Life, Lessons and Guavas

For a minute, the enormous mound of aluminium vessels seemed to be moving by itself. A few curious heads turned in the ruckus until the pile was set down on a small platform, revealing the frail old lady behind it.

She unloaded about 300 guavas into a vessel before she perched herself on the platform, eyeing passers-by expectantly.

Her attire was a striking mismarriage of colours — a red sari with large yellow flowers printed on it paired with a striped pink blouse. She shielded her eyes from the day’s particularly scorching sun but her dark, battered hands looked like they had seen worse.

Some whisked past unflinchingly, like she did not exist; a few others plodded by, unable to make up their minds, until the basket was out of their sight but occasionally some would stop, undaunted by the world zooming past around them, allowing themselves a quick snack.

Padma, 57, has held her spot on the platforms of Guindy bus stand for over two years. Every morning, she collects fruits from an orchard near her house in Arakkonam and takes the bus to Guindy. On some days there are fruits in the orchard and on some others, there aren’t.

She expertly cuts the fruit into 6 slices, sprinkles the country’s favourite concoction of chilli powder and salt and hands it over, wrapped like a baby, in a newspaper.

“I like guavas. It’s not just because I make a living out of them, I just do,” she said, handing over a sliced guava to a young man who had a badge that read ‘Graphic Designer’ pinned to his backpack.

If you were to go by what she says, a guava is a panacea of sorts- it could balance your sugar levels, improve digestion, boost your immunity, strengthen the muscles and perhaps even cure cancer. Some of her customers received this piece of ‘information’ with a snicker and others, with an impatient sigh.

“Maybe we should get doctors to stock their hospitals with guavas instead of medicines,” said one of her customers, a middle aged auto driver, smirking as he brandished a slice of guava in the air. Padma nodded her head in pity, looking at him as if he was beyond all hope.

She is enrolled with the Government’s MGREGS scheme which guarantees work for unskilled labourers for a period of 100 days but on days that she gets good fruits from the orchard, she skips the day’s field work and sells guavas because it fetches more than the daily wages at the field and because it’s less laborious.

“I didn’t go to work today,” she grinned apologetically, like a child who was caught eating mud. “My son is ashamed of going in my place because he thinks the 100 day employment scheme is for the old ones; he prefers to sit at home and watch TV all day.”

She is also eligible for a pension of Rs 1000 under the Destitute Widow Scheme but she claims that the sum reaches her only once every few months.

As the day progressed, her guavas began selling like hotcakes but she continued to chat away with abandon.

“She has trouble keeping her mouth shut but I do love her guavas,” teased R. Gunasekaran, one of her regulars.

She likes watching the people at the bus stand.

“I cannot help but laugh when I see these young people with wires connected to their ears. Sometimes, they can’t even hear the bus honk and the driver yells at them with the choicest of words. Look, there’s one right now,” she said, pointing to a young girl wearing turquoise blue earphones.

She always clapped her hands when she laughed and she laughed often.

She said she’d also notice the saris that women wore. “Some of them are really nice-especially, the violet and blue ones. I’ve decided to get a violet sari this Diwali so I hope the business is good this month,”

By the time she was 15, Padma had been married off. Her husband died 15 years ago and she raised her 3 children by selling fruits. She regrets not having been able to give them a good education. Her married life had been far from happy; her husband was an alcoholic who would ruthlessly abuse her.

“There are days when he would chase me down the street, trying to hit me,” she recalled, her tone changing noticeably. “He used to own a sickle that he would sometimes use to cut down grass and weeds. One night after a bad fight, he flung it towards me and I still have an ugly scar on ,” her voice trailed off, her thumb gingerly stroking a part of her left thigh over her sari, lost in thought.

“Never mind. I shouldn’t have talked about it,” she said as she looked up, smiling.

Perhaps disconcerted by the solemn look on my face, she burst out with the news that her daughter-in-law had given birth to a baby girl after 10 years of marriage. “Granddaughters are the ones who’ll take care of their old grandmas. My grandsons are always too busy,”

She is worried that she might not be able to save enough money to make a doctor out of her granddaughter. But those worries are for another day. Today, she is just worried about getting home in time to watch her favourite soaps on Sun TV.

“We have a kodai (umbrella) on our rooftop that we use to watch TV,” she said referring to the dish antennas that most households set up, sick of the mercurial nature of cable TV. “I watch three serial dramas back to back from 7:30 to 9 PM everyday,” she said, nodding her head in earnest.

She gets by with a profit of Rs 300–400 a day. “I’m happy,” she said with a sigh and as her stone studded nose ring gleamed in the slanting sun, her eyes seemed to shine brighter.