“I have become a bit unmindful since my daughter died,” she said as she was mixing water in the flour to make roti (hand-made bread).
I had called in the morning to tell her that I would be needing 12 rotis today and that I would be a bit late. That I would reach her stall by 9.30 am, instead of 9.00 am that I did everyday.
She did not pick up the phone.
I took my chance and reached her place at 9.30 am and found that roti would be available. Buying roti in this lockdown times was in itself a task. I had never taken roti from her before. Had bought the occasional cigarettes from her shop. In fact I was unaware that she also made roti and sabji (vegetable side dish). Only during these lockdown times, as I was certain that I would not get roti anywhere, I found her. Rather discovered her shop anew. All the places that I used to buy roti from before the Corona infection pinned us down, had shut shops. Hers was the only one that stayed open during the lockdown days. The reason, I felt, was that she was more of a cigarette and tea seller than food vendor. But well times, I believed, had been kind to her. Even the policemen on duty, including the officers, took tea from her stall, giving her the license to keep it open, albeit during permissible hours. And she had begun to make roti, sabji alongside selling tea and cigarettes!
“Why did you not pick up the phone?” I asked.
“Well it had got misplaced. I took it to bed last night and now it is somewhere in the bed under some pillow or bed sheet. My daughter stays asleep when I come for work. Rummaging through the bed in search of the phone is ruled out. She will let all hell break lose, if I wake her up in the process,” she said in one breath.
“And what about my cigarettes?” another customer, a regular like me asked.
“I have forgotten those at home,” she shyly replied.
“One day you will forget to bring flour too and make us all starve,” the angry customer quipped.
She took it without a word and couple of days later on one morning when I was drinking tea from her stall she told me the reason behind her forgetfulness.
“How did your daughter die,” I asked.
“She got burnt,” she replied.
I did not go into further detail. As it is, it is a sad topic.
“Where did she die?” I asked eventually.
“At her in-laws’ place,” she replied.
“She was married then,” I ask, an obvious question.
“She would have been 19 now. She eloped when she was 14 years and married. She has a four-year-old son a and a one-year-old daughter,” she said.
Now thinking of the small motherless children, whom I did never meet, I became very sad.
“Oh, it had been fine,” I say to comfort her, “No problems because you misplaced your cell phone. I got my roti of the day.” I tried to be matter of fact.
“All my customers are very understanding,” she said with a sigh. She was apparently grateful.
“The other day there was a young girl sitting at the stall when you were away,” I gently make a statement to change the topic.
“She is my younger daughter. She stays at home.” She apparently was protecting her daughter from the cruel world to ensure that she did not end up as her elder sister did.
“I went to get the milk for the tea. She was here, so I asked her to man the stall,” she said. “She helps me at times, but I try to keep her away from all these.”
She apparently worked hard to earn and save enough so that she may marry her younger daughter off, if not in style, then at least in a decent way. And given her background, I was happy that she could carry on with her bread winning ways when most of her compatriots had to keep their shops closed.
The other stalls in the area were bigger than hers. Those were more like full-fledged restaurants, than a cigarette, tea stall, Another cigarette, tea stall bang opposite her place and which I frequented before the lockdown set in had stayed closed since the introduction of the lockdown. He apparently could not ‘fix’ the administration. More so because he had plenty of footfalls daily. And the administration could not allow such ‘congregation’ of tea lovers during trying times. Hence the tea-cigarette shop stayed closed while her shop did daily business during the lockdown days.
Though her stall was by the side of the highway at a prominent place, yet she was a marginal business woman serving her odd regular customers. And she was happy doing it. During the lockdown days I was an addition to her growing list of ‘regular’ customers. She obviously did not mind and that in spite of her regular back pain, as she had to sit cramped in her small stall and make roti.
“She thought her man had got hooked on to another woman. So she set herself on fire,” she mumbled. I knew she wanted to tell me to relieve her burden a bit and I did not mind.
“The other day you kept your stall closed, no not the day you went to the hospital for your back ache, the other day.” I make a statement to bring her back from the saddening memory that had made her unmindful.
“Oh!” She said, “I went to meet my grandson. Hadn’t seen him for days.”
I knew that she can never be gotten rid of her painful memory of losing her daughter, more so because at the back of her mind she will always stay worried about the motherless children and their fate in this mad, bad world.