by Vallath Nandakumar
When I was growing up in India my extended tribe, to speak in anthropological terms, included many people other than my friends and family. For example, there were maids who told me forbidden stories of ghosts and blood-thirsty yakshis that seduced married men, and also included the market-boy who brought our groceries, since my mother had no son to do this for her.
Other visitors included a gossipy vegetable vendor and a barber whose outmoded idea of coiffure for little girls was tight oily pigtails. There was also the lead-plater who came once a year, built a small furnace in our yard, and coated our copper vessels with a lead alloy, passivating the surfaces later with cow-dung water. An old Tamil woman from Nagercoil with faded blue tattoos on her forearm came once a year to roughen our kitchen grinding stones with a hammer and awl.
I call all these people my extended tribe because, although they were considered by us and by themselves to be socially beneath us and could never be invited to a family event such as a wedding or puja at our house, our intimacy with some of them was greater than what we enjoyed with our official friends. We did not have to put on any kind of pretense for them.
My mother maintained a public show of prim indifference to our neighbors' affairs but managed to extract all relevant gossip and news from the vendors and tradespeople. I wish now that I had talked to them more as well--what fascinating stories I could have related to you! They were not merely news-carriers, they had their own stories, touching our lives sometimes as briefly as an afternoon shower but nourishing the earth I grew up in. Here is one story, about our boli-seller.
Although my mother prided herself on being a good cook and was so hygiene-conscious that she would rarely buy prepared food from itinerant vendors, the boli-seller was an exception. A monthly visitor along with the barber and the rag-and-bone man, he would come wheeling his small cart loaded with large biscuit tins full of bolis, thin sweet pancakes that, when made right, are bright yellow, thin, flaky, and soft as chamois-leather. Fragrant with cardamom, they taste great plain or with sweetened milk.
The boli-seller (I call him that because I don't think I ever learned his name) would arrive the first Saturday of every month and settle down on our doorstep, wiping the sweat from his forehead with his turban. He reminded me of a teakwood figure, dark, strong and highly polished. His appearance and Tamil-accented Malayalam suggested that he lived in the nearby Western Ghat foothills and only came down to the plains to sell his wares. His little daughter about my own age accompanied him, and she too sported beribboned oily pigtails. Sometimes she had sour amla fruit wrapped in her skirt and would share it with me while my mother conducted business with her father.
My mother gave them watery buttermilk to drink in glass tumblers kept specially for people of 'lower station'. It may seem snobbish now to keep separate dishes for such people, but in those days my mother was considered quite liberal by many of her relatives who had a habitually condescending way of dealing with vendors and servants. I questioned her sometimes about the dishes. She said that, while we should certainly help the less fortunate, there is no reason we should not also enjoy the good things we have earned through our good karma. Besides, she said, such people may have diseases, though, now that I think of it, in that case surely the bolis themselves would have been contaminated.
The boli-vendor chatted with my mother while his daughter and I finished our games, and then they would vanish for another month. I envied her, for I fancied that she could eat as many bolis as she wished, whereas my mother would ration them out to us two at a time while they lasted.
One time the boli-seller raised his price. My mother became cross and accused him of taking advantage of his good customers.
"Sugar, cardamom, everything has gone up in price, amma. But I will reduce the price by five paise just for you this time."
But my mother did not want to hear of it and shooed him away. I considered his price fair. Mother always has to get a better deal than anyone else, I thought, annoyed that I might stop getting bolis now. The next day she attempted to make bolis herself, muttering all the while about monopolies and anti-trust laws. But the results were so terrible, the bolis coming out stiff as cardboard and covered with burn spots, that the boli-seller was soon reinstated as our official purveyor.
One day he came alone and my mother asked where his daughter was.
"She has become a woman, amma. She has to stay at home now and learn how to be responsible."
My mother congratulated him and gave him some sweets, saying that she hoped his daughter would become a strong and healthy woman. Since I hadn't 'become a woman' yet, I didn't know what the fuss was all about. But now that his daughter no longer accompanied the boli-seller I missed our chats and games. It never occurred to me to inquire where they lived to see if I could visit her. Not that I would actually be allowed to visit a boli-seller, but I could at least have asked.
"My mother tells me to be more responsible, since I have started going to secondary school this year," I announced proudly. "Which school does Kamala go to?"
"She will have to learn at the school of life," the boli-seller laughed. "I cannot afford to send her to any other school."
The summers and monsoons passed, and I grew up rapidly. The barber no longer came to cut my hair and it grew long and untrimmed, the grinding stone was replaced by an electric blender, and stainless steel and aluminum replaced our copper pots. Television took over as the main source of news. My mother's social life suffered as a result, but mine grew as I made friends in college and in the neighborhood.
Soon it was time for my wedding. My marriage had been arranged to a smart young man, an upcoming executive in a paint company in Bombay. And was I love-struck! I would stare at a picture of him dressed in a suit worn for some interview, and think how I would like that moustache to tickle my lips. My mother called me away from my reveries to help her with the wedding plans and menu. She had decided that in addition to the usual puddings she wanted to serve bolis, like the southern Keralites. So the next time the boli-seller came, my mother ordered a thousand bolis.
"Are you sure you can make them and bring them on time?" my mother asked anxiously.
"Of course. They will be fresh and extra tasty for the little amma," he said. He hadn't changed over the years, except for a few more grey hairs. "What is my little amma wearing for the wedding?"
I ran inside to fetch my jewelry and wedding sari. "What do you think?"
"Very nice." He nodded approvingly. "You will look like a little princess."
"When is your daughter Kamala getting married? Can she come for my wedding?"
"Didn't your mother tell you, little amma? She married two months ago and has gone away."
"Oh, no!" I said. "I wish you had told me. I would have liked to come and eat some bolis at her wedding!"
"Sorry, little amma. I did not invite you because I didn't think that big people like you would want to come. We had only a few relatives as guests." He said 'big people' without sarcasm, as if it would be as strange for him to invite us to his daughter's wedding as it would be for him to be asked to come and sit on our sofa. "Besides, we could not afford to serve any bolis. Do you know the price of sugar these days?"
Suddenly I felt ashamed--I had acted like Marie Antoinette.
"But perhaps I will get enough from this sale to afford bolis for her valagappu ceremony," the boli-seller said, smiling. "That will be in five months."
"You are going to be a grandfather!" I cried. I ran inside and got the antique silver baby's anklets my grandmother had given me before she died, to be given in turn to my first daughter. "Please, these are for Kamala's baby. Won't you tell her I asked after her?" I added a hundred rupee note from my savings. "Please use this to serve your valagappu guests bolis."
"Surely, kochamma, may God be with you. My granddaughter will be so happy to wear these." He touched the gifts to his forehead and hoisted his boli tin into his cart, and this time I saw how tired he looked and how old.
The bolis for my wedding arrived on time. They were the best I have ever had. Soon after the wedding I went away to Bombay to join my husband. In the rush of packing lunches, the suburban trains, and my own growing abdomen, I forgot all about Kamala and the boli-seller. My mother later mentioned in a letter that she hadn't seen the boli-seller since my wedding.
Almost a year later she got a postcard from Kamala with a thank-you note. She forwarded the card to me. It also mentioned that her father had died soon after my wedding. She, Kamala, gave birth to a baby girl shortly after that, whom she had named Kannagi, after the goddess with jewelled anklets.
I turned the card over and over looking for a return address, but there was none.
(Vallath Nandakumar was born and brought up in India. At the age of 21 he
came to the United States for graduate studies. He now works as an electrical engineer in Silicon Valley, where he writes short stories in his spare time. Inspiration for many of his stories is drawn from his experiences in the state of Kerala, South India. Email: email@example.com)