Beads of sweat accumulate on my forehead, beneath my armpits and along my back – making my shirt damp. It starts to look old when its damp, not that it is new anyway. As I use my finger to wipe off the sweat on my forehead, some drops land on the tomatoes and potatoes kept in baskets in front of me. I fan myself, aimlessly. I look at the people passing by, on foot and in autos, some in cars – the well to do ones. Will I ever be able to buy a car myself. I laugh at the thought and look up at the sky. Its gloomy grey; not a very good day for my business – of course I call it my business. You don’t need to be a cloth or diamond merchant to be called a business man – because no one likes to get out to buy vegetables when the clouds pour. They’d rather have plain parathas with pickle to save themselves from opening an umbrella and stepping out.
“Bhaiya do kilo tamatar aur ek bada gobhi dena.”
Ah! First customer of the day. I give her what she wants, she bargains a little and eventually settles for a price she wanted to pay. Little does she know I, too, wanted that price only. I think I’ll call it ‘the meeting ground’, where the customer and I both are satisfied.
I wonder what Sharda is doing at home, probably sleeping after sending the kids, Biswa and Chanda, to school. Of course my kids go to school! I want them to grow up to become doctors and engineers. Rather, anything they want to be, but a sabzi wala. They don’t understand what it takes to do what I do. But they are ziddi. They say they like life as it is now. They don’t want anything extra. I wonder why! Is it because they don’t know what more life can offer to them or do they just say it to make me feel happy about myself?
I took them to the cinema last week, after a long time in fact. Mohan suggested it to me. Mohan is the guy who sells vegetables beside my stall. He watches a lot of movies. But I think he does that to overcome his depression. His son died in an accident, he got divorced and the wife took their daughter with her. Human relations have become very fragile. No one cares about them nowadays. It’s like the puff of a cigarette. In and out and gone.
“Could I get a cigarette now though?” I ask them, expecting a no. But it is always worth a try.
I’m glad Sharda and I are not like that. Our bond is strong. She wouldn’t eat dinner before I get home, I’d make it a point to eat breakfast before I leave home, with her. I wish I could eat lunch also with her. Don’t I get bored? Doesn’t she get bored? That is something I should probably think about. I don’t know how I reached to my marriage from talking about the movie. Uff, what was the name? Old age I tell you.
I remember I had to stand in line for a while to get the tickets. There were four of us. My family, of course. The movie was about this mother who wanted her daughter to study but the daughter believed in the fact that since she is a domestic help’s daughter, she’d also grow up to become one. Is my daughter a sabzi wali now?
I get no replies.
I have stopped getting replies.
As I wake up from my evening nap – which I take behind my stall – I see kids returning from school, making a lot of noises. Chitter, chatter. My kids go to the same school and everyday on returning, they cross my stall, plant a kiss on my cheek each and leave for home. I wonder what they do on reaching home. I always ask them what they did at school that day, never about their day in general.
I think Biswas might just crack the UPSC exams, without tuitions. I am not paying for that; because of course I can’t.
“Who are you talking to?” There are voices around me. Faces even, maybe.
I really don’t know what happened that night. Surprisingly, it was a night after a bright sunny day, a rarity in the monsoons. The night was dark, cloudless, moonless. As I walked back home, after shutting the shop a black cat crossed my path. Now I am the last person to believe in all of this, but I stopped. Don’t ever dare walk ahead if a black cat crosses your path. It brings bad omen, Maa used to say. I have always obeyed her. Even today, many years after she passed away, I let someone else walk ahead. I look around. It’s late. I don’t really expect someone to come soon. I consider taking a detour but no. I go to a cigarette shop nearby and buy a Malboro Light and some mint. I don’t want my mouth to stink of smoke.
I stand there, by the road and smoke my cigarette alone. A song playing on the radio, ‘Lag Ja Gale’. I begin to hum it. Smoke accumulates in front of my eyes and settles against the low tin roof before the shop. A bike passes by. I can finally go home now. As I stub my cigarette, the tube light flickers. And as I leave, it returns back to normal. Another bad omen. I remember God and walk ahead.
As I approach home, when I’m just a block away, I see some boys on one boy, on the footpath. The victim is naked and tied. One of the few boys unzips his pant and I see something I’ve never seen in my life. I thought they just wrote about it. I silently walk home. I am greeted by Chanda and Sharda. Biswa won’t be home tonight, they tell me.
Next morning, when I am off to work, I see that naked boy lying there. It is too early in the morning for people to gather around him and make a scene. I go close by, and then I walk away, as if I saw nothing.
It is a busy day at work, but I leave for home around noon. I’m disturbed. I see an ambulance outside my block. I rush towards home. Sharda and Chanda leap towards me on seeing me. I know what has happened.
“I saw him,” I say.
“Saw who?” Sharda asks me.
“Him. Biswa. In the morning, on my way to work.”
She looks at me, and that was probably one of the last times she did.
“Who are you talking to?” Those voices ask me again. Voices in white blazers. Voices who don’t really care.
The face of the rich kid, passing my stall, in his fancy car that day flashes in front of my eyes and I fall to the ground, startled.
“Mohan,” the voices shout and pick me up…