Fruits of Labour
by Stuti Jamwal
From the corner of the street, right at the turning where the cobbler sat with his pile of old worn out shoes and cobbling tools, Bunty could get an unhindered view of the main street. He didn’t have a watch to check the time but Arjun’s mother usually sent him fifteen minutes early to fetch Arjun. The bus would come trundling at three o’clock. He used to get bored waiting for Arjun every day in the hot, scorching sun. It was December but the sunlight was still too harsh during the day. Right behind him was Kailash super market, the little grocery shop which called itself ‘super market’ for some unknown reason. Bunty had been there six times since morning already. First at eight o’clock to drop Arjun at the bus stop. And after that he’d made visits almost every hour as Arjun’s mom, he called her Aunty, kept sending him on errands.
‘Bunty!’ she had shouted over the noise of the utensils he was scrubbing hard. ‘Go and get a packet of brown bread and eggs from Kailash’. She had handed him a fifty rupee note. He knew he would get four rupees back and have to hand it over to her. It didn’t happen when he went in the evening sometimes with Arjun. Then if they had some change left over, she would tell Arjun to buy a candy or chocolate bar for himself. Arjun would usually end up buying two and they would enjoy the little treat on the way home. With Bunty she didn’t leave a single rupee. Any remaining change had to be handed over. Not that he cared. Having a candy without Arjun was not much fun. But standing under the sun, waiting for a school bus made him fidgety. He didn’t know what to do, how to kill time. He wondered why Aunty sent him out so early. He could have left around five minutes to three, it took only a couple of minutes to reach the bus stop.
‘Move over..can’t you see I’ve just polished those shoes?’ The cobbler lashed out at Bunty, picking up a pair of shoes and keeping it next to his satchel. Bunty realized he’d just stepped on one of the shoe and his slippers had left a sandy patch on the gleaming brown leather. He’d tried to squeeze himself under the shade of the Gulmohar tree but there wasn’t enough room for both the cobbler and he and he had to step out. The sun beat down mercilessly over him and he felt increasingly restive. He looked around and saw the only one place where he could take refuge. The awning of the fruit seller who had a makeshift shop set up right outside the grocer’s. There were no customers at this time and the fruit seller was smoking and chatting up with a delivery boy at Kailash. He could take advantage of his brief recess. He came and stood under the awning, his eyes going
over the packs of fruit – large red grapes, kiwis, oranges, plums the size of apples. There were bananas and apples, melons and pears, guavas and strawberries.
He’d never had fruits for as long as he could remember. Aunty gave them all the time to Arjun, threatening him to finish the apple or the banana shake she would whip up every evening. Sometimes she made smoothies – pink and creamy, the little droplets on the glass sending a chill down Bunty’s spine and making his mouth water. On Sundays she would make custard and chop bananas, apples and grapes into it. Arjun didn’t like fruits in custard. Or maybe he was sick of eating them all the time. He would protest every time and beg her to give him plain custard but she would make him have it. Then she would lay two chapatis and a bit of rice and dal in a crooked aluminum plate for Bunty. Vegetable, when there would be some left, after they’d all eaten. Custard, if left over, was always stored in the fridge and eaten the next day. Bunty had never tasted it. But he had brought all those fruits home.
‘Bunty,’ Aunty would holler, thrusting 200 rupees in his hand. ‘Go, get a dozen apples and half a dozen bananas from Kailash.’ And Bunty would go running for the fifth time in the day to get the fruits.
‘If I ever find you picking up things that don’t belong to you I’ll hand you over to the police myself,’ Bunty’s mom had told him when he was eight years old and she’d left him with Aunty. She had not been keeping well for some time and left Bunty as her replacement. Aunty said she would take him in for thousand rupees a month. That made his mom happy. Every month she came over to collect his salary. When she left she always told Bunty to be good and listen to Aunty. She never brought anything for him. She just took the money and went home.
‘Hey, why are you standing here?’ asked the fruitseller as he stubbed his cigarette and walked towards him. ‘Want something?’
‘No,’ said Bunty and moved out of the awning. The sun made his eyes squint and he held his hand on his forehead like a cap to shield himself from the light. He spotted the bus at some distance. As it stopped, several young boys alighted and ran towards their mothers who’d come to fetch them. Arjun jumped out last and Bunty ran to get the heavy bag from him.
‘What’s for lunch?’ Arjun asked him.
‘Beans and rice.’
‘I got fruitcake at school. It was Rahul’s birthday.’ He opened the bag and fished out his tiffin box. ‘Finish it’, he said, ‘otherwise she will make me eat it.’
Bunty held the slice of the rich, creamy cake sprinkled with fruit bits and took a mouthful. He couldn’t make out the taste of fruit from all that cream.