Reading Shame (1983) by Salman Rushdie, and here's such a sentence.

For five, six, seven days films played to an empty house in which peeling plaster and slowly rotating ceiling fans and the intermission gram-vendors gazed down upon rows of undoubtedly rickety and equally certainly unoccupied seats.

Searching the internet I found two explanations.

  • Gram-vendor is a person who sells small things during intermission.
  • Gram-vendor is a vending machine where you put a coin and get small things.

So which of these two is a better match, or any other explanation?

Where and when? The book describes =~1947 year, India

  • 1
    Machines don't walk into theatres to gaze down upon seats. Not until Skynet takes over, anyway.
    – RegDwigнt
    Jul 8, 2019 at 19:46
  • Nor can ceiling fans gaze upon seats, but they do!
    – k-lusine
    Jul 8, 2019 at 19:53
  • The ceiling fans are already in the screening room. They are mounted above the seats. The vending machines are not. They are outside in the lobby. They would have to grow legs and learn to walk.
    – RegDwigнt
    Jul 8, 2019 at 20:26
  • There is also black-gram, the Vigna Mungo bean... Jul 8, 2019 at 21:15
  • 1
    @RegDwigнt Are you sure that was also the case in derelict Indian cinemas in the 1940s? I have seen old pictures of cinemas where there were vending machines against the walls in the actual theatre itself. (Well, I say “pictures” – I remember seeing exactly one such picture.) Jul 8, 2019 at 21:53

2 Answers 2


Probably only a partial answer, but...

Black gram is another name for the Vigna mungo bean


...and Green gram is another word for the Moong or Mung bean.

Their dried seeds may be eaten raw, cooked (whole or split), fermented or milled and ground into flour.

These are an extremely popular ingredient of a variety of tasty dishes from India.

It is possible that your example is a semantic syllepsis.


A Google Ngram search for “gram vendor” turns up several uses from the books on Ceylon tea industry, including:

Henry William Cave - 1894 - ‎Read - ‎More editions Another familiar roadside character is the Gram Vendor. She sits patiently during the greater part of the day selling gram, by the half-cents- worth to passers by. As might be conjectured from the size of the little bamboo measure, this grain is ...

A reasonable conclusion is that a gram vendor is a peddler who sells a valuable commodity. I had thought it might be sold by the gram, but as @BoldBen points out, gram is the name of the product itself, some kind of mashed-up grain ot chickpeas (maybe what we’d call hummus today).

As comments and answer(s) suggest, what’s being sold is edible, perhaps as a seasoning or a small tasty item. In Rushdie’s account, the peddlers enter the theatre during intermission to sell to the patrons.

  • I don't think it's anything to do with "selling by the gram". As pre-independence India was part of the British Empire the weights used at the time would be imperial ounces rather than metric grammes and, if metric weights were used, the unit would be a "gramme". if you look at @cascabel's answer "gram" is a name for mung beans and, more familiarly to me, 'gram flour' is the South Asian name for the chickpea flour from which bhajis and pakoras are made. To me a "gram seller" would be someone who sells beans, bhajis or pakoras as snacks.
    – BoldBen
    Aug 8, 2019 at 8:49
  • Thanks @BoldBen, I tried to fix the answer.
    – Xanne
    Aug 8, 2019 at 9:04

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