Being a Woman
Thousands of people walk in and out of our lives; some live on in our memories nurtured by our thoughts of them, while so many others fade away quietly. I have a fair amount of family and friends and most of my childhood memories have them featuring in starring roles. Yet recently, while on a sojourn into the past, I stumbled upon a box of memories and a strange medley of characters tumbled out. They were never important characters in my life yet they had carved a space for themselves in my mind. I would like to introduce these delightful personalities to you, some of whom I’m sure you would’ve met in different avatars in your part of the world. I wouldn’t be able to do full justice to them staying within the confines of a single post. So this is the first part.
Muttakaari – This is a Malayalam word and it literally means egg-lady. She used to sell eggs and a small assortment of vegetables which was carried around in a big woven basket. Nobody knew her name and she seemed quite comfortable with this title. She was a wizened old lady, short in stature with the brightest eyes and skin the colour of burnished walnut. Her front teeth were missing but her grin held the warmth of a hundred suns and her cackling laugh would bring a smile to my face even if I was in the grumpiest of moods. She was always dressed in spotless clothes and the basket was her constant companion. For me, her greatest attraction were her toes. Both the feet had toes curving to either side like sheafs of wheat bending down under a tempest. I was consumed with envy by this amazing feature and I remember spending a lot of time trying to manipulate my toes to either side and walk, which for obvious reasons was doomed to fail. Her basket came a close second to the toes when it came to the interest factor. It was carefully packed with beautiful shiny white eggs and an assortment of vegetables; from glossy purple brinjals to fresh green cucumber. She took care to carry only a few representatives from each vegetable family considering the fact that she had to lug the basket from house to house. Her arrival was usually early in the morning, much before school time. She would make a beeline for our kitchen door where our maid would help her to lower the basket from its perch on her head. I remember waiting with bated breath for her to unveil the treasures, but she had her own routine. That was the busiest time for our maid and she would disappear to complete some unfinished chore. Muttakaari and I would share a companionable silence and talk desultorily of quite unimportant stuff and my attention was usually on her toes and the gap revealed by her smiles. After a few moments of rest, she would slowly start removing the straw which covered the contents of the magical basket. The care and gentleness with which the eggs were handled were worthy of diamonds and rubies. I have quite seriously contemplated joining forces with her on her business venture just to have the honour of handling the contents of the basket. After the contents had been given due respect, it was time to move on to the next stage, haggling. Both the ladies were masters of the game and it was an enlightening experience, though I never knew why they spent so much time on it considering that the end result was a niggling change in price. Only now do I realise that it must have been a source of entertainment for both of them, and it must have been infinitely more satisfying than pushing candy around a screen (i spent an indecent amount of time doing that !). Many years later I came to know that she had passed away, but in my mind she’ll dwell forever as energetic and bright eyed as ever with gently curving toes, coveted by a wide-eyed child.
Mr Kammath – This gentleman was the proprietor and sole owner of Reghunath Store, the most amazing shop, ever. This small store stocked everything from casual slippers to wooden clocks, nestling in shelves stretching from the floor to the ceiling. A lot of the items spilled out and were carefully stacked all around. I’ve seen envelopes ensconced snugly in buckets, waiting to be picked up. Stationery, buckets, torches, batteries, locks, greeting cards, in fact you name it and Mr. Kammath had it. The looks of this establishment only added to its charm. White washed walls, a terracotta tiled roof, the tiniest courtyard which also managed to have a tree and brightly coloured bougainvillaea flowers languidly sunning themselves on the roof. Mr. Kammath rarely smiled but he was never rude. Every customer who walked in was greeted by him personally with his trademark question, ‘So what’s it going to be today?’. This is the essence of the question and not a literal translation. I’ve been a constant visitor in my childhood and I’ve also taken my children there; the question has remained the same. As a child I was in awe of him and his ability to unearth with accuracy the position of each item requested by a buyer. There would be no hesitation and he would zero in on the desired article with minimum effort. He was an unfailingly polite person but I’ve yet to catch him smiling and there have been times when I’ve felt like a student standing in front of a teacher. Mr.Kammath used to make useful suggestions about our purchases and he was also quite helpful in pointing us in the right direction on the very rare instance when he couldn’t provide what we wanted. Now the store is managed by his son, a genial, smiling person. Mr Kammath hovers around though he’s not as active as before. The son’s smiles do not affect me as much as that single question from unsmiling Mr. Kammath, a link to the beautiful world of my childhood.