Wednesday 20 December 2023

Short Story 2023 First Prize, Srabani Bhattacharya

 Green Mango More

The cry of “bhalo, bhalo shaag” rang out in the para (housing complex), silent as the tomb only seconds ago. A flight of pigeons followed the vegetable peddler’s assertive voice. The lean scruffy man dragged his cart slowly behind him, his shoulders and back strained forward, his body leaning sharply like a slanted arrow. A leather strap, attached to a spoke of the cart, hung on his shoulder which he pulled for eleven kilometres every other day from his village to transport his nomadic farm’s produce to the doorsteps of the middle-class housewives.

The vegetable peddlar’s specialisation used to be tender coconuts only a few months back. His cry, only recently, changed from “bhalo, bhalo daab” to “bhalo, bhalo shaag”. Shorod’s, for that is what he calls himself, repertoire grew from solely coconuts to lemons to all sorts of leaves humanly edible. The circumstances demanded it. The bajars had shut down. It was only these peddlers, who staggered their way to the homes of these mournful families, who were our rescuers.

“What does he eat all day, aunty? All the shops are closed!” Raya asked me.

As we weighed turnips and gourds huddled before his cart, I would have to patiently interpret to Raya, “He is quoting thirty for the mangoes,” while Shorod would hold up three fingers with a toothy grin and Raya would smile without a cue as she always did. Being a Manipuri girl with almost no Bengali words in her, Raya communicated with Shorod through vigorous gestures. She laughed and laughed at his useless attempts at marketing his wares. She waved at him looking down from the second-floor window like a child waving at a friendly old man who gives her sweets from time to time. She mimicked his words animatedly in broken Bangla: “bhalo, bhalo saag”, without comprehension and laughed, “he is so funny, aunty!” The only word whose meaning they both knew was “rukiye”, and she used it often, holding up her palm to indicate to him to wait. And she would hobble up the three flights of stairs to scavenge for coins and more smiles to pay him with. It was like observing a baby playing an interspecies game with a dog.

“You are right, Raya. It is indeed concerning,” I told her. In all her smiles, Shorod never heard her concerns.

A few days later, that signature call rang through the neighbourhood again. Many heads peeked out of their confined windows to inspect the spread Shorod had to offer to the womenfolk. Like always, he failed to disappoint and with his sardonic genial voice, he assured everyone how bhalo all the vegetables are. Everything was bhalo: The carrots that were prematurely grown because of the shortage of stocks, the blackened cauliflowers that were too small, the sick-looking lady’s fingers and most of all, the saag that could use some freshening.

I questioned the bhalo-ness of his worn-out cabbages to which he smiled and repeated, “Bhalobhalo kopi. Buy it and you’ll see for yourself.” He insisted on heaping three extra green mangoes in Raya’s laughing hands, loading extra green chillies into my bag and barred us from paying by stretching out his palms and tilting his head guiltily.

That evening, I heard Shorod’s name thrice as Raya talked animatedly to her husband in a language I did not speak. She laughed about it later to me, “I told Tenzen off for playing computer games all day. How active Shorod is. He works so hard, aunty”.

The next day I asked him, “You come all the way here to sell vegetables. Isn’t the walk very long? It’s so hot even in this weather. How do you manage, Shorod?”

He made a non-committal gesture and said, “My body has aches, boudi,” as if that answered my question.

But I wouldn’t let it go, “Do you take medicines?”
“Medicines?” he repeated as if I had spoken in Raya’s tongue.
“For your aches,” I clarified.
“I need to drink every day”, he said. “To dull the pain.”

I took some time to understand this and before I could reply, he said, “But liquor shops are all closed now, boudi.”

“What do you do then?”
“I drink taal juice.”
“Palm juice?” I repeated as if he had spoken in Raya’s tongue.

One day, Raya came up with the fair prospect of inviting Shorod for lunch.

“It is my birthday on Friday!” she said.

Much flourish was made by two women earnest to feed a man who lived on palm toddy. He accepted the invite with a toothy grin. Friday morning saw Raya rushing in and out of the tiny kitchen, puffing and heaving from the hot glare of the flames that flickered wildly in the gusty loo. Raya firmly refused my assistance on account of my ill health. So I sat on the roof with my plants and papers inhaling the aroma of basmati rice and salivating at the hiss of the ghee sizzling on the pan.

Shorod arrived looking humble and embarrassed to enter the house without a prospect of business. He seemed excited about a meal. Sitting him down in the hall on a square mat, we filled bowls and bowls of food items to encircle the large plate laden with a generous amount of white pulao. A bead of perspiration dropped down Shorod’s forehead. Raya, armed with pots and ladles, waited beyond the touchlines, ready to refill the bowls as they emptied, smiling widely as ever.

As more bowls appeared before him, Shorod gingerly broke some rice with his fingers and scattered them on the plate. He picked up the gravy bowl and put it back down. Self-conscious of two people scrutinising his movements, he picked up another bowl quickly and dumped the contents on the rice, mixed it and ate a little. Raya immediately set about refilling the emptied bowl.

After scattering a few more grains of rice, he gave up. He stood and apologetically took his leave. Raya’s enquiries, translated by me, receive vague answers of “I am not used to–too much–” He refused the offers to pack the leftovers for home.

The next time he pulled his cart in to see us, he ceremoniously insisted on giving us extra mangoes and convincing us how fresh the coconuts were. This time, Raya equally insisted on paying the extra coins which he simply rejected.

A connoisseur of all things sour, Raya would insist that I partake in her teeth-chattering raw mango pickle. I would get called to the roof every other day and handed over a plate of slender slices of the mangoes mixed with ajwain, mustard oil and black salt.

When my ailment prevented me for a few days from indulging, she insisted on making Shorod a victim of her sourness. Shorod scooped up the pieces Raya offered him with a smile and told her, “I make it for my kids, didi”. Nodding vigorously to his acceptance, she gave him some more.

Raya began to experiment. She produced mango jelly next, a sweet-spicy jam that shocked the taste buds before melting into an assorted blend of tastes. Shorod took only a dollop but his face broke into a wide smile, “Have you been making all this with my mangoes, didi?” he said with the kind of pride you feel when your child perfectly parrots the complete number tables. Next, Raya tried aam panna, a drink that summers in Calcutta cannot do without. He praised it as much as he praised his coconuts’ water. I joined in with enthusiasm encouraged by the success Raya has had.

One day, I dared, “I’ve made sour daal. Sour daal is good in these summer days, to beat the heat.” Shorod consented to a bowl of white rice mixed with daal soured with boiled green mangoes.

“Some water, boudi?” That’s all he asked, slurping the watery meal with gusto in the cool shade of the staircase where he tucked his blue striped lungi between his knees and squatted comfortably.

We continued trying different combinations, dishes we thought could be suitable for his palette. I added mango chutney, and rasam to Raya’s curry, mango murabba and more, hoping that they would somewhat fill his stomach up to sustain his daily prescription of palm toddy.

As April’s last heat rays gave way to the even hotter beams of May, Shorod’s signature call could no longer be heard. Neither of us realised for a few days. He wasn’t a regular peddler in our locality because of the heavy restrictions put in place. Other peddlers with more diverse stocks got their turns to make our lives easier still despite the situation. When five full days passed without his amicable call and when my preparation of raw mango rice had begun to smell funny, Raya said, “Won’t Shorod come anymore, aunty?”

We were sampling Raya’s newest batch of mango jelly while she listed off the successive recipes she had in mind. Not one of them without a dab of sour mango in it. “Next would be mango salad!” she announced. “Then, maybe something sweeter.”

Eventually, our obsession with green mangoes wilted. I stopped running searches of different combinations of “green mango recipes” on YouTube and Raya stopped calling me every afternoon to taste her recent concoctions. She, like I, stopped buying the hopeful raw mangoes altogether and as the heat worsened, the mangoes grew yellower and the leaves lost their green to the aggrieved anticipation of rain.

Late in April, I went out of the house after what seemed like a decade with a bunch of blood test reports and medical prescriptions. On Teghoria’s broad main road, looking out of place outside the tiny lanes he usually inhabited, I found Shorod pulling his cart haplessly along. A red cloth was tied to his forehead for some respite against the scorching sun shining red down on his head. He grabbed the end of the head-cloth to dab his neck and shoulders every few seconds. His voice seemed to have evaporated in the heat for I heard no call of “bhalo, bhalo shaag”.

“Shorod!” I called. He turned around but could not recognise me for a second. “It’s been a long time since I saw you in the para.”

He grinned toothily and proceeded to convince me to buy vegetables off him. Having no bags with me, I protested but he produced some bags of his own and stuffed a cabbage here and some sweet potatoes there. He also added quite a few green mangoes, “For didi,” he said.

“How come you don’t come home anymore?” I asked again.

“The policemen stands guard at the mouth of the lanes,” he said. “They said only three peddlers will be allowed in. Others cannot get through. It is because of the virus, you see? Less men the better. That’s what they said.”

“But can’t you take turns every day?”
“Three carts. They told me to go back,” his tone echoed the finality of the police’s prohibition.
“Why don’t you find a different locality, Shorod?”

“All the localities already have other peddlers. Your para was my haunt, boudi. But now, I am in the streets. There are no people in the streets anymore. Look at how empty it is. There are only these policemen around, and they ask me to go away.”

“You don’t get any business then?” He looked away and shook his head. “Yet, you walk here every day?”

“What else would I do, boudi?”

Raya proposed that we go to Teghoria the next day with some food for Shorod.

“The police won’t let us go out, Raya. Unless it is an emergency.”

“You can take some of your reports with you, no aunty?”

We went. Laden tiffin boxes hung heavy along with plenty of shopping bags, and we also carried some test reports for good measure. They did not stop us once we stated our purpose but warned, “The VIP road is a red zone, mark you. Do your business fast and go home.”

The lanes were deserted like they looked on the early morning walks I used to take, a lifetime ago. Not a person in sight. I thought of a dead city, where no living beings survived the virus. Doors and windows were shut, shops were barred, shutters were pulled. Riderless cycles and bikes were parked here and there. Cars looked like they had not been driven in a long while. All were weathered by the dusty heat of the unforgiving Calcutta summer. Even the birds and dogs had gone to seek shelter to escape the hot wind blowing in microbes and fatigue. Advertisements hung aimlessly at the shop’s entrances. “Unisex Salon & Spa” they broadcasted hopefully, “Full body massage and hair spa for the season starting from only Rs. 500/-”. The lack of noise troubled me more than it did the day before.

The main road had been forsaken by all things living. We walked up and down the once-bustling motorway. Ghosts of horns and conductors’ harried yammer prowled the corners of the abandoned tea shop. I decided to walk all the way to the test centre, which was a large pathology lab and clinic that could still boast of human activity. A policewoman clad in tight gloves and an N95 mask stopped us.

“The VIP road is a red zone,” she parroted.

“Have you seen a vegetable peddler?” I asked. “He has been frequenting this area for the last few days.”

“All hawkers have been sent away. There was a virus case in the lab yesterday. Didn’t you hear? A patient died. The clinic had to be closed down. No one is allowed further. Where do you women live? You best get home before the sanitisation team arrives.”

We took the food and the test reports back home.

Quite a few moons had passed since we last saw Shorod and his cart in our lane. Our lives went on. Shankar supplied the vegetables now. They were as fresh and green, if not more. In addition, he also offered milk, pulses, the occasional biscuits and neemkis made at home by his own wife. “I have applied for a special pass to sell fish too, boudi”, He told me brandishing a battered mobile phone. “Take my number. If there is any special food you want, just phone me. I will arrange. Even Alphonso mangoes, I will get for you.”

Later in the day, someone banged on the latch of the front gate. House-callers had become an extinct species since the lockdown began. Frowning, I rushed to the window and looked down. Shorod stood there in his blue lungi and red headband. His white vest was wet with sweat. He carried a brown sack over his shoulder.

Sitting on the marble floor holding an empty glass, he said, “I am going to go back my village with my family, boudi.”

“Where is your village, Shorod?”
“Midnapur,” he said.
“How will you go?”

“They said there are trains for us. But, there is not a bus on the road. We will walk to Sealdah station and wait for the train. But they told me, I have to register for the train to get a ticket.”

“I hear so.”
“But we always buy tickets at the station, boudi.”

“There are too many people who want to take the train, Shorod. If you don’t register early, you won’t get a ticket.”

“That’s what they said too, boudi. That’s why I came to you. I don’t have a phone or anything. They said we have to register on a computer.”

I called Raya down. She knew better about phones and computers. She greeted him with her easy smile and asked him many questions that I translated. She asked me to tell him that she could not find any registration links on the state government website.

“I hear people are going to the police station to register, Shorod. The policemen are helping them with the application.”

“Is that so?” He did not lose hope.
“What will you do if there is no space on the train, Shorod?” I asked, apprehensive.

He paused. “We will walk the rail line, boudi”, he said decidedly. “We have to go home. I have no money. My mother is there in the village. I cannot send her money. She will have nothing to eat.”

I gave him the directions of the local police station, some food to take with him (he did not protest this time), empty bottles that he expressed the need for, a bottle of Volini and all the analgesic tablets from my medicine cabinet, and money that he turned down.

Before gathering up the items and taking his leave, Shorod’s hands disappeared inside his brown sack. When he pulled them out, his arms were full. “They have become yellowish,” he stuck his tongue out. “But no matter. Some salt, some chili, some mustard oil and the taste will last you through the whole year’s wait for new mango buds to come on the trees,” he grinned at Raya. “The last of the green mangoes, didi.”

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