinion since then.) I recall the crowd and crush of Hawkers Market or Gausia Market. I am eight or ten or twelve, trailing my grandmother, who is looking for not just bootleg Indian cottons, but saris made at a particular mill. They were the best, she told me as she recounted vivid details of the Kolkata store she had visited with her cousin during her pre-Partition stay.
I remember the traveling vendors that Mridha describes as well, although they were less common in our more urban area. They were always women, and they always carried their wares in tightly bound square bundles. They came by households calling softly, Anyone home? Unlike other salespeople they didn't shout—after all, they were selling contraband.
Mridha's essay series was inspired by West Bengali writer Kinnar Ray's pocket-sized book Vanished Livelihoods. He wanted to do a similar book in the Bangladeshi context, and over the course of a year, he published his essays in the literary supplements of various dailies. In his preface, he notes that many readers got in touch with him to tell him about professions he didn't know about, or didn't know had disappeared, or ones that still survived in different regions of the country.
In the preface, he also mentions professions he didn't include, either because he didn’t know of them, or didn’t know enough to write about them: some are familiar to me, some not. I knew of the earwax cleaners (they still exist, and it seems only men avail themselves of this service), as well as the "healers" who pulled out the "pain bugs" from teeth. A profession I didn't know about: cows' teeth cleaners. His essays made me think of professions I had grown up seeing, that seem to have disappeared, which I didn’t find in his book: the jaundice-curing "healers" who would place a "medicinal garland" on the sufferer’s head and pour water, "washing away the yellow."
Some of these people showed up daily (like street food vendors), but for some, their entry into our lives depended on seasons or festivals. The dhunuri, for instance, the men who fluff up the cotton in duvets; they were harbingers of winter. They used a special stringed tool, almost like a musical instrument, and their call sign, as they walked neighborhoods, was to twang it. That distinct twang punctuated my fall days, predicting the future: winter break, badminton, palm-tree juice, crisp air, bhapa pitha, steamed rice cakes with jaggery.
As I read Mridha’s essays, I was excited to find the known and unknown. And sometimes the known in disguise. The taffylike sweet that he describes with the poetic name of delbahar (the heart’s beauty), I grew up knowing as the more prosaic, but descriptive, tana: literally, "pulled." Perhaps this is where the beauty of the quotidian rests: in that space between the poetic and the prosaic.
I don’t know what it’s called in other regions of Bangladesh, but in Khulna it’s delbahar. That’s how it’s known. The conjunction of two Persian words, “dil” or “del” and “bahar,” creates the word delbahar. Dil means heart, mind, soul. And bahar means beauty or splendor, or grandeur, or glitz. Another meaning of bahar is spring. Delbahar can mean the beauty of the heart. Or perhaps the splendor of the mind. Or, going a bit further, the spring of the heart.
Persian words in Bengali—no matter how grandiose they sound, the thing itself is not that complicated. It’s only in name that it possesses “the beauty of the heart.”
A bamboo pole, quite thick. The kind that is known as a tolla-bansh. The kind that can be used for a pillar in a house. This pole, about five to six feet in length, has a reddish gamccha, or cotton towel, wrapped around the top. In the summer, the towel needs to be moistened frequently. Beneath the towel is a firm dough made of flour and jaggery. If the towel isn’t moistened, the sweet dough will simply melt. This is why the top of the bamboo pole looks thicker. It doesn’t strain the imagination to think of the pole with the towel-wrapped tip as a giant matchstick. The genie from Aladdin’s wondrous lamp, or Kumbhakarna from the Ramayana, or Ghotatkoch from the Mahabharata are the only ones capable of striking it against a matchbox and lighting it up.
A man walks with that pole resting against his left or right shoulder. The pole slants backward against his shoulder. Every few minutes he calls out, Eiiii delbahar! This is back when none of the rickshaw-pullers or even any of the street-vendors wore trousers. So this man carrying the bamboo pole is wearing a lungi; a limp shirt bought from the second-hand wares of Nixon Market covers his torso. If his call attracted a customer and they came to stand beside him to buy some, he lowered the pole to the ground parking it parallel with his body.
A pouch made of sacking hung from his waist. Or perhaps the pouch was slung from the pole. He looked at the customer with questioning eyes. What do you want? Which one?
All the words I’m using to explain what this thing is—well, back then, the child customer didn’t need any of this to know what delbahar was. That glance from the vendor, or even just his standing still was enough for the child to blurt out what they desired. But the seller was also forever prepared to plug his wares. A motorcycle, 1 taka; a bell, a monkey, a watch, 50 paisa each; and a simple strand of delbahar twisted around a stick was 25 paisa. Those were the prices.
The pouch that hung from the pole contained slivers of bamboo, of different sizes and shapes. Once the customer informed him of what they wanted, he began to make it. This process was worth watching every single time. The pouch disgorged a handful of small sticks. Within moments he had formed two wheels using the sticks, then pulled the flour and sugar dough into thin strands, and wrapped it around the wheels. He connected the two wheels to each other with another stick. These were then fully wrapped with delbahar. He also constructed bamboo stick handlebars, and covered them with twists of delbahar. Thus, in the blink of an eye, a bamboo delbahar motorcycle was crafted. He handed it over to the customer. The customer, the child, could now begin to eat the delbahar from whichever part of the motorcycle they desired.
Instead of a motorcycle he could craft a bicycle in the same way, narrowed around the middle. But this time there was a smaller amount of dough in his hands. His hands could swiftly create a bell. A monkey too; the thin tail listing to one side. If none of these were what the customer asked for, then perhaps a watch, which required the smallest amount of delbahar. Yes, in your hands, it looks exactly like a watch. If you want, you can wear it on your left wrist, and snap or tug bits off with your right hand to stuff in your mouth. The man can easily shape a cricket bat. Or tiny rackets, whether for badminton or tennis. And aside from all these, there was always the simple twist of delbahar on a stick. As far as I can recall, that was the cheapest—25 paisa, which people still called char anna, or a quarter.
In the early eighties, the delbahar vendor could be spotted every single day in front of the school. He would come and go mostly around half past nine or ten in the morning. Once he was done with the school, he would move toward the city, toward the hustle and bustle of the marketplace. But he was rarely blessed with true aficionados over there. It was unlikely. The stadium during a game, or the school playing fields, or our neighborhood streets on the weekends: he moved forward, calling out, that bamboo pole slanting against his shoulder. But I cannot remember ever seeing him in the evening or even in the late afternoon. So perhaps no one ate delbahar in the evenings.
Delbahar had never piqued my curiosity enough for me to seek out where the thing was made. At that age, when I first bought delbahar from the vendor, there was no reason for me to harbor that kind of curiosity. Within a decade, however, during the early nineties, just as people my age began leaving our small town, gradually the delbahar vendors also began to disappear.
One evening around that time, we spotted a delbahar vendor. We weren’t buying from him; perhaps it was his break. Perhaps he was having a smoke as he stood near us. When we asked, he told us there were delbahar factories in the Nagerbajar area of the town. Each day, the vendors bought their desired amount of delbahar from there and twisted it around their poles. Two other kinds of delectable street foods were also prepared in those factories—ata-kodma (another dough-based sweet) and teeler khaja (a sweet snack covered in sesame seeds). The method of preparation was similar for all of them. Each required flour, sugar, and even a little milk in varying amounts. But, the vendor told us, whereas in the past they would use cow’s milk, these days it was merely powdered milk.
Someone asked from the side, “From tins?”
He had barely finished his question when someone else quipped from another side, “Yeah, right. If they did there’s no way they could sell delbahar at these prices. They must make do with the powdered milk that comes in sacks.”
The delbahar vendor had chuckled. Whatever they used, no one could say it was adulterated. So many children in town ate it, licked it, slurped it every single day and they never got upset stomachs.
Back then, the concerned clamor over the adulteration of consumer goods produced by national and multinational corporations didn’t exist. But the products hawked by the sellers and vendors in the local marketplaces didn’t contain adulterated ingredients. The manufacturers they bought their wares from were careful about that.
That day, his break over, as the delbahar vendor got up to move away from us, he asked, “Want a little delbahar?” and pulled off the fabric covering the tip of his bamboo pole. I spied the colors of our childhood. A mound of sweetened flour, white with a reddish tinge, piled on the bamboo top. Perhaps some of us thought he was trying to sell some to us. Someone said, “Aren’t we too old to eat this kind of thing?”
Another held up his cigarette. “These days this white candy is the one we consume.” He pulled long and hard before joking, “I guess this is our delbahar.”
The vendor replied, “You could just try a little, to see if it’s still the same delbahar as when you were schoolchildren. Just . . . for no . . . for no . . . ” He was too shy to say “for free” directly.
Someone said, “OK, give us some on a stick. We can all yank off a bite from there. Don’t you know, Bengalis will even eat tar if you give it to them for free?”
The man laughed. He watched us, young men, eat his delbahar. “Is it the same?”
“Yes, it is,” one of us said, adding, “but don’t give us anymore.”
The vendor smiled as he walked away calling, “Eiiii delbahar!” He was exceedingly happy at having brought back our childhoods for a moment.
But now, just because we want him, we cannot have him back. The shops around us stock so many kinds of scrumptious delicacies. How can the delbahar vendor let loose his call here? It has been twenty years since that chance meeting, and I cannot find a delbahar vendor even when I look. As if he took the beauty of the heart, or the splendor of the mind, or the spring of the heart, and just disappeared from the childhoods of today.
Butter Simmered to Ghee
The man carries a medium-sized narrow-necked clay pot, locally known as a mait, in one hand. He skews a little to that side. Which is natural, because the mait is almost full. About half or perhaps a little less of the vessel is filled with water, and on that water floats butter. The mait's opening is covered with a plate with a raised edge; on the plate sits a set of scales and weights.
He shifts the mait from one hand to the other as he walks. This is essential. Essential because how long can someone carry a weight in one hand? A heavy, water-filled pot. The man has traveled from the north.
Back then, the people of Bagerhat and Khulna regions thought of greater Faridpur as the north. But they had no idea how far Faridpur was. Perhaps the man had come from the north, but he had most certainly not come from Faridpur. Perhaps he was from Madaripur or Gopalganj. If not, even the district of Mollarhat in the Bagerhat region was toward the north. Perhaps that was where he came from. But all of it was just “the north.” Hence, he was a northerner.
A northerner has arrived for a southern gig, in the hopes of making a living. All he has is this pot.
Today I can calculate the geographical distance and appreciate that he had traversed that distance by boat, to reach Fakirhat, a thana or sub-district of Bagerhat. Then, he took the train to get to the town of Bagerhat. Perhaps a fellow traveler had journeyed on to Khulna. Perhaps more than one had done so. It was enough that he was visiting this small town by himself, or perhaps with a compatriot. Khulna was, in comparison, a much larger town. Others had headed that way. These men made this trip every week. And they made it in the season when the cows in their area yielded an abundance of milk. Once the milk was churned into butter, off they went.
It is very early in the morning still when the whey vendor comes out in the streets, also carrying butter. His butter is covered with a banana leaf. He spoons out the measure of butter the customer wants from the mounds of butter floating in buttermilk. But the northerner isn’t selling butter or whey like the whey vendor. If he was, he wouldn’t have arrived when the morning was almost done; he would come at dawn, or early in the morning. His reason for showing up at this hour is entirely different. He is here to extract pats of butter from his full mait, weigh them on his scales, and simmer the butter into ghee. Ghee made right in front of the customer. The householder will have no doubts. This ghee is truly pure.
Still, can the man get the upper hand with the householder? When, calling out his chant, he arrives at a house, if the household has run out of ghee to even spoon on plates at mealtimes, he might be summoned. As soon as he stands in the doorway he is asked, “Where is this butter from?” The man offers up his address. The next question is the real one, and he knows he will be asked this. Is this butter made with milk from a cow or a water buffalo? If it’s cow’s milk, then it will turn into gawa ghee. If it’s water buffalo, or mohish, it will become moishal ghee. He knew he would face this question. This mistrust existed in the past, it's still there, and has increased in scope. The man bites his tongue, indicating that this question is truly embarrassing for him. He has come all this way, after such exertion, braving the borders of the districts and the sub-district—do they really think it is to make them ghee with butter from water buffalo milk instead of cow’s milk?
What television does now sellers did back then. They never scrimped on their spiel about the captivating qualities of their wares. This was ingrained in a seller’s very nature. These vendors rhapsodized about their butter in the blink of an eye. They knew their patter inside and out. They could beguile the hearts and minds of the masters of the house with every word they uttered. Although those words were spoken in a regional accent, for the audience, the approach and delivery meant his pitch wasn’t dismissed out of hand.
On the other hand, why shouldn’t the customer hold his own? The simmered ghee made by another northerner hadn’t been that pure. Although their price is a little higher, the ghee available at that sweetmeat store in the town isn’t that bad. True, they don’t simmer and make the ghee right in front of you like this, but still, it’s a reputable store. Their wares aren’t bad at all. Now the man scatters odes to his ghee like buckshot. In fact, to prove just how pure his butter is, he suggests that the customer smear a little butter on some cotton wool and set it alight. If the butter contains anything other than milk, how will the wick hold the fire? He also slips in a description of exactly what the flame looks like if the milk is pure. And, anyway, as soon as you start to simmer it, you can tell it is proper gawa ghee just from the aroma. No one in their village keeps water buffalo. Nothing but cows graze in their fields, so there is really no point in telling him anything about water buffalo ghee.
He has finally succeeded in making himself somewhat credible. Both sides are ready. Now, the real deal. The man wants to know how much ghee he should prepare for them. He completes his measuring and places the weights on one end of his scale. He asks the householder to bring him a pot in which to simmer the ghee. The pot arrives. He places weights on the scale until it balances evenly against the pot. Now he places a slab of butter in the pot.
The most astonishing thing about these men was their ability to eyeball measurements. It was a fantastic skill. The butter that he sliced off with a large, smooth spatula, at one go or several, would be exactly the weight that had been requested.
The householder’s eyes are ever wary at that moment, to make sure there is no sleight of hand during the measuring. Perhaps there is some trick to the weights, or in his hands. Perhaps there is or perhaps there isn’t, but one must admit that his powers of estimation are amazing. At one try, he has extracted exactly the amount of butter needed. Now to simmer it.
If it was a two-person team that arrived to simmer butter into ghee, they usually carried a portable kerosene cooker or stove with them. They would find a slightly sheltered spot, or perhaps settle beside the cooking house of the household, or perhaps under a tree, and begin the simmering process in a cast-iron or aluminum pot. If it was just one man, how could he manage to carry a stove or cooker by himself? In that case, he would ask for a stove or a cooker. If a household possessed a portable burner, he would seek permission to use that. No matter what the equipment, his job was to transform the butter into ghee before he left.
This is what he is attempting now.
He has placed a single slab of butter, or perhaps a couple, in his pot. He melts the butter at a certain heat. The butter melts and turns liquid, and gradually the oily liquid begins to thicken. And to granulate. And if the butter had indeed been churned from cow’s milk, a heady aroma permeates the surroundings as it transforms into ghee. Some householders, with their seasoned eyes and noses, can tell while the process is still underway whether or not the man is about to deliver pure gawa ghee or not.
If the pot in which the ghee is simmering is kept above a certain level of heat, the insides begin to burn. Then the flame needs to be lowered, and the burnt sides scraped in. The man has experienced hands. He does it slow and right until the butter begins to foam. It’s his job to take care and make sure the heat remains at the right level for exactly as long as needed at each step.
But there were still moments where the householder was fooled, or as the local lingo would have it, took a hit or a dent. It did happen sometimes. The deception would begin at the very beginning. There was no way that butter was from cow’s milk; it had to have been water buffalo. Back then the sellers had yet to figure out how to sneak in Dalda (hydrogenated vegetable oil) or some other product that looked like butter in there; but trying to pass water buffalo milk as cow’s milk happened. And not every pair of hands could yield good ghee. Depending on the region, there was a widespread saying: Not all sheikhs sell oil, some use it on their beards. Some ghee makers rubbed the oil on their beards, meaning, they came close to messing up the ghee-making. No matter how long they simmered it, the color didn’t quite hold. Or the ghee burned. Or if it didn’t burn, it didn’t granulate properly.
Once the simmering was done, the maker would sieve the freshly made ghee into a clean vessel. Or he cooled it by fanning it and pouring it into a glass jar. Gawa ghee made by expert hands truly took on a glorious hue. It was pleasing to gaze at the ghee in the transparent glass jar, the color a mix of slight red and yellow. And the aroma of the freshly simmered ghee would be pouring out of the open mouth of the jar.
The man’s work is done. It’s time for him to leave. He unties the gamchha from his waist, wipes his face with it, and stands waiting. Perhaps he glances at his creation now and then. Once the give and take with him is complete, he will again take to the streets with his chant, “Have butter/want ghee?”
That chant can be heard no more. In the last two decades several big companies have developed and marketed what they claim is the purest ghee. They come in tins or jars and are of many different kinds. And yet, the color of that old-time ghee!—in all senses of the word, I seek what is now lost.
From Lost Livelihoods. © Prasanta Mridha. By arrangement with the author. Translation © 2017 by Shabnam Nadiya. All rights reserved.