There was something about her. It drew people to her little open vegetable stall just outside a Shiv Sena Shaka in Mulund East, a Mumbai suburb. The way she displayed the vegetables, it was nothing short of art. I suspected she whispered something into their ears making them look so enticing that you couldn’t but seek them out.The manner in which she arranged the tomatoes, checking them for firmness, holding each one in her palm, turning it around, scrutinising it and then placing it on a slowly forming little hill of tomatoes, you couldn’t doubt her passion for vending or her love for these gifts of the soil.
She knew a thing or two about colours. She placed the purple brinjals next to the yellow peppers that sat beside perky green lady’s fingers that brushed shoulders with red tomatoes, creating a collage so visually pleasing that it would entice a hardcore non-vegetarian to introduce his palate to herbivorous pleasures. Even as she picked the vegetables from each little mound and placed them on the weighing scales, she did it so carefully, that when one slipped, it did so noiselessly and settled on a lower tier, its body fitting effortlessly into the space available.
I called her maushi (auntie in Marathi) and she called me tai (sister). Every evening, I made my way to her stall after work, straight from the railway station, joining several other women who would already have formed a circle around her, each screeching at the top of her voice of make herself heard. How she remembered who wanted half a kilo of bottle gourd, who needed two bunches of fenugreek leaves, and who demanded to have100 gm chillies and one-fourth kilo of yam and 10 lemons and a dozen other varieties of vegetables in various quantities, beats me. She had mastered the skill of deciphering individual voices amidst the cacophony.
As I stood quietly behind the women waiting my turn, watching fascinated as she lowered the iron scale plates into the gaping mouths of cloth bags and plastic bags, she smiled and acknowledged me. “Come here. Don’t stand there, where I can’t see you. Come this side,” she ordered, with a familiarity and fondness that had grown between us over the years. While I hesitated, knowing well her commitment to extend her services on a first-come-first-serve basis, she pulled me with one hand, as she weighed the vegetables on the manual balance scale with the other, and instructed her husband, (a tall, mousy, bespectacled man, who was kaka (uncle) to everyone) to find out what I wanted.
“Take her list,” she would say. “Tai always comes with a list,” she would tell the other women. “He can read,” she said, pointing at her husband, who busied himself with picking the vegetables on the list and placing them in plastic bowls and aluminium containers, ready for his wife to weigh. He looked at her with admiration, as she lifted the containers deftly, emptied the contents on the scale, weighed them and deposited them in the waiting bags, all in a jiffy. He didn’t mind hovering in the background, doing his bit silently, allowing his spirited wife to take the lead in running their business. He knew that his wife’s warmth had made her a winner, despite the tough competition in the area. She was the soul of the stall.
I never asked her her name. It didn’t matter. Maushi was apt, the kind aunt who asked after the women, enquired about their children, examined their faces for signs of fatigue or discomfort or unease or grief, advised them to look after themselves and added a carrot or a cucumber or a radish to their buy for the youngest in their houses. Every week, I received a new recipe from her without asking for one and several invitations to visit her house for a simple jhunka-bhakri lunch, which I gladly accepted but never managed to follow up on, which I regret deeply.
Once, as she sipped cutting chai noisily, during a short break that kept her going, she summoned the chaiwallah and held a glass before me.”Sit,” she said pointing at a sack of potatoes. I obeyed. She sat opposite me, on an overturned wooden crate, and gestured that I should start drinking the tea. I took a sip, trying to keep my balance on a rather wobbly perch and watched her, as she enjoyed every drop she tasted. She was a woman who embraced life wholeheartedly.
As we chatted, her two sons arrived and took charge. The younger one, Umesh, had clearly taken after her and the elder one, Shantaram, true to his name, had taken after his father. They played their respective roles efficiently,as maushi looked on fondly, emptying the new sacks of vegetables that had arrived.
I have relocated now and no longer meet maushi. I order vegetables on the phone now or buy them at a mall. They are displayed conspicuously but do not exude the joy that maushi’s cared-for vegetables did. I get a lot of bargains now, sometimes even a kilo of free vegetables for a certain quantity bought. But, what I miss the most is the worldly wisdom that spilled out of my bag with the vegetables that maushi chose for me.Yes, I miss my agony aunt.