Lately I have developed a proclivity for writing.
I decided to start with a devotional poem in Hindi. Since I already had a theme, the first two lines were not a problem. But to my utmost surprise, I could only think of the next lines in English. I just couldn’t find the right words in Hindi.
That’s when I realized how out of touch I was with Hindi literature and language. Besides verbal communication with friends and relatives, magazines, periodicals and Bollywood classics at one time used to be my greatest source of the literary Hindi and Urdu words. But that has changed. Hindi language magazines and periodicals are harder to come by in the US and the Hindi film industry now uses “Hinglish”; an amalgamation of Hindi and English. Communications with friends and relative too has become Hinglish-ized!
So I decided is to buy a Hindi dictionary. I tried searching online but did not have any success. As I was planning to visit Bombay shortly after, I figured I would buy the dictionary there. When I lived there, one of my favorite activities in Bombay was browsing the wares of booksellers who would set up on sidewalks near rail stations. They arranged books on the ground or on makeshift wooden shelves every morning and wound up the entire shop in a wooden cart before midnight. Even if the book was banned, it was openly sold there.
But as with every visit to India, time flew by and I did not had a chance to visit the booksellers. On the last day there, I miraculously found a few hours of free time. Seizing the opportunity, I headed off on my mission. Alas, I had no luck with the sidewalk booksellers. Enjoying my stroll, and caught up in thoughts from a life past, I walked past the Santa Cruz railway pedestrian bridge. I used to visit this area every Friday evening when I lived in Bombay. I reminisced about Savitri, the owner of the sweet shop from whom I bought a twin-pack of mango barfi, half for my son and half for me; Khan Saheb, the owner of the sole bookshop from whom I bought a weekly yoga newsletter; and a young flower seller who sold roses at the traffic light. I invariably gave him my half of the barfi.
While fresh sweets were available on every corner of the city, Savitri’s barfi were exceptionally delicious and neatly packed. When I had asked her, she had proudly told me that it was a family recipe passed down through generations. And she never compromised on the quality of the ingredients. “Besides,” she had giggled, “I add my love to the mix.” In a way, she was right. At the end of the day when everyone around her was exhausted, she continued to look fresh and vibrant. She really enjoyed making her sweets. Though just a handful, every one of Savitri’s customers was a regular.
Khan Saheb was a deeply pious man in his seventies. A devout Muslim, Khan Saheb prayed five times a day. If a customer was with him, he would beg leave when it was time for prayers. His faith towards the Creator was greater than his drive for making more money. His most fascinating characteristic was his ability to find a book. When a customer asked for a book that was not within sight, Khan Saheb would close his eyes, stroke his long white beard and then reach for the book from its exact location. It was as if the catalogue was saved in his beard!
I was walking near the pedestrian bridge but there was hardly any space to walk near the station. Bombay’s suburban railway is an offshoot of the oldest railway system in Asia. It was built initially when about 800,000 people lived in Bombay in 1864. While the infrastructure has not changed much, Bombay’s population has grown to more than 13 million.
An ocean of people rushed past me as though on critical missions. Hawkers screamed of their goods. Auto rickshaws beeped in trying not only to overtake each other but also buses and other larger automobiles. Peddlers tried to sell their wares to passengers in buses and cars, even in the moving traffic. On the sides were shops with everything one needed for life writ large: dresses, jewelry, shoes, electronics, and everything else under the sun.
I was used to these overwhelming crowds, so I found my way to Khan Saheb’s bookshop. The area had grown and become more congested. Now there were several bookshops, not just the one. I asked for Khan Saheb’s shop and a passerby directed me to the one in the corner. Nearby I was happy to see the sweet shop still intact.
Instead of Khan Saheb, there was a young salesman at the counter. As I approached, he glanced at me but was then became busy attending to other customers. Finally it was my turn.
“Do you have a Hindi dictionary?” I asked.
“Sure, please have a seat. I will have to look for it,” he replied.
He set up a folding chair in the narrow space in front of the counter. Not finding the dictionary on the shelves in front of him, he went through a small door at the back, presumably to the shop’s storage area. As I waited, I glanced around the stall and noted the changes since my last visit. There were some inspirational quotations posted on one wall. Unlike before, books were organized as though in a library. There was an electronic display board with rolling stock prices, weather forecasts, and titles of newly arrived books.
After a few minutes, the salesman returned to inform me that he was freshly out of Hindi dictionaries but was sure that some had arrived in the consignment he had received that day. He called out to an assistant to look through the new boxes.
It was a busy time of the day, and I admired the way this man was attending to multiple customers without getting flustered. Everyone had a different need: novels, newspapers, magazines, or textbooks. He not only gave them the right item but also flawlessly calculated the bill. While he did most of the calculations in his mind, it was amusing to see him occasionally use the calculator built into his wrist watch. I could tell from the way he dealt with some high school students that he had received a formal education. They asked him for recommendations for science reference books, and he gave them a complete list with a table of contents for each. I was impressed and asked him his name. “Sunil Morey,” he replied.
Then I asked about Khan Saheb. He took off his thick black-framed glasses, wiped the lenses with the edge of his shirt, rubbed his eyes, and said, “It seems you don’t live here. Khan Saheb passed away a few years ago and I have been managing this shop since then.”
Though I was not surprised, I was saddened to learn of his death. The many conversations I had had with Khan Saheb played through my mind. His stories from the time of the partition of India and Pakistan have lived on with me. Khan Saheb’s wife had died giving birth to their only son Ashraf. He lived in the room behind his shop, and had spent his life bringing up and educating Ashraf. Khan Saheb refused to leave Bombay to live with his son and his family, when they moved to Kuwait. He always said, “I was born in this land, and I will die here too.” He feared that if he was buried outside Bombay, he would not be reunited with his beloved wife Rehana in the afterworld.
I continued chatting with Sunil for a while when I suddenly realized that it is time for me to leave for the airport.
“I have to catch a tonight’s flight to New York, and want to get barfis from Savitri’s shop,” I said. It was, after all, the favorite indulgence of my family, especially my son’s. While Sunil’s assistant looked for the dictionary, I rushed over to Savitri’s shop. Like earlier she was diligently dealing with her customers. It seemed like age has neither touched her beauty nor her energy. Her finely chiseled features, glowing wheatish complexion, a bright bindi decorating her broad forehead all looked rather more attractive than before. I remembered how much I admired Savitri’s choice of sarees with bright colors and her hair style decorated with fresh flowers. Though Savitri did not recognize me she did show a hint of familiarity when I greeted her. After having a short conversation I picked up a couple of packets of barfi and thanked her.
As I started walking back to the book shop, an adorable little boy walked up to me: “Aunty! Please buy my flowers. A dozen for just two hundred rupees,” he said.
The deep dimples that appeared on his face with his smile stole my heart and his charming face and cheerful behavior compelled me to stop for a minute and talk to him. He looked to be hardly six years old and the weight of the flowers he carried seemed more than his own.
“Two hundred rupees? It’s too much!” I said teasing him.
“Oh. If it’s too much, will you give me a hundred?”
I couldn’t say no. I handed him a hundred rupee note, then gave him another hundred and told him to buy books from that money.
“Promise me you will study,” I urged.
Finally I gave him a mango barfi — “a sweet for my sweet flower seller,” I said. His eyes sparkled, and he grabbed my hand to plant a kiss on it. And then ran off happily.
The assistant was still busy combing through boxes, so I bid goodbye to Sunil and hurried off home to get my bags on the way to the airport.
The airport in Bombay has recently been remodeled. Being accustomed to the old layout I was anxiously trying to find my way to the correct entrance. Suddenly, I heard a familiar voice and felt a tap on my shoulder. It was Sunil holding a Hindi dictionary. I could not believe he was there.
“You came all the way to give me this, Sunil?” I was extremely touched by his act.
“No I came to get my share of barfi, Aunty!”
“Your share?” I was puzzled. “You did not come all the way to get barfi, for sure”, I exclaimed.
He smiled but his eyes welled up. “For the past twenty years, at every accomplishment I thought of you. It was not the money as much as the inspiration and love you gave me that encouraged me to study and be a good human being.”
I was astonished. How had I missed everything? Suddenly the little boy with a charming and innocent face, friendly behavior and persistence holding a bunch of colorful flowers peeked from within Sunil as he bent down when I kissed his forehead.
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