Ice Cooled Mangoes

Author: Durlabh Singh

A humorous description of life in an Indian town.

by Durlabh Singh

Shamu lived with his mother and brother on the outskirt of the town. His brother had a big family and was working for a trader, dealing in grocery. He was employed as a munshi or the accountant, which was a skilled job, and you had to learn a special script of lande to do the accounts in, a sort of strange short hand for quicker entries. The account book had long white yellowish sheets which were folded over, thus to reduce the length for easy upkeep. These were tied over with a string and all the books were stored neatly in chronological order by the banya, the shopkeeper.

The brother had only one aim in life, of making money at all cost and would sacrifice anything for its sake. He was a hardworking man and was paid enough to keep the wolf away from the door. He was not satisfied fully with his job and used to flutter on satta during evenings or in his lunch break. Satta was like a stock exchange where you bought and sold certain amount of stocks and if the price went up, you gained money and the other way around ended in loss and heartbreak. The funny thing was that no actual sale of things took place and it was done all in abstractions. It was simply based on the listed commodity market, on which you had to base your betting.

Suppose you bought hundred units of grain at certain price prevalent on the day you bought and agreed to sell it a week hence, if the price of grain went up you ran a profit. There were authorized dealers dealing in this sort of satta betting. The place was a noisy one and you could hear its din nearly half a mile away. The punters were frantic with strange hand symbols and gestures while indulging in their favourite business deals. Mankind can get hooked easily in these betting lures.

He spent his evenings and spare time perusing papers and magazines, studying commodity markets and soon acquired certain knowledge of commodity markets. On the whole he made profit on his deals and was very satisfied with his life.

Shamu was not interested in this side of life. He did not like this ‘thinking game’ where you had to analyze everything. You took decisions using only your rationality and in the long run you were bound to deal in abstractions as authorized by your rational brain. He did not like this ‘game of abstractions’. He carried this mode into his schooling also. He hated learning multiplication tables and other mathematical stuff. It was simply neither here nor there. He wanted to be spontaneous tasting all the juices of life and not making his mind up.

‘ Thinking’ was the curse of the majority and he had to avoid it at all costs.

Worse than this was having ‘aims in his life’ which was simply unbearable to him, as you become a slave to your ambitions and are dragged by these masters through your life. Life was for living and not for having an aim.

Carrying out theses notions, it was no wonder that he did not do well at the school and had to drop out when reaching his grade eight and it was such a relief, being snatched away from the jaws of the devil.

His brother took charge and had him working as his assistance in the shop, but it was all a mistake to him, as he abhorred accountancy as much as he abhorred the multiplication tables. It was simply beyond one’s ability to ‘think’ all the time. He carried on for another two years, doing other menial jobs in the shop. He used to make tea in the winter for the staff and the customers when prompted to do so. In summer he had to go across the street fetching glasses of iced water and sherbets, which he enjoyed. Walking and buying multicoloured sherbets to him was spontaneity in itself and no ‘thinking’ work was involved.

He was back in his usual mood of being ‘spontaneous’ and so gave up his work in the shop. Soon he saw a poster asking for porters in the local railway station, to which he applied and to his great delight was accepted, on a part time basis; learning the job of the coolie or the railway porter.

The railway station was a swell place, a universe in itself. It seemed that that everybody was on the move and indulged in traveling the length and breadth of India. Old women with clicking sandals walking, which measured all the lengths of platforms. This was either to straighten their legs or just watching other people for amusement. They have brought their little trunks and bedding and were making themselves comfortable across the waiting rooms. Some of them had friends and distant relations spread all over India and were busy in traveling to their places, one by one and spending a month or so with each, to give them comfort and benefit of their wisdom and of course having nice meals and good company to enjoy in exchange. If you have ten or twelve relations, you could spend your entire year visiting or even entire life (or what is left of it).
They had truly learnt the art of traveling, taking in the all difficulties and complications of railway timetables. Their strength consisted in taking it easy all the time and keeping a smile on their face, however tedious the journey may be. They were past annoyances of any kind and overcame hurtful remarks by other people about their old age; by just ignoring them

These old ladies were keen on tasting all the foods provided by vendors, hawkers and other food sellers on the platform. They were having puri-aloos, samosas, aloo-chanas and all that, washing it down with lassi or tea. The people have arranged themselves into groups as to pass the time, they were telling each other stories about their wicked daughter in laws and son in laws, who always starved them but their grand children were lovely. After all their sons and daughters in their eyes were still only kids and what would you expect from them? The men were smoking beeris, chewing pans and occasionally drinking earthen pots full scented tea.

It was such a romantic place, big hunks of engines were strolling down the iron tracks hooting, frightening children and dogs; dragging the carriages along like the mums with kids in the morning school runs. And just look at those mind-expanding names of different trains, Punjab Mail, Howrah Express, Deccan Queen. Here was a world to Shammu’s liking and it was all spontaneous and free.

Only things he did not like were the carrying of heavy luggage on his head. The experienced coolies carried a pyramid of trunks on their head, balanced it like an accomplished athlete and still occupied their hands with small bags. They looked splendid in their red uniforms with shiny brass number plates. When he was on duty, he looked for passengers with the least amount of baggage, as he did not want to strain his head or neck.

The other thing he hated was the attitude of passengers with middle or upper middle class tendencies. They thought themselves above coolies and ordinary people and shouted over him in a shrill, insulting voice. Such as ‘Oi! Coolie’ ‘ take this or that and carry it carefully’ and at the end of the job always wanted to cut down even on his fixed fees. They were the miserable sorts who had not the capacity of generosity of heart, by giving him like a little baksheesh sometime.

After the end of his duty, while going home, he began to pass through the big bazaar to look at the shops, people and specially sellers of hot peanuts, jasmined garlands, astrologers and their green parakeets. Once he saw an illuminated sign called ‘Paradise House’ across the street and out of curiosity went into it. He liked the green bulbs and electric lights illuminating the whole place into a haze of green. People were sitting on the tables and chairs drinking, laughing and enjoying themselves. Soon he realized that it was sharab khana or a drinking place. To observe the people closely, he sat on a chair and the waiter came running for his order. He did not know anything about drinks but some how ordered half a glass of desi sharab and when he took the first sip it was like a fire and nearly choked him. He thought people were looking at him out of curiosity. He steadied himself and slowly began to take more sips. Soon the burning sensation ceased and a sort of heightened calm issued forth. He liked it.

He thought he had found a heaven in the drinking house and began to frequent it more often. His life was on the right track with gifts of railway station and the drinking house thrown in. Sometime he had too much to drink and when he went home, he was greatly rebuked by his mother and other family members. One day when during his drinking session at the Paradise, he was visited by a hawker selling sweet mangoes and when he tasted it, oh God it was like something he had never tasted. Its thick sour sweet juice had a profound effect on his palette, which went straight to his stomach and gullet perfuming it, like the ras malai. He resolved to buy some ripe sweet mangoes himself on the following day, together with an icebox to cool them.

On the following day after finishing his work he brought a kilo of best mangoes in the markets, an icebox and a slab of ice from the shop; wrapped it around in a woolen garment to carry it home. He washed the mangoes, mashed the ice and put the mangoes into the icebox packing it with the mashed ice. He reckoned that it would take about two hours for the mangoes to be ready. In the meantime he would walk around the bazaar to get into the right mood swing.

The bright lights of the streets were attractive and especially the green lights of the drinking house. He would just go inside just to enjoy the sight. He went in and sat on a bench and the waiter whom he was familiar with brought him a drink but he was not going to drink anything. The liquid in the glass looked perfect and reluctantly he took a sip, it was Ok to have a tiny drink. There was no harm in having a few sips. Was there? No there was not, he was a man who could drink a great deal without getting into a state. When he finished, he wanted to have another glass. The taste of the drinks soon overpowered his weak will and soon it was closing time. How the time has passed and it was after midnight already. He started his homeward journey with a bit of a stagger.

When he reached home, the door was locked and bolted from inside. He knocked but no one answered it. On the third knock, a child screamed and a man’s voice asked who it was.
Shamu pleaded with his brother to let him in but a voice told him to go away as he was drunk and disturbing the children. He kept knocking with greater force and his brother came to the inside of  the door and asked him what did he want at this time of the night . He pleaded with him to let him have his iced mangoes. After a minute the door was opened and a ghoul appeared with blood shot eyes with a box in his arms.

Shamu was going to be attacked by that horrible bhoot and he raised his arms to protect himself.

‘ I never thought that a day will come when you will raise a fist to strike your own brother. I am thoroughly disgusted with you.’ He heard his brother’s shocked voice.

‘Here are your bloody mangoes and I hope they will choke you.’

He flung the box towards him, the box was shattered with ice scattered all over. The mangoes followed and began to roll across the pavement till they were near the open drain and jumped into it one by one, performing hara kari.

Shamu’s world collapsed. Every body was against him – the crowd, his brother and even the mangoes. There was nobody with him.

Despondently he looked at the sky, brilliant stars beckoned.

‘ We are with you!’ they said.

His gloom lifted for a moment and his eyelids became heavy with sleep and exhaustion. He stretched himself on the steps and in the heat of the night it felt cool and inviting. All was not lost. In the morning he will plead with his brother for his forgiveness. A dark deep liquid advanced on his brain and soon he was asleep and snoring; happy with the knowledge that he was being looked after by his friends in the sky.