Continued From Mesmerizing Eyes (I)
He began noticing other things about her.
She had two saris; nondescript and dull hued but always spotlessly clean. Her midnight black hair was tied in a thick plait which hung below her waist. Apart from a pinkly twinkling nose pin, she wore no other jewelry. A thick black thread hung round her slender neck. Her voice was gentle and mellow.
She had many regular patrons. For ten rupees she served them five fluffy idlis and as much chutney as they wanted. She never grumbled if they wanted more than a reasonable amount of chutney. If someone was very hungry, she gave them an extra idli or two at no extra charge. She opened her ‘shop’ at three o’clock in the afternoon; by six her stock would be wiped out. This was when the station was almost deserted during those three hours. It seemed as if she deliberately avoided the crowds.
He noticed that though selling idlis was her livelihood, there was a lot more to it for her than just making money. She was not just making money; she was feeding people. Through well- cooked, wholesome and food, she was giving them deep contentment and solace. She gave them hope and courage to strive on. Her affordable pricing allowed people the dignity of paying for a meal which was value for money.
She never touched the idlis by hand but fastidiously used a pair of steel ice- tongs to lift them out with. She served the food wrapped in her concern, tempered with her silent blessings. There was an aura of restfulness which wrapped itself around her as snugly as her sari wrapped her slender frame. She gave away a part of her soothing presence with each plate of idli she served.
She never smiled except when she was serving a couple of ragamuffins who came demanding idlis from her every evening. The two boys weren’t related to her in any way though they called her akka (sister). They never paid her nor did she ask them for money. Of all her regular patrons, none were as regular as these two boys- and Praful.
The boys talked nineteen to a dozen with her, telling her everything that happened to them all day; the places they had worked at, the people they had met. She’d listen to them with all her attention, dispensing love, advice and reprimand with an even hand. The three of them would smile and laugh happily. It was clear that she had affection for those two boys and looked forward to their visit. Even to them, she did not raise her eyes.
Praful couldn’t understand his fascination with her. Twice he tried to find out where she lived, but lost her in the crowd each time. There was a resigned sadness about her which made him wonder what her life was like. He had been visiting her makeshift stall for nearly three months, yet he was no closer to unraveling her mysteriousness than he had been on the first day. Every day as he walked over to the station, he practiced what he would say to her- beyond asking her for idlis and handing over the money. Every day, he carried his unuttered words back home, kicking himself for being a gauche fool.
The next day when he reached the station, she wasn’t there. He waited, his stomach craving the familiar snack. She didn’t come. He hung around until all the regulars came and left. The two boys were deeply disappointed when they didn’t find her. They wondered where they would get a meal from, that day. They emptied their pockets to see if they had enough money to buy some food from one of the other vendors. All they managed to come up with, between them, was a scant seven rupees. That would barely get them a samosa each, if that. They were almost in tears.
Praful couldn’t bear to see their misery. He dug out a twenty rupee note, handed it to them and walked briskly away before they could thank him. After a few moments of shocked silence, he heard them shouting in unison, “Thank you bhaiya (brother)!” Without turning around, he waved to them and continued walking.
She wasn’t there the next day, or the next, or the next. He visited the station every day for a week. She didn’t come. He didn’t see the boys either. He was worried, deeply worried. What had happened to her? Was she alright?
After ten days, he saw a cold drink vendor in ‘her’ spot. No, he didn’t know anything about the woman who sold idlis. He had never seen her. What interest did Praful have in her- or her whereabouts? The vendor’s eyes gleamed slyly, splashing his filthy innuendo onto the purity in Praful’s heart. Filled with an inexplicable rage, Praful stomped out of the station, vowing never to go back again. The woman had disappeared as if she had never existed.
He had to struggle hard to make himself stop going to the station. Just before four every day, his stomach would start rumbling and his nostrils would be full of the aroma of idli-chutney. He would sit distractedly in his room all night, prowling round restlessly wanting to break something- or himself- into pieces. He felt as if everything within him, all his familiar structures and constructs, were turned into rubble. He didn’t know how to locate his sense of self in that debris.
Praful was devastated and had no idea how to deal with it.
To be continued….