In USA come weekends most parents unwillingly haul their tired-with-weekday-work bodies with reluctant brood of kids in tow for the week’s groceries. The provisions are dumped in trolleys, offloaded into cars and finally hauled into homes .The perishable items are quickly stored away (if the space in the refrigerator was created prior to leaving home ) whereas the secondary perishable items are left lying to be stowed away the next day. In the middle of one such tiring scenario I took out a box of baby spinach to cook. The contents stated its organic, fresh and handpicked. As I washed the baby leaves in a colander, a distant voice came to me from the by lanes of my memories: “Saga neba saga” (buy spinach) ……the voice transported me to my in laws home in Bhubaneswar. In my last article I had written that the trees and continuous flow of visitors are all extensions of this beloved home. One doesn’t exist without the other. Besides the steady stream of family and relatives that drop in to share life’s bittersweet kernels with Bau (my mother in law), a motley of street vendors come to our doorstep with their wares.
Bau doesn’t require the services of these sellers as the weekly hata (market) fulfils her requirements. What she does need is the interchange of small talk that add vitality to her day. Understandably this interchange flourishes on the soil of buying the wares of the vegetable, moori (puffed rice) and fish vendor. On a hot day in the summer of 2017 in Bhubaneswar, it was close to 1 pm, lunch was almost ready to be served and I was wrangling with my daughter over ice cream, when the persistent cries of the vegetable vendor fell into our ears. Bau popped out of her chair (as fast as her arthritic bones permitted her) and rushed out of the dining room, through the living room, out of the portico to emerge into the front garden with a hail of words aimed at the unfortunate man. My daughter and I followed her. When I am with Bau I drift in and out of rooms and conversations …..soaking up a part of life that I get to live for a few days every year.
“You don’t know I eat lunch at 1 pm? I have low hemoglobin and the doctor wants me to eat spinach daily. You call me maa (mother) and is this the way to treat a mother?
Who sells sago (spinach) at lunch time? Is it supposed to be cooked for dinner and cause me indigestion?”
Bau’s volley of words was aimed at a medium height man dressed in a brown pant, indifferent striped shirt, his big, tired feet in plastic sandals and a brown face lined with wrinkles and perspiration but bearing the sweetness of expectancy when dealing with a regular customer. He looked like anyone for poverty has no face but comes in multitudes. A lesser man would have wilted like a two-day old coriander bunch but Natia broke out into a wide grin that revealed his tobacco stained teeth.
“Maa ete ki raghuchu kana pai? mu to sabu dina asuchi . aaji tike deri hei gala.” (Why are you getting angry mother? don’t I come every day? Today I got a little late).
Natia’s tone was cajoling as he let the wrought iron gate swung open to let himself in to the front yard. The bushes full of red mandara (hibiscus) and pink chenna phula danced in anticipation.
“A little late?” Bau snorted, which was a signal for Natia to be quiet so that the picky art of selection could begin. Bau selects quickly, rest assured a bomkai sari for Rs 15,000 or two bunches of spinach of Rs 10 will be both purchased at the same speed with a quick visual inspection. It’s like she wants to dole out a monetary renumeration for everything that her eyes rest on for longer than two minutes. Meanwhile my daughter is fascinated with Natia’s moped. –
“Look mamma it looks like a terminator, “she stares wide eyed at the contraption.
And indeed, it does in hues of steel and green. I found the modifications done to his moped fascinating. It is an example of ingenuity powered by a need to convert the mode of transport into a mobile vending apparatus. Horizontal steel rods fitted with intermittent pegs are attached to the front and back of the moped. From the pegs hang huge gunny bags burgeoning with clusters of greens, tender shallots, hoky poky drumsticks, robust heads of cauliflowers and purple jeweled eggplants. Bau is done for the day clutching four bundles of leutiya (type of spinach) but Natia is not.
“Maa take this cauliflower, I got it fresh from my own patch in Khurda,” he pleads.
“There are no vegetables in Khurda, you are getting them from the local market,” snorts Bau to which Natia slyly and shyly replies, “maa take it, your granddaughter will eat and remember me” Bau complies.
I am asked to summon Tina, the maid from the kitchen. She emerges grumbling.
“There is fish fry, fish curry, banana pancakes, santula (vegetable hotchpotch), daali (cooked lentils), why do we need sago?” A look from Bau quells her rant.
Bau pays Natia and we settle down to quickly pluck the tender green leaves from the stems whilst hearing from Bau that Natia’s wife passed away a decade ago. His daughter is married, and his two sons are in school. He was a farmer for long but the vagrant weather conditions ruthlessly put an end to his livelihood and forced him to become a street vendor. Natia’s day begins at 4am and ends at 9 pm and is choc a bloc with buying and selling and trying to fulfil the needs of his two boys whose wants gallop ahead of Natia’s earnings. Like most vendors there is no security and a day that depletes his wares is a day well gone. I hear Natia’s departing calls as he disappears into the anonymity of his struggles. The greens are cooked in mustard oil with a sprinkling of salt and a broken red chilli. The taste is petal fresh and sweet, tinged with perhaps Natia’s humility.
We are familiar with the Bible quote of “give a man a fish, and you’ll feed him for a day. Teach a man to fish, and you’ve fed him for a lifetime.” Well in Orissa perhaps the prevailing belief is: sell a man fresh rohu and you have a lifetime customer. Which brings me to the tale of our second vendor with whom Bau shares a pull and a tug relationship. Hari the fish vendor, is a regular at our home for the last ten years. He knows all the members of our family and then just a little more and Bau knows everything about his family members, and then gives them certain discounts given Hari’s loquaciousness. Except Mondays and Thursdays when Bau does not eat fish he comes every single day to sell his wares comprising of chuna macho (small fish) and rohu. His peregrinations are preceded by some hyper activities in our home. Talk about buying fish starts at 5am in the morning over tea, thereafter the entire work force in the house is alerted to way lay the fisher man. This despite the fact that he will come to our threshold like a pilgrim lolling at the Lord’s feet.. From Tina the maid cum cook to Sada nana the seventy five year old man ( with a body and concave stomach like Hrithik Roshan) who does odd jobs in our home , to Bhagwan and Subrat the people living in the outhouse to Pooja the stand by for Tina (pooja is the neighborhood cook who drops in for a half cup of tea and an hour long talk on most days) everyone ‘s goal for the day is to spot and stop the fish seller .
Bau’s ecosystem would perhaps need another story. Her sons, daughters, daughter in laws are the planets of her universe but the work force are the ones that add structure and liveliness to her days in an independent interdependent kind of living. Around 9am Tina comes and stands at the main gate and scans the stretch of road in front of our house. The biggest challenge to her omega 3 fish fed brain cells is to figure out whether Hari will come from the right end of the road or the left end. The fallacy that permeates the house denizens is that if Hari is not waylaid then the choicest fish will go to the fifteen other houses flanking the quarter mile stretch. My daughter and I too join Tina in the eye hunt for Hari. “Maacha macha” (fish fish), a faint call has us straining our ears. Before I can react, Tina has opened the gate to scoot down the lane like a rottweiler. Envisioning the fish head that she will get to eat with paakhal (watery rice) and sago bhaja (fried greens) lends speed and grit to her run.
Hari is accosted just as he turns the bend in a rickety bicycle and is led to the front of our home, much like a willing bridegroom. Happy with the reception he waits for Bau to appear. A bespectacled man in his early thirties, with a strong carriage and a smile that appears and disappears like the moon surfing amongst clouds (in his case surfing among the vagaries of his customer’s whim) he indulges in some daily chat with Tina. The bel tree at the entrance to our home casts a moving, dappled carpet on Hari and his wares as he lifts his bike into the stand. My daughter is intrigued with the continuous traffic of rumbling bikes and honking cars on the straggly thoroughfare outside our main gate. Every day she and I walk down the lane while going to the park gently peeking into the brightly colored box homes in lime greens, ink blues and sun yellows with even brighter doors in purple, magenta and burgundy. Hari puts his basket carrying fish and covered with a blue plastic sheet and banana leaf down. Bau emerges and the treasures of marine life are unraveled for the connoisseur’s inspection.
“All of them have a pink tinge around the neck,” Bau accuses. “why are you feeding me Andhra fish? It doesn’t taste fresh.”
“No maa todays catch is from a pokhri (pond),” Hari responds.
“Pokhri my foot, all the water has dried up, are you fishing in your dreams?” Bau sniggers gently.
Hari having given Bau the upper hand in talks moves swiftly into the next round. He weighs the fish.
“Hold it right there, thunders Bau. Hold the scale and let me see,” as she sees through the trick vendors sometimes employ to quickly wrap up the scales after weighing the goods so that the miniscule actual weight compounding to a few extra grams is snuffed away.
With a bashful grin Hari holds up the scale letting Bau inspect. Bau never haggles for the price. She has an inherent empathy for their struggles and means of livelihood.
“I will soon be leaving for Banglore,” Bau airs her words to Hari as he reverses his cycle out of the gate. *
“Who will bring you fish there?” Hari quizzes, his thoughts daring to go into places, that his destiny will not.
“oh from the frozen departments of Big Bazaar and malls,” Bau replies in a whisper.
His catch for the day sold Hari is quick to retort, “aah now that fish is going to taste like fish from Andhra. Then maa you will remember this poor fish vendor with his pink necked fish.” So, saying he rides away ringing his rusty bell.
Hari will peddle his wares until 12 pm then settle down to sell the fish at a discounted price to restaurants. He lives in a joint family with two elder, married brothers. An unsuccessful experience with rearing shrimp on the banks of Chilika forced him to sell fish. He dreams to marry an educated girl working in an office. The fish is cooked in mustard gravy with half a slice of dried mango and tastes of a sweet water body framed by coconut trees. I can almost picturize the playful mirth of village kids splashing in its water.
Back in USA like others I live in a world where things are only a click away and are delivered by a faceless stranger, his presence acknowledged through a chain locked door. However, I consider myself fortunate to also belong to an alternate world of dusty by lanes, neon colored houses, the muffled roar of traffic, bel and coconut trees that rustle at the tickle of a breeze and street vendors who fulfill a need and not sell a luxury. It is a world where the food that we eat bears a story, the story of a Hari, Natia, or a Babuli …
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Deepti Paikray is a freelance writer residing in New Jersey. She teaches yoga and creative writing. Yoga requires taming the five senses and writing requires stimulation of senses. And so, between the two limits she leads a happy life. She blogs at https://awonderfulworld.life/