Our home in 7-Bungalow area in Andheri west was an oasis of peace and quiet when we just moved in, in July 1980. In fact my building was the last one in the lane. It had a dead end on the right and there was a barbed wire, running across the lane. Beyond the barbed wire there was a large puddle that turned into a regular pond during rains. It remained slushy throughout the year and later turned into breeding bed of mosquitoes. It was also very quiet as there was no through fare for traffic. No noise. No pollution of any kind. Soon the young ones started using the dead-end as a perfect area to play cricket. Although I stay on ground floor flat of this building, yet if I stood on a small table, I could see the sea from there… well now the view is blocked by many layers of buildings. So ‘Sagar Darshan’ (view of the sea) is impossible now even from my terrace. The road in front is no more a dead end. As my apartment faces the road, there is abundance of traffic noise and variety of pollution. One can see a thin layer of dust reappearing on our furniture every hour. During morning and evening rush hours it can take 1-2 min to cross this narrow lane. There were some changes that were also good, like greening if this lane. Initially it was all barren and bare; but over the years the trees grew tall; but that reduced the size of our sky and patches of sunlight…
So, as I mentioned nothing is same in front of my house compared to 1980… the only exception is a loud and clear voice calling, “dabba batliwallaaa…” (empty cans, bottles)! You can say that ‘voice’ is not a thing. It is just a voice, which cannot be called as a part of this lane. Agreed, but I do hear it in my house, morning and evening, just as I hear the traffic noise. Therefore, for me it is part of this ambiance. It is the voice of a short and thin Marathi guy, a scrap dealer, mainly old newspapers and anything that others don’t want. Perhaps he was well built under his white shirt and dhoti – since he walks such a lot all over, and carries all his stuff on his shoulders. He does not own a cart, like many others. Be it summer, winter or thrashing rains, he was very regular in his business trips. He weighed newspapers with his small weighing scale that has a mettle hook. Somehow I never sold old newspapers to people who used a that kind of weighing scale. I knew their scale would never be right. I had experienced it once. I called out to a young man to sell my old newspapers. He arranged the them in a neat heap, tied it up, pushed the hook of his scale in the string… and pulled it up with his elbow on his knee. Simultaneously his face distorted, right arm shivered and his gorging eyes gave out his failing strength. Putting it down heavily he said, “3 kilos”. I laughed, “Does lifting only 3 kilos of weight makes you shit in your pants?” He was sheepish. He didn’t know whether to admit he was weak or he was a cheat. I asked him to get lost… Years passed, I did not change my view of scale with hook and never dealt with that dabba batliwalla too.
Coming back to only constant ‘dabba batliwallaaa…’ years passed, but he was still making his rounds, though virtually doing no business. May be he was too simple and did not have will to push his business. His bag remained empty in the morning and in the evening. He looked older as he had been walking on this road for more than quarter of a century. I realized his walk is a drag now, as though he is pulling himself in an invisible cart. I realized I too had changed. I do not react that strongly towards that cheat weighing scale. I had become soft towards him.
Once we had many empty liquor bottles to dispose. My wife had called him and handed the bottles to him. As he fiddled in his pocket for coins to pay her, she told him not to bother and instead gave him Rs 5 from her side. He was shocked! It is not the way this business works. He seemed nonplussed… feeling very confused, he went away. After that whenever we have an empty bottle, I call him in Marathi, “kaka, ikde ya” (uncle come here). Very gingerly he would come to our door. We would hand him the bottle along with a 5-rupee coin. Our business model has been modified. My wife said he is so old now. I too liked the idea. Now he takes the bottles, which actually helps us in clearing the clutter and we pay him for it. He says a parting ‘Namaste’ and both parties are mutually grateful.
Later I worked on making this business relationship to next level. Whenever I passed him on the road I started wishing him, ‘Namaskar Kaka’. He would raise his hand and acknowledge with his “Namasker”. It must make him feel good. One day I stopped him, made small talk with him and asked him for his name. “Sukhdev” he said. I found his name a little surprising. I always imagined him to be ‘Sakharam’ or ‘Ganpat’ or ‘Tukaram’ or may be just ‘Patil’. Sukhdev was so unlikely for a such a typical Marathi Manoos. More over I did not have too many Sukhdevs in my memory. One of them was this huge documentary filmmaker of 1960s and another was a freedom fighter – both Punjabis. Never mind I thought. He says his name is Sukhdev. So be it. After that I started addressing him with his name rather than just ‘Kaka’. That must have made him even feel better, because when someone living in an apartment addresses a ‘dabba batliwalla’, by his name and makes a small talk, must be ego booster for him. That was my intention…
It has been 4 months that I have not heard him calling out. There were quite a few bottles lying under the kitchen sink. After waiting for quite a few days, I decided to find out about him from the nearby cobbler, Parmeshwar. I stepped out immediately and met Parmeshwar. I asked him for Sukhdev’s where about, saying he has not been seen for some time now. He at first could not place the person, but then he said ‘oh him? He met with an accident.’ I did not like it. ‘When?’ I asked him. ‘May be about 4-5 months back.’ He added, ‘he was in hospital for sometime after that I don’t know.’
‘Oh… I see!’ I felt very bad. Noticing my genuine concern he offered, ‘I know where he stays. I will go and find out how is he feeling and let you know.’ ‘Fine’ I said and feeling a bit uneasy, returned home. Two day later Parmeshwar was calling out to me from my balcony. I knew he has some news for me. Sukhdev has become very weak, he said. He cannot get up. He is perhaps too old to recover completely. I felt like going to meet him right then, but in that hot afternoon it was not so easy to get up and get out. My ‘wish’ lost to my will power. In a few days bunch of empty bottles got disposed off to someone else. The ambience surely seems to have changed on my road.
Back to a distance past… I was in my balcony. Sukhdev was passing and ‘calling out’ in his powerful patent style, ‘dabba batliwallaaa’. In a light mood, I thought, I have never seen this Dabbawalla sitting somewhere relaxing or eating anything, ever. He just walks and walks and walks. That means he would be burning many more calories than he is consuming. That would also mean that one fine day he may just vanish in thin air and someone will find his clothes on the street, without any trace of him in it – scientifically speaking!