When I was ten, I lived in the older side of Calcutta. It was a small neighborhood of four-five blocks. There were a lot of old buildings, open fields,a dirty pond,a hundred year old theater,too many people and carnivals that happened all year round. One could get hold of almost anything just by stepping out. From the tea stall right outside my house to the milk guy next to it. An old temple to the left and a small cheap alcohol shop to the right. Within a radius of half a kilometer, we had it all. Paint shops, stationary shops, bedding and carpets, dance classes, goldsmiths, vegetable vendors, carpenter shops, pipes and fixtures, some small businesses, some big, you name it.
One such small establishment was that of the bajji lady who had set up her business across the street. She used three old blankets torn and hand sewn at different places for the roof of her shop. Apart from that she had a small jute stool that she sat on and a bag full of fresh vegetables by her side that she chopped and mixed with the batter, deep frying them in some hot oil on a wood fire stove. After each sale she would pull out a small green pouch hidden under her thighs, put the money in it and safely tuck it back there.
Her bajjis were famous all over the locality. Almost everyone had bought bajjis from her at some point, on some occasion. They were fresh, tasty, were fried the right amount. She only sold three kinds of bajjis, those of potatoes, eggplants and onions. They costed three,four and five rupees each.
Every Saturday, especially during the monsoons, my mother routinely gave me ten rupees which was a fairly decent amount back then to go and buy different kinds of bajjis for the entire family. We consumed them hot with puffed rice and hot milk tea. She occassionally gave me a quiet smile along with two free bajjis once she recognized my face and always said “Come back again.”. I usually kept the change.
She had one more competition two blocks down the road by a young man, Rana who sold bajjis along with cheap daily meals for twenty rupees. But his bajjis were usually cold and sometimes stale so he was always one step behind the bajji lady. Some said the young man also used to beat his wife up, a rumor that significantly deterred his business.
She was a woman of sixty five or so I assumed, her hair was a dirty uncombed blend of white and black. She repeated her faded green sari twice a week, most of the skin on her face hung loose. The rest of her skin was dry and caused her to keep itching random spots all the time blaming it on mosquitoes. She coughed her lungs out and her eyes watered every time she reignited the flame by adding more wood.
She had a grandson, roughly my age, who sometimes sat with her in the shop. He always had that grumpy, impatient and miserable look on his face which clearly indicated that he hated being there with his grandmother. On multiple occasions I had found them hotly arguing about something in their own language, the boy pushing away a plate of vegetables that he was asked to chop or just getting up from the ground and walking away from the shop.
I had seen the grandson at other places too. Sometimes he played football in the muddy open field during the rains with other neighborhood kids, sometime smoked a bidi in Rana’s tea-stall with some boys who looked much older than us, and on a few occasions sat on a cycle with those same old guys catcalling women.
They lived in an alley behind the shop, in a clustered space between a homeopathic medicine and a small paint shop. Their house was half the size of my bedroom with two mattresses laid out in two corners of the space. Sometimes when it rained throughout the day, she continued business from home, lightening up the wooden stove and frying the bajjis with her door open. There was a small bulb that hung loosely from the roof brightening up only her face in the midst of complete darkness.
One afternoon, months later, my father came back home after buying groceries and casually mentioned the news of the bajji lady’s grandson eloping with her savings accumulated over the years. Apparently he left her with nothing . They found her leaning against a pole outside her house, clutching the empty green pouch close to her heart at five in the morning when it was still a little dark.
“He left me. He took it all.” she kept repeating, looking at nobody in particular.
The whole neighborhood came to know about the news on a late Sunday afternoon which meant the men in the neighborhood had an ample of time. They didn’t have offices to go to, nor did they want to help out in the household chores. So a group of them volunteered to search for the grandson in the vicinity.
“Don’t worry amma, we’ll find that rascal, and bring back your money .” They all said in unison , adrenaline pumping through their veins.
Come Monday, everyone went back to their daily routine. The men returned to their jobs, the women to their household chores.Nobody thought of the incident again except the bajji lady who eagerly sat on the porch waiting for her grandson or any news about him from the men who promised to help her.
For the next one week , whenever someone went to buy bajjis from her, she asked the same question ,
“You went to search for him right, babu? Did you find him? ”
“Is there any news?”
The people got embarrassed at her constant questioning, and that embarrassment gave rise to anger .
“No amma, your grandson fled the town.”
“He fell in-front of a running bus.”
“Those bandits your grandson hung out with, they took him away.”
“You should have thrown him out immediately when he fell into bad company ,amma. You brought this upon yourself.”
They all had different obnoxious responses for her. Nobody actually knew what had happened of the grandson because fifteen minutes into the search that Sunday, the party had sat down at Rana’s tea stall discussing the issue smoking bidis and sipping tea.
A week later, she had given up hope on the neighborhood helping her but she still continued to talk about it to whoever came to buy from her.
“Nobody could find him,you know. They say, he fled the town. ”
Those constant rants annoyed her customers more than pitying her, and soon they all started complaining about the bajji lady trying to waste their precious time. She didn’t have the money to buy fresh supplies all the time so she tried to keep the sale going with leftovers from the previous day and news spread that the quality of her bajjis weren’t the same anymore. I once overheard my father conversing with the neighbors on a Sunday afternoon outside the house that maybe they should help the lady with some money. After all ,they all bought bajjis from her .Whether they actually did something about it or it was just talks in the air,I never found out.
She started shutting down the shop early, and late in the evenings, she begun to make posters about her missing grandson on dirty white sheets borrowed from the medical shop next door .She walked two kilometers daily early morning for the next one week, putting them on random walls, outside shops, on trees, often chased away by the shopkeepers or abused by security guards of posh buildings.
People started calling her crazy.
“What’s the point of doing all this now. He’s not going to come back.”
“She should focus on her business now more than ever. Last night my daughter fell sick eating her bajjis.”
“Her business has fallen through anyway. Last week she held up my son for thirty minutes talking about her woes. He had an exam the next day. The poor boy couldn’t even say anything.”
In the midst of it all, Rana’s shop had started making great profits. On weekends, the neighborhood men came to his shop to drink tea and talk about the misfortune of the bhajji lady. Some even bought bajjis from him on the way back. Suddenly his domestic matters didn’t seem to pose a hindrance in his business.
Some days, I noticed the posters about the grandson on random walls, some scraped off, though not completely, some had doodles on them and one time I had found my friends making paper planes out of it, shooting them in the pond to see whose went the farthest.
Through all this, the bajji lady tried her best to keep the business going. She barely had any customers these days and had a lot of leftovers which she either consumed or heated up for the next day. She started falling sick very often forcing her to move her business into her house completely . Sometimes she went to the medical shop next door, begging for some medicines for her joint pain,or her fever. Sometimes she was shooed away, sometimes the guy gave her a little something depending on his sales and mood.
On some days, she didn’t have the energy to make anything, so she would just lie down on her mattress, keep her door open and watch people pass by, giving her the pity look for a second and immediately turning away when their eyes met.
She came down with high fever in the last week of my stay in Calcutta before we moved to Bombay. A passerby had noticed her lying there motionless one day and bought her some food and medicines. Upon seeing the man, she had shot up screaming “You’re back! Where were you? ”
Apparently she had started hallucinating too.
The last day I was there, she seemed to have recovered a bit as I found her back in her shop, looking weaker than ever.
Our taxi to the airport was parked on the street in-front of her shop. I was waiting for my parents to join me after I helped the driver load the lighter bags in the back. I gave her an awkward smile noticing her stare at me for quiet sometime, feeling a sense of unspoken guilt of having known it all and yet doing nothing. She quietly took a look at the bags in the taxi, turned to tear a piece of a newspaper from the pile ,wrapped some bajjis fresh out of the oil and handed it over to me.
“Come back again.” She said.