It was the hottest part of summer in Andhra Pradesh, the last week of April. While people sought a lazy afternoon in company with a split air conditioner at home, we were out in a burning compartment in a sluggish train chugging along fuming tracks somewhere near the border between Andhra Pradesh and Orissa.
I was taking my family to my hometown, Cuttack, in Orissa for a visit to other members of the family, and we were looking forward to an early dinner of our choice, and sweet rest. The train was crowded even in the sleeper coach, and we were sweating in spite of the fans. We were thirsty, bored, and no one in the compartment was speaking.
We wanted some cool drinks. Our water container had been drained to the last drop.
Somewhere around Ichhapuram a lady climbed in with the tell-tale pot on her head, typically dressed in a single sari, a huge nose ring, a heavy metal bangle in each wrist, and large bare feet. We were nearer the door, and she settled down just in front of us with the pot filled with delicious looking butter-milk. We woke up from stupor to a heavenly reality, and began drinking glasses after glasses which she handed over to us with great joy. In the course of sipping the heavenly drink, I fell into talking with her. She lived in a village close by.
“Who else in your family ?” I asked her.
“I have a ten year old son, babu(which means, sir). Since his father left me before he was born, I am looking after him all alone.”
“How do you manage your living ?” I continued.
“I cook ragi in the night for dinner and next day lunch. Morning I buy curds from our village, churn and make buttermilk, crush some lemon leaves and chilli for taste, and leave home around 10. Then I travel in train from my village to and from Berhampur each day to sell this buttermilk on board. Before I come on my rounds, I feed my son the ragi with some chilli, and salt. After I return home late afternoon, we again take ragi.”
“The same ragi and chilli all the days of the week !” I could not believe a person could eat the same food all the days of the week. For our educated taste we need ‘variety’ even from lunch to dinner.
“Sometimes when I sell a little ghee, I buy a fish, or some vegetable to go with ragi. My son likes dried fish with ragi.” She said ,matter-of-factly. She picked up her measure swimming in her pot, and poured another glass for me.
While sipping I asked her again.
“What are you planning for your son ? You want him to follow your trade too ?”
“No babu, I want to send my son to school. He must be a babu like you, get married, and give me a grandson”, she smiled hugely.
Life has not defeated her. Poverty has not blotted her smiles. For years she has not fallen sick. She has no complains against anyone. And she has only one dream : retire from life with a grandson to play with. I searched my life cluttered with a great amount of rubbish for a moment of such satisfaction.
The answer column read, ‘did not find to suit the description’.
After we had our fill of her buttermilk and her enviable smiles, I slipped into her hand a tenner, more than her due. She looked at it, tucked it into her ancient looking metal purse, a cylinder like little container with a lid, and started to fill her glasses again. We said we didn’t want any more. She looked at all four of us in surprise, and asked if we didn’t want any more why did I give her that extra money. I told her to buy some rice and vegetable with that extra money and have a good dinner that day with her son. Now, you must have seen her face ! When she realized that it was a sort of charity, she felt humiliated, and protested that she wasn’t prepared to accept anything more than what she deserved, and pulled out her purse to return it to me ! I felt thoroughly embarrassed. I didn’t know how to react. Then my wife assured her that we were returning by the same train two or three days later, and she could make us drink as much buttermilk as she wanted. It was not charity, but a kind of advance payment. She wasn’t convinced until she made us promise profusely that we would keep our words.
After she left, I picked up a newspaper lying by my side. Someone had bought it, and left it there. I turned the pages to suppress a lump rising in my throat. It was filled with stories of high-placed people swindling the country of thousands of crores ! I threw the paper away through the window in disgust.