On a sultry Gujarat afternoon, the lazy summer heat would waft in, bringing in its warm folds the salted sweetness of his voice. “Paaaaaavvvvbiskeeeeeeeeeeeet!” Always starting low at ‘paa’ and reaching a nice final peak at ‘keet.’ Paav and biscuit is how his vendor call could be broken up as, but for a child those days it was a word on its own, one that made you instantly hungry.
Hearts would start to race, pencils would be dropped from home-working fingers, and positions would be taken at windows, each one revealing an eager face peering out, waiting to nab Kaaka, ready to call out to him, just in case he took the lack of your physical presence to be a sign of your disinterest in his wares. That would be utter and complete tragedy.
A large metal trunk, painted green but grey with use, opened to a world of baked delicacies. Loaves of bread always, but also soft fluffy buns, fat beige naankhatais, coconut biscuits, salty khaari, and those two most coveted of them all – cream buns and jam rolls. Keereem bun, he would say, and jaam roll, and macroom, but his quaint words for them only made them more exotic than anything you’d ever dreamed of.
Every child had sampled the assembly line produce at KK’s and Novelty’s down town and they somehow just didn’t do the trick. Kaaka’s spread, on the other hand, never failed you. You never thought of where all the goodies came from. They couldn’t have come from the assembly line sort of place that the others stocked their bakeries with – that much was for sure. And Kaaka couldn’t have baked them all by himself – he was too old to make anything, he barely made the journey from…wherever he came from. It had never occurred to you to ask him where that was. So you sort of assumed that they somehow formed themselves in the still of the night, every night, right there in the metal trunk, from glitter and sparkle from the stars above.
It was magic all right, way better than the ‘Water of India, Water of Bengal’ sort you saw at the half-yearly PC Sorcar travelling magic show last May.
Kaaka was so old, so incredibly ancient, he was bound to be a man of magic. He appeared at least a 150- years- old to child’s eyes, with his wrinkled skin, grey hair and sagging earlobes, earlobes weighed down by the weight of thick silver earrings. His eyes looked like Poppins – glassy and coloured grey, blue, brown and black all at once. Cataract.. you would realise later. There were more lines on his face than that red and blue line notebook they gave you for sums in Primary School.
He wore a full head of grey hair in a close crop – more hair could have been an encumbrance. His trunk travelled on his head, separated from it only by a rolled, coiled piece of cloth. His working dress was always Khakee – a shirt with collars, shoulder bands that were buttoned down, pockets and half sleeves. His shorts, again with deep pockets to hold the day’s wages and loose change in, ended at his knees, giving way to a pair of spindly, withered legs that had stood many a ground, across time.
But his weathered frame notwithstanding, Kaaka’s gnarled hands always held out the promise of sweetness to come, sometimes saltiness too, a promise that all would be well the moment you bit into one of his freshly baked biscuits. Kaaka teased and gently cajoled you into trying a bit of this, then a bit of that, his eyes often revealing a smidgen of disappointment at the word ‘no’.
What started out as a speck of saliva in your mouth when you heard his voice hundreds of metres away, grew into a pool so large you couldn’t speak. But you needn’t have said a word. Your greedy eyes said it all. You pointed to all the things you would have liked to see in your tiffin box for the next few days, and if you’d been a good child, you’d get about a tenth of your ask. That would do just fine too, especially if that included a keereem bun or a jaam roll.
In time, Kaaka’s trips started to dwindle, as did the number of asks in your childish kitty, till one day the memory of him receded deep into your growing mind. Then one day a sight somewhere, of a swatch of khakhee, a sagging earlobe, bony knees perhaps, brings home smells forgotten. And you childishly hope Kaaka was claimed gently, lovingly, by the glitter and sparkle from the stars above.
Seetal Iyer is the co-founder and content head at Timbre Media and one of the most well-loved radio voices for over 15 years and counting.