A Sabjiwali

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During my stay at Andul, a village in the district of Howrah, I used to buy vegetables from a middle aged woman.  She was fat and black with a floppy face with a snub nose.  She was not too short, and had huge uncombed black hair dangling to the waist.  Her neck, nose and ears were bare. I never saw her smiling, always in a dark and casual mood. She wore a printed sari, and a loose blouse. Her slippers were kept behind her back, and she sat cross legged on a plastic sack. Whether it was sun or shower, she never missed a day to come to the bazaar.

Her customers were all office goers, and she came early morning to serve them. She sold all sorts of vegetables—spinach, brinjals, purbles, bananas, cauliflowers, cabbages, carrots, beans, capsicums, moucha, echad, lemons, gourds, pumpkins etc. She sat at the left entry corner of the bazaar. She also kept eggs of hens and ducks. I daily cycled, and made some quick buys from her, and came back home as usual.

One such morning I saw her weeping in secret, and the old woman beside her tried to soothe her with words of sympathy and love.

I was a regular, and eyeing me, she tried hard to stop her sobbing, and asked my items for the day.  I nimbly asked, “Was anything serious in your family, masi? Why are you crying?”

She looked full at me, and hesitated first. Then for what, I could not tell, she confided, “Beta, (son), what could I tell? My son-in-law a month ago brought home a randi (a bad woman). What would happen to my daughter?” And she began to sob again. She was wiping her eyes and nose with the end of her faded sari.

“Where have you married your daughter?” I indulgently put.

“Sankrail. Beta, we could not understand the family.  A distant relative brought the relation first. We decided not to marry Shibani.  The Madhymik pariksha was ahead. But they pestered so much for my daughter’s hand, and we changed our mind. The boy worked in a Marwari gadi at Barabazaar. He earned Rs. 10000 per month. So what bad? We thought. Moreover, if Shibani read in college then to find an educated groom would be more difficult. Things were so quickly arranged, and the marriage was done in a month. We arranged band party, and all the villagers dined. She was my only daughter, you know.”

“Where was your daughter now?”

 The old toothless woman asked my whereabouts. Satisfied with my verified details and open nature, she smiled, and her toothless gums I saw. She had sharp features, skin whitish but wrinkled, and cheeks sunk deep, nose sharp. She was cleanly dressed with a white sari, and she seemed a woman of respect and grace with life’s ripe certitudes.

“I bought her home. My dadu (grandson) was only of one year and half. The child was so sweet and beautiful. Children quarreled to take him, and they made him see the birds, cats, dogs, cows, goats, sheep. He smiled, and waddled to catch them.” The woman laughed, but soon his face was covered with pallor of ash. She took the water bottle, poured a little water on her head, and she thumped her head again and again.

A gentleman came for some vegetables. He had two bags, one small for fish, and the other for vegetables. He came running to the masi. I stood aside. He bought cucumbers, carrots, beans, and capsicums, and paid her, and looked at me and my bicycle with a look of sneer, and muttered something.  It seemed he abused, but whom I didn’t.  And hurriedly he went. He was apparently white with the thought of his wife’s highhandedness if he got late.

“Is your daughter beautiful like you?” I suggested.

She broadened her eyes in astonishment, and made such a gesture that I gulped my words back, and bit my tongue. My estimation was a blow to her. She thought her daughter a beauty queen. She raised her hands, straightened her sari along her body, and became extremely energetic. Her voice was loud, and the people passing by the way stopped a while and looked close at her. I was flabbergasted. She claimed raising her right hand over her head, “Huh…Taller more than you. And she is fair complexioned like her father, and has a robust body. She can pull you up by hand. Uhu..such is her fikar (figure).”

She looked at me hard; her face twisted, and began to size the vegetables, threw the rotten ones out, and sprinkled water on the dried ones. And a while later, she sat silent on the dusty sack, and an old man brought a cup of tea for her. She offered me a cup from the man but I declined politely.

“So, what you going to do with your daughter? She had a son, and remarriage would be difficult.” I opined in a sympathetic undertone.

“Na, na. We are not thinking of that. Ha, she is just seventeen years old. That’s not the problem.” She scratched her head, poking finger into her thick jabbed hair.

“So, you couldn’t complain to the police. You gave Shibani’s marriage at underage. If police knew it all, you all could be arrested”. I lectured like an academic who spent his whole life writing papers and books which had hardly any relevance to immediate reality.

She looked at me with a disbelief and confusion.  Another gentleman came to her stall with four plastic bags, one for fish, one for meat, one for fruits, and one reserved for the vegetables. The bags’ elasticity was such that you couldn’t easily tear them, and they were so transparent that one could not resist to looking at the items they contained. And the fresh blood was dripping from the meat and fish bags, and the men who carried and dangled them in a way that made people feel that they took much pride in displaying the mutton, and pabda or tangra to the eyes of the average big nylon bag users.

I took a betel leaf from a nearby stall. I was not in hurry as it was a holiday. My mood refreshed, and I lazily came to my cycle, and checked whether the eggs were in proper place. I was chewing, and my lips and mouth were red. A fishy smell came from a corner. It was strong, but people didn’t mind. They got habituated with this odour. Not all, a few covered nose with sari or handkerchief. But most of them put fingers on their nostrils for seconds, and then inhaled deep to restore the pulmonary equilibrium of the air.

Bachha (son), that’s why I’m in anxiety. I can’t sleep. My head is moving. Pressure and sugar have been high. Oh! My daughter’s life destroyed. I can’t imagine how Palash can do such work. He is a good boy. He has no bad habits like smoking, drinking, buying lottery, no meyer nesha (lust for women). His friends are all good. How can you do this?  Don’t think for your wife and child. Couldn’t their faces deter you to do such evil deed? What do you lack? Your father is a panchyat, you working well. I gave Shibani gold of Rs. 2 lakhs, khat, bedding, furniture, TV, bike. I also gave Palash’s father Rs. 1 lakh hard cash during the night of the marriage. Aeh…you destroy such a golden family! Never think of the face of your child!” She sobbed.

Her eyes were wet with tears, and she is wiping them. Her voice choked. The old woman offered words of sympathy with a belief in fatality, “Stop crying, sister. What can we do? All’s the handiwork of gods. Hari bol, hari bol, hari bol.” She sighed, and began to count the coins. Her eyesight had dimmed, and she took each coin close to her eyes, checked them, and made separate rows of Rs.1, 2, 5. She kept not costly vegetables, only some wild shoots, and grass and nuts were her precious merchandise.

“All connections are cut between your family and theirs,” I observed and waited for her confirmation. And I also guessed the answer, as many such stories of elopement and family tragedy abounded in towns and villages of Bengal. In the case of town, the characters were all cultured, and the crisis was generally solved either mutual agreements or by the active intervention of the court. It was all hush hush. But in the case of village folks, the story of nuptial calamity spread like the flames of wild forest. And people stopped bathing and eating to relish its sweet juice. They crowded the house of the tragedy, and offered thousands of uninvited suggestions, comments at free.

She spat and coughed, and etched her hands and legs. “Na beta. Palash is repenting, and he wants to come to my house. My daughter is also interested, and she makes video calls with him. Oh…what is it called, oh sending chobi (picture) and maeges (message) by phone. I in last month bought a big phone for her at Rs. 8560. I paid Rs. 5000, and the malik (owner) of the store is good, and this month I shall have to pay him the rest with 24 per cent interest. I’m very strict. I said my daughter never to call Palash at my home. I don’t want to see his face again. Rascal, idiot. Aeh leaving my rajkonya (princess), you are sleeping with a woman of the street. Hai hai beta, what I do? Some days ago a few distant relatives of Palash came to attend a marriage at our neighbourhood. They asked for my daughter’s house. Shibani, you know, has been such popular, and everyone pines for her bad luck. Ha, and they came and told us that randi is a mother of  a girl of nine years. Two years back her husband, a rickshaw puller died, and that pashani (devil) ate Palash. Aha  ha ha…The boy was so good! He never looked upon any women’s face.”

I was quite late. The people were all busy. The sounds of hallooing, shouting, bargaining, hawking buzzed the bazaar. Everyone was moving round and round with bags dangling from both hands. I saw some faces for third or fourth times. They couldn’t find the items they loved perhaps.  The elderly paced slowly with dry faces and thick spectacles. The young men were all hurried lot, and the jobless youths of picnic parties buying cheap potatoes, and cabbages and hoarded all in big plastic sacks.

“No other member in your family, masi?” I diverted the talk, as I had nothing to alley her pains.

“Your uncle is in bed for one year. He can’t walk. Lower part of his body has been paralysed.  My daughter helps him in toiletries, and bathing, and feeding. I can’t stop vending. If I stop, we all shall die without food.” She said all at a stretch, and I was taken aback by the simplicity of her talks, as if nothing serious happened. There were no tears in her eyes, they were all dried. And her dour face exposed no pains; it was so sober and calm, and quiet. The notes of anxieties and sorrows all smothered. It seemed she took life as it was.

I said nothing, and looked around. The sun was quite up. I readied the handles of my cycles by exchanging the bags so that balance of weight on both sides could be maintained.

Masi called me, and asked for coming another day to hear the story of her son, aged sixteen only. The boy asked Rs. 30 from her, and she refused, and the boy killed himself by consuming a bottle of pesticides, which she kept hidden in a corner of the room wrapped with paper. And today was the twentieth day of her boy’s death!

(The story is taken from my short story collection, Aakhir and Other Stories, Authorspress, 2022.)

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Freevoice

I write because there is some lie that I want to expose, some fact to which I want to draw attention, said George Orwell. As a writer, I never kowtow to the whims and dictates of the sacred godmen or godwomen, the political bigots and hypocrites, dealers of laymen, the dishonest and self-serving intellectuals, traders of religions, the betrayers of ‘other’ Indians who eke out a living by their sweat, who are living in fear for being lynched for this and that.

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