You know what’s a great proxy indicator for a nation’s state of Development? Ferrywallahs! Yup, ferrywallahs (also, ‘feriwala’s). In case you don’t know what that is, let me explain.
In Bangladesh and possibly, the rest of the subcontinent, Ferrywallahs are door-to-door salesmen. Or street-peddlers. From what I remember of the 1980s, I can still conjure up a man – visibly hard-up and humbled – ferrying his thousand wares around the serpentine alleys and gulleys of Dhaka. This is the archetypical ferrywallah, ubiquitous, familiar, trustworthy, servile and grateful. The yoke would land on his shoulders from early in the morning. On either end he’d tie a basket or a cloth-bag to place his wares. If he’s not that affluent, he would heave a single, bamboo basket up on to his head and start the rounds. He knew to stick to a fixed route: you see, there was a honor-code dividing up the metropolis into chunks serviced by a specific set of ferrywallahs.
Walking up and down alleyways lined by unambitious buildings, yelling out a singsong description of his wares, he’d look to windows for a familiar face. And there were plenty. They’d beckon him through the window and ask to see his spoils. He knew the mothers and wives. He knew what color bangles they liked and what their financial dealings were like. He knew exactly when the brat from the blue, tin-shed house would start a tantrum demanding pickles. He knew for whom the young girl from 14/B kept buying stationery and wooden pencils.
There were, of course, types of street-peddlers. The boring, but most awaited, ones peddled gourds, spinach and radishes. The elite ones brought around salt-water sprinkled fish: carps, eels and catfish. Some ferrywallahs sold pink, spherical cotton-candies in glass-boxes. Some had balls of cheese and traditional flat-breads. Glass bangles, hair-ribbons and mirrors were the prime merchandize of others. Some would even drag in enormous, writhing beehives – freshly smoked and plucked from some tree in the southerly mangrove forests.
Whatever he was peddling, the one thing that no ferrywallah ever forgot was the measuring scale. Anything you bought, would be measured in front of your eyes. It would be done with a clan of iron weights, called batkharas. Each weight was a testament to the ferrywallah’s honesty and his compliance with Islamic Law that strictly forbids sellers from tinkering with weights and volumes.
I had some favorites among the ferrywallahs. Some offered triangular, savory pastries in glass boxes and fried-batter strips splattered with sugar, locally known as Kotkoti. The girls’ favorite was the pickle-seller, smelling of tamarind and syrup. My absolute favorite was the cheese-seller, who would invariably cut me a slice of his salted farmers’ cheese. I would sample from multiple balls, before finally delivering a verdict on the purchase.
Over time, regular ferrywallahs would become like extensions of a household – engaged in the affairs of the family, running errands, dropping children to school, sourcing items for the mistress, making demands of snacks or tea and becoming privy to domestic secrets. They’d sometimes take payment in old recyclable paper and weren’t shy to ask for a loan from the mistress / master of the house.
Ferrywallahs are by no means a dying breed. But they have certainly evolved. Those who do come around, don’t have time for little packets of pickle or cotton-candy (i.e. items priced as low as 10 cents). The margin just isn’t worth their while anymore. Bangladesh’s per capita income has almost reached US$1000. Now you need higher volume, greater margins to get ferrywallahs out of their homes.
They come with fish, chicken and calculators. Reassuring other patrons over cellphones, they insist that you buy in bulk and do it quickly. Not only do they not need loans from you, they will extend a line of credit to you. The ferrywallah of 2015 doesn’t have time for bargaining or small-talk. He has been well integrated into the rat-race. And it’s the trade that has turned more impersonal. Besides, security guards in urban apartment complexes don’t like allowing ferrywallahs inside the compound. There isn’t enough time or space for him and his baskets.
The economic standing of the ferrywallah has improved – they can afford to hold out for higher profits. They can follow route-maps and schedule visits. And that in its self is a functional indicator of how these people, from the demographic pyramid-base, have experienced economic growth. But what also becomes clear is that street-peddlers’ (and many other lowly professions’) social standing hasn’t come far. The stigma of going door-to-door peddling wares is still strong. Even in the case of an indispensable service.
The trade is facing serious competition: reinforcing the argument that the ferrywallahs’ service is a vital one. There are now online entrepreneurs promising to save you the trouble of dealing with busy, inconvenient ferrywallahs: just click on the items you want, enter quantities and you can pay cash on delivery. In a world that is increasingly inclined to avoid face-to-face interaction, the online option is gaining in popularity. As market transactions turn more and more impersonal and people increasingly choose to hide behind their screens, small trades like that of the ferrywallahs will be sorely missed. Perhaps it is a longing for a bygone time.
Perhaps it is a hunger for human interactions.