‘Calcutta’, the bygone Kolkata had many Fatimas and Kunjo ‘dida’s. Like the photo albums, with ivory black thick pages holding little family portraits in four, small triangle jackets, we have also stored fondly in our memory, many such portraits along with their little stories. My mom has still kept that album in her almira and I, in my ‘Letters to Myself’ during these days of Corona.
Fatima ‘didi’ was the quietest egg seller of Calcutta, yes it was ‘Calcutta’ then. She used to visit our house every Saturday with her basket, to sell dozens of immaculate, spotless, duck eggs that one has ever seen. Soft green or pale peach, with the promise of a small red sun hidden within their hard shells.
But she wore her elder sister’s frock which dangled all the way to her toe fingers and my mom, who most probably believed that along with her chicken eggs, the sweeping layer of her fabric carried inside the pox from the streets, used to scold her sharply, ‘Fatimaaaa, jaama guta, jaama!’
Translation takes away the whole damn sweetness, but the closest can be something like, “Pull up your skirts dear…pull it up high!!”
Fatima didi hesitated! Folded it between her knees without lifting and sat outside the doorway. Someone had told her, a young girl of fifteen, never lifts her dress!
“Who?” I asked.
My eyes were even bigger than her duck eggs, when she revealed the secret.
“Every one!!” She gave me the most surprised look, with a hint of distaste mildly hidden. Must be wondering, how these so called ‘babu der meye’ even gets promoted to grade five with a brain of a peanut.
I had to switch the conversation after reading that in her eyes.
“You like boiled duck eggs, right?”
The enthusiasm was cracked hard with a look she gave.
“Nope! I am done selling them all, by the afternoon.”
How about those which has fine cracks and my mom and I am sure all moms, with their eyes of hawk, end up rejecting them. I wondered loud.
Fatima didi had lost hope on me long back, so she kept on looking inside patiently for my mom to come back with her notes and coins.
“So you like them fried, right Fatima didi? With onions and green chillies?” Grade five is shameless!!
I saw hunger for the first time in those eyes when they turned towards me and Fatima didi had a pair of light brown eyes which looked almost translucent. Her hairs were brown even and mom used to laugh and remark, “Fatima, your mehendi had spilled on your eye balls.”
But I saw only hunger there and as Kunjo dida broke the hard shell and whipped and poured the beaten eggs on the sizzling pan, the aroma almost caught on her throat.
I will remember…I will always remember that gulp which she quickly hid by mopping her face with the long dupatta that will soon end up covering her head when she steps back wearily again on the hot, humid streets.
She checked the notes. The coin softly danced on her palm as she counted them cautiously. And as she folded and tied them securely at one end of her ‘dupatta’, she probably pitied and answered, “Yes, Sometimes there are one or two left with hairline cracks. The roadside tea sheller buys it half a price…and if not…”
I looked with hopeful eyes.
“My mom fries it for bhai-jan ( brother) or for my abbu ( dad)!”
As she took the basket, now a little lighter, on her head, her eyes twinkled,
“I will be getting married this summer.” I cringed, again.
But she was bindaas and added with a smile which only a fifteen years old girl can, “The tea shop owner of our lane.”
It was the Saturdays she used to come and the radio was always on. Somewhere from our bedroom Subir Sen sang for us…and maybe, for her as well…
দিবস রজনী, আমি যেন কার আশায় আশায় থাকি।
তাই চমকিত মন, চকিত শ্রবণ, তৃষিত আকুল আঁখি॥
(Artwork: Piu Mahapatra)
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