Amazing street salesmen who sell ‘hope’ to the poor

By Majid Sheikh

Dawn, Sep 29, 2013

One of the most delightful pastimes in our student days was to go to watch people who frequented the various peddlers, call them confidence tricksters that frequent the footpaths on Circular Road outside Bhati Gate. A more talented lot is difficult to find.

These tricksters have been with our city for hundreds of years. If you read the autobiography of Dr Hohenberger, the famous homeopathic doctor of Maharajah Ranjit Singh, you will find an entire chapter devoted to studying what these tricksters offered the amazingly gullible common man of Lahore. The common man remains as gullible as ever, for such is the nature of humans. That is why I have always rated these salesmen-cum-psychologists as persons who understand the human psyche exceptionally well.

Every time I am called to lecture by a university in Lahore, I use the examples to these street salesmen. My joy lies in the manner in which students are amazed, while most female students sit listening in utter shock. But such is life on the streets of Lahore.

Today I intend to write about just a few of them, for they constitute our social history and reflect on the manner in which the people of the walled city, especially those who come in from the surrounding countryside, are fascinated by these exceptionally talented salesmen.

Invariably all accounts of Lahore by early European travelers mention these “jugglers, salesmen and tricksters”. But skillful that these men are, it is the basic principles of marketing and salesmanship that are work. That is why studying them is so delightful.

I write these lines because last week I took a walk from Bhati Chowk right up to Mochi Gate along the Circular Road, and returned by a rickety motorcycle rickshaw, the modern replacement for the old ‘tonga’ of our youth.

The tricksters are all there in full force and as talented as they were when we were in college, and surely in the youth of our forefathers. My all-time favourite remains the ‘salajeet man’, who lures his listeners into a trance making the male species believe that they will overnight become supermen by consuming his fraudulent concoction of innocent powders.

I understand from a well-known pharmacist friend that the real ‘salajeet’ is an alleged aphrodisiac that is dark lava-like glue found high in the mountains in cracks that support vegetation.Now this trickster set out over a hundred small bottles and almost 50 small pieces of paper. He invariably starts with a verse from the Quran, which sets him up as an alleged truthful person. He then follows this with a story of the physical strength of the companions of the Holy Prophet (PBUH) in his battles and informs them of their secret with a very Persian-sounding name. He picks up a bottle and set down on the paper pieces a small drop each. Then comes his ‘demonstration effect’. He picks up a thick stick and keeps banging it on the floor. The connection is obvious.

Next he moves on to another bottle which again has a difficult Arabic name. He cites the strength of Hazrat Ali before he set off for the Battle of Khyber. This time a white powder is tapped on over the earlier drop on each paper. The stick routine is repeated. The effect on the faces of his listeners is there to be seen. They are not going anywhere. And so he repeats this process again and again. A new bottle, a new difficult foreign name, an incidence of valour and strength, and between each change of bottle the stick adds to the drama. By this time the mob has grown thick and everyone is virtually dry in the mouth. So I saw it again last week.

The ‘demonstration effect’ of the stick has kicked up a silent frenzy in the mind of the listener. The faces of the crowd are the same we used to go to see in our college days. When all the bottles have been used up, he deftly wraps up each paper and announces the price. Within a few minutes he has sold his wares, wrapped up his cloth and bottles, put his ‘demonstration stick’ under his armpit and walks away quickly. His dazed happy clients head their own way, their head warped by fanciful ideas of the evening ahead.

We students would watch with delight the faces of the tricked, returning to the Iqbal Hostel to discuss the theoretical aspects of the presentation and the human response.

Each word was dissected and analysed. I am sure this was how the trickster operated even in Moghal times when education was scarce. Even today their act is a classic example of how the basic instincts of humans remain, and will always be, so vulnerable.

Another classic ‘sales act’ was the man who gets on buses to sell a soothing powder that can cure a hundred ills. He enters the bus, looks around and then starts his drama: “I have not come to sell anything” he begins. The passengers are reassured. With their defences down they start to listen.

He describes the wonders of the soothing powder and suddenly he points into space with the words “I am coming your way, I will not charge for the powder, but just for the packing”. People turn to watch for the anxious buyer, only to find embarrassed passengers at the other end looking their way.

One is left wondering just who exactly called him. But the trick has been set in place. Everyone feels deep down that they would not like to be left behind.

Then he describes his wares, waxing eloquence on its properties. A few hesitant buyers raise their hands. He quickly sells a few bottles and signals to the driver to get off. The bus moves on with the lucky few holding on to their bottles and hope. The trickster then waits for the next bus.

As students going to participate in a debate in a Pindi college we once got hold of one such salesman as he sought to get off. After a few Ravian threats in English he confessed his bottles were merely a mixture of salt and sugar. We did justice to the chap as the passengers clapped. But today I feel sad that we roughed up the chap, for he surely is part of a great tradition of ‘product promotion’.

But back on the streets of Lahore outside the walled city I saw the legendary lizard act, called a ‘sandha’, whose alleged oil sells because it has the ability to enhance “well-being” to put it politely.

Dead lizards as well as a few live ones with bottles of oil are placed deftly on a rug. The innocent walk past, some stop, look around to make sure no one was seeing them and then they strike a bargain. Away walks a satisfied customer, as he has over the centuries. The same is true of other timeless ‘performances’ like the parrot-tarot card man, or the ‘holy prescription’ man, or scores of other such ‘specialists’.

To my mind the people of Lahore are the most important element in the study of our old city. Around us old monuments are being felled in callous fashion. Ignorance of our history abounds, especially among our rulers. But the people battle on, mostly ignorant of the few smart operators who make life so much more joyous.




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