“Oye, you listening? We seem to have run out of rice. Could you get some from the street store?”
And thus started my Sunday morning. I had happily put on my headphones and searched for Byomkesh Bakshy OST, prepping for a nice two hours of writing, when I heard this coming straight out of the kitchen. The thing about noise-cancellation headphones is that they can save your ears from the perpetual droning of the marble cutter running all day in your neighbour’s backyard, but they haven’t yet been built to defend you against the deadly chore-calls of your mother. I swear, if one day I become someone with a lot of cash sitting around wondering what to do with it, I am going to invest it all in building momproof headphones. (Wait, let me just buy off momproofheadphones.com on GoDaddy before you get any ideas.) However, the good part about these headphones is that your mom doesn’t know that you could hear her and you can just pretend to sit around typing away sweetly on your Macbook (Damn you, Shreyas!). Yes, you always have that consolation going well for you, until you hear this:
“Take that helmet off and come to the kitchen. You keep watching those videos all day long. Who do you think pays the internet bill? Your Dad?”
Moms ALWAYS know.
So, that was it. I put down those heavy-duty goodfornothings, and marched right into the kitchen like a soldier about to be sent on a recon mission beyond enemy lines. You think I am exaggerating? Try walking into a street shop in Berhampur to buy rice. They will have four different kinds, all looking exactly the same, ranging from 35 rupees to 120 rupees, and they won’t even bat an eyelid before shooting up the price to 140 if they see you wearing a T-shirt that says “Books turn muggles into wizards – the Harry Potter Alliance”. No degree from well-known institutes of management in western India can come to your rescue, then. Trust me, none.
“There’s a 500 rupee note inside the old pencil box on the dining table, and you can find the jute bag folded on top of the used gas cylinder outside,” said the General, pointing towards the door.
I waited for a while more, knowing full well that more orders were still to come.
“And yes, don’t buy the short grain. Look for the longer ones. Ask him to put a fistful of it on the sieve first to see how much of it is rice and how much is stone. You can’t trust these people anymore. There used to be three big black rocks jutting out near Bada Khemundi street and now they are not there. I am sure these guys only ground the three stones into dust and grains and mixed them with the rice.”
I am disciplined enough not to question the assertions of the General. Nothing comes out of it ever, except for the occasional I-told-you-so when the lentils have sawdust. So, I simply walked to the refrigerator, downed almost half a litre of cold water and off I went looking for the ammunition. I found the currency note in the pencil box, alright, but the jute bag was more elusive. It wasn’t where the General had indicated. I hadn’t even stepped out of the house and things had already started going off plan. After a while of standing there with my feet rooted to a single piece of polished granite and surveying the land by moving only my head, and that too not too much, I gave up and called out, “Bou, I can’t find it.” (Bou is what I call my mother. There was a time I used to call her Mummy, but then my milk-teeth fell off and somebody told me that it was because I disrespected my mother everyday by calling her with a Videshi name. I believed such things quite easily, back then. Now, I know there is nothing that my holy thread can’t protect me against. So, I am more laid back about such stuff. PaitaPower FTW.)
She came hurrying out of the kitchen, grumbling under her breath, “These kids! I don’t know how they are going to survive.” She saw me standing in one place, not even moving around to hunt for the bag, and exploded, “If you stand like some Mahatma Gandhi statue, how will you find it? Bend down and look under that table, or is that too much for your Pillsbury figure?”
That freaking hurt. Real bad. I was OK till the Pillsbury jab, but now I had to find the bag no matter what.
“Here. It is right here in front of your eyes.” She dangled the bag in front of me. I will swear on the same mother’s name, I had no clue where she pulled that from. And yet, it was right there, hanging from her arm. General 1, Pillsbury 0. In moments like these, it is best just to go out as fast as you can and so, I did, careful to draw the curtains shut behind me as I closed the door.
My God! The glare. It hit me even before I could step into the street properly. It was just too much. There was no way I could take my eyes off the pavement – the sun was just too bright. Should have gotten those shades. I could see my shadow under me – shrivelled to a spot, much like my self-esteem at that moment. I looked at it for a while for some encouragement. Sigh. Let’s go. It’s only about a hundred meters away. We can manage. I nodded, and we started off.
Wait a minute, though. Here I must tell you that in Golapalli Street (which translates to “street of the cowherds”), a hundred meters means you will bump into some ten thousand things before you reach the ribbon at the end. Our street is not lined with apartment complexes or housing societies – we have solitary houses, most of them single-storied, with grilled doors instead of solid ones. This means, the moment you are out on the street, everyone in every house knows you are on that street. And still, no one would care to do anything about the stuff they have left on the street that might block your way: a long line of utensils right in the middle of the road, waiting in queue for their turn at the public pipeline, which runs only for two hours in the day; a series of bicycles, each kept aligned in a different direction, depending on how the cows had been sleeping on the road when the bicycle was parked; the endless polka dot collage of listlessly littered cow dung; and of course, the holy cows themselves. And if your day is particularly bad as it was for me, you also get the full blast of marble dust from the end of a rented exhaust fan sticking out of your neighbour’s backdoor (which happens to open to the main street and not the backstreet).
Of course, you would also be attacked, from several sides at once, with a cacophony of high-pitched voices talking to each other over long distances, without a care for who else listens to their internal debates over watered milk, destroyed jhutti (wireframe rangolis), unpaid gambling debts and uncleaned dog poop, It is always interesting to wonder how cows doing it anywhere is fine, but when dogs do it, it throws the whole street into a fistfight. My grandmother used to tell me that these guys welcome the cowdung because they can make dried cakes out of them and burn those cakes as fuel. It is quite a different matter now that every single one of these households has shifted to gas chulhas and have not used the fire-pits in ages. There must be a market for these cakes somewhere now. (I will figure that out someday and write about it.)
Today, however, the cacophony was more civilised. The voices had a touch of glee in them – they almost sounded happy. That would be a first here. I strained my ears to listen better.
“Did your husband – bhata dalma aachaar – bring home – five rupees only – parcels – anyone can eat – from the – no need for any ration cards – Aahar Yojana Centre? I am sending – No, he is a – the kids now” – lazy bum – with three tiffin boxes each – that I am stuck with – for dinner too – since ever. – You send – I only have to – your Babula also – stand among the men – with three boxes – and bring home – for your family – the dinner.”
What is this Aahar Yojana? Is the government giving away meals for just five rupees? And three takeaway parcels too?
Before I could even bend my mind around it, I saw two little girls and a not-so-little boy, all dressed worse than I had ever seen them before, run in to the streets looking really happy about something. Their faces looked exactly like the little kid’s who had stolen half of a chocolate bar that I was offering to one of my imaginary friends one day when I was nearly six years old. I can never forget that look – that sneaky little devil. And these kids had that exact same vindictive grin on their faces.
“They fell for it. They fell for it. They gave us three parcels each,” shouted out the littlest of the three, as soon as she ran straight into her mother, almost slipping one of the three tiffin boxes. “We stood in three different places in the line. They couldn’t tell that we are all from the same family. We will go tomorrow also.”
“Did you come out together or separately?” asked her mother. It was clear that she had forgotten to give this last bit of instruction to the kids. She looked at the son, the eldest of the lot.
“Yeah, yeah. We left as soon as we got the parcels and met only near the broken tree at the end of the street.”
The frown of apprehension on the mother’s face melted instantly into a wide smile of pride. Her kids had already started learning the ways of life. She took the son into a brief embrace and then led the kids in. As she was about to close the grill, she remembered something and waited. She opened the grilled door again, the rusted iron latch screeching against the ill-fitted rusted rings as she pried it open. She put her head out, looked to the left and shouted, “Oh Babula’s mother! Send him soon only. You also go with him if possible.”
As I moved past their three-storied house, I looked at the bronze plaque on their door. It read, “S.B. Panigrahi, B.A., M.A., M.Phil. (Sociology), Lecturer (Sociology).” A lot of heads turned my way as I laughed out loud, put the jute bag under my left armpit and proceeded towards the street shop to get my 140 rupees rice.
The Naveen Patnaik led BJD government initiated the “Aahar Yojana” on Utkal Divas (1st April), which is celebrated as the birthday of modern day Odisha all over the state. (In some smaller parts of the state, some people celebrate it as this author’s birthday. Just saying.)
As per the scheme, the urban poor would be provided bhata (rice) and dalma (an Odia dish of lentils with some vegetables) at INR 5 everyday between 11 AM to 3 PM. Although the actual cost of each meal would be somewhere close to INR 20, the Odisha government has received sponsorship from several industrial corporations, which subsidises the extra INR 15. A big populist move though this is and I don’t even want to get into the longrun economics of this scheme, I do hope the genuinely poor can benefit even marginally from this. At least, now people in Berhampur won’t die of eating dry mango seed kernels, hopefully.
Update: The Aahar Yojana Centres at Berhampur have stopped giving out takeaway parcels. They learned quick, which is laudable.
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