In the sultry heat, the Cherry tree looked like a crestfallen school kid punished to stand outside the classroom.
Saturday afternoon; my fish buying is a weekly routine. I switch off the bike at the beginning of the decline and slide to a stop at the fish vendor’s stall, scantily shaded by the Cherry tree. As usual, I glance at the price list displayed, sigh at the expensive Neyymeen, Aavoli etc and hope the cheaper Choora, Ayala or Matthi would be available and be fresh.
There is a misconception that fat people are jolly. Actually, I suspect that they pretend to be jolly, as if laughing at themselves for their fatty, blubbery physiques, as if in an attempt to pre-empt the ridicule and mockery by the fortunate, slim world. In fact, they are hiding the dullness, the unwieldy heaviness of their corpulence, the palpitation, the sweating, skin problems and a host of other discomforts. I know, I carry a few extra pounds myself.
The fishwife, whom I am acquainted with for the last 6-7 years, is a jolly fat lady. In the burning heat, sweat soaks her blouse and saree and glistens on her sun burnt, black skin. I give my order and she weighs the fish. I make a usual desultory comment on the weather and she commences – ‘sarammarkku entherariyam?’ 'What you big bosses know, uh? You guys sit inside air-conditioned rooms. Look at poor people like me, melting away in this tin shack, you know what, sometimes I pick a couple of ice cubes from the freezer and rub it over my face, I stink of fish anyway'.
I am very polite with the fishwives of Trivandrum. Very. Very respectful too. Anybody would be, unless he is another fishwife. They have such scathing tongues that a self-respecting person will never dare to bargain or to make a derogatory comment on their wares.
I remember them from my boyhood, there were no transport for them, they used to come from places like Shankhumughom, Kovalam, walking, on an average, 30- 40 kms everyday. They would have this huge ratten baskets on their heads, filled with fish. A ball of rags would cushion the weight. Pieces of palm frond cut lengthwise would serve as the run-off channel for the melting ice. A smaller vessel kept on top of the other would hold their money, betel leaves, luncheon box etc. As a boy I used to watch them, fascinated at the speed they scamper, it was almost a fast trot, their taut behinds swinging in rhythm. Their firm breasts would be juggling, the towel thrown across the blouse failing to cover them modestly. Most of them were inveterate pan-chewers, the red spittle dribbling off the side of the blood-red lips. The nose-studs they wore, cheap glass, would glitter in the sunlight. Their bodies were so strong, sinewy, veins would be bulging in their biceps. I have never seen tougher women, mentally or physically. The fishwives of Trivandrum is a unique element in the human landscape of the city; none of the air-conditioned chain stores with their aproned, scoffing hunks wielding chopping knives can ever replace them. Yet the rhythmic tumbling behinds of the fishwives is history. They still live in the coast, at Shankhumughom and Kovalam etc, but nowadays they have Fisheries Co-operatives who transport them in buses.
I like this woman. She reminds me of the big black mammas of the South, typified in so many Hollywood movies. She reminds me of Queen Latifah, whom I adore. You feel so secure if she is around. She is like the women in Shaggy's song, 'Strength of a woman'.
I like to make small talk to her. I say – 'What now, fish getting so expensive, what?’ Milady rolls up my fish in a paper, puts it into a plastic carry bag and looks at me as if I am the dumbest idiot she has ever come across in her life. ‘Saare! Paperonnum vayikkarille?’ 'Man, don’t you ever read the newspapers? No fish in the seas! The seas have been polluted and fish die. It is a sea of oil not water. All these big trawlers come from other countries, sweep away even the eggs and what is left we sell to you and you complain about the price?' Suddenly she whirls around and dumps a big Bible in front of me. ‘Saare, I will show you. All this has been predicted long long ago in the Bible. Vayichunokkanam, read it, will you?' I am enchanted. I tell her, no, you read, I have to dig around for my glasses. She ruffles through the well thumbed, well underlined Bible, stops at a page, clears her throat and it comes, like waves rising:
She is Lady Moses; she holds the Bible in her left hand, follows the lines with her right forefinger. Gone is the coastal Malayalam accent, the twangs and tilts, the shrieks and shrills. In her voice, in her gestures, I see her passion for the Lord.
She takes up the Old Testament, Hosea 4:1 – 19.
Hear the word of the LORD,
you Israelites because the LORD has a charge to bring against you who live in the land:
“There is no faithfulness, no love, no acknowledgement of God in the land.
There is only cursing, lying and murder, stealing and adultery;
they break all bounds, and bloodshed.
Because of this the land mourns,
and all who live in it waste away;
the beasts of the field and the birds of the air
and the fish of the sea are dying.
I am speechless. I am aware of what is happening, here in the middle of the city, on a hot May afternoon when it reads 360 C, I am fuming in the heat, sweat pours down from my bald head into the small of my neck and I am listening to this magnificent woman preaching. She confides to me after a pause – 'Sarre, we have an inttterrnational (sic) organisation. We go from house to house preaching the Good Word of the Lord'. I mumble - 'Hmm, Hmm, its great, but see, start practicing instead of preaching, will you? The government is cutting down trees, they are letting in foreign trawlers, they are letting our own people fish in the breeding season, and what about your big greedy muthalalees ( businessmen) who export all fish to other countries? Your organisation should make some noise about that'. She is silent for a while. Then she asks me how old I am. I tell her I am 52. She says she is 48. Then she asks me my name. Is she a tad disappointed to note that I am not a Christian? She is Elsy. 'Do you go to church, Sir?' I say no. Not to temples either, except those which has murals or carvings that I love to look at. Or which has huge compounds with shady big ficus trees and where cool air flows gently like a stream...
We Malayalees take much pride about our 100% literacy. Very true, of course. The man on the street knows all about from global warming to implications of economic recession. Nature conservation? Elementary. But the average Malayalee is the most indifferent, selfish, uncaring member of an Indian community. Unless and otherwise he is directly affected, he would be the last to raise his/her voice against the issue. Like the tree-felling in the city. In a city of I don't know how many hundred thousands, there were hardly 20 of us to make a hue and cry about tree-felling. Elsy is knowledgeable and concerned about the alarming depletion of fish in the seas; however, as a true Christian, it is only a re-affirmation of her faith, more reason for her to spread the Good Word rather than to look at the true cause.
I tell Elsy that I have two Bibles at home, and have read parts of it. I tell her to ask the leaders of her organisation to look into the causes of fish depletion and take it up along with their Lord's work.
In this hot, humid day, two individuals have shared a few moments; a bond has been built. The next time I go to Elsy, she would have a special smile for me; and I, in gratitude of her friendship, would bow to her.
************ Balachandran V, Trivandrum, 12.05.2009