We would hear her long before we saw her. Barefoot, clad in a coarse sari hiked up to her calves, and with one hand balancing the well-worn cane basket on her head, she would saunter through the narrow lanes, ignoring the scorching sun. Her frail frame belied a surprisingly strong voice. ‘W…a…n…t f…i…s…h?’ she would bellow, in a typical hawker’s voice. To us, the four pre-teen cousins congregated in our grandparents’ house in Cuttack, this was ridiculously hilarious. Hilarious, because the middle-aged woman’s words in Oriya sounded more like, ‘Hey, you fish!’ as if she were inviting the fish to come out of the river and climb into her basket.
We would watch her from the balcony as she carefully opened the iron gate of our grandparents’ house and walk up confidently through the main door. She never bothered to knock or use the calling bell. Without paying any attention to the goings on in the living room she had to cross, she would march to the courtyard, lower her basket and sit down, somewhat grateful for a break.
Nobody knew her actual name. Everyone called her Nabana Ma—mother of Nabana, which itself was an aberration of Labanya.
Our grandmother, pottering around somewhere in the vicinity, would walk up to her without any hurry and ask in a lackadaisical manner, ‘So, what fish have you got today?’
The woman would display her small, but fresh ware.
Nabana Ma would quote a price, which obviously wouldn’t satisfy my grandmother. ‘Oh, so you have no intention of selling fish today! …No, I don’t need fish; you can go.’ And my grandmother would return to whatever she was doing.
Nabana Ma wouldn’t leave, nor would she take any offence. She would simply fan herself with the loose end of her sari and say, ‘Aren’t you going to give me a paan today?’
Without answering the question, my grandmother would go inside her room, where a typical brass box was kept with a steady supply of paan – betel leaves with lime, betelnut and a concoction made at home with mild tobacco. Her inventory of paan was always covered in thin wet muslin to keep it fresh and her tobacco concoction was apparently much talked about in the neighbourhood.
She would return with one paan and without looking at Nabana Ma, simply hand it over to her and be on her way to the kitchen.
Nabana ma would chew on the paan for a few moments, contentedly, and say, ‘Okay, you tell me. How much?’
A long negotiation would commence, with another short break for one more paan, and finally a deal would be struck. Nabana Ma would unload half her ware, cut and clean the fish, and then go to a neighbour’s house to sell the rest.
Years went by. My grandfather passed away. My grandmother moved in with my uncle till she too passed away, and the ancestral house was eventually sold. We cousins grew up and were separated by time, space and profession. When we did meet, once in a while, we would nostalgically reminisce about the time spent in the huge house and the adjacent sprawling garden, but Nabana Ma never came into our conversation.
I lived for a few years in Delhi, followed by Kolkata, Bangalore and a few cities in the US. In these places, there was no Nabana Ma. I interacted with polite but indifferent fishmongers whose names I never knew. In the US, I would pick up the fish from the frozen food sections of the huge grocery stores, where the already cleaned fish and prawns were methodically arranged on crushed ice. Now in Bangalore, in the days of cellphone, it has become even more efficient. I call the fishmonger and order whatever I need, which I can even get home-delivered.
For me, Nabana Ma and her ilk vanished, till I came across one in Jamshedpur.
I was visiting a relative there and we were lost in animated conversation, when a woman walked in through the backdoor with her basket, not too different from Nabana Ma. As I watched, wide-eyed, the woman, only slightly better dressed than Nabana Ma, put her basket of fish down and waited for the lady of the house to inspect. This lady, an inordinately kind and thoughtful person, took only few minutes in deciding the kind of fish she wanted. There was no negotiation. A hot cup of tea with some biscuits was promptly given to the fish woman, and a leisurely conversation unfolded. I gathered from snippets of the exchange, the existence of an out-of-work son, an absconding, alcoholic husband and, worst, the lack of capital to take the business to another level.
I realized with a start that probably Nabana Ma had dealt with all those problems. The moments of rest in the courtyard, the feigned negotiation with my grandmother, the subtle connection between the two women through the paan were her only respite from the harsh realities of her life and living.
My heart ached and I was overtaken by an urgency to find her, offer her some help, whatever help, that could make a difference. But I also realized the futility. Today, to me, Nabana Ma is just a voice. Unless of course, I find another one.
*Published in Deccan Herald 03/03/2012