Thursday, February 5, 2009


At dusk we had to stop playing and return home. There was the daily ritual of the evening - "wash your hands and feet, light a lamp at the gods, say Shubham Karoti...., do your homework", while Aai put dinner together. After dinner though, there was often this yawning emptiness, before one had to get to bed. So often during those days, the family would go out for a walk, for no reason in particular.

The routes were often repetitive. Often on the street, we would catch the bread-vendor on his bicycle. "Narmada Bread" - there was only one brand, and I remember distinctly when they introduced something called milk bread. Later we had a choice when Kwality came on the market. The bread-wallah had a metal carrier on the back of his bicycle, which contained not only bread, but sometimes cakes and biscuits as well. Usually that encounter held the promise of a treat - the promise of toasted bread and omelettes for breakfast on Sunday - got me and my sister all excited and drooling.

We would eventually walk past some friends' houses, perhaps chat for a while, or go to the store to get some minor grocery item. In summer, being outside was a relief, as the concrete houses needed time to dissipate their heat. Fortunately, we were in the Malwa region, and its cool evenings in summer were famous. I do not remember us taking many walks in the winter though. Looking back, I wonder how we managed without any kind of heating in our homes.

Yet, this particular memory seems embedded in one of those cold, chilly nights. The air would usually be thick with low-hanging smoke from wood or coal fires, that drifted throughout and blanketed the colony. The already dim yellow street lights would look even more pale and hazy. Wrapped up in shawls, heads covered with monkey-caps, we often could not see well nor were we very visible to passing drivers.

Not very far from our house, near the boundary of the factory wall, there was an open-air storage yard for construction material. Usually that meant pipes, bags of cement, neat rectangular piles of bricks, and piles of sand and gravel. The security guard, who lived on the yard with his family, had built a small hut, with asbestos roofing and tin sheets or empty tar drums. I think they had seven children. The lady of the house, I think her name was Jamila, but I cannot remember now. We never used her name any way. We all referred to her as 'andewali' - the egg-seller woman. In her enclosed yard she had a dozen or so hens, and she sold some of the eggs they laid, the reason for our visit. Not sure how we found out that she had eggs to sell, but I feel happy, even today after all these years, that we did.

Most evenings when we went over, she was usually in the midst of cooking the evening meal, on a coal-burning stove in the open. Her children would mostly be playing around in the sand piles. The youngest would be on her lap and the oldest daughter helped with chores. I do not think any of the children went to school, but that is just an assumption now.

We would linger around the warmth of her stove, and the delicious earthy smells of her cooking. My mother watched her roll chapatis with fascination - recalled just last week, how andewali made the thinnest and softest chapatis she had ever known. Perhaps, I owe some of my skills in that domain to what my mother might have learned from watching andewali those days.

We knew they would have to leave that little home of theirs some day - when the construction project was completed. I remember thinking then, how they seemed completely reconciled and comfortable with the thought that they would have to dismantle their home and move, and not know where to. I think I felt concerned and insecure for them. I cannot recall the precise moment when it happened, but eventually there were regular grocery stores, and then even we built a coop on our terrace. (That was very unusual, but we loved the copious supply of fresh eggs).

We thought of her often and missed her for a long time after they moved. It could not have been just for the eggs, or the pleasure of that post-dinner walk, for there were times when she did not have as many as we needed, or had already sold all she had that day. I do not recall us being terribly disappointed in that case. After they had left, however, I do not recall us going out after dinner as much.

It is nearing 50 years now, since that time. My mother still distinctly recalls those thin chapatis, and I recall the image of this genial woman, her head often modestly covered with a scarf, so completely rooted in her flimsy and temporary world, with a smile warmer than her stove on a Bhopali winter evening.

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