“Swamy” by Ranjit Kulkarni

I sometimes wonder if people are crazy or from some other planet. But I am not complaining. Why should I? Not at all. After all, what more would a simple man like me want? All that I do nowadays is to sit in my farm, cook my food and eat it with my near and dear ones, and my special group of friends.

But it was not always like that. Let me tell you my story.

Two years back, before my current avatar, I was Swamy, the vegetable vendor in the hi-tech city of Bangalore. I got up at 4.30 AM every day. I went to the wholesale market with my pushcart. I loaded it with tomatoes, potatoes, onions, and other vegetables. Before I left, I made some space for chillies, coriander, and lemons. All with my bare hands, all alone. With my pushcart full by 7 AM, I left the wholesale market.

It was a journey that took an hour and a half to push it to the apartments where I sold them.

That day, in fact, for all days that week, the season was cloudy. The cold wind gave me shivers while I pushed my cart. The swaying trees suggested that the rain wasn’t far. I glanced above and saw a bunch of dark clouds. A sign of things to come. Dark clouds first, then an outpour.

I stopped the pushcart in its tracks. I removed the plastic cover from under it in the chamber above the wheels. I wrapped it around the vegetables. A couple of tomatoes and some potatoes fell down in the rush to cover them. The rain had started coming down, not in torrents but in drips, like sprinklers that I have now fitted in my farm.

When I reached the first apartment that day, I was wet. It was almost 8.50 AM. The residents were up and running for the day’s business. I parked my pushcart near one of the walls of the compound of the apartment and sounded my bugle. It had my pre-recorded voice in it.

It wasn’t easy to keep shouting all day, every day. So a friend had recommended this marvel device a few months back. Every one of my vendor friends had started using it. Technology came to my rescue then too. As it did now. While recording in it, I had shouted, “Vegetables, Fresh Vegetables.”

When I pressed the speaker button, the apartment area reverberated with my voice. I thought that would ensure that everyone knows I am here. I waited for my regular customers to step out into their balconies or walk out to pick up the vegetables. “Tomatoes. Potatoes. Onions. Take them by the kilo,” was what echoed when I pressed the second button.

I peeped into the small by-lanes of that apartment on the left and the right. Water had filled the walkways and play areas. Boys and girls in uniform rushed beside me to go to school climbing into the waiting school buses. A couple of women walked out towards my pushcart with an umbrella. A bunch of men in tracksuits and raincoats walked past me. Some of them asked me the price of tomatoes. When they heard it, they walked away. I tried to stop them, but they didn’t wait.

“Chillies. Lemons. Coriander. Take them by the bunch,” I pressed another button on that device. I raised the volume so that no one misses it. It seemed like I was yelling at the top of my voice.

A few morning walkers picked up some of my vegetables, but no one bought anything. By 9.40 AM, with few people turning up, I gave up and started moving my pushcart to the next apartment.

I checked my phone. Till a few weeks back, I used to get loads of orders on the phone. They had now come down to a trickle. I called those numbers to check if they needed anything.

“No, nothing Swamy. Not today,” most of them said.

“Madam, send me a message if you need anything,” I said and moved on.

At the next apartment, the same thing happened, more or less. A few morning walkers found empty entertainment fiddling with my cart. They lifted some of my vegetables and kept them back on the cart. Some women walked past my vegetable pushcart. They stared at my fresh tomatoes but did nothing else.

I wondered hard and long what was wrong. People still ate vegetables. But over the past few weeks, my orders had dried up. But why?

A few days later I found out why.

That evening, some boys came to my cart and bought all the vegetables that I had in my cart. I was struggling with selling them throughout the day. I hadn’t found many takers in my regular apartments. These boys came late in the evening to my cart.

“We will take everything, Swamy,” they said. They started filling their baskets with whatever was there on my pushcart. I watched them working in their uniform t-shirts with awe. I thought I was lucky to have finally found someone to buy my vegetables, but my happiness was short-lived.

They paid me less than what I had bought them for. I had no choice. It was the end of the day. I told myself that at least, I didn’t lose all my capital.

When they finished, I asked them what they would do with these vegetables.

One of them pointed me to their vehicle. It was a tempo that had loads of vegetables and fruits.

“We will supply them to the apartments early tomorrow morning, with their milk,” he said.

I scratched my head. “But no one is buying vegetables in those apartments,” I said. I did not realising my stupidity and naivete then.

The boy laughed and shoved his phone in my hand. He opened an app and showed me the list of orders he had received from my old customers in those three apartments.

An acute sense of anger and envy welled up inside me. I felt like someone had snatched the food on my plate. My face tightened. I clenched my fists. My eyes turned red for a moment. But even from my state of anguish, I could see my impending doom in store.

“They have already ordered?” I asked.

“Yes, and they have already paid,” the boy sniggered. “Online.”

He sat in his tempo vehicle and patted me on the shoulder.

“Swamy, get rid of your cart. There is no point in going to the wholesale market early in the morning tomorrow. If you have a bike or a tempo, join us,” he said and drove away.

That week changed everything for me.

The government announced that everyone had to stay at home for the next three weeks due to a virus. The tempo boys who came to pick up my vegetables that day, for the last time, said that three weeks was only the start. “Don’t expect any business for two or three months,” one of them sniggered.

I was stuck. Swamy, the vegetable vendor, had no reason to stay in this ruthless city. The tempo boys had already stepped on my stomach over the past few weeks. The government’s announcement was the death knell. There was no way I could survive in this hi-tech city.

Someone in my neighbourhood told me to take the first bus to my village. I packed my bags and did it on the next day. I don’t want to tell you how much I had to struggle to get on to that bus. That bus didn’t go the full distance. I walked for a day as there were no more buses. But that is history now. Why should I complain? I didn’t know then what was in store.

I landed in my village farm two days later. Today marks two years since that day. Little did I know then that I would never go back.

***

Egaperungumagalur in Puduttikkottai district. That’s the name of my village.

I walked that day for forty kilometres from the bus stop to my home in that village. When I told my old mother, she cooked my favourite Jackfruit Kuzhambu recipe. Yes, raw jackfruit. I ate it to my heart’s content. I had never felt better after a meal.

A few days later I went to the pond to catch some fish and crabs. Garfish. I cooked it myself.

I smiled after a long, long time that day. My mother was happy. My wife was happy.

Life in the village is simple. I fell in love with it all over again. Ten years in the city as a vegetable vendor had pushed those memories to the bottom of my head. They came up again.

But there was nothing else to do other than cook, eat and be happy. All I did all through the day was to get some fish or chicken or some harvest from the farm and cook and eat.

You never know what’s in store though. Never try to outguess God’s plan. I realized that soon.

It was on one of those days that an old friend’s nephew came to our house.

“Did you finish your computer course?” I asked him. He nodded but not with his usual smile.

“So why did you come back?” I asked him.

He kept his eyes on his phone for a while before he looked up with a twisted mouth.

“Company closed,” he replied. “No job.”

I stayed silent. Was there no difference between a vegetable vendor like me and this educated boy? Why did both of us find ourselves in the same predicament, coming back to our village from the city?

“Have lunch here,” I told him. He nodded. He liked my idea. “Tell Chittappa to come,” I said. He nodded again. I could see his twisted mouth straighten up a bit. He called my friend and asked him to come over. “Tell him I am making fish and prawns, and some chicken. Like old times.”

The smile on his face returned now. When my friend came in, the decibel levels in our small house went up. We cooked our favourite village recipes. The boy was happy. With phone in hand, he recorded a video of us cooking it, eating it in our thatched hut. It was a wonderful memory.

Life is unpredictable.

After a few days, we met at our farm with our families and some old friends. There were ten of us. We had a nice time. We made the most of it. We cooked huge quantities of Varagu Arisi Pongal. The boy called it Organic Millet Rice. Then we made Kambu Koozh. He named it Organic Millet Porridge.

We ate our food all through the morning and afternoon right there on the farm. We made a lot of noise, talking and playing. The boy was happy. He recorded everything again.

I wondered why he did it and what he did with it, till a few days later, when he and my friend came running to my house.

“Half a Million views,” the boy shouted. I didn’t understand what he was saying. My friend jumped with excitement too. I had no idea why.

That is when he explained what he had done and what his plan was. He had uploaded our videos to YouTube. Close to five lakh people had seen it there. He wanted us to upload more.

“The more the number of people who see it and like it and subscribe, the more will we get paid,” he explained. Since then, we have uploaded more than one hundred videos of our village recipes to this channel. He has named it “The Rural Chef.” Four other friends from the village have joined us now.

Naat Kozhi Rasam was our biggest hit. No, was it Mudakathan Keerai? How can I forget Vathal Kuzhambu? And of course, Ulundhu Kali. And Thippili Rasam. And Panakam. And, of course, Paruppu Thuvaiyal. And not to miss, our Temple Prasadam and Village Marriage Recipes. So many of them.

It has been fun. A heady ride. I never thought I will be anything other than a poor vegetable vendor.

Every week, once a day, we buy the ingredients and go to our farm. Then we cook our favourite foods, and eat them together with a lot of noise, and a lot of song and dance. And the clever boy records it and uploads it to our channel. He names it and puts some commentary and subtitles in English on it.

As the boy promised, YouTube pays us. It has been only increasing over the past two years.

And for reasons that I haven’t been able to figure out, people watch it. I don’t know who is crazy enough to watch a bunch of villagers cook and eat and talk. All we do is enjoy themselves in a lovely farm in a remote village. Some people find it interesting. I am not complaining. Whoever it is, I am happy.

I am going to tell my vegetable customers from those apartments in the city to subscribe to my channel. They can buy vegetables from elsewhere, from the tempo boys if they like.

But they can always enjoy my videos and use my village recipes, isn’t it? I heard that they are still at home. The virus hasn’t gone away. I will send them the link.

And like you, I will tell them my story. Who will believe it? Well, whether they do it or not, I don’t care. Because it is true.

I am not going back to being a vegetable vendor Swamy again. I like being Swamy, the “Rural Chef.”

And now, let me go record this week’s dish.


Ranjit Kulkarni is a writer of short stories, articles, and novels. His work has appeared in Literary Yard, Indian Periodical, Academy of the Heart and Mind, Potato Soup Journal, Setu Journal, CC&D Scars, Ariel Chart, Active Muse, Anti-Heroin Chic, Grey Thoughts, Kathmandu Tribune, Café Lit, Muse India, Misery Tourism, Scarlet Leaf Review and Writer’s Egg Magazine. More details about his work can be accessed at https://www.ranjitkulkarni.com. He lives in Bangalore India and is reachable at ranjit@ranjitkulkarni.com.

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