The rice seller auntie (chaalwali mashi)


One side effect of growing old is getting lost in memories. Certain smells, words, actions evoke memories of yester years and I get lost in them. As the sweet smell of cooked rice wafted towards me this morning while I chopped vegetables, I remembered this middle aged woman who came to our house every 20 days or so to sell rice when I was growing up. I was quite young when she first started coming. I recall she came into our bedroom and sat in the corner on the cool mozaic floor, wiping the sweat off her face with the pallu of her sari. Whoever was around brought her some water, unasked. She talked to ma while she drank her water and let the cool breeze from the fan dry her sweat soaked body. She talked to ma about her family, her husband who could not work due to some injury, her sons who were going to school. Then she spread out our preferred quality of rice on the floor and measured cupfuls into a big container that we gave her. I forget the exact kilograms of rice that we bought from her each month but it was a significant amount since rice is staple in a middle class Bengali family, especially at a time when white rice was not touted as evil and full of empty calories. We loved our rice and we loved our chaalwali mashi, Angoor. That was her name – Angoor, which means grapes in English. 🙂

I listened to her stories under the guise of finishing homework as she sat with her glass of water, cooling herself in front of our big standing fan on an extremely hot summer afternoon before she carried her bag of rice to her next customer. I remember hearing about her sons growing up over the years, getting married and then, best of all, telling their mother to not work anymore. They were able, they told her. They can take care of her from then on. The day she told us about her sons, the young men she raised, imploring her to take rest, the smile on her face shone like a diamond. All her efforts in raising her sons had found fruition.

For many years she woke up before dawn, went to wholesaler to pick up bags of rice, took a local train to come to Kolkata from her remote village with other women from her area to sell rice in Gariahat market. Every evening she got on the local train to go back home after a grueling day in the city, cooked for her family and took care of her boys. She said her husband stayed home and helped as much as he could. She was one of the lucky ones.

The smell of rice this morning brought memories of chalwaali mashi to the forefront. Ma always bought her a new sari for Durga pujo. And every year, she touched the sari with a lovely smile, looked up to my mother and said, “Khub sundar hoyeche boudi.” (It is very pretty, sister-in-law.)

I have not thought about her for many years. I don’t even know if she is alive. I asked ma about her recently. She does not know any news about Angoor mashi either. She only said, “Manush ta boro bhalo chilo.” (The woman was so very nice.)

Men and women come in our lives, sometimes for a substantial period of time. And then they disappear too. They simply leave behind some vignettes of memories. As we get older, we look back at those and bring them back into existence. We think about them. We wish them well, wherever they are.

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