by Deepa Venkatraghvan
Gayathri was in her kitchen, putting together lunch for her young family. Her third child was two, and there was another one on the way, so every meal required multiple preparations to feed a brood with varying appetites for salt, spice and crunch. She carefully measured out the portions because they could not afford to waste food, only because it was too spicy or too hard to bite. Refrigeration was a novelty only few could afford, so every meal had a three-hour “best before” window and could not be allowed to sit and spoil in Bombay’s sweltering summer. India had just become independent and during those tumultuous early years of independence, immediate shortfalls were being bargained for the greater good of establishing a sovereign democratic republic. Unfortunately, one of those shortfalls was food – especially grains like rice and wheat.
There was a knock on her door. Gayathri knew who it would be. She had been mentally preparing herself for this visit for a few weeks now. “Don’t be gullible. Don’t let yourself be swayed by any distractions,” she repeated to herself. Her friends and family always told her that she was too innocent, too trusting to be able to see when people took advantage of her. This time, she was not going to let that happen. She had it all meticulously planned out. Her older children were at school and would not return for another hour. She had timed the naptime of her youngest so there was no distraction on that account. She would pretend like it was any other day but she had all her tools in readily-accessible positions to make a quick decision and follow it up with action. She had to decide if she was being short-sold rice.
Grain shortage in India had been building for several years now but the independence movement and the ensuing partition had lent a deadly blow. But as in any crisis, some ingenious minds had built systems around the grain shortage situation and families like Gayathri’s were willing participants. An entire grain mafia was born where middlemen (or women) started obtaining grains from wholesale grain merchants and selling directly to families. The price, of course, was as they commanded. Tapping the market was not difficult. The Sion-Matunga suburb of Bombay was the hub of hardworking, salaried South Indian immigrants. The same South Indians that could not do without their daily staple of dosa, idly, sambar rice and curd rice.
Gayathri’s husband, an accountant with an English company and therefore, a man of slightly better means had come upon a chavalwali or “rice lady” in the market. A brief encounter, followed by some negotiations had led them to a weekly supply of a tin of rice at an agreed price. Each week, the chavalwali would deliver this rice to their home. The delivery was usually at mid-morning when the husband and children had been packed off to their work or school and the women of the house had time to devote to the household chores. The chavalwali would bring the rice in the standard-sized tin and pour it out into a kitchen utensil supplied by the purchasing family.
Over the past few weeks, however, Gayathri had started noticing a shortfall in their weekly supply. Not one to point fingers easily, at first, she brushed it off to an increasing household and growing appetites. After all, the chavalwali did bring the same tin each week and it was always filled to the brim. However, as the quantities seemed lesser and lesser each week, her suspicions grew. A chat with another South Indian housewife yielded knowledge of a ploy that chavalwalis adopted. They raised the base of the tin from the bottom so that the quantity of rice was much lesser than what the tin looked like it could hold. This meant that Gayathri had to measure the quantity of rice.
The challenge for Gayathri was to do it without causing any alarm. The last thing she wanted was to wrongly accuse the chavalwali and lose the little ration of rice that her husband was able to bargain. So she put together her elaborate plan. After taking delivery of the rice, she would pretend to open the kitchen cabinet to reach out for the cash. Tucked away in the cabinet was a weigh scale that she would quickly use to measure the rice. If short, she would confront the lady and ask to inspect the tin.
She took a deep breath, said a quick prayer at the altar of the little temple in the corner of her kitchen, and opened the door. It was indeed the chavalwali with her friendly smile and warm greetings. “How are you today, Gayathri didi? You look weak. Are you eating well?” she asked, her eyes rife with concern. Gayathri tried to mask her anxiety, “Oh you know how it is during pregnancies. Some days are good and some days are terrible,” she offered.
“Don’t be gullible. Don’t let yourself be swayed by any distractions,” she repeated to herself.
Gayathri received the rice in a bowl, then turned to the cabinet to carry out the rest of her plan. She had been right – the rice was indeed short. She closed her eyes for a few seconds, to calm her racing heart and also rehearse her next steps. When she was ready, she turned around, “I was wondering….,” she started but trailed off very quickly. The chavalwali was no longer standing there. Gayathri’s heart started racing again, “Look at what I have done. The chavalwali must have guessed my anxiety and figured that I was going to catch her. But I will not let her take this from me.” Gayathri raced to the door and down the stairs. She could see the chavalwali a few blocks away, walking briskly. Gayathri started to chase her, through familiar alleys and narrow backroads but she could not keep up with the nimble chavalwali. Just when she was contemplating her next move, she remembered her child. In her fervour, she had left her child alone at home, unattended. The blood drained from her face. There was no more chasing to do. She turned around and began running home, sweating, praying and hoping her baby was alright.
She traced her steps back to her apartment block, raced up the stairs into her home only to find her child still sleeping where she had left him. She caught her breath, heaved a sigh of relief and robotically walked to the altar to say a prayer of gratitude. She bowed her head in reverence and when she looked up, she noticed two circular oil stains, right at the spot where two silver lamps once stood.