Garlic - Anjali Purohit

I like to collect stones. Not the sort that get set in rings and pendants but pebbles and stones that lie around and that sometimes have the most glorious colours, textures and shapes. I’m fascinated by patterns on tiny seashells and by the soft, smooth, tender pink of baby leaves of the pipal tree. About the stones again, some might just surprise with what they contain inside them. Like this little rock I picked up in Nepal and brought here to show you. It’s smooth, black, beautiful– yes. But even more than that, when opened, reveals a perfect snail fossil that has made this a very precious stone for me.

I wrote this story over ten years ago. When I met Shakuntala I was working as an officer in the State Bank. On all weekdays, on my way home through the market, I’d be picking up provisions for the kitchen.  And I found another treasure...

To the story then.

Mumbai is a city of commerce and finance, of tight schedules and busy lives. Matunga is a local railway station for commuters of the city.

On the way to Citylight from Matunga Station stands sentinel an enormous rain tree, strong and deeply rooted. Its canopy of deep green spans high across, from the left side of the road to its right. Under its tender shade, I’ve seen her sitting every day as she sells coriander, garlic, ginger, green chilies and mint leaves. She tells me she’s been here for the past forty years. Like a pigeon that periodically pecks at its feathers and fluffs them out, she chooses individual bunches of herbs, gives them a shake, picks out an unsightly leaf and, after granting her approval, restacks them in the basket. She is a thick set woman with coffee colored skin, bespectacled eyes, shiny jet black hair pulled tightly back in a no nonsense knot, large vermillion sindoor on her forehead, star shaped earrings and a long mangalsutra that she periodically pulls out over her sari or tucks into her ample bosom.

She loves to speak and ever so often I find myself enchanted by her talk for she has a surprisingly sweet voice that one might not expect in such an imposing frame. After a long hard day at the bank immersed in debits, credits, loan appraisals and book balancing, it affords a thankful break to hear her speak and share her life. Her talk is restricted to her world--- home, children, other vendors on the street, the time when she was young, in-laws, her village and most importantly the inevitable focus of her very sharp tongue— her husband.

He is tall, dark, thin and silent but with a flashing smile that, originating from his lips, travels all over his face like the counter in a pin-ball machine. He sits besides her occasionally to sell dry spices-- cumin, pepper, cinnamon, anise, cloves and coriander seeds in miniscule portions that will suffice for only one meal-- and he does most of the listening, nodding and smiling as she talks on.

She knows the exact genealogy of her wares as she extols the virtues of the ginger from Satara, coriander from Pune, lemons from Nagpur and chilies from Khed and Kolhapur— the land of origin then justifying her higher prices.

Complain to her about the price and she will give you a list of the rise in prices of all other goods and services around you in such exhaustive detail that it could put a statistician compiling the current consumer price index to shame. So then,

“If all these things are becoming more scarce, how will the price of garlic remain the same?” and then, on to some philosophizing.

“Everything is getting more and more expensive. The only thing going cheap today is human life. Isn’t it? Of what value is our life now?” then we travel back home, to her village.

“In the gaon we can happily live in a fraction of our expenses here. But the children refuse to stay in the village. Now my boy is twelfth standard fail,’ she says to me,  ‘Bai, please find him a job. He can’t study further but wants to work in an office. I made him sit here with me but he is ashamed to be on the street selling ginger and lemons. What do I do? Will it help to sit at home doing nothing instead?’

The question, of course, is rhetorical.

“But then he sits here with sullen looks fit to drive all the custom away. So I sent him off to the village to do farming. It’s the family land. Rich, black soil. They take three crops a year. But do they send even a sackful of jowar to the city? NO! They only think of us when they need money...’

A man stops by to ask the price of garlic and, like an expert software engineer, she effortlessly switches frames. I wait.

The man bargains. She is steadfast. No bargaining if you want quality. She wins. Transaction over and she switches back to our frame again.

‘’As though we were earning potfulls everyday,” she says. And then the inevitable slide to pour down on her significant other who she calls Rao.

“We too have a daughter to be married off. When we are in need will anyone help? Ha! Does HE understand this? They just have to hint and he goes jumping off to send the money order. I’ve said it every time. We save one-one paisa to be able to find a decent home for the girl and when his brother drinks away all the land earnings and gets indebted to boot, Rao goes and blows off all our savings on that no good brother of his. The land yields enough for all the family but I say I don’t want a single grain from there. Let us lead our life in peace here, such as it is. We’ve brought up our kids decently. Never spread our hands before anyone for alms, lived by our own labour and never coveted what someone else claimed. How much more will they look towards us?”

All this while the man listens with a half apologetic-half indulgent, silent smile on his face that seemed to say, “Yes she raves and rants and lets off steam, God knows, she’s done enough for the family. Stood strong by my side through good times and bad just like the volcanic rock of the Deccan Plateau that she hails from.”

It seemed to me that within this relationship she had the liberty to air her opinions and he, to take the decisions. Maybe her diatribes shaped his thoughts, maybe they didn’t. Clearly, however, in this equation both had a long rope but were nevertheless attached to each other by an ‘equal’ sign - a ‘plus’ on one side canceling a ‘minus’ on the other.

Bemused and touched by this couple, I collect my herbs for the day and walk on homewards.  While cleaning out the veggies at home, I think of her. She’ll have gone back to her kholi too, up the well worn wooden staircase of her chawl room in the labour camp.

*     *     *

I’ve been out of town for a while. Taken a break from work to plan out a different course for myself. I’ve left my job and decided to focus on writing and painting. The transition from banker to writer, painter and (as it so happened) also mother, leaves little room to-– as the poet says-- ‘stand and stare’. But things eventually settle down and a semblance of a routine is established, which routine also includes a regular trip to the market.  I’m curious to see my friend again. Its been so long since I met her.

Sure enough they are still there sitting side by side under the rain tree. I take that familiar break to speak with her and ask how things are going. The son-– a strapping, tall, dark and broad shouldered young man is back from the village. Unable to farm, he sits on an upturned wooden crate staring at the garlic, waiting for an ‘office job’ to fall into his lap. Daughter’s marriage is postponed because the kitty that was saved up had to be sent back home to settle the brother’s debts. Of course, the tirade that this narration evokes is pure vitriol. Having spewed it though, she goes back, now calmed, to inspecting and priming the herbs before her while her husband smiles a sad smile with downcast eyes. She gives the bunch of mint leaves an extra vigorous shake and thrashes the curry leaves a little harder on the basket and life goes on as it always does.

*     *     *

Luckily, the son did finally get his office job. Though they paid him a pittance, my woman had a new sparkle in her eyes and the fact that the daughter too had been successfully married off added to their brilliance. The chaiwalla passes by and we order a cutting chai between us in celebration, raising a toast to this happy turn of events.

But the celebrations, unfortunately, are short lived.

“Yes, Rao has gone to the village. His brother’s wife, fed up with his drinking immolated herself. On seeing this Rao’s brother, sozzled as usual, then doused himself with kerosene and put a match to it.

The troubles just don’t end for my poor man. Took care of his brother like a child. Saw to his needs first and then the rest of us. Was available at his every beck and call, forgave him every time and spent the last paisa of our savings to get him out of trouble and the reward is this.”

A week later, sitting besides her on that same upturned wooden crate is a small seven year old boy with very dark skin, thick curly hair and large eyes that look almost kohl lined.

Who’s this? I ask.

“The nephew, of course. Both parents, with no sense of their responsibility, have killed themselves and now this orphan is here. An additional burden for me to take care of! How could I refuse? It’s family after all. We have to bear the responsibilities that life throws at us. So I said let him come. He’ll sit here with me and make himself useful. Unless he helps in the earning how am I to feed him?”

All this while the little boy sits there with an uncomprehending shy smile.

I’m angered at this insensitivity towards the feelings of the kid. A child rights activist might protest that the woman does not send him to school and is indulging in child labour.

Then, as the days go by, I see how soon he learns the genealogy of all the herbs, see how quickly he darts about running errands for her whom he now calls ‘aie’ (mother), how he hops to the car to deliver my bunch of coriander before the signal turns green, how his eyes light up when I call him by his name.

I also see how she stops the kulfiwalla as he walks by tinkling a bell, to buy the kid a rose flavored ice candy. He eats half of it and shares the rest with a wayside pup that he has, in turn, adopted. I see a woman who, with only a tenuous claim over this four by four feet of pavement, has taken care of her family, raised and educated her kids, held decency and honor as her prized possessions and has now included an orphaned boy into her life and taken on the responsibility to shelter him just as that enormous rain tree has sheltered her for the past forty years.

Then I look at the newspaper in which the little boy has handed me the garlic. The headlines speak of glittering scions of Indian Industry who are at each other’s throats, going to perverse lengths to seek restraining orders and injunctions against their own mothers, brothers and sisters to establish claims over property.

So I go home and put those headlines into the thrash bin and the garlic on the kitchen shelf from where I use it to heal my body, nourish my family and cleanse my soul.

- Anjali Purohit writes fiction and poetry. She also paints. She was one of the winners in the Commonwealth Short Story Competition 2008-09. Her book Ragi-Ragini was published last year. Left to herself, she aspires to be a vagabond—son, spouse, and dog willing. She holds a Ph.D. in Philosophy.

To see Anjali perform this story, click here.