May 11, 2006

A Medicine Man in Mumbai


Almost all hawkers I see in Mumbai have a way with people when they call their attention to their wares. The voice rises several notches, ringing out loud, navigating through gaps in the crowds that mill about the place scouring wares on display for things they're looking to buy, before running up sweating bodies and into ears numbed from years in the metropolis. It takes the uninitiated a while to adjust to the decibel level and carry on normally. And Mumbai is a tough place to begin learning to adjust.

Some hawkers who hawk in groups on a footpath or by the side of a road may not be as vociferous as say a hawker who decides to make an empty stretch his business area. Unlike those hawkers who’re a part of groups, hawking his/her goods, the lone hawker can only rely on his vocal chords to draw attention, there’s no one to do it for him. And it is these lone operators who normally interest me. And Mumbai has more than its share of them.

I’m not sure if it is a coincidence but I’ve noticed that hawkers who peddle medicines, herbs, and other similar items, often labeling them as Ayurvedic cures, usually choose to operate alone though my guess is as good as yours as to whether their ‘cures,’ sold under the Ayurveda label, possibly to increase their USP and carry credibility with prospective customers, posses any merits or healing properties. Nevertheless they rarely fail to draw curious onlookers, and some enterprising Mumbai souls volunteer to try those cures like the one in the picture who complained of pain in the knee and held out his leg to the ‘medicine man’ and let him apply the cream from a small glass bottle with black plastic cap which he claimed cures pains suffered from lathis (a heavy stick normally used by policemen to disperse rioters or rowdy elements), falls, and the like. I was intrigued when the ‘medicine man’, after he had spread his wares on sheets of paper he had pulled out of his bag and spread them on the Cawasji Patel street in Fort, called out to people thus: “If you’ve been hit by lathis, and suffered pain by them . . . ” I wondered if his invocation was not due to the fact that he had suffered the business end of the lathi, probably wielded by the police, on more occasions than he would care to remember, thinking others must have been similarly privileged to experience the lathi. Then he listed other injuries his medicine could cure. Within a short time a goodly crowd gathered around him, materializing out of nowhere and everywhere. It helped that the white coloured cream he applied on himself, leaving no exposed part alone, ‘smoldered’, emitting thick plumes of smoke. It sure made for a startling effect. I touched a bottle to check if it was hot. It wasn’t. As his voice raised another pitch, almost as if to rise above the crowd that now gathered around him and carry beyond it to others in the vicinity, the more vigorously he applied the cream on his hands, and legs, letting white plumes spiral up in agitation impressively.

After grimacing a bit, the volunteer turned to face the crowd, smiled, and said, “It (the knee) pains even more now,” drawing giggles from all around. However, the ‘medicine man’ remained unperturbed, instead focussing on giving the proffered knee a vigorous rub-over. “Dus rupaye ko ek, dus rupaye ko ek,” (for ten rupees, one bottle) he announced, before offering three for twenty rupees. I bought one bottle. He handed me a yellow page that listed the source of the product (from Uttar Pradesh) and a list of injuries it purportedly treated. I opened the bottle cautiously, drawing back in alarm as a white plume of ‘smoke’ rushed out, emitting a foul smell I couldn’t quite place for, I had never smelt anything like it before, let alone opened a medicine bottle that emitted a cloud I thought would be in place in a magic show, not on a sultry afternoon in Mumbai.

17 comments:

Anonymous said...

you've got a great thing going here, with this blog. just stumbled upon it and loved it.if u ever visit delhi, u must visit the old delhi area-jama masjid in particular. and do write about it..

Anil P said...

Anon: Thanks for visiting. I did visit Jama Masjid with a friend when I was in Delhi last, and had chai at Meena Bazar where five people are involved in making tea, each handling a different stage of the process. It was also a surreal kinda atmosphere. Will write about it if I happen to visit it again. Thanks. :)

Britmum said...

Thank you for commenting on my blog.

Your blog looks very interesting and I shall have to return to read it. Need to get the little guy to school.

Take care

Anil P said...

Britmum: Thank you. You're welcome.

Britmum said...

You are an incredible writer. I just read your post that I didn't have time to read this morning. I have never been to India. It sound so wonderful and very beautiful.

Take care

Lucy Stern said...

I think I would have put the lid back on the bottle and then handed it back, with a polite thank-you.

Anonymous said...

know exactly what u are talking about! there is so so so much more in that place, its unbelievable. cant wait for your next visit. :)

Anil P said...

To Britmum: Thank you. Yup, India is a mindboggling experience, on both ends of the spectrum, the kind of magic where don't be surprised if someone pulls a hat out of the rabbit instead of the other way round :)

To Lucy Stern: I wanted to see that 'white cloud' one more time :)

Anil P said...

To Anon: Yes, there's a lot to Old Delhi that can make for memorable moments, can't wait my next visit either :)

mErCuRiAn said...

Once again, very well written and even more with such lovely pictures complementing the write up. Well done, Anil :)

gautami tripathy said...

We all see though medicine men sitting at various places. Trust you write about one! I liked it.

Nancy said...

Your blog is really well-written - I'm glad I found it.

This reminds me of a scene from the musical Sweeney Todd, where the 'miracle elixir' -- in that case a tonic for hair growth -- is exposed as 'piss mixed with ink.' Maybe some of that was in your bottle as well. :)

Anil P said...

To Merc: Thanks! It's a pleasure.

To Gautami: Thanks. He was quite a character.

To Nancy: Thanks for your comment on the blog, and for visiting. As for the mixture you mentioned, this one let out a cloud but after it cleared I found no genie to do my bidding :)

Geetika said...

Came here via the comment you left on my blog. Something very earthern and rustic about your blogs...real stuff.

Velu said...

Hey anil!

Nice blog. you last post was a bit too long though. :)

Did you take a snap of the bottle or the cream emitting all that smoke?

Velu.

Anonymous said...

That is truly wonderful! Well done!!! Stunning imagery and a beautiful landscape... I thoruoghly enjoyed it...

Anil P said...

To Geetika: Thanks. The real excites in unreal ways, at times that is!

To Velu: Thanks. Sometimes the length is necessary if only not to give some subjects short shrift.

To Anon: Thank you!