by Vaishnavi Rao
When I was growing up, no day was complete without our beloved fruit seller Govindamma, yelling “Amma Pazham, apple, orange, sappota…” and then she will list out all the seasonal fruits. She was a slender, middle-aged woman, who was struggling to take care of her family. Her husband was an alcoholic, and the wages he earned as a night watchman, was spent on buying liquor. She had a daughter, named Valli, who eloped when she was a teenager, and Govindamma secretly sent some money to her daughter every month. Her only relief was her younger son, Kannan. She was very ambitious to give him the best education, she could afford. She was sending him to a local Government school.
Rain or shine, Govindamma would enter our colony, at 11:00 am sharp. She would carry a huge cane basket on her head, filled with fruits, and a small ‘tharasu’(physical balance). Unlike most of the vendors I have seen, Govindamma will always carry exact change. She would rarely agree to be paid later, and no bargaining. She would always claim that her fruits were fresh than the ones in the fancy supermarkets. It was indeed true, as she used to get up early and go to the local markets and pick up the best ones and she was also fair in her quantity. She was also called, “military amma”. Govindamma knew all our routine, and she would visit the houses in that order. If I remember, she was one of the V.I.P’s who was allowed without question inside the compound of a politician, who lived in our colony. In spite of knowing everyone too well, she would not gossip about each other. At the same time, she would lovingly enquire if someone in the family has been sick.
During our study holidays, Govindamma would never ring the bell, to avoid disturbing us. She would always advise us to study well. Every summer, we would wait for her fresh cucumbers, yummy water-melons, and golden ripe mangoes. Sometimes she would carry amla, sweet tamarind and other seasonal specialties.
One year, the Government public school, where she was sending her son was closed down, due to political reasons. The kids who were studying there had the option of either moving to another branch far away, or to enroll themselves in a private school. Govindamma was worried, a lot. She really wanted her son to study well, but now she was not in a position to afford a private school. Private schools mean, fees, and not to mention books and uniforms. Luckily, one of my neighbors, a retired school principal, helped her find an admission into a private school, with a concession fee. Some others in our colony also offered to teach Kannan, during the weekends, since the private school standards were higher than the one he was used to. It was a norm for the colony people to give a bonus and sweets during Diwali. That year, Govindamma preferred books for her son, as gifts, instead of the money.
Kannan used to study well, and get good marks in the exams. Govindamma was very happy and proud of her son. She bought him a cycle, from her savings. Just as she was beginning to see a ray of hope in her son’s future, trouble found her, in the form of her daughter. Valli had quarreled with her husband, who in turn, had kicked her out. She turned up at her mother’s doorstep, in tears, and pregnant. At first, her father did not accept her, but eventually, they welcomed her back. Although Govindamma was glad that her daughter was back, she had two more mouths to feed. . In order
to pay for the school fees, and to manage the new expenses, she had set up a small, snack stall, where she would sell snacks every evening.
Years flew by, and Govindamma was the sole bread winner for the family, including her grandson. Kannan joined a polytechnic college. Govindamma’s husband fell ill, and bed ridden. So, medical costs were added to her already full plate. But she pulled on everything with a smile on her face. I finished my college, got married and left to US.
A couple of years later, when I visited home, Govindamma had come to sell fruits again. I noticed that she had aged, and her usual 25 paise sized bindi was missing from her forehead. She told me that her husband died a few months ago. His liver had been damaged extensively due to drinking, and there was nothing else to do.. However, she was happy that, Valli reconciled with her husband, and were now happy. Also, Kannan, had got a job in a small company, and was taking good care of him. I thought to myself, it is indeed true that, when one door closes others open.
Govindamma was so curious to know about my life in the US, especially if we get all the fruits and vegetables. I told her that we mostly get everything, but that I really miss her golden yellow mangoes, and that it is not allowed inside the US. She innocently suggested, that I wrap it well, and also take some mango seeds, and plant it here. I asked how her snacks business was going on, and she replied that she had closed it down, after the demise of her husband. She said Kannan wants her to stop selling fruits, and rest at home. She was proud that her son had bought her new sarees, and a color T.V at home. But she said that she was not built to idle time away. Now that her son was settled, she wanted him to get married soon. I admired the way, the woman beamed with pride, every time she spoke about her son.
The same year, I heard through my mom, that Kannan had committed suicide, due to love failure. I really felt sad for Govindamma, who had so much of dreams and hopes in him. He had only thought about himself, and ended his life too soon. It came as a shock to me, and I couldn’t imagine how she could have processed it. The woman struggled for his future a lot. Sometimes the decisions we make in the spur of the moment, tend to change lives permanently. Govindamma stopped visiting her colony, and a few months later, Valli started selling fruits.
This year, I had been to India, with my son. Valli told me that her mother had lost her memory, and was unable to recognize or remember most of the things. The doctors felt that, Kannan’s sudden death had caused a massive shock to her brain. She did not yet accept that he son was no more. I gave Valli some money, some old sarees, and asked her to take good care of her mother. The next day, Valli came back again, and I heard my mom telling her that we have enough fruits for a couple of days. But she insisted on seeing me. When I came out to meet her, she handed me a blue plastic bag, and told me that her mother had sent it for me. When I opened the bag, my eyes were filled with tears for that old lady. There it was, inside the bag, half a dozen of my favorite golden yellow mangoes.