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A youngster stands in the Fruits and Vegetables section of the air-conditioned mall. He is in a pair of blue jeans, a grey t-shirt with an abstract design, and canvas shoes. He speaks respectfully to every customer who enters his section. “Sir, these are organically-grown vegetables. And just have a look at these chillies; they are very special. There is an interesting story behind them,” he adds.
I shall never forget our subjiwallah – the vegetable vendor.
Going to the subjiwallah to buy fresh vegetables had become a Sunday morning ritual for me and my wife. I love cooking. Thinking up different recipes and trying them out on myself and my friends gives me immense pleasure. I had taken on the responsibility of cooking at least one of the two meals every day. If my workload didn’t permit it, I would at least prepare breakfast. And my wife, who was bored of cooking almost the same dishes day after day, had happily agreed to this arrangement.
As I took active interest in deciding our menu, I started accompanying her to the subjiwallah. Not only did it satisfy my passion for cooking, it also worked as a great stress-buster. The early mornings spent amidst those fresh, green, juicy vegetables just dissolved my stress and refreshed my mind. It was almost magical.
I would have gone to the subjiwallah daily, if I had had my way. But my work schedule and office timings made it impossible. So I reserved Sunday mornings just for the vegetables.
Our subjiwallah’s shop was just round the corner. It occupied about a hundred square feet on the ground floor of a building. On one side were kept potatoes, onions, tomatoes, pumpkins, and yams. All ingredients for making masala – coriander, ginger, garlic, and chillies – were kept separately. Another section was devoted to fruits. Baskets full of apples, custard-apples, oranges and limes, watermelons and musk melons appeared and disappeared depending on the season. Cauliflowers, cabbages, French beans had separate cane baskets. Heaps of green, leafy vegetables like spinach and fenugreek welcomed customers as they entered the shop.
When I first saw the subjiwallah, he appeared ordinary enough to me. He looked like a Varkari –the typical pilgrim from Maharashtra donning a Gandhi cap, white kurta–pyjamas and a sandalwood tilak on his forehead. His complexion was earthy – like the mud that clings to the roots of spring onions or coriander. His dry, tanned skin reminded you of drought hit lands. His nose was straight, and his lips thick. He had his own way of conversing; more like an informal chat, with his arms akimbo.
Once when I took my basket to him to weigh the vegetables, he looked at me and said, “Sahib, You like vegetables a lot. You love ‘em, eh?”
I was taken aback by this intimacy in our very first encounter. It also annoyed me somewhat. “Why do you ask?” I said.
“No, sahib! Nothin’… Y’know, so many people come ‘ere for vegetables. But very few touch ‘em with so much love, so much care. I saw you and felt like asking. Don’t be angry, Sahib.” Then he looked deep into my eyes and gave me a very pleasant smile. I saw a sparkle in his jet black eyes then. A bright green glint. Just like the chillies or spinach leaves. I was drawn towards him, as if hypnotized. “Here, gimme…” he said then, taking the basket from my hands.
Since that day, I started visiting his shop every Sunday. We never chatted much, but I used to linger there quite a bit, observing how he talks and behaves with other customers. The very first encounter with him had awakened my curiosity. While adding up their bills, he often talked to his customers. Sometimes he would ask or tell them something, sometimes he would even argue with them.
His customers, especially the women would say, “What’s this bhaiyyaji? Eighty rupees for half a kilo of okra? Soon gold will be cheaper than your vegetables!”
Although a bit annoyed, the subjiwallah would reply respectfully, “Ma’am, are you making fun of me? If I could get the price of gold for me vegetables, would I be ‘ere, working hard day and night, huh? This cauliflower ‘ere is for a hundred bucks. Even if you spend another twenty on masala and cooking gas an’ all that, it’d still be just a hundred and twenty bucks. Your whole family will ‘ave a good meal. But order the same in a restaurant, and ‘ow much will you spend? Surely not less than a hundred an’ fifty! And then it’d be just enough for two or three people. Now tell me, how much that restaurant fella makes. And the farmer? Next to nothin!”
He was somewhat careless when it came to money matters and other practical stuff, and there were some who took advantage of it. But he never let it bother him. If someone didn’t have change to pay him with, he would always say, “Pay me the next time! You’ll be comin’ back, won’t you?”
Sometimes, he would give a few chillies to some of his customers. These were kept hidden somewhere under his counter. He would put them in his customer’s bag, muttering, “Ma’am, these ain’t ordinary chillies. They’re special! They are hot but they will make you more lovin’. If I had me way, I’d distribute these chillies to the ‘ole world. First I’d give some to our PM…”
Until recently, our Sunday ritual was going on smoothly. Then a new mall – ‘Freshious’ – opened in our area and the routine broke.
Our neighbour told my wife that fresh vegetables were available daily in Freshious, and they were cheaper too. So my wife paid a visit to check out ‘The Fresh Experience’, and came back quite impressed.
“You must go to Freshious. It’s simply amazing!” she announced as soon as she entered the house. “The vegetables there are so fresh and good… Let’s buy from the mall from now on.”
“Why are you so keen on buying the vegetables from that mall? Our subjiwallah is good enough. His vegetables are as good. He lets us pick and choose as we wish, and in turn, he earns his livelihood,” I argued.
But my wife was firm. “Harshu, you know, the mall buys vegetables and fruits directly from farmers. Here,” she said handing me a pamphlet. ‘Mula-Mutha Farmers’ Association’, it read in big bold letters. A lot of details were crammed in small print all across the pamphlet – how some farmers had come together to form an Association, that they didn’t use chemical fertilizers, and how that enhanced the quality of their produce. “See?” my wife said to prove her point. “So, the vegetables are not only cheap, but you also get a lot of variety. Have you ever seen broccoli, yellow and red bell peppers, or mushrooms in our subjiwallah’s shop?”
She was right, of course. Still I said, “Fine. But just for a little saving in our vegetable expenses, why should we stop going to our regular subjiwallah? That poor guy’s business depends on customers like us! Look, I have no problem with you buying vegetables from that mall, but if everyone starts thinking like us, the poor fellow will lose all his clientele.”
Using her special, you-can’t-win-this-one tone, she said, “Harshu, I understand your point. But after all, he has chosen to be in a market where there is competition. If he wants to survive, he must offer services like the mall does. There are so many advantages of buying in the mall; we get cash backs, offers, discount coupons and what not! Your subjiwallah should do something similar to hold his customers and to attract new ones. After all, it is ‘survival of the fittest’.”
“You are right. I agree… but just think about this. The owners of Freshious must have had so much capital to set up their business. How can you compare that poor subjiwallah with them? I mean, competition is necessary; I know that it is good, even. But as they say, it has got to be a level playing field. What if the subjiwallah loses most of his clients and his family is affected? What about the social issues that such situations create… like unemployment, addiction, thefts… In the end, it affects us too, doesn’t it?”
Maybe my wife didn’t agree or maybe she did, but was not ready to accept defeat. Besides, she seemed too impressed by the ‘cool’ experience of buying vegetables from an air-conditioned mall. “But what can I do about all this? When one side of the scales goes up, the other has to come down,” she added.
I realised there was no point in arguing anymore. So I suggested, “Hey, you wish to go to the mall and I, to our old subjiwallah. So let’s buy from both. If we need half a kilo of okra, I’ll buy 250 grams from the subjiwallah and you buy the other half from the mall. OK?”
She didn’t seem too convinced, but she had no valid reason to say no either, so she just grunted and left the room.
“Sahib, these days you come alone… it’s been many days since I saw ma’am,” said the subjiwallah, giving me a hint of a smile.
“You must know about the new mall in our area. She goes there, but I…” I said.
Now he laughed freely. “Yes. That was bound to happen, sahib. That’s life. I’ve lost so many customers to that mall. But know what I say? It’s good for ‘em farmers. They get good money by supplyin’ their produce directly to the mall. There are always ups and downs in any business. But those who are ready to work hard, manage to get by.”
“Yes, that’s true! But still, this mall has…”
Suddenly, the subjiwallah lowered his voice, and staring at me, he said, “Sahib, is somethin’ wrong? I mean is there any problem between you and ma’am? Forgive me for pokin’ my nose in your personal life, but… I couldn’t stop meself. You’re a regular. My vegetables are your food, so we’re sort of connected, ain’t we? Don’t be angry, sahib!”
What he was saying was true. There was quite a bit of tension at home. I had lost my job. After the Merrill Lynch crisis in the US, the markets had crashed causing a hell of a recession. The company where I worked had invested a lot in Merrill and had suffered a great loss. Then the lay-offs began. Unfortunately, my boss and I were among the first ones to get affected. Other companies in the market were also laying-off staff, and there were practically no new openings in the vicinity. The few that were there, were very low-profile ones. To add to this, I was still paying instalments of my housing loan, and Sucheta was pregnant. She was due in a couple of months’ time. This situation was stifling, and I was unable to find a way out. The uncertain future with its frightful questions loomed ahead.
I had been home for the past one and a half months now, and was desperately searching for an opportunity to start anew. But I hadn’t got much response from anywhere. All this had shaken my confidence. Our savings were disappearing fast, as we tried to maintain our lifestyle. Sucheta had become very worried and edgy. Then one day she lost her cool.
It was afternoon. I was lying on the sofa, thinking, when she came to me and said, “Harshu, we don’t want this baby. We cannot afford to…” Then she started crying.
What she said hit me hard. I was stunned. But I calmed myself and pulled her close in a hug. “Sucha, calm down. Look, these times will also pass. Do you understand? I will get a new job. Are you listening? Huh?”
“I cannot bear to see you like this… Without any work, without a job… Let’s go to the doctor. We don’t want this…”
“Sucheta! Have you gone mad? We cannot do any such thing at this stage; you know that. And I need you by my side… Look at it this way, Sucha… Someone new is going to enter our lives. Maybe the arrival of our baby will change everything for the better. I am sure it will!”
I held her in a tight hug. But she didn’t seem very convinced. She kept her hands on her large belly and went on crying. Since that day she became very quiet and sad. She barely spoke to me, and replied in monosyllables. It seemed as if all life had been drained out of her.
I was stunned. I couldn’t think straight. How on earth did the subjiwallah know so much about our personal life? Or was he just guessing? Or had our maid been gossiping? So many questions buzzed in my mind! “How… how did you know…?” I finally managed to say.
“Hmm… I just know. I cannot tell you ‘ow… and anyway, ‘ow does it matter? What’s important is that you ‘ave a problem and it needs to be resolved,” he smiled at me.
I didn’t reply. I just stared at him. He continued, “Don’t take tension, sahib! Such things are a part of life. Look at me; I’m not a farmer. I’m a simple subjiwallah. I lost all my business to that mall. Few customers like you still come ‘ere, but what I earn now is far from enough to feed me family. I don’t ‘ave money like the mall owners do. Still, I must find a way outta this, shouldn’t I? And a way is always found. You know Sahib, you people are in too much of a hurry. You always want everythin’ now – whether it is success, or a solution to your problems,” he said, and told me to hold out my bag for the vegetables. Smiling, he went on, “Take these chillies and give ‘em to ma’am. Make a chutney or anythin’ else with ‘em, but both of you must ‘ave them. They aren’t too hot… Just watch how your sansara – your married life – becomes sweet! You see, understanding each other is the key, especially during hard times…”
“Hmm,” I just nodded in agreement. Then addressing the woman standing behind me, he said, “Gimme the basket, behenji…” He started weighing the vegetables for her, and I didn’t get a chance to ask him anything. My mind was full of unanswered questions, but I couldn’t utter a single word. Besides, I didn’t know what to say.
As I turned to leave, the subjiwallah called me in his hoarse voice and in a fatherly way of telling me something very important, said, “Take this dried chilli and keep it safe with you. I’ll tell you what to do with it, when the time comes.”
After that day, Sucheta really came back to normal. Maybe the chillies had worked wonders, or maybe she had thought things over calmly, or maybe it was something else altogether. Whatever it was, I heaved a sigh of relief. I just wanted her to be her old self and share everything freely with me as before.
Then one day while having supper, she said, “Harshu, sorry! I behaved so strangely that day. I had lost my cool. I understand your anxiety and the turmoil in your mind, but at that time I just didn’t know what to do!”
I pressed her hand warmly. “Sucha, it’s OK. Such things happen sometimes. It’s quite normal. Just forget it.”
“Hmm…. And you too; don’t worry about the job. You will soon find something. Everything will be alright,” she said.
I was so happy to hear her so positive, that I also opened up. “Sucha, I have been wanting to tell you something for some time now… what I have been thinking is – instead of looking for a new job, I feel like starting something of my own. You know, it was my dream to have my own business someday. Perhaps this is the right time, the right opportunity. If I get stuck in a routine job once again, it will be very difficult to come out of it. What do you think?”
“If you really want this, definitely go for it… and my job is there as a backup. We’ll manage. What kind of business do you have in mind?”
“You know how since the past few years, online shopping and financial transactions have been increasing. The future of these kinds of businesses is going to be cell phone apps. I want to start something in that field. I have spoken to a friend in Bengaluru as well. He liked my idea and is ready to invest. He is also going to talk to other interested parties… let’s see… We will find a way.”
After that I got busy with my start-up. Meeting people, and frequent trips to Bengaluru took up so much of my time that I couldn’t go to the subjiwallah for almost a month. Once when I was returning home from work on a week day, I noticed that his shop was closed. Perhaps he had gone away for a wedding, or a relative may have died or something, so I decided to try the coming Sunday.
But his shop was still closed, and I became a bit anxious. After all, Sunday mornings are prime time for a vegetable vendor. I asked the woman who lived next to his shop and she said, “He is long gone sahib. He shut down his shop. That mall just finished him.”
“Do you know where to find him?”
“No, sahib. I didn’t know him that well. We used to just smile and exchange greetings, that’s all.”
A feeling of guilt gnawed at me. I felt as if I was the one responsible for the subjiwallah’s loss of business. It was all my fault; I hadn’t gone to him for so many days to buy vegetables… Such illogical thoughts bothered me, and I returned home depressed.
On many occasions thereafter, I frequented that street, but the shutter was always pulled down. After a few days, a Mobile Shoppe opened in that space.
The guilt continued to eat away at my insides.
I was woken by the ringing of my cell phone. I glanced at the bedside clock. It was half past two in the morning. It was an unknown number, so I cut the call and went back to sleep. A few minutes later, it rang again. It was the same number. Cursing aloud, I cut the call yet again, but it rang for the third time.
Now I picked it up. Sucheta had gone to stay with her parents as she was due in a few days. I took the call, thinking it might be some emergency.
“Namaste, Sahib! I’m your subjiwallah… the man who gave you those chillies… remember?”
I was wide awake now. All these days I had been looking for him and here he was, calling me! How happy I felt! “Yes, of course I remember you! But where have you been?”
“Sorry, sahib. I disturbed you in the middle of the night. But I had to call you…”
How on earth did he get my number? I had never shared it with him. He continued, “Don’t ask me how I got your number… I don’t have much time. Just listen carefully. D’you remember the dried chilli that I had given you? Cut it open and sow the seeds in a pot. Take care of the plant. And remember, just as I had given you the dried chilli, you must dry one from that plant, and give it to someone… But give it to a needy person, otherwise it won’t work. Don’t forget to pass it on, OK?”
“Yes, OK,” I said. Then he asked, “How’s your Bengaluru business, sahib? All good? And is ma’am well?” Now I almost fainted with shock! “Where are you right now? Can we meet? I want to thank…”
‘Beep…beep…beep.’ He had cut the call.
I tried calling that number, but all I got to hear was ‘this-number-does-not-exist…’
I didn’t know what to do. A man who didn’t even have my cell phone number had called me in the dead of the night at half past two, he knew everything about my life and he was telling me to sow chilli seeds… this was something extraordinary, and it was beyond my understanding. I had kept the chilli safely in my cupboard. I got up immediately and took it out. Then I dug a small hole in a pot of mud and scattered the chilli seeds in it. I covered them with soil and sprinkled some water.
The very next morning, a shoot had sprung up – a pair of tiny, green hands pointing skywards!
A few days later, I had to go to Bengaluru for a project. I took the pot with me. I had continually tried calling that number, but without any luck. Gradually, I stopped thinking about that mysterious subjiwallah in my life, because I had no answers… Why had I met him? Why had he called me? And why had he disappeared like this? Whatever it was, the chilli plant was very real, and it was growing.
Then one day, I heard the good news that we were all awaiting. I had become the father of a baby boy. I took the next flight available from Bengaluru and came home to Pune.
I was so eager to see my baby! I had gone through a really difficult time and now all that was behind me. My new venture was taking root and I had quite a few projects on hand. The arrival of our baby seemed to be a shubh shakun – a good omen.
I went straight to the hospital from the airport. I took my baby in my arms. He smiled at me. His eyes had the same sparkle – that familiar green glint!
His arms akimbo, the youngster tells his customers, “Once upon a time, my father gave me these chilli seeds and asked me to begin farming. We have some land an hour’s drive from Pune. You can come there for a day-long picnic, and see our organic farming project. We also serve food prepared from our fresh, hand-picked vegetables! Here is my card. You can also download our app and order vegetables online. We offer free home delivery, and cash-on-delivery as well. The name of our app is – ‘Subjiwallah’!
(Translated from Marathi into English by Rama Hardeekar-Sakhadeo)