The Vendor Of Sweets

Chapter One

“Conquer taste, and you will have conquered the self,” said Jagan to his listener, who asked, “Why conquer the self?” Jagan said, “I do not know, but all our sages advise us so.”

The listener lost interest in the question; his aim was only to stimulate conversation, while he occupied a low wooden stool next to Jagan’s chair. Jagan sat under the framed pic- ture of the goddess Lakshmi hanging on the wall, and of- fered prayers first thing in the day by reverently placing a string of jasmine on top of the frame; he also lit an incense stick and stuck it in a crevice in the wall. The air was charged with the scent of jasmine and incense, which imperceptibly blended with the fragrance of sweetmeats frying in ghee in the kitchen across the hall.

The listener was a cousin, though how he came to be called so could not be explained, since he claimed cousin- hood with many others in the town (total incompatibles, at times), but if challenged he could always overwhelm the sceptic with genealogy. He was a man-about-town and vis- ited many places and houses from morning till night, and invariably every day at about four-thirty he arrived, threw a brief glance and a nod at Jagan, passed straight into the kitchen, and came out ten minutes later wiping his mouth with the end of a towel on his shoulder, commenting, “The sugar situation may need watching. I hear that the govern- ment are going to raise the price. Wheat flour is all right today. I gave that supplier a bit of my mind yesterday when I passed Godown Street. Don’t ask me what took me there. I have friends and relations all over this city and everyone wants me to attend to this or that. I do not grudge serving others. What is life worth unless we serve and help each other?”

Jagan asked, “Did you try the new sweet the cook experi- mented with today?”

“Yes, of course; it is tasty.”

“Oh, but I think it is only an old recipe in a new shape. All sweetmeats, after all, are the same. Don’t you agree?”

“No, sir,” said the cousin, “TI still see a lot of difference between one sweet and another. I hope I shall not become a yogi and lose the taste for all.”

It was then that Jagan pronounced his philosophy, “Conquer taste and you will have conquered the self.” They palavered thus for half an hour more, and then Jagan asked, “Do you know what I eat, nowadays?”

“Anything new?” asked the cousin,

“I have given up salt since this morning,” Jagan said with a glow of triumph. He noted with satisfaction the effect produced by this announcement and expanded his theory. “One must eat only natural salt.”

“What is natural salt?” asked the cousin, and added, “the salt that dries up on one’s back when one has run a mile in the sun?”

Jagan made a wry face at the coarse reference. He had the outlook of a disembodied soul floating above the grime of this earth. At fifty-five his appearance was slight and elfish, his brown skin was translucent, his brow receded gently into a walnut shade of baldness, and béyond the fringe his hair fell in.a couple of speckled waves on his nape. His chin was coveted with whitening bristles, as he shaved only at certain intervals, feeling that to view oneself daily in a mir- ror was an intolerable European habit. He wore a loose jibba over his, dhoti, both made of material spun with his own hand, every day he spun for an hour, retained enough yarn for his sartorial requirements (he never possessed more than two sets of clothes at a time), and delivered all the excess in neat bundles to the local hand-loom committee in exchange for cash. Although the cash he thus earned was less than five rupees a month, he felt a sentimental thrill in receiving it, ashe had begun the habit when Gandhi visited the town over twenty years ago, and he had been com- mended for it. He wore a narrow almond-shaped pair of glasses set in a yellowish frame, and peeped at the world over their pale rims. He draped his shoulders in a khaddar shawl with gaudy yellow patterns on it and shod his feet with thick sandals. made out of the leather of an animal which had died of old age. Being a follower of Gandhi, he explained, “I do not like to think that a living creature should have its throat cut for the comfort of my feet,” and this occasionally involved him in excursions to remote vil- lages where a cow or calf was reported to be dying. When he secured ‘the hide he soaked it in some solution and then turned it over to an old cobbler he knew, who had his little repair-shop under a tree at the Albert Mission compound.

When his son was six years old he was a happy supporter of Jagan’s tanning activities in the back veranda of the house, but as he grew older he began to complain of the stench whenever his father brought home leather. Jagan’s wife proved even less tolerant, shutting herself in a room and refusing to come out until.the tanning ended, Since it was a prolonged process, carried on over several days, one can understand the dislocation into which the household was thrown whenever Jagan attempted to renew his footwear. Tt was a difficult and hazardous operation, The presence of the leather at home threatened to blast -his domestic life; he had to preserve it, in the early stages of tanning, out of his wife’s reach in the fuel shed, where there was danger of rats’ nibbling it. When she lay dying, she summoned Jagan to come close to her and mumbled something. He could not make out her words, but was harrowed by the thought that probably she was saying, “Throw away the leather.” In deference to what was possibly her last wish, he did give to a mission the last bit of leather at home, and felt happy that he was enabling someone else to take to non-violent footwear. Afterwards he just trusted the cobbler at the Albert Mission to supply his rather complicated footwear.

Now his cousin’s reference to natural salt upset his deli- cate balance and he reddened in the face. The cousin, satis- fied with the effect he had produced, tried to restore his mood with a pleasing remark, “You have simplified your life so completely, and made yourself absolutely self-de- pendent, as I was saying to the Cooperative Registrar the other day . . .” This had the desired effect, and Jagan said, “T-have discontinued sugar as you know. I find twenty drops of honey in hot water quite adequate, and that is the natural way of taking in the sugar we need.”

“You have perfected the art of living on nothing, the cousin.

Encouraged, Jagan added, “I have given up rice too. I cook a little stone-ground wheat and take it with honey and greens.”

“And yet,” said the cousin, “I cannot understand why you go on working and earning, taking all this trouble!” He waved his hands in the direction of the sweets displayed on trays at the window, but stopped short of asking why Jagan should expect others to eat sweets and keep him flourishing. He felt he had said enough, and stirred in his seat. Jagan’s counting: hour was approaching, and the cousin knew that he should move as Jagan did not like his cash to be watched, The time was six, the peak sales were over, and the front- stall boy would be bringing in the collection for the day. At this moment Jagan almost fancied himself a monarch on a throne surveying his people (consisting of the four cooks in the kitchen and the front-stall boy) and accepting their tributes. The throne was a flat-bottomed wooden chair covered with a thin cushion, hoisted on a platform, strategically placed so that he could keep an eye on all sides of his world of confections. The chair was nearly a century old, with shining brass strips on the arms and back and carved legs, especially made by his father when he built his house behind the Lawley Statue, Normally he would not have bothered to design a piece of furniture, as the family always sat on the polished floor, but he had frequent visits from one Mr. Noble, an Englishman, the District Collector, who came for lessons in astrology and found it painful to sit on the floor, and found it even more painful to extricate himself from the sitting posture at the end of the lessons. A signed portrait ripening yellow with time was among the prized possessions dumped in the loft, but at some point in the history of the family the photograph was brought down, the children played with it for a while, and then substituted in its glassed frame the picture of a God and hung it up, while the photograph in the bare mount was tossed about as the children gazed on Mr. Noble’s side whiskers and giggled all after noon. They fanned themselves with it, too, when the summer became too hot; finally it disappeared back to the loft amidst old account books and such other obscure family junk.

Sitting there, Jagan was filled with a sense of fulfilment. On one side he could hear, see, and smell whatever was happening in the kitchen, whence a constant traffic of trays laden with colourful sweetmeats passed on to the front counter. As long as the frying and sizzling noise in the kitchen continued and the trays passed, Jagan noticed nothing, his gaze unflinchingly fixed on the Sanskrit lines in a red-bound copy of the Bhagavad Gita, but if there was the slightest pause in the. sizzling, he cried out, without lifting his eyes from the sacred text, “What is happening?” The head cook would give a routine reply, “Nothing,” and that would quicten Jagan’s mind and enable it to rerurn to the Lord’s sayings until again some slackness was noticed at the front stall and he would shout, “Captain! That little girl in the yellow skirc, ask her what she wants. She has been standing there so long!” His shout would alert the counter attendant as well as the watchman at the door, an ex-army man in khaki, who had a tendency to doze off on his dealwood seat. Or Jagan would cry, “Captain, that beggar should not be seen here except on Fridays. This is not a charity home.”

The surroundings were hushed when the master counted his earnings for the day. Alchough the boy at the front stall received all the cash, he was not supposed to know the total. He just dropped every paisa he received into a long-necked bronze jug and brought it in at six o'clock, rerurned to his seat, and brought in another instalment in a smaller container at seven, when the shutters were drawn. Jagan would not count the cash yet but continued to read the Lord’s sayings. Without looking up he was aware tha the frying had stopped; he noticed the hissing of the oven when the fire died out, the clinking of pans and ladles being washed, and then the footsteps approaching him, four pairs of feet from the kitchen, and one pair from the front stall as trays of leftovers were.brought in as the last act for the day. Then when he knew chat all of them were assembled at his desk, he addressed in a general way a routine question, “How much is left over?”.

“Not much.”

“Be exact.”

“Two seers of Mysore Pak.”

“That we can sell tomorrow,”

“Jilebi half a seer.”

“Won't be so good tomorrow. All right, go.”

The front-stall boy carried in the leftover trays and unobtrusively made his exit. The cooks still awaited his permission to leave, Jagan asked, “Are all the windows shut?”

“Yes,”

Jagan now addressed himself to the head cook, ““Tomorrow no jilebi? What is wrong with it?” It bothered him to think of the leftovers. They rankled in his mind as if he had a splinter under his skull. He loved to see clean shining trays return to the kitchen at the end of a day. A babble of argument followed. Jagan asked, “What do we do with the leftovers?”

The head cook said soothingly as usual, “We will try a new sweet tomorrow, if you will let me do it. There will be no problem of leftovers, We can always pulp everything back and fry them afresh in a new shape.”

Jagan said philosophically, “After all, everything consists of flour, sugar, and flavours. . . ."trying to come to a decision which he had been resisting all along; after all, one had to take a practical view, with the price of foodstuff going up.

When his staff was gone he put away his scriprure book and pulled out his table drawer, which was padded with a folded towel in order to muffle the sound of coin being emptied from the bronze jug. His fingers quickly sorted out the denominations, the fives, tens, and quarters, with the flourish of a virtuoso running his fingers over a keyboard; his eyes swept the collection at a glance and arrived at the final count within fifteen minutes. He made an entry in a small notebook, and then more elaborate entries in a ledger which could be inspected by anyone. In his small notebook he entered only the cash that came in after six o'clock, out of the smaller jug. This cash. was in an independent category; he viewed it as free cash, whatever that might mean, a sort of immaculate conception, selfgenerated, arising out of itself and entitled to survive without reference to any tax. It was converted into ctisp currency at the earliest moment, tied into a bundle, and put away to keep company with the portrait of Mr. Noble in the loft at home.

Jagan gave a final look at the cash in the drawer, locked. it carefully, rugged the handle four times, and pushed his chair back with a lot of noise. He put a huge brass lock on the door, turned the key and put it in his pocket, and said. “Captain! See if the lock is all right.” The captain seized the lock in a martial grip as-if it were a hand-grenade and gave ita final jerk. “This is a very strong lock, sir, can’t get it nowadays. I know about locks; this must have been made in a village foundry.” He expatiated on the world of locks and locksmiths. Jagan cut him short with, “Well, be watchful.” The captain gave him a military salute, and that was the end of the day.

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