Kalyani was a fishmonger woman, who sold fish by the merit of her destiny and the obligation of her caste. She moved along the streets like an inevitable organ of the lifeline of the village.
When she first came home, her hair had already grayed and been loosely tied into a drooping ponytail with an elastic band. It was a sunny afternoon and she came round the house to the backyard, and cast a smile at the suspecting frown of my mother.
Her perspiring face gleamed with expectation as my mother mellowed down, and she let her fish basket lower on the kitchen veranda. She sat by the side, and lifted the loose plastic sheet that exposed the slithering catfish.
“Oh, this is small”, my mother frowned again.
Kalyani thrust her fingers carefully, and lifted a few big ones that slid in her hands.
“Get me the pan; I will give you the bigger ones.”
“the price?.” my mother insisted.
“Don’t bother, I will give it you cheap, get me the pan.”
Kalayni emptied the whole basket into the pan and affirmed, “This is only two kilos; I will scale it for you. Where is the knife?”
My mother wanted to say ‘no’ but she ended up saying this,
“Don’t ask me too much money. I will not give you.”
Kalyani smiled with the warm authority of an insider, and started talking about other things. Her fingers skilfully toyed with the wriggling fish and my mother leaned against the door and watched. She spoke, as she cleaned fish, about the virtuous people of the households she frequented. She opened her tiny folder-wallet and pulled out photographs of children of her favourite families.
On that day, she stayed long enough until she cooked fish, had her lunch and afternoon siesta. When she left home, in the evening we knew that it was the beginning of a lifelong relationship with an extraordinary human being, who sold fish and walked into our hearts.
During the long summer school vacation, when village children threw stones at mango trees laden with huge bunches of the fruit, Kalayni walked through lanes, alleys and tarred roads. When her frail figure, garbed in her customary white dhoti and jumper, emerged in the distance, they waited for her, dropping the stones aimed at mangoes. The bolder ones would stealthily walk behind her and would make sniffing noises to mock her, expelling the odour of fish heavily through their nose rills. Kalyani would, in a fitful rage, would pick up handful of little pebbles and chase them. That was always enough to send the little scoundrels to run for cover behind laterite walls and wild hedges. Kalyani mumbled words of disapproval that nobody could ever here and walked away.
Ever since the fishmonger descended on us with a hearty pressure sale, she frequented our household, and after the initial wrangling with my mother, would settle into her normal business with ease. She sliced fish, rolled the grinding stone over red chilly and grated coconut for the marinating paste and cooked it with rich and spicy gravy.
In the afternoon hours, she sat on an uncushioned plastic chair reading the newspaper softly, close to my mother, who would soon snooze off in the coir woven cot. Then Kalyani would spread her customary frayed palm mat on the floor and follow suit and their gentle snores blended into the warmth of the summer afternoon breeze.
When the breeze grew and broke the twigs from the drying ends of rubber trees all around the house, Kalyani would rise to her feet and walk out of the house. She would pick them all and heap them up in the corner of the kitchen veranda.
She then had a reason to wake my mother up, “I’ve got them all here. The pickers would have pounced on them now. We wouldn’t get a piece to put in the stove. Why do you let people hang around the yard?” Then the usual business commenced again. Kalyani lit the fire and made coffee, very strong, for her and my mother. Sipping the hot liquid she would let her words travel through the lingering memories of her childhood. She would talk about a time when goodness prevailed in every heart and every household.
It was time to go. She picked up her basket, walked away down the flight of steps into the green paddy field and disappeared through the ridges. When she left, a gentle breeze followed guarding her from all ills of men.
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