by Raju Peddada
© 2008 Raju Peddada
"He who cannot change the very fabric of his thought will never be able to change reality, and will never, therefore, make any progress"
—Anwar Sadat"Disappointment to a noble soul is what cold water is to burning metal; it strengthens, tempers, intensifies, but never destroys it."
(Swans - April 20, 2009) Don't drink the tap water! Don't eat outside! Put on a mask when going out and don't touch anything! You don't want Pepto-Bismol to be half of your diet! Paranoia paralyzes many a traveler from the west going to the far-east, but is it really that bad? I seem to get sick more frequently from exotic strains of viruses brought home by the boys from schools here in the States than I did on the continents of Africa and Asia, where I traveled for ninety days last year. The only protection I armed myself with was a homeopathic remedy called "Arsenicum Album." Thanks to this simple alchemy, I never succumbed to anything other than curiosity. However, with my lousy luck, I didn't want to take chances with the air- and water-borne microbes there. To have immunity, it became essential to institute a strict regimen of sleep, exercise, and careful eating during my entire stay. My adherence to these three essentials was irregular at best, and fortunately I never did come down with anything.
My aunt, who is actually my age, is a kinetic personality constantly occupied with housework. She dealt hospitality daily serving the constant inflow and outflow of relatives with three meals a day, most of whom came with an entitlement mindset. She always looked sleep-deprived, waking up before the world and hitting the bed after ten at night. Still, the mileage did not show on her. During our stay at our uncle's place in Kukatpally, a Hyderabad suburb, I took morning walks with my aunt.
Every day at predawn, a tandem of melodies would coax me out of sleep; the rooster's workmen-like wake up call, and the nightingale's cooing that ordained that hallowed morning and the day ahead. After a cup of indigenous invigorating coffee, my aunt and I would go on our walk. Once on the street, the cool easterly breeze off the lake brought the smells of a stirring neighborhood. Wafting aroma of coffee followed by feculent smell from the surrounding area, suddenly to be blanketed by the fragrance of flowers. The predominant aroma in those early hours was from a white, six-petal morning blossom called "Parijatam" that bloomed in the wee hours and fell at the foot of the bush, looking like egg shells from a distance. My aunt and I would gather these and carry them in our palms during the walks, occasionally whiffing at them to ward off any evil smell. The fragrance of this flower seeped in a melancholic mood in me. In Delhi, in the '60s, we had a big bush of this flower with deep green sand-paper like leaves in our front yard. Every morning my mother would gather all the flowers for her prayers. It was a daily ritual in the fall, before I walked to school.
My aunt is a blistering walker. Her deceptively frail frame belied her pace and endurance. In my misguided hubris, I thought of slowing down for her, but was rudely rectified. She walked forward inclined, quickly replacing steps, giving the impression that if she did not replace her steps fast enough under her forward leaning frame, she would fall flat on her face. She unleashed this pace on me all though our 4 to 5 kilometer walks every morning, and this rumbled my bowels. Two antipodean concepts dawned on me, here she fed us these three square meals a day, and then in the morning would proceed to rattle my bowels for that day's forthcoming menu; it felt like a set up. At the conclusion of our walks, I would literally take off by the turn to their apartment going straight to the toilet. All my muscular deterrence was summoned in to keep my bowels from their mutiny. And what a relief it was afterwards.
Every morning the route was the same; after exiting her apartment building, we would turn right and then a first turn left which lead to the main boulevard. We walked every day past small open stores, school students in uniforms waiting for their buses, men and women walking with their lunch carriages to bus stops, roadside food shops brimming with customers, bitches with snarling dogs in tow, old hunched folks walking, and the occasional rooster scampering in protest. One such food shack drew my attention. During our walks we passed this place that beckoned us with fresh and familiar aroma from the smoky inside, but what really ignited my curiosity was this tall, lithe, regal figure wearing ownership and a bright saree gliding about her establishment with assured insouciance. It looked dark, steamy, and active in her place, full of breakfast customers who quietly went about their business. For me it was scene of innocent quaintness, a refuge, where white clad gentry sat in the smoky semi-darkness looking to the outside with their chewing mouths, as if to prolong this short reverie, before their daily grind.
It felt like a nest that temporarily thwarted the brutal reality. There was another woman, I guess her assistant; these two tall, delectably curvy ladies crisscrossed the semi-ambient interior like threads on warp-weft loom, weaving nutrition and survival. I gathered that these two "artists" deftly balanced their food-shack operation like a team of a surgeon and a nurse. As days dissolved I saw the silent operation again and again, with men washing their hands and reaching for their wallets, and the magisterial hand taking the cash with a hint of smile. She looked calm with an affirmation, spoke softly moving fluidly. This mysterious apparition intrigued me. What was her story, I wondered? Why did she appear the picture of fulfillment, and yet was here? I felt there was some incongruity here, a paradox with her presence in this ramshackle enterprise. I stopped one day with my aunt and took in the smells, and as I looked at her, she reeled off her menu and welcomed us inside. I promised myself to know her story.
In the meantime, on November 20, my best friend came by bus from Bombay to see me. He arrived famished, so I took him to her place. Since it was around 2:30 pm the place was empty and the only thing available was Upma, which we ordered. It was the best Upma we ever had (a concoction of piping hot cream of wheat with peanuts, herbs and spices regularly served as breakfast as well as a meal in south India). Despite the rustic appearance, the interior was clean, organized and efficient, I was not surprised. As my buddy and I bantered about the past, I peered at the intriguing interior. There was a third woman who was cutting vegetables in the back, and on the side were two professional electric grinders busy churning the batter for the next day. Rudimentary furniture gave the interior an unfinished rustic look. After seeing my friend off the next afternoon at the bus stop, I made for the food-shack. She was not there, so I asked her tall assistant for the best time to catch her for a talk, with an inquisitive expression she said around 3:00 pm was easy time for her.
The next day I stopped by at 3:00 pm sharp -- she was punctual, too. In the afternoon, the piercing sun of the western sky shot through the blue tarp like a scanning laser's wide shaft, highlighting the smoke and dust particles in a vivid marbling dance, reminding me of a marbleized hand-made paper. I could not resist taking a picture. I looked at her sitting down in front of me on a stool. She was in her mid-thirties, tall, and carried her incendiary figure with utter disregard for the effect it had on the customers. Her black hair was braided and topped by jasmine flowers, whose fragrance enveloped me before she sauntered over to me. Her face was symmetrical with a traditional red (Bindi) dot on the forehead signifying her marital status, an aquiline nose, unpainted magenta lips, slightly stained teeth from pan, and her sharp eyebrows shaded those deep, almond-shaped eyes projecting equanimity and a kind of resignation with a hint of amusement. The eyes hid everything, but the rest of the face was engaged in an enigmatic smile...like that of Mona Lisa. I sat looking out to the street, as she sat in front of me facing the interior with her slender left arm on the rustic table. A backlit glow from outside silhouetted her distracting figure. As I drank my tea, I greeted and thanked her for joining me. I told her I was a writer and wanted to write about her and her place. Here is my translated conversation with her.
"Please tell me your story."
This woman had depth and was street sharp with all her experiences; she embodied irony and lived in metaphors, and was going to answer my thoughts rather than my euphemistic questions.
"You don't fit the scene here...what circumstances...?"
"Nobody ever fits their scene; Karma forces us to these scenes."
"Hmm... What is your name?"
She looked down, paused a while and started without eye contact. I turned on my recorder.
"I am Laxmi and my husband is Srini-Rao. It's a family operation."
"Where did you come from?"
"From Naggilanka near Vijayvada...came here twelve years ago...tossed by fate."
"Where are your folks? What made you leave that place and come here?"
"Why do people leave their place of origin and go elsewhere? Either loss of prestige or for money in a society like ours."
"Like most societies...It would be helpful if you didn't answer my question with a question."
"I think you have been out of this country too long."
"Yes, please continue."
She gets up without excusing herself, and attends to a customer, then issues some orders in the back and returns. She catches me looking at her figure, adjusts her saree to cover her waist, and sits with her left arm under her chin, revealing her armpit dampness through her vermillion blouse, and spilling her posterior beyond the edge of the stool.
"We are Choudharies from that region, and Choudharies are usually very successful folks. But my grandfather, the village president for Ellakuru, and father squandered all the family wealth...we were reduced to nothing. You know well what happens when a family loses its financial standing in a village, especially with young girls to be married, right? We were forced into servitude from an early age; my mother raised us; we worked odd jobs to survive...real tough life with no expectations or a future...also saw some real horrible things that still keep me awake at nights. My only sister lives in Nimmakuru... My arranged marriage took place when I was seventeen. I didn't have a choice; he came along and my mother acquiesced."
"What were the horrible things you saw or heard off?"
"It is difficult, I don't want to get into that... like I said, it still makes me sit up at nights."
She looks down for a while. It must have been bad, perhaps they themselves were the victims. She was quite reticent, and I did not want to push it. From what I had heard, girls from families in financial doldrums disappeared into prostitution, married off to any bidder to be rid of the burden, or even violated to settle old debts, and sometimes beaten up if they resisted.
"What was your husband like...after marriage?"
She keeps quite for a while looking far off, then looks straight at me and answers.
"He is okay...but very rash, harsh, and always smoldering like coals. He is tight fisted when it comes to money, good for business, but always severe and impatient. I am patient and generous...we are the opposites. At home it is the same as it is here, no warmth or fun."
Touching her forearm tenderly I asked: "Did you ever experience love...any intimacy?"
"Does that really exist? ...Never experienced intimacy in the twenty years I have been married. I don't know what love is...like in the movies."
This beautiful woman with all her patience and fortitude had probably been forced on her wedding night. Reality is stranger than fiction -- imagine living without intimacy -- and yet she looks fulfilled, or is it? This charming and tender mother, wife and businesswoman hid her hard compassionless, companionless and dysfunctional life behind the most disarming smile. As much as tenderness I could see in her...conversely, she is a product of tender-less and inconsolable childhood...of squashed innocence and relentless servitude.
"You are so beautiful... Has your husband ever acknowledged that?"
She blushed, gathered herself, smoothed her temple hair behind her ears; at this point we had a good rapport as she became comfortable. There was also an undercurrent. I saw no hint of vanity in this succulent woman, even though her posture and body language would lead you to the contrary. I have seen woman with half her looks, having everything, make paroxysmal demands and nag incessantly. This woman had less than nothing of what most ordinary woman had, and yet, she defeats desire and privations with a certitude that sent shivers of down my spine. Here is woman who has known nothing but circumstantial servitude, yet seems to represent the glory of womanhood.
"No! Good looks are a curse when you are down. It becomes a tool for exploitation and barter. It really doesn't serve any purpose other than bring false hope. I wish I did not look this way, at least I could have had peace of mind and be left alone."
"I gotta tell you, in America most old woman paint their faces and fluff up their hair on balding heads to look younger, and are addressed in public as 'young woman'... What keeps you smiling and going?"
She laughed inquisitively at what I said, but abruptly her smile vanished as we both hear a sharp puttering of a two-stroke-engine moped easing to a stop by us, and she gets up. Her husband, who indeed looked grim and strained with a stubble, gets off the bike, rapidly unloads a hemp sack of vegetables, takes some cash, speaks with her briefly, and rides off, leaving us enveloped in a cloud of pungent smoke from the exhaust. She comes back to her stool saying: "That was my husband." A murky character, I thought. There was probably more to this man than she let on. I again asked her my question.
"Smile is the only thing that is left that I completely own...everything else is taken. And my children...I smile for the sake of my children...to keep the insanity at bay; they are our main focus, not profits as many think, they are our way out."
"Tell me, what did you do after marriage?"
She gives me a sly grin for the double-barreled question, but decides to answer the harmless one, getting serious.
"We engaged in aquaculture...fisheries raising prawns. After three years we had to give up as losses mounted."
"I thought this was good business from what I had heard."
"So did we, but some kind of virus infected our shrimp batches and they all perished...and so did we in that business, it wiped us out. We desperately needed a change, and we thought that change of location would do good...without having to deal with all the creditors and gossip, so, we moved to Hyderabad...had relatives here, but never sought their help."
She makes eye contact with me in glazed eyes; it telegraphed her pathos.
"It must have been difficult... how did you get started here?"
"Very...twelve years ago, we arrived here with few rupees and looked for jobs, literally living on the street. We worked at any job that offered pay. My husband worked at a salt company for six years and I slaved away at a nursery that developed 'tissue cultures'. We stumbled a lot trying to do something for regular income as the kids needed money for education. I did tailoring for a while and then engaged in producing pickles with chili powder."
"Tough experiences...free education?"
"Too many...cannot trust your own people, don't ask money...be independent, even if you are starving...life tuition continues. Being a woman I am more afraid of gossip than cruelty itself. The biggest slap that woke us was that we never had an education...we are now focused on correcting that with our kids' education. My son, 18 years old, is doing computer science in pre-college, and my daughter, 19, is in Chennai doing a bachelor's in pharmacy. Her tuition alone is a hundred thousand rupees [about $2000] a year. We scrape every paisa for them."
We were interrupted as we overheard a loud jesting conversation behind us. Some familiar customers walked in and complained to her assistant saying:
"How come she never ever sits with us and we are here almost every day?" Her assistant retorts: "have you looked yourselves in the mirror?" to which everybody breaks out guffawing.
"Is this place the answer?"
"We were lucky -- in 2004, a local plot owner first allowed us to set up on his lot, now he is looking for rent, but we're doing okay here. My husband buys milk wholesale...reseals in small plastic packets and delivers them to all the households here. My son also delivered milk for a while. We have had one thief as an employee in 2005; he took all the cash and vanished. Now Bujji, my assistant, is just great. She has been with me for two years and can be trusted to operate completely on her own. My husband sleeps here for security, and I arrive here at 5:00 am everyday. Customers start arriving for breakfast at 7:00 am which drags on till 11:30 am; then we serve lunch from 12.30 pm through 3:00 pm and after tea close at 9:30 pm. We decide the menu everyday in the morning...and all service is by me and my assistant. Sometimes I have thoughts of this coming to an end...and my children forced into this wretched cycle."
"What do you serve, and oh...what did you name the place?"
"Pavan Sai Tiffin Center, named after my son. Our breakfast menu is pretty simple vegetarian stuff like rice dumplings, pancakes, and herbed cream-of-rice or wheat with coffee or tea. Lunch is also simple, like a bean-legume soups with herbs, mango or tomato, seasonal vegetables cooked with mild herbs and rice; we don't use heavy spices...rather mild. What we cannot eat ourselves, we don't serve the customers...quality is like at home as we cannot afford sloppiness."
I thought she was a real professional.
"You have rolled with each punch, ever body blow, and kept getting up... What makes you tick?"
She smiles ruefully again, passing her slender fingers over her left forearm and asks me:
"What is interesting in this story...it is like millions of others out there?"
"You first," I said.
"I have lived in an invisible cage all my life, struggling for freedom to breathe, and battling for some relief. Sometimes I feel cornered by this life. I have often had nightmares of some apparition that I cannot recognize suffocating me, like a huge blob that I cannot release myself from, but what can I do, other than fighting and keep fighting? I don't think I am unique in this, this is basically the tale of all those washer woman, vegetable vendors, milk sellers, sanitation workers, cleaners and sweepers and drifters that had been pummeled by fate for the want of education. It is my kids' education that keeps me energized...I have a lot of battle left in me."
"I'll tell you why your story is inspirational... There are a lot of people in 'fat' countries that have given up, like the one I come from, where they simply collect money from the government and live off of others... I think you could give them hope as well as lessons in survival. I see that despite all your problems, you are a picture of physical perfection and mental health. I cannot see this where I come from. Did you know that we have eating disorders and doctors to treat our anxieties and depression?"
She exclaimed incredulously,
"It can't be true... You are embarrassing me, we are just inglorious street people, like thousands of others, that have lost the way, and only trying desperately to get back to the right path...which I at least learned is education."
It was 4:15 pm and the afternoon tea customers started to pour in. She got up, asking me to come and have lunch the next day, which I did. Not surprisingly, the lunch was simply ethereal in simplicity, craftsmanship and delivery.
Two days before I left India, I invited my uncle and his family to a five-star restaurant called "Pongal" for dinner. The atmosphere inside was sumptuous, the lady host and servers were delectable; however, the 3,000 Rupees dinner was a bitter culinary experience. The bloated bill precipitated a mental sojourn back to that food-shack, which for its atmospheric privations was inversely proportionate in quality and the beauty that served it. Twenty-four hours before I left for the airport, I stopped by to have tea at Sri Laxmi's shack. I told her it was my last day. She did not speak -- she quietly sat on a stool with her slender hands in her lap facing me in thought. Was there trouble at home? I wondered.
She got up, I followed and approached her, and picking up her right hand I put 500 Rupees in her palm and folded it, asking her to buy herself a saree. As she resisted saying "next time I'll take it" I saw a distant look in her eyes. She was somewhere far away, and the connection an impossibility. I told her, "don't know when our paths will cross again, but thanks for giving me the gift of your story and all the inspiration" and walked quickly away into my own melancholic thoughts. Later, on the way to the airport, I meditated that honor, dignity, regality, and focus were not defined by material opulence or personal vanity; they were in fact products of courage, restraint, fortitude, and perseverance; and that if there was a queen of Kukatpally, it had to be her.
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