It is unbelievable that  two months have passed since the dreaded word LOCK DOWN became part of our lives- 2 months of staying indoors, making oneself believe that this is safe and secure, 2 months of not meeting friends and family, 2 months of physical and social distancing, 2 months of a new kind of social discrimination where the “other” could be a potential source of infection! For those of us who could afford to take a Sabathical, Corona or no corona, this period became one we have started to enjoy and find new meaning in, time to reflect, introspect, look inwards and discard the unnecessary…it is time to spend quality time with oneself and with family, to do yoga, read, write, cook and rest. For us, the silence that pervades life is one of peace and harmony and often equated to the opportunity to listen more intently to bird calls, sound of wind and leaves falling, rain drops pelting the roof as summer rains appear every hot noon….it is lack of the honking of horns and vehicles speeding past, the trauma of ambulances with their sirens, the impatient rush created by convoy of vehicles accompanying a VIP and so on.

It is only a few days into lock down that the sudden realisation came to me that this silence is also connected to the disappearance of many human sounds that made one’s urban life comfortable and secure. Like getting all conveniences at your doorstep with a call or the press of a button, these sounds would appear as live and breathing, smiling and sulky human beings with items and services that enhanced and enriched daily life.

The life in the city I live still retains touch with the suburban semi villages from where daily domestic help and vegetables flow every morning. My lady help who comes from 15 kms away has been unable to reach due to lack of public transport. Her son got caught by Police twice during this period when he attempted to hitch hike on a bike in search of work. The day would start either by a phone call from her informing she would be late or later with enquiry on what vegetable or items to buy when she comes. She would arrive with much ado, opening the gate, murmuring about the amount of dry leaves in the courtyard and start the day with the question “Do you want tea now or later?” . As the day progresses, different sounds and fragrance would emerge from the kitchen- pressure cooker hissing, coconut being roasted, the whirring of mixie, clothes being beaten to cleanliness on the washing stone…my mother loved this lady help because she never dropped vessels or clanked them loudly! The question about whether I want pappadam for lunch and later again about tea were regular ones…

The most frequent visitor to my home is Stephen who is the official coconut harvester for years. His bow legged father Yohannan was a source of fascination for me about how he so deftly climbed the tall coconut trees.  I seem to have grown up with him and his special hurried ways. Though he need to come once in 3 months to harvest the trees in my garden, he would visit me once a week for a chat and sharing of some harmless local gossip. The last time he was a bit upset because Maniyan the big moustached man who has maintained a “murukkaankada ( the betel leaf shop where one can stop and enjoy the specially prepared betel leaf combo) had passed away – since it was a Sunday Stephen missed the procession which gracefully brought him to the shop where he has been working for over 6 decades.

Stephen who now has an “Activa” which he refers to like his own child would load it with coconuts, jackfruit, bananas and at times mangoes that he would get from the houses where he went to harvest coconuts. He would knock at the gate call me loudly Chechi (elder sister) and walk right through to the backyard. The last time he came was to check on the jackfruits for his pregnant daughter! I made fun of him then: Oh Stephen grandpa and he laughed aloud.

The next in the line is tall and graceful Omana who would visit once in a while with her brooms and beautifully woven baskets and winnows. She would wear her two piece Kerala “mundumneryathum” with ease and grace. We shared many a concern about scarcity of the raw material reed which went into the making of the products, the invasion of plastics (even winnows are plastic, she would exclaim). She would never raise her voice but always ring the bell twice and then again twice after a gap. She would share her life stories, of her ailing husband, her vagabond son, her daughter who has returned home with 2 children having run away from a abusive relationship. She would ask for some water and would happily sip the black tea served to her. Even if I do not buy her products, this visit was mandatory and I looked forward to it.

Every week I would watch the short and straight backed lean woman with a basket poised with balance on her head walk down the slope in front of my house to the shops. She is the “muttakkaari” or egg woman who would not sell at doorsteps but in the shops. She never had a glance let alone a smile but her timing on Monday mornings at 8am was to the dot. Her silence and stoicism had a sound that was perhaps louder than a real noise. Her face lined with the trails and travails of penury and hardships spoke aloud a life story.

Every week on one day there would be a big commotion at the gate, shouting and clanking which would be the signature call of the “ aval seller” –Aval, aval ( Beaten rice) he would be shouting accompanied by a brief, fast listing of all items in his big woven basket. It was only when I obliged his request to help unload the “vallom”( the word for the basket) I realised the heaviness he was carrying. His knees had started buckling and his gait had changed over the years. For him all his products are “super”- super chikida, super chips, super jilebis”and before you know you would have bought for a few hundreds. He had vanished from the scene for a few months last year and I wondered if his body succumbed to the diabetes and high blood pressure that had affected him. A few months back I heard a sweet voice at the gate calling Aval, aval…and there was a huge, striking woman clad in a bright saree and wearing some characteristic Tamil jewellery. She smiled and asked for permission to enter. Soon after there came the aval man but with a walking stick and a limp. I listened to the tragedy which struck him on the road in the form of an accident, the surgeries and pain and now the walk back to life with his wife.

How can I forget the other “aval man” who would come ringing the bell of the cycle shouting and cheerful. He would stop the cycle by the gate and also his humming of a Tamil melody before asking if one needed some delicacy from his basket. He would come by only once a month and would smirk at the other aval seller if ever I mentioned him- “tough competition in the field”, he would sigh with his hands pointed to the skies.

The vegetable woman who delivered fresh veggies at your doorstep had stopped taking the road in front of my house saying there are not many buyers. But she would smile if I saw her pass through the opposite road. The mango season was when she would visit with some unbelievably tasty and unique local varieties. She would then call loud with as many adjectives as possible “ Ripe fresh sweet  mangoes” with the name of variety included. She was a bit intimidated last season when some people started demanding that she weigh the mangoes and give. Her measure was perfect without a weighing machine. She said with indignation “ Would they argue at the mall or super market?”. I remember the many vegetable women we have seen over the years-aggressive and smart Gomathy with her toes spread apart with carrying weight, petite and silent Subhadra with her drunkard and abusive husband, dark Leela ….

Each month there was a characteristic clanking at the gate and insistent call “Chechi, Chechi”. This was the boy turned man who started coming since I could remember. Not exactly begging, it became mandatory that he is supported on a monthly basis. He started coming with his beautiful mother holding her hand and shyly hiding behind her. This was one of the first stories I heard as a child of a woman being “deserted” by her husband- a word she uttered with finality and wails that shook your heart. The son obviously had learning disability and some not so intense differentially abled mind. After a few years, he started coming alone and would shrug his shoulders when asked about the mother. If you asked him to do some work, he would shrug his shoulders again. He refused food or clothing but was always neat and dressed well. Once he replied abruptly when asked about the mother “ She left me and ran away with a man”- years of loneliness, anger and sorrow came tumbling down and he wept! I was relieved when I saw him one day buying provisions that he distributed in some households as per their request.

The unexpected and occasional visit of skinny Santhamma who worked for years in a neighbouring house has been one window to the world. Beaten and abused as a young bride brought to the city from a village in Tamil Nadu, she waited for her elderly husband to die so she could lead a peaceful life. Once that happened she started working in houses as a maid her only prayer being God should give her “bodily comfort”- her word for health. The last time I saw her she had a walker with which she carried her arthritic and bend double body. The smile and laughter were there- she now stayed in the house in a nearby housing colony as company for an elderly lady. She said with a smile “ Now I get my favourite idlis and sambar every week” –that is ultimate luxury.

Another visitor with a different timing towards dusk is the one with a call “Arakeera” on a cycle. Tall and dark, strong and handsome, he would ring the bell and pull out a handful of the spinach from a huge wet sack. His visits were during the summer months and we would rush to get these green leaves which would appear the next day as delectable “spinach-lentil curry” the next day! The clanking of his ladle on the metal vessel in which peanuts are being roasted as the peanut seller goes by each evening, the honking of the two wheeler horn when the fish seller passes by mid day, the milk man with the characteristic sound as the measuring vessel strikes the aluminium milk carrier are all missed as each day passes….the paper man had graduated from cycle to a moped and would go by shouting “ old paper,old paper”!

The small vegetable shop down below at the junction run by a lady is source of fresh vegetables and fruits. Hand picked from the main market by her hard working husband she ran the shop with efficiency and generosity. She would gently remind you of items you would have forgotten as if reading your mind about the dish you may be planning “ Don’t you want some yam”? she would ask softly. The original owner, her mother passed away a decade ago suffering a lot from cancer. Seeing the closed and covered shop and wondering about how her family is surviving, I realised that I do not even know her name. The only thing I have spoken to her is about vegetables and fruits.

Though many shops have come up where I stay- bakeries and shopping malls, it is the organic connection with the people I have grown up which makes shopping a varied experience. The malls may have all that is needed and much more, but they lack the smile, the special and specific human touch, the small joyful gossip sharing, the hand holding and offer to visit again. They are all not just vendors and sellers but live, humans who work hard to make a living with work ethics and honesty that is incredible, whose contribution to GDP may be negligible but the freedom and sustainability of these sustenance livelihoods is worth understanding.

It is only when this summer became silent due to lock down without these visitors that one realises how in myriad and subtle ways they appear in your doorstep and sustain your life and routines. One wonders where they are and in the silence their absence creates there is a pang of anxiety about their lives and livelihood which hardly figures in any discussions. I wonder how they will revert back to life, how this has impacted their economies and financial stability…would anyone try and understand this…not a project proposal for a study that will remain a report to gather dust but one that will help and enhance  these valuable lives and services ?

Anitha S is a writer based in Kerala


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3 Comments

  1. Beautiful written article. This reminds me of many such people, men and women who keep our daily life rich and connected . I always wondered about their openness when they tell me their stories . They have just disappeared now from our lives due to the sudden lockdown . They could not have made any plan for a living during this lock down , but I hope they all stay safe and we will be able to meet them.again .

  2. Yes it is a silent summer of our discontent and anxiety about all those whose lives are devastated…

    Can’t imagine more than 35 crore people who sustain us all, as agricultural, industrial and construction “unorganized, informal labour” are just left to suffer, languish, even die in the highways of this country’s development. Perhaps they are not the ones who are dying of COVID-19 but they are being forced to become refugees again and yet again…mowed down by speeding trains, trucks, and dying of hunger and exhaustion, thirst and anguish…Can we hope that we will start asking the old questions of development at what cost and who pays???

  3. Avatar KALYANI MENON SEN says:

    What a beautiful and evocative piece of writing….it brings back the sounds and fragrance of summers spent in our family home, beautiful memories of the people we would wait to meet, who spoilt us throroughly with their love…..

    Thanks for writing this and reconnecting me to my childhood.

    KALYANI