Every Sunday Appa wore his oldest blue t-shirt. It had a soft feel to it like the slightest murmur. After his cup of filter coffee, a conference would be held in the kitchen. Ma would preside. The fridge would be rummaged and stock taken of which vegetables had to be bought.
“Aiyyo, don’t buy anymore avarakkai. Nobody likes it except you”. Ma has been and still is the reigning queen of the kitchen. After a list was made of how many thengais and other karigai had to be bought, Appa armed with two old neatly folded canvas bags would slip on his chappals.
I always accompanied him on these trips. I too had my own vegetable bag. It was a tiny plastic woven bag, with blue and white checks, my paati had made it for me. I liked to watch Appa buy the vegetables. There was an order in which the veggies were bought. The first stop would be at the coconut seller. The coconut seller would pick up the coconuts and tap them. He wore large rings on all his fingers which made tick-tick sounds as he rapped the coconuts. Appa would then examine the coconut and shake it next to his ears to make sure it had enough water.
“Saar, very good, Saar, discount price for you”, the many ringed coconut tapper would say.Then the potatoes and onions would be bought. The last stop would always be for tomatoes (so that they would not get squished you see).
The market place in Calcutta teemed with people, hawkers, flies, fish and livestock. Big, fat ladies in dhakai saris and sleeveless blouses haggled over the price of palak, sweat dribbling in wet streams down the back of their blouses. Trailing behind them would be a dark, emaciated little urchin lugging a bag of vegetables twice his size, a coolie hired for a few paisas.The ground would be slushy with slime and decayed vegetables. Appa would put in one tomato, one potato and a bit of some other vegetable into my blue bag. I carried the bag with the greatest care, skipping over the rotting brinjals on the ground, staring round eyed at the string of shops that lined the market. Bright bangles of every colour, loofahs, rangoli powders, fluffy candies and sweets were stacked in amazing tessellations.
My nose would inform me that we had reached the fish bazaar part of the market. Dark women with kohl rimmed eyes squatted on their haunches, their jaws working a slow, grinding movement, as they chewed on betel leaves, a faint trace of spittle beginning to run down their chins, their skin speckled with fish scales. They would squawk, screech or smile beguilingly while they struck a bargain. An expert twist of the fingers and the coins would be dropped into a pouch tucked in the waist, the notes found a much more snug and inaccessible place, in a clever little pocket stitched into their blouses which could just about contain their bosoms. Appa would have to tug gently at my hand to get me walking again; I could hardly take my eyes off all the fish that thrashed about, glassy eyed in the big, shallow, aluminum pans.
The high point of this weekly trip was the stop at the candy shop; a ramshackle tin shack that housed my heart’s delights. Big glass jars stuffed with pink, red and orange sweets and brown sticky churan balls. My favorite was the hojmi ghuri; a spicy, sweet and sour treat, a bit like hajmola, only softer, squishier and infinitely better. Everyone has a different way of eating hojmi ghuri. Some stuffed their mouths with it and chewed slowly, some nibbled at it. I first pressed the hojmi ghuri into a flat one rupee size disc on the palm of my hand. It had to be done right; there was a science to this. Right in the middle of the palm, not too thin a layer and not too thick. Then I would lick my palm. The longer you could make it last the better it got.
I often dream of Calcutta. In these dreams, I am running and skipping, the wind in my hair. I can almost feel the earth beneath my feet and see the fireflies.