First published in aaduna.org
It was a dreadful monsoon day when I first met Suman Bai. The sky was filled with engulfing darkness. The clouds battled each other and showered their war-weary visceral on us hapless mortals below. Finding no outlet in the clogged city, the water had risen in several low-lying areas and swept the city into disarray. But, in spite of the monsoon fury, the people of Mumbai went about their daily chores. No flood or storm could keep them from seizing the day. It is said that there is a spirit of Mumbai- Mumbra Devi- that is alive here. It is this spirit probably that goads its people to keep going- to keep walking even when their shoulders fall and feet fail. And the spirit happens to burn the strongest in the stomachs of the hungry.
I was on my way to college. It was about eight stations away and it took me forty minutes to get there. I climbed into the ladies compartment and found my way to a soaking wet seat. The windows were bedecked with colorful umbrellas propped up in odd corners since the shutters were not working. It was not peak time and, therefore, the train wasn’t as crowded. There were not too many people standing in the aisles or by the doors. This meant that there would be vendors who walked from seat to seat selling us their wares. Bindis, earrings, churmura to eat, handkerchiefs. They walked back and forth, each shouting out their own unique pitch.
Handkerchiefs were on sale- you could get seven for the price of five today. Earrings to match any outfit and any occasion were magically sourced from little plastic containers balancing on each other. Bindis dazzled like the raindrops- numerous and colorful from their plastic display sachets. Some sizzled with sparkles, some tempted with shapes of peacocks and the moon and some were rather stoic with just bold monotones. It was easy to lose track of time watching this continuous parade of color wash away the dreariness of the day.
Buy them for your in-laws. They will love the lemonade you make for them. Make some tangy lemon rice for your husband. It will spice your life. Add some lemons in a pickle. Your kids will be clamoring to eat it with everything. Lemons sweet lemons for you.” Needless to say, Suman Bai sold all her lemons that day.
I ran into her often. We even began to chat. Suman Bai was a single mother. Her husband had died years ago from tuberculosis. Since then she was raising her son by herself. One day she even brought his report cards all the way from Kindergarten for us to look at. All the ladies marveled at the scores. He was no doubt a star student. He was now studying in one of the most prestigious colleges in India and that, too, on a scholarship. Suman Bai had achieved all this on her own.
Each day she would wake up at 4 A.M. She would haul the days produce brought to her from nearby farms. She would balance three baskets precariously on her head under a little brown cloth headrest and catch the 5.00 A.M train from Ambernath. She would ride the vast network of trains on all routes adeptly managing to find the best times on each route to sell her wares. She would avoid the peak hours, but otherwise, from sunrise to sundown she walked continuously from compartment to compartment closing sale upon sale.
She had a gift. When she entered a room, the mood changed. Was it her voice with that sweet comforting quality to it? Was it her disarming smile that stretched and spilled into her twinkling eyes? Or was it her skill with words that wove poetry into every sentence that she sang in praise of lemons? She would skillfully conjure up stories for each one of us where we were the central characters. Her stories were replete with happy scenes and happy endings. And of course, these happy stories always had to do with the lemons you bought from her. Your sister-in-law would ask you for recipes and tips; your neighbor would make you famous in the locality for your delicately made lemon rasam; your mother would beam with pride at your culinary skills. She also had a monstrous amount of recipes stored in her head. I didn’t know you could make so many things with lemons before encountering Suman Bai.
Days passed and I graduated out of college. I was now working in a bank as an associate in the Fountain area in South Mumbai. The company provided a bus for transport so I rarely took the train. Then one day as I was stepping out of office, the world below my feet shook. Smoke filled the air. Panic struck as people ran helter-skelter. There were a string of bomb attacks by terrorists that assailed the city that day. One of them was close to my office. We waited in the office until morning- until some sense of normalcy was restored in the city and finally buses, taxis and trains were running again. A group of us took the train back home.
News snippets were being exchanged in the train. Hundreds had perished. People were confused and anxious. I was badly shaken too. My heart was still pounding and there was a nervous tick in my left arm that hadn’t left me since the previous day. Young students were sobbing. Wives frantically calling their husbands. Mothers crying and asking to talk to their children. It was the longest journey I ever took. And as I sat there waiting to get home, for some reason I missed hearing Suman Bai’s comforting voice. I looked at each station, but she wasn’t there. I hoped she had gotten home safe.
Days passed. The city slowly healed. The spirit of Mumbai now added bomb blasts to its list of things it couldn’t be deterred by. Laborers still heaved cement, shopkeepers still opened their roadside stalls, autos still ran the crazy maze of the city and people everywhere went about their lives. For most people, getting back to normal was a necessity. Sometimes there is happiness in the lack of choice.
I was doing well at the bank. I was doing a rotation in the reporting group now. Every month end I would work long nights closing books. Then for a few days after that, I would return home early to compensate for the overtime. When I did that, I always took the train. And every time I took the train, I looked for Suman Bai. I saw vendors selling notebooks and pencils. I saw beggars singing old romantic songs on the harmonium. I saw ladies fighting over who got to sit on the ‘fourth seat’. But I never saw her.
One day I was walking home and passed by a cart making fresh lemon juice, the citrus smell of the lemons suddenly hit me and tugged at my heart. I really missed seeing Suman Bai. I concluded she must have taken a different route. Or maybe she was gone on vacation for a few days. Life went on.
While I was working, I had applied to universities abroad and got into an Ivy League business school. I decided to take one last trip on the trains of Mumbai. I wanted to savor my last ride as much as I could. I observed the passengers come in and go, the vendors walk by dexterously selling knick-knacks. I enjoyed each moment and captured as many mental images of the scenes around me for my future stock of nostalgia.
Somewhere within me, I had wanted to see Suman Bai one last time; bid goodbye to her. I felt like I owed it to her. In some strange subconscious way, I felt my journey was a debt I owed her. Her optimism, her determination, her beauty, her affability. But she wasn’t there.
I met a few regulars who used to frequent the same trains as I did. While talking to them I found out that no-one had seen Suman Bai after the day of the blasts. Someone said she believed Suman Bai might have been caught in the skirmish. She was probably on the train at the time the fourth blast had gone off near the C.S.T station.
That evening I went home with a heavy heart. Even when I sat in the plane embarking on my exciting new journey in life, I carried around me a tight band of wistful sorrow. The sorrow of Suman Bai’s needless demise. It seemed like such a loss of light and joy to the world.
Years passed. I was now working at a world-renowned company in the bay area as part of their corporate finance team. I juggled numbers and spreadsheets, drank smoothies, shopped organic and traveled the world. My parents had been on my case asking me to get married and get settled. I decided to humor them on the latter request and buy my own home. After a quick tour of the nearby towns, I decided to move to sunny Santa Clara. It was close to work and a quiet residential neighborhood. I found a beautiful home with an enormous backyard. I didn’t have too much furniture. The movers had finished packing and moving my things in about three hours. I stepped into my new home walking from room to room. I was excited about decorating it. And the garden would be a fun project. Going by the bountiful fruit trees and beautiful flowers in the neighborhood, I knew there was a lot I could do. But first, I had to unpack the countless boxes and get the kitchen in order.
It was a hot day and after a few hours, I was thirsting for something cold to drink. I was just looking up the nearest Starbucks to go to, when the doorbell rang. A little boy of about four stood outside. “Hey, I am Neel,” he said. “We live next door. Welcome to your new neighborhood.” Behind him stood a handsome young man in jeans and a white t-shirt – probably his Dad. Right next to him stood an elderly woman – probably the little boy’s grandmother.
She was dressed in black slacks and a long Kurti. Her hair was cut short stopping just before her shoulders and it was turning gray near the ears and the forehead. The graying lent her a very distinguished look. I would not have recognized her had she not spoken. “Here’s some fresh lemonade for you from our garden”, she said, stepping forward. I looked at the tray she was holding. A big jug of cold homemade lemonade was positioned in the middle and next to it was a little basket of ripe, round, bright, yellow lemons.
Our eyes met and a smile flew across her face stretching and spilling into her eyes. My heart sang with joy. “Lemons, sweet lemons for you.”