Thirty-six-year-old Raju, a vegetable seller, is lonely and broken. He was blamed for theft by his cousin, who was later caught red–handed, and lost his job. His wife was poisoned by his sister-in- law and she left him. He tries hard to make both ends meet, caring for his aged father. He wishes a child to call him ‘Appa’. Despite these, his faith in God remains unshaken on new moon days, he feeds the crows, the scavenging birds with whom he connects. Shail profiles Raju’s life, in the weekly column, exclusively for Different Truths.
“We don’t need a melting pot in this country, folks. We need a salad bowl. In a salad bowl, you put in the different things. You want the vegetables – the lettuce, the cucumbers, the onions, the green peppers – to maintain their identity. You appreciate differences.” ~ Jane Elliot, American schoolteacher, anti-racism activist, educator, and feminist.
This was new to me. I had heard this kind of prayer, desire, wail or plea if you may from women and that too, on screen, in books; never ever in reality thrown at me with an intensity that made me feel guilty for having a family.
That plea was made by Raju, the vegetable vendor who sold colourful vegetables on his push cart on the road, in residential localities, on roads; anywhere people were willing to buy his vegetables as he trudged along the whole day.
Fairly well built Raju is all of 36 years old with a history of selling vegetables for the past 25 years.
Which place do you belong to?
“I am from Chennai although my mother is from Puducherry (Pondicherry).”
Have you always been selling vegetables?
“Yes, as long as I can remember. In between I did work for an electrical company, which was recommended to me by my cousin.”
So, why did you not continue in that profession?
“I would have but, unfortunately, my cousin turned out to be a thief and when he stole
something from the shop where we worked, he accused me of stealing and I was thrown out
of the job.”
You never told them that you did not steal?
“I did but who listens to a poor man? Later, my cousin was caught red handed stealing. Only then did they realise that they had accused me wrongly but, by then, it was too late and I had moved on from being a worker in an electrical shop to a vegetable vendor.”
Are you literate?
“I studied till the 2 nd grade in English medium. After that, I had to switch to Tamil medium because my parents did not have that much money to fund my English medium studies. I studied up till 6th grade. I couldn’t study anymore because it had become increasingly difficult for my parents to fund the education of three children, my elder brother, me and my younger sister.”
Do you all live together?
“Sort of. We live in a housing colony. My younger sister is married so she lives elsewhere with her family. My elder brother lives with his family just next door.”
And, what about your family?
“My mother passed away 11 years back. She used to cook food for me (Raju looked sad, trying hard to appear tough).”
Oh! That is sad. What about your father? Your wife?
“My father is around 76 years of age. Both of us live together.”
And wife, children?
“My wife divorced me.”
What? (Here was a man actually saying that his wife divorced him and not the other way round).
But, there is medication for it. Haven’t you seen a doctor?
“I have been taking medicines but the Government Hospital is not regular in its supply and the private medical shops charge a lot.”
So, your wife left you because of your health condition?
“Not exactly. Partly because of it. The main reason was that my Anni (Bhabhi-sister- in-law poisoned my wife’s mind and told her lot of demeaning things about me. Unable to bear it all, my wife asked for divorce. She was a good lady. She returned all that was not hers like jewellery and all.”
He really liked her, I tell myself. Why would society wish to separate a newly married couple out of spite? Why was his brother’s wife doing this?
Did your brother not say anything?
“What will he say? He was always on the side of his wife. That is why my aged father lives with me and not with him.”
Okay, (I try to divert the topic). You tell me that your father is old. Who takes care of the cooking then?
“Earlier, I used to cook something for the both of us before I set out for buying vegetables and then selling them. Later, it became very difficult for me because waking up at 3 a.m. in the morning, going and purchasing vegetables from the market and then, washing clothes, cooking tiffin and lunch before setting out to sell the vegetables was physically too exhausting for me. So, now, my father does the cooking for me. If only my mother was alive I would be happy.”
What about your sister? Is she in touch with you?
“Although she is the one living far, she is the only one apart from my father who I can really call family. Whenever it is possible for her, she comes home. Her husband is a taxi driver.”
Has this incident lessened your belief in God?
“No, no. I still go to the temple. Every day, I offer mixture (savoury snack) to the Kaaka (crow). And on Amavaasya day, I offer food. I like the crows very much. I feel a kind of connect with them.”
What have you learned in your 36 years on this earth?
“That we must never trust others and that one should work very hard in life.”
If given a chance, would you get married again?
“Yes. Definitely. I earn an honest living. I have no bad habits. If only it can happen then, I can become a father with someone to call me Appa.”
‘Appa’, I have never heard a more loving word than this from a sad, lonely and frustrated man.
Raju, may your desire come true, I wished him and walked away sadly with some vegetables that I had bought from his cart. Even the bag of vegetables seemed heavy, coated as they were with Raju’s sad life tale.
Photos by the author.
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