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THE BUTTERMILK VENDOR


To access all the previous stories of inspiration, please click here.

It was the hottest part of summer in Andhra Pradesh, the last week of April. While many sought a lazy afternoon in the company of a split air conditioner at home, we were out in the burning compartment of a sluggish train, which was chugging along fuming tracks somewhere near the border between Andhra Pradesh and Orissa.

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I was taking my family to my hometown, Cuttack, in Orissa. We were on a trip to meet the other members of our family in Cuttack and were looking forward to an early dinner and of course, sweet rest! Traveling in a train by itself is a drain on the energy, but traveling in peak summer in a crowded train is even worse.

To add to our misery, we were sweating profusely inspite of the fans, thirsty and bored to death. No one in the compartment was speaking! Cool drinks were all that we wanted since our water containers had been drained to the last drop.

Somewhere around Ichhapuram, a small town, a lady climbed into our coach with the tell-tale pot on her head. She was dressed in a sari, had a huge nose ring, heavy metal bangles in each wrist and had peculiarly large bare feet. And since our coupe was near the door, when she settled down with her pot there, she was right in front of us.

Only then did we notice her pot - it was filled with delicious looking butter-milk! We instantly woke up from stupor to a heavenly reality – cold buttermilk on a sunny day! That was more than what we had wanted and began drinking glasses after glasses which the lady handed over to us with great joy. In the course of sipping this ambrosia, I began talking to her. She lived in a close by village, she said.

“Who else is there in your family?” I asked her.

“I have a ten year old son, babu (which means, sir). But since his father left me before he was born, I am looking after him all alone.”

Given her modest clothes and looks, she did not appear as one who was conferred with any semblance of financial prosperity. So, I asked, “How do you manage your living?”

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“I cook ragi (finger millet) in the night for dinner and the next day’s lunch. In the morning, I buy curds from our village, churn and make buttermilk, crush some lemon leaves and chili on it for taste, and leave home around 10 a.m. Then I travel in the train from my village to and from Berhampur each day to sell this buttermilk to the passengers on board. But before I come on my rounds, I feed my son the ragi with some chili and salt. And after I return home late afternoon, we again take ragi.”

“The same ragi and chili all the days!” I could not believe a person could eat the same food both for lunch and dinner, and that too all throughout the week. Even normal mortals like us need ‘variety’ from lunch to dinner. Unmindful of my surprised expression, she continued. “Sometimes when I sell a little ghee (clarified butter), I buy a fish, or some vegetable to go with the ragi. My son likes dried fish with ragi,” she said, matter-of-factly. She picked up her measure, which was swimming in her pot, and poured another glass for me.

While sipping I asked her again.

“What are you planning for your son? Do you want him to follow your trade too?”

“No babu (sir), I want to send my son to school. He must be a babu like you, get married, and give me a grandson”, she smiled vastly.

On hearing her simple wish, I could not help but think - Life had not defeated her; poverty had not blotted her smiles. For years she had not fallen sick. She had no complaints against anyone. And she had only one dream: retire from work and play with her grandson. How simple can life’s desires be. I recapitulated my own life, which was cluttered with a great amount of rubbish, in search for a moment of such satisfaction. And I confess, I could not find any. All my life, I had not lived any moment which was a match to the satisfaction that reflected in this lady’s life.

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After we had our fill of her buttermilk and her enviable smiles, I slipped into her hand a ten rupees note, more than her due. She looked at it, tucked it into her ancient looking metal purse - a cylinder like little container with a lid - and started to fill the glasses again.

We said we didn’t want any more. She looked at all four of us in surprise, and asked, “If you didn’t want any more then why did you give me that extra money?” I told her that she can use the extra money to buy some rice and vegetable and have a good dinner that night with her son.

Oh, you must have seen her face when I said that! The moment she realized that I was trying to be charitable, she felt humiliated. She protested that she wasn’t prepared to accept anything more than what she deserved and pulled out her purse to return the extra money it to me! Needless to say, I felt thoroughly embarrassed. I didn’t know how to react. But my wife intervened and assured her that since we were returning by the same train two or three days later, she could make us drink as much buttermilk as she wanted then. It was not charity, but a kind of advance payment. The lady was not convinced until she made us promise that we would keep to our words.

After she left, I picked up a newspaper lying by my side. Someone had bought it but left it there. I turned around the pages, trying hard to suppress a lump rising in my throat. The paper, like it always is, was filled with stories of “high-placed” people who were swindling the country of thousands of crores! I threw it away through the window in disgust.

- B. K. Misra

Illustrations: Parag Bhattacharya, SSSU

 


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To access all the previous stories of inspiration, please click here.

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Vol 6 Issue 08 - AUGUST 2008
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