Fall 1990, Volume 7.2
Essay

KRISHNA BALDEV VAID

The Stone of a Jamun*

The bus stop was deserted. The row of government quarters on the other side of the road had gone to sleep under the lashes of the sun. The makeshift shelter above my head seemed angry, perhaps because I was the only passenger there. I looked at my watch. I was afraid it would stop any second because of my anxiety about the new tuition I was going to start that day. I wound it up again and realized I was ruining its springs with my frequent overwindings.

A bead of sweat rolled slowly to the tip of my long nose, hesitated, and plunged. It was soon followed by another, which was soon followed by still another, which . . . . I tried to make a game out of making them fall roughly at the same spot but then I got bored and breathless. I started wiping my face and forehead with my nose-rag. It was soon soaking wet. My lips had dried long ago. Had my rag been a little less filthy, I might have squeezed it into my mouth.

I was standing under the shelter but couldn't shake off the impression that it was standing under me. I was very lonely. I wanted a companion in my misery so that I could tell him that we were having the hottest spell of summer, or that the public transport system in Bombay and Calcutta was far superior to ours, or some other piece of irrefutable nonsense.

I had already applied several coats of stench and sweat all over my face and forehead and neck and forearms and a part of my chest. And cursed the girl I was going to coach. And damned myself. And rued the day I decided to earn my living as a private tutor. But all that, I knew, wouldn't quicken our tardy transport system, nor would it improve the awful condition of our country. And I was worried I'd be late. And I was mortally afraid of losing the job and of being rebuked by that girl's ugly mother.

*Jamun: Hindi name of a purple, juicy small North Indian fruit available in summer; it is inexpensive, delicious and pretty.

But the fact remained that, in my anxiety and eagerness, I had reached the bus stop a couple of hours too early. I'd just started reproaching myself for this when I was interrupted by the question that everybody keeps asking everybody else in our country—What time is it, Mister?

I turned my head and barked—One twenty five!

I don't think that bugger from the municipal committee will bother me now, he muttered, obviously for his own comfort, and walked off to the shacks behind the bus stop. I felt like overtaking him and shouting: I am that bugger from the municipal committee! Of course, I didn't do that.

After some time I saw him returning to the bus stop, with a primitive weighing balance suspended from his hand, looking like a homespun image of justice. A boy followed him, at a distance of a few steps, carrying a huge basket heaped with jamuns on his little head. I felt grateful now for the company.

It's so hot today, I said to him.

He paid me no attention.

Fetch the other basket also, he ordered the boy.

The boy dashed off to those shacks. The man was trying to balance the basket on the uneven ground and muttering curses at that bugger from the municipal committee. Presently the boy came back with the other basket, which looked a little bigger than the first. He was accompanied now by another boy who was obviously his younger brother. The man was still busy trying to balance the other basket, so the boy had to wait with that weight on his head. His brother looked at the jamuns in the other basket and said—You promised you'd share, remember!

The boy stood straining under the huge basket, his arms stretched like rubber bands and his skin like leather. The man finally helped him take the load off his head and said, Well done, you son of a lion! Now for the other two, run!

The boy ran off. His brother followed him a few steps but then decided to return to the jamunseller. He had no rags on. The man held the basket with both his hands and looked around desperately for a brick or something to prop it with. I stepped forward and said, Let me hold the basket while you go look for a brick or something. He scanned me and decided I didn't look reliable enough.

The boy will be back soon; I'm in no hurry.

The boy came back with the third basket, which looked even bigger than the first two, but then I was already prejudiced against the man. This time the boy managed to take the basket off his head and put it on the ground, all by himself, without spilling a single jamun. No, he had spilled one. His brother made a dash for it but the boy was quicker. He wiped the jamun on his palm and placed it on the basket. The man had seen everything.

Now get me two bricks from over there!

The man's order sounded like a punishment for the work that boy had done so far. The boy ran off, picked two bricks, started running back to the jamunseller, dropped one brick on his foot, retrieved it, and limped toward the baskets.

Meanwhile I had dried my nose-rag by waving it about in the sun.

The boy's foot was bleeding. His brother pointed to it and shouted- Blood! The boy took a pinch of dust and sprinkled it over his bleeding toes.

Shall I go for the fourth one now?

His tone, however, suggested that they ought to sell the three he'd already fetched and leave the fourth in reserve.

What are you waiting for? Run!

The boy ran off. This last basket didn't seem very heavy, for the boy came back running, but then it could be that he was doing this to impress his master, if not me. His brother met him half way this time, and they had a brief conference, after which the boy transferred the basket on to his brother's head, held it with one hand, and led him back to the jamunseller.

I carried this one, said the little boy.

More bricks?

What? Oh yes, of course, more bricks. We can always use more bricks.

The jamunseller spoke as if he was granting a favor reluctantly. The boy ran off for the bricks. He'd overcome the injury to his foot. His brother stood near the jamunseller as he spread the juiciest of the jamuns on top of one of the baskets as so many baits for his customers.

Here are the bricks!

He carried four this time on his shoulder.

Put them down.

The boy put them down one by one.

Get four more so that I can make a seat for myself.

The boy ran off.

Shall I go too? his brother asked the jamunseller.

You! And the man laughed.

I joined him with a sheepish smile as he looked at me. My nose-rag had become wet again. I wanted to ask that man about my bus. He would know. But will he answer me? The arrogant wretch! The boy was faster than my bus. More reliable too! He was already back, this time with six bricks. After he'd put them down, I noticed a few bruises on his bare shoulders. The orange brick powder was all over his belly and back.

You want me to make a seat for you?

Yes

You want me to sweep the ground first?

There's no need for that.

But the boy was perhaps meticulous by nature. He squatted down and started sweeping the ground with his hands; his brother too sat down, peeled his eyes off the jamuns, and started sweeping the ground. But a splinter pierced his palm, and he concentrated on catching it between his nails and pulling it out. He looked very intelligent as he did that.

Isn't he a smart boy?

The man smiled at me as he said that.

He certainly is. Your son, I take it?

The man laughed in a way I didn't like at all.

Come on, Mister! Don't you see the colour of his skin?

I paid him no attention. The boy had prepared a nice seat for him. He took off his shoes and shirt and sat down on his throne. He looked very smug. Perhaps he'll take off his dhoti soon enough and start shouting at every passerby, Buy my jamuns or else I'll wave this at you!

Shall I go for the box of weights now?

Oh yes! Do you know where it is? No, you better stay here and watch the baskets; I'll go for the weights myself; there's some change in that box.

He winked at me in a way I didn't like at all.

I too will watch the baskets, the boy's brother said.

The jamunseller paid him no attention and said to me—You keep an eye on them, mister; after all, they're kids. I didn't like the way he appointed me as their keeper.

He looked back at us from a distance to assure himself that we hadn't all gone wild and irresponsible. After he disappeared round the corner, the little boy asked his big brother - Can I take one, just one? The boy looked at me and said—No. I kept quiet.

I am going to take one, just one.

He put his hand out to the basket. I kept quiet. The boy looked at me. His brother looked at him.

Just one!

No, the boy said.

Had they referred their dilemma directly to me, I too would have said no. The boy and I exchanged a smile. His brother withdrew his hand and started to sulk.

The jamunseller had perhaps started an argument with his wife or something, for he was taking longer than the boy had taken on his trips. The little boy was edging closer to the baskets. He was almost sniffing them now. He would have picked up a couple of jamuns with his lips, had the boy not admonished him in time —Will you get back!

I decided to make small talk with the boy.

Does the jamunseller live in one of those shacks?

Yes.

You work for him?

Yes.

Is he related to you then?

No. He is our bread-giver!

I liked his mischievous smile.

And your parents?

They're dead.

I decided to change the subject.

When is the next bus coming?

Who knows! Buses don't run on time.

I smiled at his knowing tone.

Put it down! Or else I'll tell him!

His brother had taken advantage of our conversation and pilfered a jamun, which was very close to his open mouth now.

Put it down! Or else I'll tell him!

The boy meant business but didn't want to step forward and snatch the jamun from his brother, presumably because he knew the little fellow would put it in his mouth. His brother held the jamun close to his lips, measuring the boy's threat. I felt like interceding in his favor but then thought better of it, for I didn't want to risk the jamunseller's wrath. The little boy put the jamun back in the basket and began to whimper.

Some day you'll be my undoing! The boy exclaimed.

Is he your little brother?

Yes.

His tone seemed to have added: And I'm ashamed of him. I stepped forward, bent down, patted the little boy's head, and said —You're very fond of jamuns, aren't you?

He stopped crying and snuggled close to his brother. He couldn't have been more than four; his big brother's age was difficult to guess.

The jamunseller returned, examined the baskets, then the boys, and last of all me. He smiled. I felt like baring my teeth for his inspection but did not.

At this time of the day the buses are always late.

He seemed to have decided to reward me for my vigilance. I looked at my watch. There was still a lot of time. I cursed myself for having come too early.

You want me to get some water for sprinkling?

I'll go too.

The little boy looked determined to do something this time. The man broke into a laugh. The boys dashed off to the shacks.

They hang around me all the time.

I paid him no attention.

The big one is really smart.

I kept quiet.

How old do you think he is?

I didn't want to make a guess and was glad at the arrival of a couple with a child.

How long have you been waiting, mister?

The man's tone was that of a born bus passenger.

For ages!

I told you we won't get a bus at this time of day.

The man's wife sounded like a born nag.

It will be along soon, I consoled them.

They paid me no attention.

I'm going to Kashmere Gate; where are you going?

To Mori Gate. To my sister-in-law's place. Her eldest son is going to have a haircut.

I decided not to promote the conversation any further.

What time is it?

The man had asked that question out of sheer national habit.

Ten past two.

I want jamuns, I want jamuns, their son began to sing.

Lovely dark jamuns! Very cheap! Lovely dark jamuns!

Lovely dark jamuns! Very cheap!

The boy's chant was more musical than his bread giver's. He had already come back with a canister full of water and was sprinkling the ground around the jamunseller's throne. The little boy had brought a bundle of green leaves.

I carried these, he told the jamunseller.

Good, the man said in a casual tone as he opened the bundle and soaked the leaves in water. Then he started to make two pyramids of jamuns on a wooden plank that the boy had put in front of him. One pyramid was dark purple, the other light.

I want jamuns, I want jamuns!

Lovely dark jamuns! Very cheap!

This time the little boy had added his chant to his brother's.

Give him twenty paise worth.

Only twenty paise worth!

The man ignored the jamunseller's derision. The jamunseller salted a few jamuns, tossed them around in his clay pot, and handed them to the whimpering child. The little boy sneaked up to the child. The woman picked up her son and started feeding him. The son didn't want to be fed but the woman was a born feeder. The little boy stared at the woman for a while before slinking back to his brother.

Lovely dark jamuns! Delicious jamuns! Very cheap jamuns!

The boy seemed to be enjoying his chant. The woman smiled at him appreciatively.

A smart boy, the man remarked.

I wish this idiot of ours was half as smart, said the woman and kissed her idiot.

Where have the customers gone today? Shall I shout louder? And then, without waiting for an answer, he started singing louder —O these lovely dark jamuns! O these black clouds! O these heat-killing jamuns!

This time, however, he seemed out of tune. As he raised his voice, his throat became taut and the veins around his neck became as thick as the little boy's little finger. The jamunseller kept busy with his pyramids. Every few minutes he too cried his wares but his cries seemed self-consciously aware of the inferiority of his vocal chords. The little boy had started doing all sorts of interesting things. Every time the boy chanted, he joined him. Then he made a face like he'd just eaten a sour jamun. Then he involuntarily stretched out his hand to the two pyramids. The jamunseller pushed his hand back without looking at him. If he was not attentive, the boy checked his brother.

Then a bus came along. It wasn't my bus. The couple with their idiot got on the bus. A few people got off it. Two of them, both big women, walked toward the pyramids. One of them wanted the inferior variety, the other went for the superior. The jamunseller assured them that all his jamuns were juicy. The women ignored his assurances and made their own selection. I amused myself watching them. As they walked away, the little boy followed them a few steps. Then he walked back and started staring at the jamuns. His mouth moved around imaginary jamuns. A few minutes later a man came along with his little son holding him by his index finger. He bought two rupees worth of jamuns and they walked away. The little boy followed them too or a few steps before slouching back to the baskets.

Lovely dark beauties! Very cheap! Darker than clouds! Very cheap!

A bunch of young boys appeared from nowhere, bought lots of jamuns, sat down near the baskets, and started eating them in a determined way.

The little boy was in torment now. He looked, now at the jamuns, now at the jamunseller, and all of a sudden his entire little body began to itch. Once or twice he caught his brother's eye and made an imploring little pout. He looked very cute as he did that.

We'll have a crowd of customers when the next bus comes, the boy said to the jamunseller.

The jamunseller looked at me and winked. I didn't know what he was trying to tell me.

I think we'll sell everything by the evening, the boy went on.

The jamunseller smiled. His wink was less ugly than his smile. When those young boys left, the boy whispered to the jamunseller —Now will you give us some?

Of course, I will, but let's sell some first. You can't be hungry already; you just had your food!

The jamunseller had raised his voice apparently for my benefit. I paid him no attention.

I want some now, the little boy whimpered.

Nobody paid him any attention. Just then a tonga came along at a place slow enough for the driver to be tempted by the juicy jamuns. He parked his tonga and ordered half a pound of jamuns. He sat down close to the jamunseller's throne and started eating with loud relish. He was toothless, so he had to roll and squeeze each jamun many times before his was done with it. He spat each stone in a different direction. The little boy stared at his mouth. Then two young men came along and asked the tonga man whether he wanted to go to Cannaught Place. He got up promptly and put the rest of the jamuns beside the driver's seat. One of the young men asked the other, How about some jamuns? The other said, How about them! I hear they're good for digestion! The boy set up an instant chant —Lovely jamuns! Good for digestion! The young men laughed. Then one of them ordered three rupees worth. The other shouted—Are you crazy! The jamunseller quickly weighed three rupees worth of jamuns, salted them, shook them vigorously in his clay pot, and handed them to his customers. He was all ugly smiles now.

After the tonga had left, the boy whispered to the man—Now will you give us some?

Look, boy, don't you pester me! I told you I'd give you some, but first let's sell some! I'm not eating any, am I?

The jamunseller transferred some more jamuns on to the pyramids and sprinkled water over them. They glistened in the sun. As he ran his hands up and down the two pyramids, he quietly picked up a couple of the jamuns and tossed them into his mouth, like digestive pills.

I looked at my watch. I was growing old, standing by those cloud-dark jamuns. The boy sat close to his brother now, both of them staring at the jamuns helplessly. When the little boy moved his mouth around his imaginary jamuns, his brother did the same.

Jamuns! Cheap jamuns! Eat jamuns!

The jamunseller's voice was so unattractive that one would feel like spitting the jamuns out rather than eating them.

Another bus came but it wasn't my bus.

Look, boy, get up and start shouting! Don't you see the crowd getting off this bus!

The boy got up and started shouting. It so happened that almost everyone who got off the bus bought some jamuns. A couple of them tried to strike a deal for one full basket but the jamunseller didn't want to sell wholesale.

After everybody had left, the boy said, Now will you give me some?

At first the man tried to stare him into silence. Then he looked at me, smiled, winked, and said, Hold it, boy, hold it! Impatience never pays.

I want some now, the little boy got up, stamped his feet, and repeated his demand defiantly.

At least give him a couple. Please! The boy pleaded on behalf of his brother.

The man took out a crumpled paper bag from underneath one of the baskets. He took out three jamuns from the bag and gave them to the little boy. These jamuns were neither dark purple nor light purple. They were of some unknown color, and they looked like crushed beetles. The brothers looked at them with considerable skepticism before the little boy put one in his mouth and made a wry face. He offered one to his brother, who took it, but when he thought the jamunseller wasn't looking, he threw it aside. The man saw that jamun as it fell at my feet. He recognized it and shouted in an indignant tone —Hey you! Who do you think you are! A nabob! Now pick that up and eat it.

The boy was terribly embarrassed. He hestitated, but his little brother ran forward, picked the jamun up, wiped it on his bare belly, and put it in his mouth.

The jamunseller winked me a smile. Just then a bus came along from the other direction. It was my bus going the wrong way. Several passengers got off it.

Look boy, get up and start shouting.

The boy got up and started shouting. But there was no music in his chant. Even then quite a few people crossed the street over to our side. Maybe jamuns are the real weakness of all bus passengers, especially of women. They love to nibble and munch and smack their lips. It must be their biology. Or some mean streak in them. I amused myself with several similar observations. ClichZs really. Quite a crowd had gathered around the jamunseller, who was taking full advantage of the situation, weighing less and palming off inferior jamuns at the price of the superior variety. He was about to run out of green leaves. So he shouted to the boy to run and get some. The boy ran off. The little boy remained where he was. When the boy came back, there were still a few customers left. He got into the act and cried, Lovely cloud-dark jamuns! Black beauties! Very cheap!

You've got a smart boy, one of the customers remarked to the jamunseller.

The jamunseller sent me a conspiratorial smile. I turned it down.

Lovely jamuns! Made specially for old women! Eat them!

At this everybody including the jamunseller laughed. The little boy, however, did not. He was looking up at the mouths of the jamun-eaters, his own mouth hanging open. I saw a tall man holding a jamun in his hand, aiming at the little boy's mouth. The little boy opened his mouth wide. The tall man popped the jamun into his own mouth and laughed and left. The big boy sounded tired. His neck seemed swollen with shouting. Then he saw his brother running after the tall man, begging for a jamun. He ordered him to come back. The little boy came back and started staring at the jamuns.

Please give us some now.

The jamunseller flared up, Look, boy, haven't I told you not to pester me when the customers are there? Don't you know any manners?

The boy looked really embarrassed now.

Some wretches get addicted to beggary, said a middle-aged ogress and waddled away with her jamuns.

The boy was trying to catch the man's eye.

Well, here you are then! The man took a handful of colorless jamuns from his special bag and gave them to the boy. —Now you better perk up and start shouting!

The boy didn't perk up but he shouted all right. By now a few people had joined me. Some of them wanted me to tell what time it was, others wanted to know how long I had been waiting there, still others wondered whether my watch was correct. I had too much company now. I took a vow not to wear a watch in public. Jamuns had suddenly gone out of favor.

How about now? There are no customers now. Please give us a few good ones now.

The boy's voice was so soft that even I heard it with some effort. The jamunseller paid him no attention and set up an appeal of his own—Come all you jamun-eaters! Eat my lovely jamuns!

You promised, whispered the boy.

But before the man could either redeem or debase himself further in my eyes, he was besieged by a woman and her four brats.

Welcome, welcome!

The jamunseller was all ugly grins. I thought he perhaps knew that woman or else had recognized her as an endlessly fertile mother of many more future jamun-eaters. The woman sat down close to the pyramids. The little boy also moved closer to them. He'd already finished those special jamuns. Now he gazed hungrily at the mouths of that woman's four children. The big boy was also staring greedily now at the jamuns.

How much?

What's the rate?

After a bit of bargaining the jamunseller agreed to lower his rate, specially for that woman. She ordered some jamuns for each of her children and herself. The little boy had by now taken a position along with the woman's brats. As the jamunseller handed jamuns to each child, the little boy stretched out his hand. I had expected him to do this. After having ignored him four times, the jamunseller searched that bag for special jamuns, but there weren't any there. He selected a special jamun from one of the baskets and threw it to the little boy, who caught it expertly and put it in his mouth. I was waiting for him to put his hand out for more. But the little boy knew better. He was gazing at the mouths of those brats. And moving his mouth over his imaginary jamuns. Soon he began to drool. The string of his purple saliva stretched down to his bare belly. The jamunseller was busy shaping his pyramids into purple perfection. The little boy's brother too had started staring at the brats' mouths and moving his mouth over his imaginary jamuns. The two brothers opened and shut their mouths more or less simultaneously; they swallowed their saliva as if it was jamun juice. The big boy had his arm around the little boy's shoulders. I saw a string of saliva coming out of his mouth; before it could break , he slurped it back into his mouth. I was nauseated. I put my hands in my pockets and counted my coins. I had just enough for bus fare and two cigarettes. I was disgusted with myself.

Please give us some now!

It was the boy. I didn't like his ingratiating tone. His brother was still staring at the purple mouths of those brats and eating his own imaginary jamuns.

No more now!

The jamunseller sounded very decisive. I saw a bus approaching. It looked like my bus. I hadn't decided what I should do with the money I'd reserved for two cigarettes. My hands were still in my pocket, fondling my meagre funds, as I walked to the edge of the road. I turned around and saw the two brothers sitting close to the jamuns and staring at them. I had half a hope that they would start cursing the jamunseller. I had half an intention that if they spoke for themselves, I would too, even if it meant missing my bus, which was getting close to the stop. And then I heard them crying. Both of them had their hands out.

Please give us some!

I was annoyed. I hadn't expected the big boy to break down that easily. I should have known better. I took my hands out of my pockets. Then I saw that the little boy had started picking up the stones of the jamuns. Before I boarded my bus I heard one of the customers saying to his companion—Jamun is a wonderful fruit, you know; even the stone of a jamun is good; it's the best remedy for impotence, you know. I was amused.

(Translated by the author from his original in Hindi)