By Sutapa Basu
The man behind jostled my elbow as I dug into my bag for an errant coin. But I didn’t mind. It was only a few days to the festival of lights and everyone was in a hurry to complete their shopping. I slid the notes and coins across the marble counter and the shop assistant pushed my three boxes of sweets across with equal alacrity. His other customers were clamouring.
Squeezing out of the press of bodies, I emerged on the street. The usually quiet street was ablaze today with the humming petromax lamps lighting up each hawker’s wares spread on the pavement. There were earthen lamps, vividly painted idols of Ganesh and Laxmi, strings of marigolds, firecrackers and other doodah associated with the celebrations. People were haggling, hawkers were arguing but a spirit of bonhomie pervaded the transactions. In fact, the very air of joy and excitement all around was palpable.
A display of toys caught my eye. I had spied a bamboo flute that my grandson would love. Risking the annoyance of a family whose ears will have to bear my grandson’s efforts to coax music out of the flute, I approached the toy seller. As we discussed a suitable price, a baby crawled towards the toys and picked up a colourful wooden doll. Instantly, the hawker let forth a spate of abuse. In a swirl of skirts, the mother swooped down to pick up the toddler. Hanging him askew by one arm, she smacked his bare bottoms hard. A shrill wail rose up, forming an island of discordance in the sea of cheer. The cacophony made me turn and look closely at the duo.
The woman was in the sweeping long skirts, jacket and hand-printed scarf of the rural regions bordering the city. Hardly discernible, the bright hues common to these traditional garments had faded, so grimy and mud splattered they were. Her dark tattooed arms contrasted with clattering white ivory bangles that climbed nearly to her shoulders. The baby at her hip wore only a dirty, tattered shirt. Their dusty, matted hair was probably crawling with lice. I It looked as if it had been quite a while since the both had bathed.
But what struck me was the mother’s face. Studying it under thick layers of dirt, I realized that she was just a girl but deprivation and sorrow had lined her visage with a network of wrinkles. Sharp cheekbones jutted under hollows set with large tawny eyes, filled with hopelessness and a strange defiance.
The papers had been full of the drought decimating village after village outside the city. Maybe they were remnants of it. Looking at them, I gauged that it had been some time that both had eaten. I stepped up to the roadside food vendor and ordered two portions of the flaky, stuffed pasty and spicy potatoes. Nobody should be unhappy on a joyous occasion such as this, I thought. After all, weren’t festivals meant for giving? So what if they were strangers?
When I beckoned her, the woman came forward with hesitant steps. I explained that the vendor would serve them a meal. Instead of the joy as I had expected, she shot me a suspicious look, probably wondering at my motives. Maybe, she had been deceived by bribes before this…maybe somebody had taken advantage of her destitution before me…As the vendor handed her two steaming paper plates, she looked down at them, then up at him dubiously. But the toddler on her hip reached out unabashedly to the food. She sat him on the ground and placed one plate before him, holding the other.
The child nearly choked in his hurry to stuff his mouth. The woman tore a piece and chewed it, cautiously. And then, she, too, was wolfing it all down as fast as she could swallow. Clearly, they had not eaten not only for the day but for a lot of time before today. The woman raised her head. Our eyes met. Disbelief and gratitude struggled for precedence in her gaze.
It was then that I took a step back. The three boxes of sweets weighed down my hands while remorse heavily weighed down my heart. I turned and rapidly walked away, blinking back tears.
What had I done? Was it their hunger I had appeased or assuaged my guilt? Here I was, unthinkingly buying inessential food to mark just a festive occasion and there they were… starving for just a morsel!
Wasn’t it shame that I wanted to clothe with my act of magnanimity? What had I achieved? By buying the woman and her child two paltry plates of pasty and potatoes for one measly meal, had I erased memories of sleeping numerous nights in an empty stomach? Could I eradicate the biting hunger that will visit them in the days to come?
All I had achieved was self approbation, self aggrandizement. For a moment, I had seen myself as the divine bountiful Laxmi! At what price? By dehumanizing a human being?
With empty hands, the woman in rags had given me an invaluable gift… the lamp of self-illumination!
Sutapa Basu is an avid reader and a compulsive bookworm. An author, editor, trainer and publisher, she had been travelling all over India, UK, USA, Singapore and Dubai, while working with Oxford University Press and Encyclopædia Britannica until she decided to strike out on her own. Sutapa is an Honours scholar from Tagore’s Visvabharti University, Santiniketan, India and holds a teaching degree from Maharaja Sayaji Rao, University, Vadodara, India as well as a masters in English Literature. Her poetry has been published by Muse India and Readomania which has also profiled many of her short stories. Recently she has co-authored and edited Crossed & Knotted, India’s First Composite Novel as well as edited Chronicles of Urban Nomads, A Collection of Unputdownable Stories and Rudraksha, The gods came calling, published by Readomania. You can read more of her writings on her website StoryFuntastika.com. Now she dabbles in authoring, editing, art, training trainers and counseling educational and publishing entities. Twitter: @sutapabsu20
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