That morning, Kannamma felt the weight of seventy years of life on her thin, frail body. She made a final check on the contents in the large bamboo basket. The green bananas to one side, small, tall and fat yellow bananas spread round the rest of the basket. Between the green and yellow, there was one dozen red-bananas. Those were special delivery for the bungalow-lady. Even the thought of the bungalow-lady brought no smile to her face that morning.
After inspection, she pulled the long, free end of the old, frayed cotton saree, rolled it into a bun and placed it on her head. Habitually she reached for the basket, when her hands caught her attention. She stood back staring at them. She examined the open palms closely then turned over her hands as she ran her eyes ruminatively over the sinewy veins through the infinite creases on the withered brown skin.
Memories flickered through her mind and reflected on her face. She clasped her hands together, tightly, unable to let go. Finally she released her hands, sighed heavily as she bent down carefully to pick up the heavy basket. She lifted it with all the might of an ant, placed it on her head. In the close relationship between the basket and the bun for several years, they found each other’s place and stayed comfortably.
Kannamma doddered out of the hamlet with the basket weighing her down. The white heat of the sun baked the arid earth. Kannamma found the familiar foot path that led to the neighboring suburban residences. She looked down the path without moving her head. Every now and then she pushed a thorny bush jutting into the path carefully with one hand while she held the basket steadily with her other hand. She walked in this cautious manner until she reached the well-paved streets of the neighboring residential colony.
She stopped in front of certain houses, lifted the iron latch of the metal gate and clanged it against each other as she announced herself, ‘Amma, bananas’. At most houses the women came out and bought the fruit. The sight of her familiar customers did not bring any pleasure to Kannamma that day. She did not make chit-chat with any of the women she had met regularly and befriended over the years. All she wanted on that day was to sell every last fruit so that there would be enough money left for food after paying off the day-loan with usurious interest.
Trudging through a few streets of the residential colony, she nearly emptied her wares. Only a dozen small yellow bananas and the red bananas remained. Relieved to have completed her business within a couple of hours, she turned a corner and walked down to a house at the end of the street. She clanged on the gate and announced herself, ‘Amma bananas’, she cried out with a parched throat.
A middle-aged woman came through the threshold, unlatched the grill door, walked out to the cool and spacious verandah as she invited her in, ‘Vaa, Kannamma, you are quite early today.’ Kannamma’s tired, trembling body shuffled through the gate into the house compound. She easily lifted the lightened basket off her head and placed it on the floor in slow, deliberate movements. Then supporting her back with both her hands, she slowly lowered herself to the floor and sat down with her back to the wall.
The woman looked into the basket and said, ‘Looks like you’ve had a good day today. The basket is almost empty. Oh, I see you got the red bananas.’
Even the cheerful remark from the bungalow-lady did not bring a smile to Kannamma’s face. She nodded slowly while she pulled out the flat bun, turned it back into a saree end and began to fan herself.
At the sight of Kannamma fanning herself, the lady suddenly came to a realization, ‘Where are my manners?’ she said, rushing into the house and returning back in a few minutes with a cool glass of butter-milk, and offered it to Kannamma who looked at it with some skepticism. ‘Don’t worry the water is from the earthen pot,’ assured the lady. Kannamma reached for the glass gratefully and drank it in small gulps. The lady looked at Kannamma intently as she drank the buttermilk, and asked, ‘What is the matter with you? You don’t look yourself. Is something wrong?’
Two large tears rolled from the dimmed eyes.
‘What is it Kannamma?’ the lady asked gently.
‘My son is in the hospital’, Kannamma said wiping away the tears.
‘He fell down at the construction site.’
‘Oh, my God! When did this happen?’
‘Yesterday, he fell off the scaffolding from way up. I think the fourth floor. That’s what they told me at the government hospital,’ she said in muted sorrow.
‘How is he now?’
‘Very bad,’ she shook her head in vexed resignation, ‘Doctor told me that he might not survive. He has been unconscious since he fell. There are tubes running all over him.’ She fell silent unable to continue.
‘I am so sorry to hear that.’ Silence fell between them. Kannamma tried to stifle her pain, while the lady was lost in thought. She broke the silence and asked, ‘Why are you working today? Shouldn’t you be at the hospital, by his side?’
The toil worn face looked despondent, ‘There are two mouths at home to feed. Only a couple of months ago did his wife give birth.’
More silent moments elapsed. The lady broke the silence once again and said, ‘Let me bring you some lunch.’
‘There is no need, amma. Your kindness is enough.’
‘No, that won’t do. You should have something to eat. I’ll bring you some lunch and then you can leave,’ she said with finality. Kannamma obeyed meekly.
When Kannamma finished the meal, the lady brought a couple of lunch boxes and placed it in the basket. She thanked her, lifted herself up slowly, draped the free end of the saree over her shoulders, picked up the basket, held it to her side and took leave. ‘God will bless you, amma. You’ve always been very kind to me.’
The lady walked up to her and pressed a small roll of currency into her hands. Kannamma stared at it and said, ‘But you already paid me.’
‘I know. This is so you can take a few days off and stay with your son and his family.’
The ancient face broke into gummy grin and tears simultaneously.
Note: When I visited India in 2007, after a long gap, one of my uncles, who was quite an influence growing up, described a scenario to test my humanity. This was the scenario he presented: A poor old woman, in a village who sold “appams” (A type of bread made from rice) for a living, lost her only son. She was so dirt poor that she could not afford a funeral and the villagers pitched in. But, she did not even attend the funeral, because she was selling “appams”. The villagers vented their frustration at her extreme selfishness. She went on selling her appams paying no heed.
My uncle wanted my thoughts on this. That conversation served as the primary inspiration for the story.
The old woman described in the story is a typical character, who many of us are familiar with from my generation, especially growing up in small communities. I can’t say for sure that if it is still true. India seems to have undergone a tremendous change in the past two decades.