The Wallahs

It’s 1979 and I’m all of nine years of age. I live at Colaba Bus Station, as my bus stop is known, and I study at St. Joseph’s High School, R.C. Church. The bus fare to school is a mere ten paise, 20 to and fro. In my pocket, along with a half-chewed eraser, pit-pits (a little dark green pod that bursts open when it makes contact with liquid; my personal recommendation is spit) and neatly folded white hanky with embroidered initials, is a fifty paise coin. Despite being severely handicapped at arithmetic, it takes elementary deduction to remove 20 paise from the equation and arrive at the conclusion that I am in possession of 30 paise spare.

30 paise!

Not a handsome amount by any account. But in the right hands (namely mine) it could be stretched a long way. I start with the smallest denomination of the lot. The five paise coin. It can fetch me a bulls-eye, a peppermint with black and white or red and white stripes. A peppermint stick shaped like a slim cigarette with one end dipped in some yellow liquid for an authentic appearance. A hard-boiled sweet in a transparent plastic wrapper, very handy for spotting the flavour of choice. A thin pudi (packet) of channa (grams) or sengh (peanuts). A chikki. Boras. Amlas. Imlis. Not bad. Not bad at all.

But I’m worth much more than five paise, I have 30. Which means I can have more of the above. But being greedy little sods, I wanted more. More different stuff. Which is when I figured if I didn’t spend the 30 paises for a couple of days, I could end up with a whole rupee. Having done that with little difficulty, man, was I surprised to find a whole cornucopia of goodies at my disposal.

Let’s take stock: Bulls-eyes. Peppermint cigarette sticks. NP chewing gum. Four biscuits in a pack, the ones greatly favoured by cabbies, best with a cutting chai. Hard-boiled sweets. Channa. Sengh. Chikkis. Boras. Amlas. Imlis. Boiled channa. Jambul. A glass of lassi. A glass of hot milk with a dash of cream ladled in last. Pedhas. Burfi. Parry’s eclairs. Kismee toffees. Vegetable sandwiches, grilled and plain. Bhuta (corn on the cob). Apples. Bananas. Guavas, chopped into four with masala salt rubbed on the inside. Oranges. Mosambis. A glass of sugarcane juice. Bhel puri (suhka or gila). Paani puri. Golas. Khari biscuits. Namkeen biscuits. Kulfi (pista or cream). Nimbu-paani. Meetha paan. Potato wafers. Ice lollies in orange, mango and other flavours. Pepsis: flavoured water, frozen and packed in a plastic tube. Fresh buns from the bakery or warm small loaves of bread, and if I was lucky enough, I could get the loaf with a hard bit of dough on top that bore the name of the bakery, mine used to have Pearce stamped on it.


But man cannot live by food alone. And by adhering to the savings plan, I once again accumulated a rupee. This time round, food was at the bottom of the list. These were my choices:

Hire a bicycle for two whole hours. Buy a red rubber ball and playing gulli cricket endlessly or before one of us smashed a window-pane. Or play Seven Tiles, Abba Dubbi and a form of local squash. This required a wall, a line drawn with coal or brick a foot high from the ground. Then me and my pal (usually meant anyone loitering in the lane like me) would commence playing. Hit the ball with open palm and pal would repeat same, catching the ball on the full or one bounce. The point ended when someone fouled up. Most of the time the game ended in all out war over arguments of the ball was above the line, below the line, on the line. Mothers have been brought in to sort disputes, and occasionally to put tincture of iodine on wound before the Mum would launch the mother of all battles on the offending party. I could I could buy a couple of fish hooks and a length of fishing line. A piece of bheed, the stuff that holds stained glass together, the best thing to use as a weight according to the experts, in the absence of which, a washer (not purchased but scrounged off the floor of a nearby garage) would do. A cigarette stick if I would have liked to (it came much later). A horse ride at the Band Stand near Cooperage. A packet of water balloons and a pudi of gulal if it were Holi. Sparklers, a small laar of red and green crackers, russi bombs (we used to call them atom bombs, there’s a great party trick with these little babies which I’ve explained in detail somewhere in the book), flowers for the altar at home, balloons, plastic sunglasses (unbranded), a BP dhol, a musical instrument, a whistle…

Save for over a week and I could go on a date with gorgeous film stars of Hollywood or the Indian Hindi film industry (Bollywood was a term with Coming Soon slugged on it).

God the list is endless. I grew up faster than all that I could do with my few paises. It was fun eating and doing all that I could do with my few paises. All it took was a few paise in the pocket and the ability to communicate either by sign lingo or words such as, Ay _____ wallah, dus paise ka _____ de do.” And the wallah (as defined by the Random House Webster’s Dictionary: A person in charge of, employed at, or concerned with a particular thing (used in combination): a chai wallah; a ticket wallah) would conclude his end of the transaction and all would be well in my little world.

GOOD GRIEF. I’m picking up this thread today, on May 28, 2016, easily ten years after I wrote the above bit (sometime start of 2005). I see I haven’t given the piece an ending. A wrap-up, like the channa wallah uses pages from discarded exercise books to wrap his precious ware. So here it is:

Thank god for the wallahs and waalis in our lives. As-salaam-alaikum. Namaste. Deo boren korun. And when I find them, I will list greetings uttered by every other community in India that makes India apnawallah India.