It gave him great satisfaction to see his young sons already so skilled in the trade. Haneef was shouting at the top of his shrill young voice. "Enjoy the mango season. Prices have plunged! Come and get the sweetest water-melons you have ever tasted!"
Aslam meanwhile weighed out the vegetables and fruits. The fresh, firm, large, and plump mangoes on the top of the neatly arranged piles attracted many buyers. "Just take them in your hand and examine them. Smell their flavour! They are heavy with honey-sweet juice." When the price had been negotiated, to a level well above the buying price, Aslam started to weigh the purchases. "Give me the large ones from the top, the big red ones," the customer would insist. Aslam obligingly put some of these into the weighing scales. It was then the cue for Haneeef to divert the buyer's attention by showing him some tempting specimens of firm, large, red tomatoes or crisp fresh green peas, giving the chance to his brother to add some of the much smaller fruit concealed at the back of the pile. In a second he had emptied the contents of the pan into the large paper bag, taking care to display a few large tempting ones on the top. "Yes, Begum Sahib," he said in a sweetly wheedling tone, "Now what else shall I give you? I can see you are a lady who knows how to select only the best. The water-melons today are just perfect. Try lifting them in your hand. Their weight tells you how full of flesh and sweetness they are.. You don't get such wonderful tarbooz every day. You can taste them and see for yourself." He held out the 'taanki' perched on the tip of the sweetened knife.
Salamat meditated nostalgically about the days when they used to have, in place of the modern-style fixed scales with their brass pans and unobliging heavy mechanism, the old-style light iron pans hanging by three grimy strings from a horizontal rod you held with your hand by a loop of cord in the centre. How easy it used to be then to press down, unnoticed, with your little finger, that side of the rod from which swung the merchandise. You always held up the rod high in the air, to show the customer that you were not touching the rod at all.. But every shopkeeper knew the sleight of hand by which, in a fraction of a second, you could manipulate the rod, and in a split second empty the weighed goods into the paper bag before the customer could notice or protest. The essence of the business was speed.
Another very common trick that was employed even today was to put in only a small amount of the article being weighed, then as soon as the noisily protesting housewife, proving her alertness, pointed this out, the seller threw in a further small quantity of the produce into the pan with such force that for an instant the pan dived down. In that instant he let the customer see that the needle in the centre was indicating a weight well above the required level, and the next moment he had emptied the pan into the ubiquitous paper bag, before the pan rose again to its actual level.
Nowadays, he and most of the other sellers kept two sets of weights: the lighter ones used for business the whole day, and the other set, the correct one, that was quickly substituted when your co-workers gave the signal that the checking staff was on the round.
He recollected that they were running out of paper bags. "Go to Uncle Jamil and get fifty of the medium ones and fifty of the large ones," he instructed Haneef. Jamil was a daily wages labourer, but in the nights he, his wife Majida, and their daughter Bilquis would sit down with a pot of somewhat smelly and dark-colored home-made glue, and sacks of old paper, and cut and paste to produce stacks of bags of various sizes. They got the paper at very cheap rates from the rag-pickers, who collected them from footpaths and open grounds, and hunted them out from dry drains and not-so-dry rubbish heaps. Not infrequently there were stains and smears on the pieces of paper, but Jamil and Majida were careful to wipe these clean, usually with the hems of their kurtas or corners of dupattas (which on days they had a running cold they employed occasionally also to dry their noses). More often they would just turn the paper over so as to show the cleaner surface. And their paper bags were much cheaper than the ones the larger shops sold.
A wave of amusement abruptly rippled round the circle of sellers, as Peeru, the 'wonder-bird' man strode in, carrying his load of cages filled with exotically coloured chirping chickens.
"Ajooba! Ajooba! Wallah, ajooba!" they all together mimicked in a high chorus the few broken words of Arabic he had learned to use when doing business with his innocent, and credulous Middle Eastern customers.
Peeru flushed angrily. "It's a living," he defended himself hotly.
"But, Peeru,"they warned in mock concern. "The weather people predict it is going to rain today. Aren't you afraid your ajooba will wash out into maa'mula?"
"Leave him alone," laughed Salamat, as he saw the simple rustic look up fearfully into the cloudless sky. "So, we all have to earn one way or another."
"I patronise the same dye shop as you," said Peeru meaningfully, making Salamat return with averted face to his shop.
By two o'clock the crowd of customers had thinned (they would be back in the evening) and Salamat told his sons to go and eat something, and bring some food back for him. Their mother had already returned home to cook the evening meal, which would do also for the morning breakfast..
The brothers strolled down to the round food court. Their friend Ashiq was just pushing with his foot an empty yolk-streaked plastic crate to stow it under the cloth-draped counter. "Oh, Ashiq," they said as they ran in, "save two of the fresh eggs for us, to make the omelette you put in the bun."
"You should have come earlier, or sent word to me," said Ashiq, who was using an electric beater to beat up the eggs. "But it hardly matters. A dozen rotten eggs mixed up with three dozen good eggs are not going to change the taste in any way. I'll add extra chopped onion and mint and green pepper and sliced tomatoes to yours."
"The taste may not change, but they say they are bad for the health."
"My cousin read it in his school book. It said stale food and dirty water can cause illness and 'in-fuc-shun' which the book said could even kill you."
"Oh, these things are for the higher sahibs. People like us, the 'in-fuc-shun' does not kill us, we kill the 'in-fuc-shun'. Abbaji always makes me go immediately after the Fajar prayers, to be able to get these bad ones at one-tenth the regular price. I rush to be there before the bakery people arrive to buy them all. That is what they use in their cakes. Here," he continued pushing towards them a tiny blue plastic saucer with a ring of red roses round the edge, in the centre of which was a greenish-brown paste, "try some of the chutney my mother made from the left-over onions and green peppers your nice father let her have for free on the last market day."
Haneef and Aslam looked down studiously into their paper plates. The onions had been soft, even slightly smelly, and so had the green peppers.
But she had concocted a really delicious appetiser with them, with tamarind paste, a dash of garlic, ginger, and other ingredients she did not disclose. The large buns slit in half to enclose the tastily spiced omelette fillings, were delicious. No McDonald burgers (about which they had never heard) could compare with these. They ate two each.
"Do you have a goat?" Haneef asked Ashiq.
"No," replied the other, a little surprised by the question.
"Then what do you collect all these left-over ends and scraps of bread for, in that plastic bucket?"
"Oh, the rusk company buys them all from us. They hardly pay anything, hardly enough to purchase more than a single naan. But what is the harm in getting even that for free?"
For their father the boys got a large aluminium plate (which they would return) heaped with .'chana chaat' made of boiled chick peas, thick onion and tomato slices, covered with whipped yoghurt The last ingredient Ashiq's mother made at home from the milk
powder they got very cheap (the expiry date being long past) from the huge bins the social service workers sold off after showing that they had become unfit for consumption.
He sprinkled some hot ground spices and a generous layer of finely sliced green peppers over everything.
To be continued...