Underneath the shade of a large tree, two street vendors were chatting sitting on their haunches, their outstretched hands positioned over their upright knees. They had their wares packed on two push carts parked on the sidewalk in front of a huge school building. Each cart was a simple affair – a wooden box of approximately 4′ x 5′ x 4′, crudely hand painted, with four wobbly wheels at each extremity of the base. They had to pass time till the school was over. And what could be better than discussing about family and friends, of things they got and things they didn’t, about money matters and lady luck, and all the ills they commonly faced in life?
Hailing from the economically downtrodden class, with no education to get any job other than the very menial labor, these two gentlemen turned out to be entrepreneurs. They had decided to run their own business, however small and however hard. They knew that unlike the middle class students attending the school behind them, they had no particular skill or knowledge to sell. Neither did they have capital, nor would any bank lend it to them. Out on their own, they had no option but to try their luck in their very own micro business. At least they didn’t have to kiss a long line of bosses for favors. They were the masters of their own fate.
One only sold Hawaiian shaved ice and was known as sarbatwallah to his customers whereas, the other sold fruits, berries and churan and was consequently known as churanwallah. The shaved ice vendor wore a clean starched white top which was knee length and a clean white dhoti. His lips were permanently dyed red chewing the betel leaves. The other guy wore a once-upon-a-time white vest and a lungi. He preferred smoking beedis, the hand rolled tobacco on a leaf, to betel leaves. Going by their attire, the sarbatwallah made a tad more than his buddy. But that made no difference to their friendship, as each played his own game.
The electric school bell rang an hour past noon. It reverberated across the halls of the four storied building, and then overflowed into the open front quadrangle, and then on to the sidewalk, where the two vendor friends caught it. For the last fifteen minutes, they were pacing up and down the sidewalk, peering through the school gates and checking their watches for the school to get over. Now it did, with the ring of the bell. They felt a surge of excitement and let out a loud whoop as a set of broad smiles lifted the corners of their mouths. They knew that within minutes, they are to make their sales for the day. In anticipation, they moved to man their battle stations behind their respective carts.
The charging army breaks through the ranks as it spills on the sidewalk, looking for their share of plunder. Little heads jerk from left to right trying to make up their minds as to which one to choose, the churanwallah or the sarbatwallah, or both. It becomes so challenging to decide when the pocket money would only allow one, maybe one plus a fraction. But the hot weather forces their hand as the bulk of them make their way towards the sarbatwallah. There is nothing like an ice cold drink on a hot summer day.
The top of the ice cart had a wooden plank of about 6″ wide, running the entire length of the perimeter and bolted to the extended sideboards. The main top board was about 6″ under this wooden runner. The plank was punctuated at regular intervals with holes whose circumference was just large enough to collar a bottle of colored syrup while the bottom rested on the top board. Standing to attention in their pigeon holes, these long necked liter bottles were the star of the show. They drew the thirsty customers like magnets. Their bright fruity colors were impossible for any kid to resist.
When rolling, the cart would coax the bottles to dance. But with a body rigid with age, the delicate tango was rather difficult especially with glass joints trying to make the moves in those restricted circular openings in the plank. As a result, each nymph would accidentally knock the plank at random intervals and would vibrate at a frequency dependent on the level of the fluid inside them. The constant vibration of the bottles, and the screech from the squeaky wheels on the move, produced a soft symphony. The sight of these music making dancing long-necks in rainbow colors with untold sweetness, was a cardinal sin to behold, as any thirsty soul that ever laid eyes on them would testify.
As soon as orders came pouring in, the man got in action. His left hand held an eight ounce ribbed glass which he placed underneath an upturned wood planer whose shiny blade winked at the sun. On his right, he held a block of ice with a piece of folded cloth doing its best protecting his hand from all but freezing. Bending slightly to apply pressure to his right hand, he began sliding the ice block over the blade in a feverish up and down motion. Snowflakes poured forth from the hole between the blade and the block. As soon as one would fill up, he would move it aside and mechanically pick up the next glass to repeat the action. In no time, he had half a dozen glasses ready. For the next stage of operation, he knew better than to take chances with a larger lot, lest the flakes turn to water.
Business is heating up. Swarms of students add outer rings to the ones already stationed around the cart. Each customer must be trapped with the nectar before they can change their mind. The daunting challenge of customer servicing in a hurry has beads of sweat breaking out all over his face. They stream into the dark pock mark indentations left on his face by small pox when he was a child. With the checkered red and white cotton face wipe strung across his left shoulder, he quickly wipes the sweat off his face. His sweat is not for sale, though his drink is.
With his right hand he lifts whatever bottle the customer fingers point to and pours it in the glass of ice. A batch of six glasses of colored syrup with shaved ice floating tantalizingly on the top is ready for consumption. With both hands cupped around the glasses and pressing together, he scoops up the lot in one go and offers it to the waiting students. As soon as the glasses are plucked out, the vacant space in the hands gets replaced with payment in coins. Balance if any are returned and the rest is dropped into the till.
After a couple of batches, the block of ice is gone. He bends down to open a small door on his side of the cart. Inside the bowels are blocks covered in fine wood shaving. He draws one out and closes the door so as not to let the hot air in. Then he dips a mug into a bucket of water. He carefully splashes the contents of the mug on the block to wash away the last of the shavings clinging to it. He straightens up and quickly puts the ice block on the planer to relieve the numbness of his palm. He has only a moment to spare to shake his right hand vigorously to relieve the pain of exposure to cold.
He gathers the six used glasses in a circle and dips the left hand fingers in them. Deftly he squeezes the fingers together and lifts his hand. Voila, like metal scraps clinging to a magnetic chuck on a crane, the glasses dangle from his hand. He again fills up the mug with water and pours it over the glass with the economy reserved for goldsmiths. He needs to be careful with water. He doesn’t have any access to pipe water out on the road. He has to make it last the prime time, else he and his family goes hungry. By his and his customers’ standard, the glasses are clean and can be justifiably reused. They aren’t the snobbish picky crowd. He turns his wrist up to point the glasses down, and then shakes them dry. He is ready for the next round.
Again, he readies six glasses of ice. This time he has more discerning clients to cater. From an open tin can, he picks out six short bamboo sticks and split ends them with his bare thumbs. Then he buries the upside Y-shape into the ice at the center of the glasses. Next he uses both the thumbs to simultaneously press down the mound of ice to force them to pack and bond around the bamboo stick. With unbelievable dexterity he turns the glass upside down. Holding the stick with his left hand, the way one would an umbrella, he gently pulls the glass off the top. A snow cone is born!
Without missing a beat, for there is no one to clap for this street artiste, his right wrist twists the wrong way and grabs the neck of a bottle of concentrated syrup. Straightening his wrist so that the spout points down towards the cone, he gives the bottle a couple of measured shakes. This he does whilst tilting the cone on its horizontal axis and turning it slowly for uniform coverage. A burst of red splatters against the tiny packed ice crystals and buries itself under the skin of the cone. The bottle is replaced and the next onslaught comes with a dash of yellow, followed by green, followed by whatever color that comes up in a random pick. He inspects the cone critically to make sure that not a speck of crystal is left colorless – that would be unpardonable.
His main goal crafting the piece in ice is its shape and it being sufficiently syrupy to keep a customer happy. As different colored syrups are applied, they start to bleed down the face of the cone, in a short waltz. The first dash on colorless ice is the most dramatic. The way it weaves around the crystals and buries itself in the cone is very revealing. The invasion on the ice is swift. The subsequent application of colors creates magic when they mix. There is this red apple skin patch, a green mango patch, strawberry or blackberry patch, to one which holds the temptation of a ripe mango. The colors have run amok and it has conjured up images of every conceivable fruit.
By this time, the onlooking customers’ taste buds are on fire. Their senses have begun to taste and smell the fruits of paradise. The sight of crushed ice loaded in sweet and sour, more sweet than sour, has started to have a devastating effect on their saliva glands which have swollen to aching point. They are paranoid at the thought that an ice cold drop of nectar will roll off the cone and splatter on the ground and be irretrievably lost. But they must wait their turn. The lucky expletive standing in front of them gets first. All the wait-listed can do is to force their little Adam’s apple up and some saliva down their parched throats to keep going.
The tongue is tortured. The throat yearns. The legs feel weak. The mind is swirling in heat. And then it happens. A colored umbrella is thirst in their direction. Manna from heavens! They start kissing the cones with a passion that comes from the depths of deprivation and torture; something that the makers of the silver screen could never hope to depict. It’s a kiss delicate enough not to dislodge the crystals of ice and yet passionate enough to draw out every drop of sweetness. The tables are turned and the temptress is now the tempted. With the advent of much awaited lips, the cone cannot hold back any longer. She unleashes all her sweetness at once.
The multicolored syrups snake their way into the dehydrated tongue with each kiss, again and again, and down their throats. The brain is in a state of ecstasy on a sugar high. They roll the cone to suck out the syrup from each part. This they must do in a hurry lest a huge chunk of melting ice simply decide to slide off without any warning. Only a lucky few can boast muscles quick enough to have retrieved them from midair.
With the syrup all gone, the customers savagely attack the now colorless ice crystals in revenge. Before they know it, they are licking on the stick but careful not to impale the tongue with any rowdy splinter projecting from it. Incredible that all their parents branded his heavenly gift as cholera-on-a-stick, nothing could be more ridiculous. The thought makes them put on a broad smile. A quick jerk of the wrist and the colored stick flies off into oblivion, and with it, the mute remains of another little known battle of epic proportions.
For now, life is good la!