[Every year I try to write a Durga Pujo themed story. This is my attempt for 2018.]
“Are you open?”
Beni didn’t know when he had dozed off.
“Yes I am,” he said, quickly throwing on a friendly smile on his face. He had been up for almost two days now, and he hardly felt like smiling, but a customer was God, and God liked friendly.
“Thank goodness,” the lady said, “Everyone else seems to have closed shop, and we are hungry.”
It was four thirty in the morning on Nabami, and all the little shops in the Deshapriya Park maidan had closed down. These were the lull hours, when footfall fell off, and everyone curled up in whatever corner they could find, to get a few minutes of shuteye, before the crowds would surge again.
“Five egg-rolls, please.” She said, and it was then that Beni looked up at her. She was not alone. Back at a little distance away he could see a group sitting on the grass, talking among themselves.
“I am surprised you are not closed. Shouldn’t you be sleeping now?”
“Need every bit of business I can boudi.”
Beni said firing up the tawaa, and reaching for the eggs and onion. “We have been working here all day, but this is the only time I can sell without competition”.
“We? Who else?”
Beni pointed to the woman on the ground to the side, fast asleep her arms curled around a little girl.
“My wife and daughter. They have been working all day.”
It was quiet all around, and there was a slight chill in the air. He was worried about that nip, the last thing he wanted was her daughter to catch something. And yet there she was, fast asleep on the cold ground, protected only by a threadbare blanket.
“Do you do this all year?” She asked.
“Yes boudi. I run a small place on the footpath near Sealdah station, beguni and aloor chop. During pujo, I figured it would be better to shift to South Calcutta, you can charge more here.”
“So was it worth the move?”
“Hardly. The margins aren’t that much, after paying the pujo committee for license, and the cops for their mercy, and there is a lot of competition here. That’s why I am up now, trying to make whatever I can. But I won’t grudge, it’s better than what it used to be.”
The tawa was sizzling now with the eggs and the warmth soothed his tired bones.
“How bad was it before?”
“Pretty bad. The land dried up in our village, the crops died. We would still have stayed I guess but then my daughter developed that lump on her forehead. That’s when we decided to come to the city, get it looked at.”
Beni didn’t want to go there. He couldn’t talk about it without breaking up, and the last thing he wanted was to get tears and snot in this lady’s egg rolls. But a chatty customer can’t be met with silence.
” It’s something that has grown on her head, it was small before, now you can see it clearly near the side. I am not an educated man, barely understand any of it, but the doctor at the hospital said there is nothing they can do there. I could try at the private hospitals, but that needs money. That’s why I am awake right now, making every rupee I can while my competition sleeps.”
“I am sure she will get well.”
“I don’t know boudi. It hurts her all the time, she feels dizzy and tired. The doctor said there is not much..but then I…”
Beni stopped talking, quickly wiping the side of his eye. The lady was silent now, she had lost interest he figured, and why not, no one wants a sob story on the happiest night of the year.
He handed her the egg-rolls, she gave a polite smile, handed him the money, and started walking to the group at the back.
Then she stopped, turned back, and said “Thank you”.
“Get up, get up.”
Beni had no idea when he had fallen asleep. The first rays of the morning were streaming down through the gaps in the buildings, as the city rumbled slowly up back to life.
He opened his eyes, and it was his wife, her hands clutched to the shoulder of his shirt.
“It’s Shampa.” She said, tears streaming down her cheeks, and Beni’s heart sank. This was the nightmare he had been bracing himself for, every day for the last few years.
This was it.
“Her lump is gone.”
Beni sprang up, almost falling over himself. There was Shampa, awake, walking about, rubbing the side of her head where the bump had been. Beni ran across to her, dropped down to his knees.
It was true. There was no lump.
“My head does not hurt any more, Baba. I feel so light.”
Beni sat quietly, still on his knees, his mind racing. He closed his eyes, and now he saw what he hadn’t seen last time, the four people on the ground behind her—one heavy-set young man, one man with a strange peacock shirt, one lady reading a book, and one lady with a big purse.
Which meant the lady must have been…
No it couldn’t be, he thought.
This didn’t make any sense.
“Am I dreaming?” He asked his wife, and she shook her head, the words drying up from the force of her emotion.
I must have been dreaming then, he told himself.
Hugging her daughter close, he looked up at the sky, and once back towards the pandal.
Then he rose quietly and got back to work.