[I have just started writing something upon a whim (a roadside vendor talking about his life and times). I don't know whether it's going anywhere, whether it will end up as a proper story. I am posting the first installment below: reader reactions will help me decide whether I should post later parts or take this off the blog...]
I sell paani-puri near the gate of a temple in a small industrial town. I have grown old doing this: I have been at it for nearly thirty years now.
I first came here from a remote village in north Bihar, with a baraat, to attend the wedding of a cousin – he had got a truck loader’s job in a local steel plant, and had had to spend quite a bit of money to get in, and he urgently needed it back by way of dahej, so he was getting married in a hurry. I stayed on for a couple of days, looking around the town, and for some reason my eyes fell on this spot, and I got a little trolley, found a shack to live in behind the marketplace, and stayed. I am not too sure what gave me the idea of selling paani puri: someone must have put it into my head. That was thirty years ago, and I have never gone anywhere else, and now I am growing old. I have looked after my parents till they died, and married off a younger brother and two sisters, and brought up two sons and a daughter, and married off the daughter too, and built a tiny brick and tile house for myself and the wife – all by selling paani puri (they call it phuchka here in Bengal) for four hours every evening for the last thirty years. Leaving aside essential family occasions, and being sick and hospitalized once, almost twenty years ago, I have never missed a day.
Things have changed around me, and not changed. There were many more trees around here back in the beginning, and the temple attracted much smaller crowds, and there were far fewer cars and motorbikes on the road. Jackals howled at eight in the evening as I trundled my trolley home. These days I often have to stay till past ten. I started selling paani puri at the rate of two for ten paise, now they go at six for five rupees. There are certainly a lot more smart young girls on the roads these days: they not only wear jeans and sleeveless T-shirts but cosy up to their boyfriends in public in a way we couldn’t dream of thirty years ago. And these people have a great deal more money in their pockets than boys and girls their parents’ age did. Those who came to eat phuchkas thirty years ago are their parents’ age, so I can tell.
But so many things haven’t changed, either. Though the temple precincts are brightly lit, the road itself is still as dim as it was long ago, because the municipality forgot this street while it was replacing fluorescent neon tubes with high power sodium vapour lamps. And they still litter the roadside, though there is now an official ban on it. People of all shapes and sizes, from tiny girls to mountainous middle aged men take my breath away by how much they can eat. I wonder, too, that they can gorge on phuchka when folks are supposed to sit down for dinner – and though I shouldn’t do this, because they bring me custom, I sometimes swear under my breath when I have to go on serving them, even when I am dog tired and want to go back home, knowing that I will have to listen to my wife’s ritual complaints before going to bed, and wake up at the crack of dawn to start cooking for the next evening.
I worked alone for many years. Then I brought over the younger of my two boys from home and put him behind the counter to help me. He is a grown man now, and I must start thinking about his marriage. He has mercifully proved to be a hard worker, and when I cannot work any more, I can leave the business safely in his hands. The older boy has been a disappointment. He has been a drifter and shirker since he was a child, and never finished school, and these days he is married and lives off his in-laws, though he likes to tell people he is a house painter. My wife has been a help all through. She looked after the family all by herself for many, many years, until the old folks died, and the children grew up and went away. She was getting lonesome after all those years, and there was little to cling on to in the village, most of the ancestral land having been sold off, and I had built the house here already (although it had only two rooms and a makeshift toilet then), so I brought her to stay with me a few years ago. Well, even that is going to be a whole decade soon. How time marches on. I didn’t have a white hair when I first arrived here: now you have to look very hard to find a black hair on my head.
I couldn’t speak a word of Bangla when I arrived; now I can understand and speak it as fluently as my native tongue. But I talk very little, preferring to watch and listen as I work. And you cannot imagine how much you can learn about people if you quietly listen and watch. Most people talk too much, I think, and don’t listen enough, not even to themselves! It makes it easier for me that they usually think I am just a wall – no ears, no mind, no memory, so whether I am listening or not doesn’t matter. Many people will be amazed, even horrified, if I told them half the things I know about them.