Singing out kabari, kabariwallah, Sahi Ram slowly pedaled his bicycle down the hot and dusty streets here. Burlap bags dangling on each side of the bike's rear wheels were filled with old newspapers, empty bottles and cans.
Ram is a neighborhood junkman, the first link in a chain of recycling in which almost everything in this country is reused in one form or another.
Even old razor blades are collected, to be honed against the stone pavement and resold to people too poor to buy new ones.
Many other Third World countries practice recycling, but few as assiduously as India. Elsewhere, rag pickers go through dust bins and scavangers live at the garbage dumps to make sure usable items are saved and sold. But here, little of any value gets to a dump. Even torn-up pieces of paper and old letters are picked up and sold before they reach the refuse heap.
In India, recycling is not an ecological slogan but a way of life.
Cows pull lawnmowers in parks here, then eat the grass they have cut. Later, the manure is used to fertilize the same lawns.
Groceries are delivered to an American couple here wrapped in pages of the New Yorker magazine they have thrown out. An English family celebrating a festival found its firecrackers wrapped in personal letters.
Letters, therefore, are not tossed into the wastebasket until they are torn into pieces, for there is no telling where they will show up.
An American woman threw an old blouse away. The next night, the janitor, a man, was wearing it proudly.
Janitors get first crack at minor trash, and it is a common sight to see them going through wastebaskets looking for paper that can be sold. Even the long, narrow, perforated teletype tapes are saved for sale.
The bottom rung of people dealing with junk are jamadars, the untouchables who sweep the streets. They pick through neighborhood garbage piles seeking such items as rags and plastic bottles.
After jamadars have picked over a garbage pile, only pigs and cows find anything of value there.
The thrifty Indian housewife sells almost all the junk, or kabari, to raise extra money. One woman lets papers collect for about 90 days, then sells them when she thinks she is overspending her budget or to get extra money at festival time.
Foreigners, however, generally let the servants sell the old papers and empty bottles to a kabariwallah (wallah means person) such as Sahi Ram.
Old newspapers are his staple, and he pays about 10 cents a pound for them. Foreign papers are considered more valuable, Ram said, because they are printed on a higher quality newsprint that makes stronger paper bags.
But empty bottles, especially with labels attached, are the most valuable items. In Bombay, junkmen seek out bottles that once contained Charlie perfume so they can be refilled with a cheap imitation and sold as the real thing.
A bottle that once contained a premium scotch can fetch as much as $3 if the label is intact. It will be filled with tea and wood alcohol, resealed and sold for as much as $50.
A bottle with the label torn off is worth only about a dime. Large bottles and jars are sold as water containers while the smaller ones are broken to be melted down into new glass shapes.
But almost anything has some value. Discarded aerosol shaving cream cans and near-dead batteries were on sale at a flea market.
The neighborhood junkmen generally work for a retailer, such as Munna Lal, 28, who sits on the ground in front of a small stall in the bustling Indira Market here surrounded by fly-covered piles of newspapers and empty bottles. He said he paid about 11 cents for an empty Coffee-Mate jar, label intact.
Some junk dealers specialize. For 35 years the family of Kushal Kumar has been buying old bottles and selling them to distillers.
The business started in Lahore, in what is now Pakistan, but at the time of India's partition his family moved here.
He has contracts with major hotels to pick up old bottles by the sackful. He pays from 5 to 10 cents for a bottle, depending on its size, and says he collects 30,000 to 40,000 bottles a day.
Mohan Lal, 65, pedals his bike around neighborhoods where diplomats live, collecting the cans in which they get their imported beer and soda. He said he bought about 90 pounds in a single Saturday, all neatly packed in burlap sacks that clanked against his bicycle.
Sahi Ram said he collects more than 25 pounds of newspapers, bottles and cans a day, and makes a daily profit of about $2--not bad for India, where the average unskilled laborer is lucky to earn $1 for a day of backbreaking work.
Another kabariwallah, Ramji Lal, 41, said he makes about $80 a month, which puts him far ahead of the average Indian. The annual per capita income here is less than $200, and half of all Indians live below an abysmally low poverty line.