“You don’t get such vegetables anywhere else in the city. Why don’t you come and see for yourself. Actually, the trip is a laugh riot with the kind of characters I encounter. The lady who sits at the beginning is a real aggressor. No one can escape her claws. Then at the end sits this Godfather figure, her territory is well defined and she has an army of boys selling the vegetables.”
She used to explain this to me every time she made the long trip from our farm house in Sopan Bagh to the market. She found happiness in the little things of life. Dramatic moments for her were just waiting round the corner. She and her endearing ways. I can still see her moving her hands in the air or touching her hair while trying to coax me into doing something I would definitely hate.
“No way can you drag me there to buy vegetables. Actually, I might just come one day to check if you are having an affair with the Subziwala you keep talking about!”
I smiled to myself. Ironically, I am here but there is no one to check on. We married straight away after completing our post graduation from the Symbiosis Management Institute. We had mutually agreed to settle in Pune. We both loved the city; here’s where we had found love. I still remember the day she was fighting with the real estate agent for having given her flat to me and my flatmates.
“How could you do this when you had committed to us?” Trying to appear confident and talking animatedly, holding on to the last thread of hope.
“Whoever pays me first, I give it to that person.” Replied the broker, a born crook, he was always double dealing.
My heart went out to the poor girl alone in a new city. “I know some other good places on rent for which you can try. If you want I can take you around.”
Her laughter and innocence drew me to her from the first instant. It was a heady concoction. I was the typical introvert, quiet, just listening to her talk all day was fine by me. She was an out and out extrovert, chatting non - stop till I had to tell her to stop. I used to play a game with her, “Your time starts now. Let me see if you can sit in total silence for the next 5 minutes.”
Of course she could not!
And then one day there was no more talking, no more laughter, no more her....
A year back on this ill fated day, 26th of November, 2008. I lost Aditi forever.
My reverie did not last long as the stench of meat hit me right outside the gates, transporting me back to the Bombay airport, which greets all unwelcome non-residents like this. I had planned a surprise getaway at the Taj Colaba, for our anniversary which unfortunately falls on the 26th of November. That day be damned!
I wish I could butcher that day out of my life like those slaughtering the innocent animals outside on my left. These were humans who could draw blood and sit with it the whole day. Not being able to bear the sight and smell, I rushed inwards towards the warm tavern of vegetables.
I let out a sigh of relief and took a deep breath. The familiar smell of farm fresh vegetables wafted towards me and captured my senses. I found myself drowning in the aroma of cabbages, tomatoes, onions were welcome too. The dazzling array of colours- yellow and red bell peppers, purple brinjals, green zucchini; I could sense Aditi’s pleasure at this display of colour.
Bright red tomatoes shone like the missing sun in the early evening. The hues of different vegetables sitting on a bed of potatoes reminded me of the rainbow over the mountains. It felt like a time capsule- frozen in a private moment with Aditi, me, and her favourite vegetables. The day was no longer dark and murky but alive with incessant voices and colours jumping out of an old world market fete.
“See Nitin, I told you this place is amazing. There is no place like this in Pune.”
Did I just hear Aditi? Or was my mind up to tricks again. This happens all the time. She is my silent companion. I would imagine what Aditi would say to something or the other and our conversations would then continue in my head.
Her face had shone like the colours around when I broke the surprise for her.
“I am impressed. A romantic escapade outside the city! You have never taken me somewhere like this before. At least, now I can die in peace since I can argue in heaven with other women about who had the most romantic husband.”
Her laughter still resonates. Little did she know her last desire would come true. Very soon. The scene flashes in front of my eyes like it has millions of times before. We had just finished our dinner at Wasabi, her preferred Japanese restaurant at the Taj. I remember her face flushed with happiness. She had never looked more enchanting. Even after five years of marriage our loved had not jarred.
I was jolted from my trance by a rude call sounding almost like a demand- “Take tomato and onion. Very good, big big. I give you best rate”; the lady in front had sprung into action the minute she saw me.
“Yes yes! I will buy them but let me go inside at least and check out some more vegetables.”
I tried to wiggle away politely. The shoppers’ guilt of browsing wares and not buying, while sellers try their best to make a sale, always racks my conscience. I have never been able to identify with the concept of browsing or window shopping. She managed to sell me tomatoes while I kept begging her to let me go. She had got claws all right!
I was taken aback by the sheer number of women vendors. No need for women reservation here it seems; some pleasant, some attacking, passive spectators, chatterboxes, mere parrots vomiting the list of vegetables.
A calm lady vendor saw me looking lost and tried to help, “You come for first time. I am working past 40 years. What you looking? Where is wife? Call her, ask her what she wants. ”
Was she mocking me? Did she know Aditi?
To avoid her question, I asked her, “What about your husband. Does he not help you? Why is he not here?”
“No, no. I sit here looking at the stall while he goes off on some other work. Then we meet for lunch.”
Lunch. Hmmm. Today, I will celebrate our anniversary and have dinner alone. This is what I had promised her. The D- Day when I cook her desired dishes with my own hand.
“Will I live to see the day you cook a meal for me.” Aditi used to lament often.
“I promise next anniversary I will cook for you.”
What a joke God played on me. I am cooking... sure! The only difference is I am the only one eating.
I walked on languorously till I reached the other end. This area looked segregated from the rest. There was this big fat lady in a saree sitting atop her small mountain. So this must be Aditi’s Godfather figure. I was amused. Complementing her character, her boys did not fall in the stereotype of the local Sabziwala. The main guy wore trousers and shirt and could name the vegetables correctly. Her shop had a superior air, a colonial hangover, as she was the only one selling the so called English vegetables.
“Don’t they look deliciously tempting? This is the place I used to buy my stuff.”
She spoke again. So this is it. I could feel her presence everywhere. Her fragrance mixed with the kitchen spices and her floral perfume. Did she touch the table here? She must have haggled with that woman. God knows if she managed to get a discount from her. These women don’t give up; they will carry a purse worth thousands but would not leave that one rupee extra to the vegetable vendor.
Fascinated with the Godmother’s kingdom I stood transfixed. The main guy was armed with a cell phone and a diary; it was no less than a corporate house amongst the other small players. Home delivery is a service they offer to their privileged customers; I realised when the guy gave me his visiting card.
“How are your vegetables different from others?” I inquired from Ramesh. (His name was proudly sitting on the top of the card)
“Well, we get them straight from the farms of Baramati not like the others who buy from Market yard. You don’t get stuff like this in the city.” He made the sales pitch. This guy, who must have never gone to one of the umpteen business schools, could put us management graduates to shame.
He convinced me to buys vegetables worth 500 Rupees. The czarina of the market did not even bother convincing or interacting with me. She chose to remain aloof and not network with us mortal small time customers; gave me back my change without a glance. I felt small, standing, looking up at her while she sat on her high seat.
Some stalls were lying vacant like my life felt at that moment. Some were full of brown sacks bursting with fresh produce. I wondered why some stalls were empty ...had recession hit here as well. Recession or not, people don’t stop eating, right! Only those who have suffered stop eating or that is what I thought.
After that last meal with Aditi I have not been to a hotel. Every place has her stamp on it. There is not one place in Pune we had not been to. She liked to try new places and cuisines. I was a simple Dal – Chawal guy but I went to please her. She loved ordering; the more the merrier.
“Why do we need to order food for 100 people? Who will finish all this?” I used to complain indulgently.
“Silly, we will get all this packed so I won’t have to cook tomorrow.”
I chuckled. She was a total foodie. Cooking was her hobby and she loved cooking exotic dishes which were a waste on me, given my no-fuss attitude towards food. She was so full of life and energy; her only desire had been to explore the whole world. Her humble journey ended all because of me. Yes me. If I hadn’t booked that cursed package on 26/11 she would have been here right beside me, celebrating our fifth anniversary.
No amount of psychotherapy will rid this guilt out of me. She is dead while I live. Why did those terrorists choose her? Why couldn’t it have been me? For God’s sake why her, of all people!
She had not wronged anyone. What about all the sayings ‘Acche logon ke saaath aacha hi hota hain’. Bullshit!! Kuch aaccha nahin hota hain!
We had been strolling in the main lobby of the hotel enjoying a moment of satiated peace. Those masked men just came into the hotel out of nowhere. They were men send straight from hell by Satan. Before we knew what was happening I could hear mind deafening bullet sounds- yellow flames shooting out of big guns- Ak-47s, people ducking here and there. The manager on the reception fell dead. There was chaos and the cacophony of voices drowned my scream. It was already too late.
Before I could hold her hand to duck, she had been pushed by people behind her, trying to escape, straight into the line of fire. I saw her frail frame fall limp on the ground.
“Are you Ok?” I looked up to stare at the Godmother’s concerned face.
I was perspiring holding on tightly to the vegetable basket. “I am ...Ok...Fine.”
“You look like you are in terrible pain. I thought you were about to faint.” She called to somebody. “Ae chotu. Ek stool lana sahib ke liye.”
“No no! I am fine. Just pack me all these vegetables-bell peppers, zucchini, leeks.” I could not go on. Had to sit down for a minute. Catch my breath.
Suddenly, everyone stood up and there was silence. Only the creaky radio was heard over the silent murmurings.
“Please stand up for a moment of silence to pray for all the brave souls who have lost their lives last year in the tragedy of 26/11.”
So the nation remembers. Each year in such attacks, people worth a small country’s population, are lost in India. The government shells out some lakhs which anyways never reach the deceased family. Is that all they can do? Silence for a moment. What about broken families? People who are left to live this morbid existence called life. Can they rebuild my life? Can they give my wife back?
The two days that I was locked up in that suite, were hell. The very luxurious suit had turned into a jail trap. Somewhere her body was lying in a pool of blood. She was no more...but I was. I felt totally disconnected with reality and there was no meaning to life any more.
For the hundredth time I blamed God for not letting me die with her. What do I have to live for now? I called out loud to the masked men to kill me. Kill me. Had even tried to put myself in front of the fire but the bullet just went past me.
I heard sobbing from behind.
“Ammi, Rehman kahin nahin gaya. Woh hamare beech rehta hain. Woh khudha ka bandha tha uska jaana likha tha. Ab rona bandh karo uski rooh ko taqleef hogi aapko rota dekh.” Ramesh was consoling the Godmother.
(Dont cry mother, Rehman’s soul will not rest in peace if he sees you crying.)
I asked Chotu who Rehman was.
“Her son. He was there in the Taj hotel last year. He was a waiter. They killed him. He was a Muslim but they killed him.”
The Godmother looked up. Her eyes had the same vacant expression mine had in the morning, as I stared at the mirror questioning my very existence. There was immense pain in those white waters where her black boat was sinking.
Tears were rolling down each person’s cheek. Everyone had lost someone it seemed. It was a scene from a Greek tragedy with the end in mass catharsis.
An image tore through my head from the story of Buddha.
A woman named Kisagotami had lost her first-born son. She was so struck with grief that she roamed the streets carrying the dead body asking for help to bring her son back to life. A kind and wise man took her to Buddha.
Buddha told her, "Fetch me a handful of mustard seeds and I will bring your child back to life." Kisagotami started off to get them. Then the Buddha added, "But the seeds must come from a family that has not known death."
Kisagotami went from door to door in the whole village asking for the mustard seeds, but everyone said, "Oh, there have been many deaths here", "I lost my father", I lost my sister". She could not find a single household that had not been visited by death. Finally, Kisagotami returned to the Buddha enlightened, "There is death in every family. Everyone dies. Now I understand your teaching."
Buddha said, "No one can escape death and unhappiness. If people expect only happiness in life, they will be disappointed."
If I lost my Aditi, She had lost her Rehman. Someone else had lost their someone. I had never felt so connected with the universe as I felt at that point of time.
This was a microcosm, almost like the Buddhist Mandala, enclosed within the outside world, the consecrated inner circle; bustling with the energy of families sitting here for generations, selling enough food to feed the whole population.
A sense of camaraderie prevailed amongst the various vendors selling the same vegetables day after day. No divisions of caste, class, gender. The Hindu and Muslim vendors borrowing vegetables and change from each other to service their customer.
I realised that terrorism has no religion. Will I stop buying from that old Muslim Uncle looking like a Magi with the lines of wisdom under his eyes shining with tears?
Life goes on...
“You are trying to escape from the promise you made to me. It is time you start cooking if we are to have dinner.” Her voice whispered in my ears.
“A promise is a promise. Have I ever broken a promise made to you? So we have a date today?”
“Well! I suppose you do.”
Her laughter engulfs me and I am lost in her warm embrace.
(-- Anubha Doshi was a participant in the weeklong creative writing workshop held in July 09, facilitated by artist-writer Dipalle Parmar.)