“Company ka gaadi hai, wholesale rate hai, kewal teen teen rupaiyya,” the voice announced. Curious, I retraced my steps. It was a Saturday, and with nothing in particular to engage my attention I had ventured out to Fort to explore the bylanes of Bombay.
I find a rickshaw carrier parked in the middle of the street opposite The Fort Central hotel. 1942 read the letters on the hotel’s display board. Unlike some old hotels you see in Bombay, this one looked refurbished, nothing to show from the outside its sixty four years. I was disappointed. I was hoping to see the original décor and furniture, and feel to the place. Outside the hotel, people sit in the shade of trees. A banana vendor sits down and prepares to set up his basket. A group of three in white topis and dhotis sit in a circle talking, under a tree. Another group is in the middle of a card game, gathered around a newspaper in the middle and laying cards on it. A man sits cross-legged engaged with a crossword. A shoe-shine boy has set up his shoe-shine box and already has a customer.
“Company ka gaadi hai, wholesale rate hai, kewal teen teen rupaiyya,” the voice blares out again. The rickshaw-carrier is painted light green. In small letters, Sadguru Prasanna graces the top of the windscreen. The rickshaw-carrier has a Maharashtra number plate, MH-14 AH-192. To the back, under a canvas top, is a freezer and a callow youth stands beside it, bending awkwardly to avoid brushing the canvas top with his head. The freezer has two openings. He has opened one and reaching in draws out two ice-cream bars. Three people are gathered around the back of the rickshaw-carrier.
“Malai chocobar, malai chocobar. Sirf do minute rukhega,” announces the driver, his right leg jutting out of the carrier, steering the vehicle while announcing in the microphone. More people gather. The rickshaw-carrier is parked in the middle of the road. Playing cards are returned in a pack to their case and the men troop to the carrier to buy the chocobars.
“Sirf teen rupaiyya. Wholesale rate retail mein. Sirf do minute rukhega. Maallllllaaaaaai Chakobaaaarrr.” At the back of the carrier, the youth is overwhelmed with hands stretching out in his direction. He works furiously, reaching in the freezer to draw the chocobars in cardboard covers out. The crowd draws more crowds. People in crisp grey trousers and creased shirts, office-goers taking a break from work, crowded the back of the carrier offering five-rupee coins. Women came out, in salwar kameez, denims, saris, skirts. Infused with energy from seeing the response to his exhortations, the driver went one notch higher. He roared.
“Company ka gaadi hai, wholesale rate hai, kewal teen teen rupaiyya. Maallllllaaaaaai Chakoooobaaaarrrrrrrr. Siiirrrrrrffffff teeeeeeeeeen ruuuupyyyyyya.”
Emerging from Fort Central Hotel, a tallish man pushed his way through the crowd and strode up to the driver’s cabin and pulled at the door harshly. Startled, the driver moved his elbow out of the way just in time to see the man slam his door shut.
“Get Ouuuuut,” he screamed at the driver, pushing at the door with his left hand as the stunned driver tried to push open the door. The microphone was still on, and the driver’s curses in marathi muttered under his breath are broadcast to the crowd. At the back, the crowd surges and the youth gives out the chocobars as fast as he possibly can, collecting three rupees, and giving out the change.
Seeing the man seething in fury at his rickshaw crowding the street in front of his hotel, obstructing his customers and possibly drawing their attention away, the driver wisely chooses to move ahead, still cursing in marathi under his breath. “Ya aila.” He moves a few metres ahead in front of a side street and promptly blocks the traffic emerging from the side lane, descending into verbal slanging with angry motorists in the side lane. Empty cardboard packets now litter the street.
“Teeen rupya, company ice cream, straight from the company. Just three rupees,” he announces into the microphone, having regained his composure and steadfastly ignoring the motorists gesticulating from behind car windscreens. Two of them have stepped out of their cars now and are walking briskly to the driver. More trouble. Undaunted, he calls out “Malai Chokobaaar. Maaalaaaaai.”
Eventually I fall for it. I knew this was a con job. For all his announcements of this being a ‘company offer’ nowhere on the vehicle, advertising the chocobar on the sides, was any company information. There was no company name mentioned nor its location, not on the vehicle, nor the packets, only a picture on the carrier showing the chocobar and text celebrating its taste: Chocobar Ice Cream. Wah! Kya Swad hai. The Chocobar itself came in a cheap cardboard pack without any company name nor location details. On one side of the pack, information listed the content of the Chocobar's outer layer, inner layer, and ingredients. The only ingredient I could recognize was ice, and I feared its quality.
“Paanch rupaaiiiyyya ka teen,” he announces to speed up the sale. There isn’t much time left now. It is a narrow road and he has invited angry responses from motorists using the street. Dhondi, the old lady, buys one chocobar and returns to her place on the pavement by her cow, Sita. I reach for one, handing over three rupees to the youth. Just one bite and I knew I had been had, royally. The chocolate layer was no chocolate, only chocolate colour. Underneath was ice. As for malai, the cream that the driver announced repeatedly, it was imagination. There was no cream that I could identify. As for sweetness, I only imagined some, but there was none. I smiled, embarrassed at having fallen for it despite initial skepticism, and looked around sheepishly to see if anyone was watching me. No one was.
“There is nothing in this, just ice, no cream (malai),” a boy eating the chocobar tells me. “Since there is no cream, only ice, how can I call it an ice cream? I’ll call it ice instead, na chocolate ice is a better name,” he says, grinning. I smile back. Just one bite and I cast the ‘chocolate ice’ out. It’s over twenty minutes now that the rickshaw-carrier has been in business on this street. Empty packets litter the street, over a hundred of them. The carrier moves ahead, forced by the motorists it was obstructing.
Two policemen on patrol stop their bike and ask the rickshaw-carrier to park on the side of the road, and ask for his driving license, as is the practice with cops when they want to probe you. I notice the driver trying to engage the cops in a conversation at which one of them snaps at him in marathi, “Samjath nahi ka Marathi.” (Don’t you understand Marathi?). Marathi is the local language, local to Maharashtrians who’re fiercely possessive of their own, almost parochial, and dismissive of others. It is common knowledge that if you know Marathi and can pass off as a Maharashtrian you’ll have little trouble with the local cops.
Within minutes the crowd that had thronged the street has dispersed. I make my way to the narrow lane, past Dhondi and Sita. I pat the cow on its hump. To its left is parked a scooter with a sidecar. A teen is ensconced in it and eating the chocobar. The old lady, Dhondi, turns to him and pointing to her chocobar, says,” There is nothing in this. It’s not even sweet.”
I cannot resist recollecting the taste or the lack of it as I walk past them. In a few minutes I emerge from the lane into the bustle of D.N Road, near Alice building and turn my head to see its empty arches. To my left is Flora fountain. I turn right and find myself in the middle of hawkers running helter skelter, carrying away their wares. I 've unwittingly walked into a raid on hawkers by the city Municipal Corporation, and I find myself beside an elderly gent in an Islamic skull cap and flowing beard whom the hawkers call Bohri bhai. But that is another story.