Riding a Bandy, Going to the Shandy!

Vidya and I were talking about the word ‘shandy’ this morning. Unfortunately, Dictionary.com does not have the definition we were talking about. Apart from the beer and lemonade drink, it also refers to a periodic village market — usually held once a week — that is the mainstay of the rural economy in India.

I remember the Singanallur sandhai (சந்தை, the Thamizh word for a shandy, from which presumably the English version arose) very well from my childhood (a good three decades away!). Shandy day was Sunday, and as residents of Singanallur, it meant an exciting trip to the shandy ground, where farmers would sell their wares. Makeshift shops with vendors of every description selling vegetables, peanuts, corn-on-the-cob, spices, meat, fish, dry fish – the list is simply too long to keep going on – would produce an indescribably intricate maze of colours, flavours, aromas, stinks and stenches navigating through which was the ultimate thrill for us as children. There were also innumerable locksmiths (who sold new locks, as well as cut keys for old ones), cobblers (who would repair torn chappals or make a new pair for you), balloon sellers (who would twist their long colourful balloons into different shapes for a few rupees, and who were never, ever patronized by our parents!) and the one-string violinists, who would play such lovely tunes on their own instruments, and yet, when we got the same instruments, not a sound could we coax out of them!

Going to the sandhai would usually involve tagging along behind our parents with huge shopping bags. Mom was the haggler-in-chief, ruthlessly beating down the vendors’ prices. Most of them seemed to enjoy it though, and some of them even remembered her from previous weeks! As we went around, the bags would get heavier and heavier till at one point, they would be taken from us and we would be given smaller, less heavy, more manageable bags to carry.

Thinking back, most of the joy seems to be actually in remembering the assault on our senses that a visit to the sandhai was. When we were actually lugging those bags around, we were just raring to get out of there back to our TV shows, or more often, games of cricket (usually), football (occasionally) or badminton (in the non-windy months).

Talking about the shandy reminded me of another word that I seldom hear today. ‘Bandy’ and ‘bandyman’ referred to the jatka or horse-cart in which we used to go to school when I was in first standard, and its driver. Again, bandy is from the Thamizh vandi (வண்டி), meaning cart, and bandyman, I suspect, is an Anglo Indian concoction.

The bandy, usually pulled by a mangy nag, would seat about ten of us, our school bags and our tiffin bags (cloth or wire contraptions that held a two or three-tier stainless steel “tiffin carrier” and a water bottle). The school bags and tiffin bags would easily have outweighed their owners, and by strategically distributing their weight around the cart, the bandyman made sure the bandy was balanced and would not tip over.

On the way to school, the ones to get in first could ride in relative comfort till the others were crammed in, sitting packed together on the thin sheet spread out over a bed of grass on the hard wooden board that formed the bed of the cart. The smell of fresh grass, and sometimes horse-manure, is the strongest memory of those rides. Rides home were usually better, as the cart gradually emptied, going faster with each boy who got off. The bandyman was not a man of habit – his routes were often circuitous and varied each day. I now suspect that sometimes he drove the bandy for the sheer joy of it. So, every day’s ride home was a surprise – if you were lucky, you would be the last he dropped off, which meant you got to ride up in front with him, the wind whipping your hair (or what part of it it could whip – we had our hair cropped really short then). The other place of choice was in the back, with your legs dangling out the back.

I started taking the bus when I was in the fourth standard, and so did more and more people. The bandyman sold his bandy and got himself a bullock-cart, which he used to transport building material – sand, cement, long metal rods curled like new shoelaces. He used to wait in a bullock-cart stand, waiting for people to hire his cart. When we passed, either on my Dad’s scooter or on foot, he used to smile and wave at us.

One memory that remains fresh for the sheer excitement it brought me was when he gave me a ride in the bullock-cart. One afternoon, after an exam, I was waiting at the bus stop, when the bandyman happened to pass by. He was on his way back from some delivery, and his cart was empty except for a bundle of fresh grass. He stopped the cart and asked me to get on, and I had what till then was the most exhilarating ride in my life. It was an open cart, and the bullock kept to its track by the side of the road. Large buses and lorries roared by, and without a care, the cart went on. I was simply thrilled, seeing the big monsters roar past at close quarters. We did not say anything to each other – I sat wonderstruck and he kept to his driving, encouraging the bullock with a series of hisses, clicks and shouts that made up a whole metalanguage. Finally, when we reached the cart-stand, I got off and made my way home. The bandyman had smiled a large gap-toothed smile when I thanked him.

After that, till we moved away, I used to catch glimpses of him every once in a while. Then we moved away, and we knew no more of him.

And no, I’ve never taken a bandy to the shandy!