The annehs of my childhood
Posted on May 10, 2014, Saturday
THE crisp ringing of the bell preceded his arrival. He rode in soon after through the rickety gateway on his bicycle, a black doctor’s bag securely fastened to the back carrier. The soft sweet scent of his hair cream permeated the air as he alighted and kicked the stand to park the bicycle upright.
That was the time of the month when anneh (brother in Tamil), as we fondly addressed all men of Indian origin, came to cut the hair of the children in the house. It was a large brick and timber structure erected on a foothill. We were living in a rented room there.
Anneh was a middle-aged man with wavy hair that was nicely slicked back. His neat white shirt was untucked over a white dothi that was pulled up to his calves so that he could pedal without getting it soiled with grime. He let it down as soon as the bicycle was parked.
The usual wooden chair was brought out from the house for this occasion. A small stool was added to elevate our diminutive bodies to an appropriate height for our hair to be conveniently trimmed. When the first child was ready, anneh would open his magical black bag. As kids, we were always fascinated by the items it held inside.
First out was the long flowing barber’s cloth that he fastened around our neck. Next came the clipper and a comb. The clipper’s steel teeth made it look menacing. There was no need to indicate what hairstyle we wanted. It was all the same – trim the fringe, and slope on the back and sides with no sideburns.
His other implements were a pair of scissors for snipping, a straight edged razor for shaving off the stubble and a powder puff for applying talcum powder to soothe the skin afterwards. The 15-minute haircut cost 50 cents. This was in the early 1970s. For comparison, a packet of nasi lemak was only 15 cents then.
The barber together with his compatriots formed the bulk of itinerant tradesmen who actively plied their business in many neighbourhoods during those times. They provided interesting breaks for us from our dreary children’s games of marbles, hide and seek, and hunting for spiders among the undergrowth. Whenever they were around, we would stop playing and crowded around them to watch the activity, whatever it was.
The anneh whom I always looked forward to seeing was the one peddling kueh. He would come by every few days. We could hear him calling out: “Kueh, kueh” in his distinct accent shortly before his arrival. He walked with a unique rhythmic gait that made carrying the heavy load easier.
On one end of the stout pole that he expertly balanced on his shoulder hung trays and trays of Nyonya kueh, while the other end held a charcoal brazier, a pot of fish gravy, bowls, cutlery and ingredients for asam laksa. Watching him lift up each tray to display the colourful kueh underneath was like magic to the kid I was then. They never failed to make me salivate. My favourite was kueh talam, which my mother would buy for me without the need to ask.
Another colourful character who made his rounds almost every day was the karung guni man, so called because of the gunny sacks he carried on his bicycle. Long before recycling was a household word, he was already buying and trading in used bottles and newspapers to be reused and recycled.
If there was ever an expert on driving hard bargains, it must be the karung guni anneh. He would haggle over every last cent for just a few soiled bottles. I always enjoyed watching my mother trying to get a better price for the items she wanted to sell to him.
After the deal was struck and settled, he would pack all his purchases carefully into the many brown gunny sacks he had with him, secure the sacks to the back of his bicycle and call out “Botol, botol” again as he rode off to announce his presence to the other houses in the neighbourhood.
In the late evenings, the milkman would ride in with a large brass container to deliver fresh milk followed a while later by the roti man with his unusually loud ringing of the bell, the large cabinet behind him laden with breads, buns and other pastries. And then there was the coconut trader who came every month. He was adept at climbing the towering trees with just a rope around his ankles for leverage to pluck coconuts growing at the fringe of the compound.
Collectively, these tradesman made life convenient by bringing their services to our homes. We could even earn some small change for selling used bottles or produce growing in the compound to them. Sadly, the itinerant barber and kueh man have now become a thing of the past. They were so much a part of my childhood. We also do not get to see the Indian roti man and milkman that often any more, their roles gradually taken over by neighbourhood bakeries and supermarkets nowadays.
While some things have changed irretrievably, some have not. After all these years, I still like to have my hair cut by Indian barbers who thankfully have survived the march of time and moved on to operate in the comfort of air-conditioned premises. The flashy upmarket hair salons and quick haircutting services just do not give me the trim for slope on the back and sides, the way I would be happy with, my pickiness perhaps influenced by anneh’s faultless handiwork on my crowning glory four decades ago.
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