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Knives to Grind…

Memory, how it works, and why it works the way it does, is a mystery that no one has solved yet. Why do we remember some people and not others? How is it that we can recall some events with complete clarity and some events not at all? Colours, textures, even the smells of certain moments stay with us forever - consciously, so that we can recall them at will, or subconsciously, so that a sudden trigger brings flooding into our minds, people, places and events we thought we had forgotten.

This morning, as I pottered around the house, fixing breakfast for the children, hanging out the washing, making a cup of tea for myself, I thought, suddenly and for no apparent reason at all, of the old guava-seller who used to be a regular feature of my winter holidays.

The old man would turn up on our doorstep, a basket of green and yellow guavas balanced on his head. To my seven-year-old eyes, he looked really really old, though perhaps he wasn’t much older than sixty at the time. He would be dressed in a dusty, white dhoti and kurta; he had wispy grey hair and untidy whiskers, and wore a pair of round spectacles with lenses so thick that they seemed opaque. He would cut the fruit into quarters, and sprinkle it with a black masala that gave off a sharp, pungent, but oh! such a delicious smell. If it turned out that the guava was a deep pink inside, and sweet, I would be delighted - for that was my favourite kind of guava. If the guava turned out to be ordinary, boring white inside, then my mother would admonish him, and insist that next time, he must bring the pink ones.

Steam-of-consciousness style, this memory triggered off thoughts and more memories of the other, itinerant pedlars who would come to our door or call their wares on the streets of my childhood. There was the potter, balancing an amazing number of earthern pots on his head, pots that would keep our drinking water cool in the hot summer months and flavour it with the taste and smell of clay. There was the knife-grinder, who would carry off all the kitchen knives to be sharpened, and return them an hour later, their edges gleaming. And the balloonwala, with his bright yellow, pink, blue and orange balloons bobbing along behind him. He would call to the children, Pied-Piper fashion, by blowing on a shrill, squeaky whistle, and when enough of us had gathered round, delight us with the strange four-legged beasts he fashioned out of thin, tube-like balloons that he bent and twisted as he pleased without them popping.

But my favourite was the kalaiwala, the man who came to ‘galvanise’ the kitchen pots and karahis. With a puff of his bellows and a sizzle and a hiss, he would turn the old, beaten, copper vessels, into shining silver ones. It was the closest thing to alchemy that I have seen.

Though I no longer see the kalaiwala, or hear the whirring of the knifegrinder’s wheel that often, I know that should I need them, I will still be able to find them, in a corner of some busy market, or down a narrow lane or gully in the older parts of India’s megacities where the past continues to exist quite regardless of the present.

Some vendors and their trades continue to flourish even into the modern way of life. The vegetable-vendor, the flower-seller, the milkman, the bread-wala, and the green coconut-seller continued to be regular visitors to my flat in Mumbai many years later. With a small child and a household to run, I was deeply grateful for the service and convenience these vendors provided.

When I moved to London, I moved fully prepared to face a life quite empty of such luxuries. ‘You’ll miss this service in London,’ friends had warned. ‘Nobody brings anything to your front door there.’

They were wrong - I get fresh milk delivered to my doorstep every day, and groceries as often as I like.

And, along with the convenient, I also get the exotic - the knifegrinder (yes, here too!) who asks ‘Need anything sharpened, luv?’; the fishmonger who offers me fresh fish and goes away shaking his head at my incomprehensible, vegetarian ways; and strangest of all, a few weeks ago, a smartly-dressed, middle-aged woman selling - manure!

Yes, manure. For my garden. At £2.50 a bag, knocked down from £6.50, an offer I should not refuse. When I do refuse, she points out that it will help to break up the clay in my garden, and ‘besides, all your neighbours ‘ave bought some.’ When I still hesitate, she hands me her business card. ‘A’right then,’ she says, ‘that’s me number there. Ring me if yer change yer mind. Anyway, I’ll be back in the autumn.’

Of course, such exotic visitors are few and far between.

Street vendors and itinerant pedlars had once livened the streets of London much as they had enlivened the streets of my childhood. They disappeared with the coming of the twentieth century.

Fortunately, in London too, the past continues to exist into the present - though in a different format. If one searches for them, the street vendors of London can still be found preserved in miniature books that consist of pictures of the various street-sellers with their cries printed beneath, and a verse describing them. The criers call out such wares as muffins, hot chestnuts, fresh herrings, eels, strawberries, cherries, primroses, matches, and newly-printed ballads. There are also pictures of knife grinders, milkmaids, and chimney sweeps with their boys.

These books came to be known as the Cries of London. Most of these books were published between the seventeenth and the nineteenth centuries, and many of them were for children.

London Cries are also mentioned in the fifteenth century poem, London Lickpenny (written perhaps by John Lydgate):

Hot pescodes, one began to cry,
Straberry ripe, and cherryes in the ryse;
One bad me come here and buy some spyce.

The Cries of London are available today - as prints, and posters, online on ebay or with specialist websites, and with rare books sellers.