Monday, January 02, 2006

The tomato seller

It is 5:00 p.m Indian Standard Time. I am standing on the first floor balcony of my ancestral home in Pune, Maharashtra. Well, to be accurate, my father built this house in 82 so it's not really old enough to be called ancestral, but that's how it feels to me each time I return home for a vacation. Having lived here most of my life, every square foot of this house is inextricably linked to childhood memories, most of which I look back on with a fond nostalgia.

Last night's binge with my school friends has my innards in turmoil. My stomach feels heavy and my head hurts, the pain in no way being mitigated by the fact that I am also gazing in the direction of a towering concrete monstrosity that has appeared in front of my house, where, in the past, there used to be woods full of tamarind trees and a field where sugarcane stalks used to wave in the breeze. I know development is inevitable, especially in this city, but I wish it wouldn't destroy familiar things during the process.

I look at the road below, which is an extremely quiet and secluded lane in comparison to the rest of Pune. I hear a high pitched voice crying something out in Marathi. I strain to hear what it is. Soon the bearer of the voice comes into focus, as does the content of his yell. He is a pittance of a boy, maybe 6 - 8 years old, pushing a cart full of tomatoes. He is crying out "tomato 3 rupaye kilo" in that singsong tone vegetable vendors throughout Pune have patented to advertize their wares. He is so short in stature that he is barely taller than the cart itself.

But something's wrong. He seems to be having some trouble pushing the cart. And as he passes my gate, I can see why. The tire of one of the four wheels of the cart is totally flat, and in fact, has come off the wheel itself and has gotten entangled with the axle. The cart refuses to budge. The tiny guy sits down on the tarmac and proceeds to try and pull the tire off the wheel. He sits there, trying to tear apart vulcanized rubber with his bare hands, and I can see that he's not making any progress.

I run downstairs to my mom who is hanging around the kitchen looking busy like a mom usually does. Do we have any scissors, I ask. Big ones, I add. Mom reaches into the filing cabinet of her mind and before 2 seconds have elapsed, I have the requisite scissors in my hands. I go outside armed with my tools.

I go up to the little guy who is still in the same position I left him in. I ask him "Katrini kapun deu ka tire?" (Should I try slicing through the tire with these scissors) The kid nods and relinquishes his position under the cart to me. I sit down and try to cut through the damn thing. It won't cut. I try to ascertain why. I see that there's an iron thread running through the rubber. Of course, I should have realized that. I then cut through the rest of the tire, leaving just the iron thread to be broken through. I run back inside for reinforcements.

Do we have anything bigger than a scissor, I ask my mom. My mom, somehow already apprised of the situation, has a pair of big rusty garden shears in her hands. I gulp as I take those from her hands and go back outside, ready to tackle the iron thread in the tire.

The kid is now tearing at the rubber tube inside the tire. Somehow, he has broken the iron thread. I slice through the rubber tube, again with just the iron thread left to be broken. I pick up the garden shears. The kid tells me, "He nako, he bagha asa karun te tutnar" (we don't need those, I'll show you how to break this) He bends the thread, again straightens it out. Again bends it. Again straightens it out. Pretty soon, it breaks. The oldest trick in the book. I feel foolish. The kid then pulls out the tire and throws it on his cart. He is ready to set sail.

I walk back to the porch where my mom is waiting for me. We watch the little tomato seller walk away with his cart full of 3 rupee kilo tomatoes just as other little kids of his own age pass him by, walking home from school with bags on their backs.

And as I watch him walk away, I feel the vapid selfish glow of satisfaction people from a privileged background like me usually feel when they bestow an act of charity on someone less fortunate, in order to assuage the biting guilt they experience for living a life that is so vastly different from theirs.


Cookie said...

Maybe you could have bought some tomatoe

Anonymous said...

Tomatoes are not indegineous to India

Deepak Shenoy said...

You get such amazing comments.

But I digress.

You gave him the scissors for the tyre (Indian spelling) and he gave you a management lesson on persuation vs. brute force. (Brains are fried. So analogies are crawling out of the woodwork)

Good story. The act of helping is so entrenched in the poorer section of society that it renders you absolutely helpless and fucked up in the head when they will help for no reason other than they couldn't think otherwise. At the higher end of society, every small bit of help rendered is somehow classified as a favour, or felt as one.

I'm part of the problem. Every once in a while I get this nirvana thing, and then I go back to a soulless existence. It hurts to be an atheist: I don't have a God to blame it on.

Anonymous said...

Very nice! I stumbled upon your blog and am finding myself reading all your posts. I like you writing style. I love this post in particular.


Anonymous said...

Have spent the last one hour reading through all your previous posts.A good part of that time I spent grinning at your statements. Came to this one and had to comment. This story really touched my heart...its the kind that brings a lump to your throat.

With seemingly effortless ease your writing can evoke both laughter and empathy.

You are a terrific writer.

Anonymous said...

agree with meenu's comment's last line :) but the thing abt this post i liked the most is how beautiful marathi sounds even when its written in english...My line manager is a Maharashtrian and so am i , but what a shame that i am unable to hold a conversation in marathi with her, despite all her attempts to make me speak lol Reason being -I speak wrong I mean BAD n broken marathi :( and am too shy to let everyone know abt it! :(