It was only appropriate that it was in Varanasi where pilgrims seek meaning to life, completing the circle at death on the banks of the Ganges that I reaffirmed my faith in the circle of life for an entirely different reason – colourful wooden toys.
Until that evening on the ghats overlooking the river Ganga I had all but nudged away any hopes of ever seeing vendors selling brightly coloured wooden toys again, the staple of my childhood and growing years. On my travels across India ever since I had more or less reconciled to losing one of the bright sparks that colourful wooden toys fashioned by local village artisans imbue places with. Too many cheap plastic toys of Chinese variety abounded.
What arrives, must depart. What departs, must arrive.
On the banks of the Ganges, to the cries of a boatman inducing unruly birds in the river with feed so his customers could take turns in casting feed into the water and watch the spectacle of water birds squawking in delight as they floated down the river along the ghats, it was the brightly coloured wooden Parakeet an elderly vendor was hawking to pilgrims on the ghats that drew my attention to him. It was with some delight that I got up to my feet.
In his outstretched hand he held a Parakeet mounted on a wooden platform while a large cloth bag bulging with wooden toys packed tightly within hung from his shoulder. He spoke not a word as he moved along the steps only pausing by families with children or where he sensed a passing interest in his toys.
Wooden toys are not dead yet, I told myself as I watched him move the toy gently in a short circle. A weight dangling from a thread circled as he moved his hand, tugging at the head and the tail of the Parakeet in turns, jerking them to simulate the Parakeet feeding while its jaunty tail kicked the air in abandon.
The wooden toy seller spoke not a word in all the time he offered his toys for sale as he walked along, only venturing to speak on being asked the price of his toys.
Within minutes the brightly coloured wooden Parakeet had exchanged hands for Rs. 25, and after more years than I could possibly remember I owned a wooden toy again.
He had more bird varieties in his bag. I was tempted. But there was much travel left still and I needed some space in my bags for surprises further on along the road.
While I could resist the charm of a single bird the sight of three birds feeding together proved harder to resist.
In a shop by the roadside that ended soon after at the flight of steps descending to the Dasaswamedh Ghat by the Ganges, the shopkeeper stood up as we paused to look up the many items on display.
Cane baskets in the shape of birds along with other cane work hung at the entrance. While admiring the cane work on display he offered to show us more birds, wooden toys.
Soon the three birds were brought out and as with the Parakeet, they took turns eating out of the centre as he gently swayed the unit, the weight hanging by a thread swung in a gently arc, tugging each bird by turns into pecking at their feet.
“For Rs. 30 you can have it,” he told me.
He said he had his home nearby, at Durgakund. The wooden toys for sale at his shop are made at his home. A local craftsman skilled in making toys and employed by him at his home turns out these wooden toys.
“Most of the toys I have made at my home go outside,” he said.
“Outside as in?”
“To Delhi,” he replied.
I was surprised to hear Delhi as a market for wooden toys.
I did not probe further. While Delhi adjoins Uttar Pradesh and is home to migrants from rural areas looking for work on Delhi’s construction sites and elsewhere, a potential customer base for his wooden toys, I thought it more likely that his colourful wooden toys were headed for the export market, or to cater to the urbane set inclined to doing up their interiors to ethnic themes.
“If you’d prefer more than three birds, I’ve an option. A set of five birds,” he volunteered.
I shook my head.
“It’s only Rs. 50,” he said.
I shook my head again, and pointing to the set of three birds clacking together I said, “This will do.” He smiled. I smiled back.
In the backdrop of the hum characteristic of the ghats I tuned in to the clickety-clack of the birds as they took turns in feeding off the centre. I turned them over to see how they worked before righting them and drawing a gentle circle.
Watching them reeled back time by several years, to a gentler era when it was enough to imagine birds fly to have them take to the skies. A time when reality was what the innocence of childhood believed it to be.