by Aditi Talapatra
She looked up at the young lady and said, “Yes” with a smile. The day was approaching towards an end. The cool breeze blowing across the Marina was the only comfort in the sweaty summer of Chennai. Grey hair and a wrinkled face gave away the years of her toil and hardship. Although she sat under a very old tamarind tree that cast its shadow on her throughout the day, she bore the heat and the sweat with endurance that would beat the likes of a young man. Her saree, slightly faded owing to her daily train ride to Central Chennai, where she had found a nook for herself amidst the crowd. Toiling everyday was one thing and toiling everyday with a smile was another. Her hand held the sharp cutter steadily and in a short and swift move, she cut the green coconut and handed it to the young girl standing in front of her thirsty and tired. Clad in a soft smooth purple linen trouser with a pink tank top, probably an outsider in this conservative Chennai metro, kohl lined eyes, neat eyebrows, a gold string overhanging and ear tops that matched her attire, she looked smart
“A straw?” she enquired stretching out her left hand, her fingers decked with gold rings. The old lady handed it to her realizing her little mistake.
“Sweet”, said her young customer, satisfied with the choice the old lady seller had made.
“Did you say thirty? Isn't that too much?” trying to seek a bargain of a few rupees from the old vendor.
“Yes, that would be thirty”, smiling and wondering how a thirst when quenched changes the behaviour of a person.
The old coconut seller was not surprised for she had seen over the years people bargain after their drink. That it was a daytime profession, for people do not actually drink coconut water after sunset. So as the day drew close to an end, she cast a glance at her stock, just a few left.
“Here”, and the young girl paying a fifty rupee note. The old lady raised her left thigh and pulled the plastic sheet underneath and returned two soiled ten rupee notes, finishing the deal with “do come again”. She always sat on this worn out pale blue plastic sheet having faded over the years had a corner upturned and slightly torn due to overuse with notes in hundreds and coins strewn in a hurried manner.
The day was over, as she stood up stretching her limbs and holding her back in pain, over sitting at the same place throughout the day. As if this corner belonged to her, as if this side of Gopalapuram with its offices, banks, and shops had customers that were all hers, she sat with an overwhelming pride, selling coconut water to everyone thirsty. With her two fingers, she deftly lifted the corner of the plastic, and collected the soiled notes and coins in a batua bag, pulled the thick
strings, tied a strong knot and tucked it on the left side, beyond the look of any ongoing passer-by. The young girl stood there fiddling her mobile. Often stealing a glance at the pavement across the street. An array of motorbikes stood tilted on their stands, two cycles stood in between probably belonging to schoolboys in the adjacent school. Nearby the post office was almost empty. A few hawkers in waiting, one of them selling coffee from his steel can, coffee in paper cups, another frying savories like Vada to his customers. The busy Lloyds Road was getting even busier as the evening approached.
A few green coconuts were left, to carry them home was a difficult and arduous task. Every evening, she covered them with a huge blue plastic and put bricks all around it, carefully tucking the sheet underneath, come wind or rain, they were never exposed. From far, it appeared like an untidy blue mound. No one cared, although it blocked a corner of the pavement. The police never bothered her, they quenched their thirst too as they took turns cooling themselves under this tamarind tree, often drinking coconut water.
Her customers were usually from the nearby bank, people going in and coming out of the bank glanced at the old seller, approached her for a drink .The employees and the visitors to the bank, sometimes drivers carrying back coconut water for their sahib, and mothers returning from schools with their thirsty ward took refuge under this old tree. Little did she have young girls as customers, they were very few, few as they hardly spent their monies on this healthy drink.
She waited every day in the evening for her nephew. He worked at a nearby tailoring shop, they would meet, exchange a few pleasantries, while she ate a hot and crispy Vada he gave her. As her chores done, she stood up with one hand on the pavement for support. Adjusted her saree pleats that lay on her shoulder in an untidy pattern, tucking the edges not to cover her feet, she stood for a while looking very tired. She took out a comb, discoloured, small and bended just like the owner over years of use, sticky and grimy from the oil in her head. She let down her long hair, grey and dishevelled, combed it once, her eyes setting on the young girl still standing in a close range speaking over the phone, they exchanged glances and smiled.
Suddenly, within earshot, the old lady heard the loudest roar, she ever did, of a bike screeching in front of her, uncomfortable in her movement, slow and unsteady, as the girl pushed hard, running towards the bike climbing. Caught unaware, the push and the fall was big, but not unnoticed,the bystanders came rushing in trying to steady the old lady, her saree wet as she felt the warm trickle on her left. Not out of her senses she touched it, the batua was gone!! ***