With You, Always
The corner shop with fading light green walls and an aluminum foil for the roof seemed old enough. As I cross the road, I draw my shoulder bag closer although it seemed to want to nest in my forearm. The lamp post light turned on as I stepped in front of the shop, putting me in the orange-ish spotlight. Is this a sign? I wonder. Maybe this is it.
“Do you have Bittoo Toffees?”, I ask, not even trying to mask the desperation in my voice.
“Huh?” says the man in a white vest and dark brown pants, without breaking the stare with the TV.
“Bittoo Toffees? Do you have them?”, I repeat while checking his shop to see if I can spot it.
“Like Coffee Bite?” he says, finally looking up from the cricket match.
“Not exactly. Have you heard of Bittoo?”
He glances at the glass jars, turning around one or two. “Hmm…no madam”
“Okay, thank you,” I say after a moment of silence as my heart sighs.
Five hours to midnight. I switch on my phone once again to try my luck with Google for the 15th time or maybe the 16th. I have lost count. It’s been a long day.
It shows a store nearby. I know it’s not going to be there but at this point, hope is a silent prayer.
“Do you know when I sowed this?”
I glance up at my grandpa, as he pats the sapota tree next to us. “When you bought the house?” He had put the book down.
“No, two days after you were born. The day you came home, this did too.”
“I wanted to create a garden of memories. Every plant for a special one, growing, flowering with us. When I am old, it’s something to look at, isn’t it?” he said with a smile so radiant that always made the sun seem dull.
“So, this is mine?”
“If you share those with me next time,” he said, pointing to the toffee wrappers.
“With you, always,” I said I jumped up, ran past him, grabbed a branch, and pulled myself up.
The door is pushed towards me by a woman holding three bags. She pauses to shift one of the bags to the other hand and paces towards the road. As I get in, I am welcomed by a stand of greeting cards, bent of the edges, the white fading into yellow. While most had the usual bunch of roses, one read “Happy Birthday” in italics, with a hibiscus next to it.
As an elderly woman was paying at the counter, I asked, “Do you have Bittoo Toffees?”
The man gestured his colleague to me. I repeated the question with a flat one. It felt customary at this point.
“You can check the chocolate aisle,” he replied and pointed to the aisle next to the counter. I went through each shelf diligently like a math problem.
As I moved past the KitKat, I felt a tap on my shoulder. “It has that tamarind taste, doesn’t it?” It was the elderly lady from the counter.
“YES!” I almost jumped and she almost giggled.
“I remember those,” she said. “We would stuff our bags with them in our college days.”
“I have been looking for them since morning, but they have disappeared.”
“I haven’t seen them around in a while.” She paused. “Why are you looking for them now?”
What do I tell her? Where do I start?
“Just for a bit of nostalgia. Woke up with a craving that you shake off easy.”
“Ahh, I felt that for some date syrup the other day.” I smiled at the childlike excitement that suddenly flashed on her face.
“So, it’s nowhere here, right?” I knew the answer.
She shook her head lightly and then smiled. “I can make them though. I used to make them in bulk long ago. Just to make some extra money. Doesn’t taste the same but it’s homemade.”
“You forgot me!”
“I didn’t. I thought you got into the bus.”
“No, you held onto your umbrella but not my hand,” I teased while laughing. “Imagine what would have happened if you left me behind. Any stranger could have taken me home.”
“Don’t talk nonsense. I got down within seconds,” he said and then suddenly stopped walking as we approached our verandah.
“Don’t tell grandma.”
“That’s not how you bargain,” he said throwing his hands up and swiftly bringing them down like a cranky child.
“That’s my way,” I said as I walked past him.
“Fine,” I could almost hear his smile. “You win, this one time.”
I won many more times, enough to set up my own toffee shop if I wanted.
The pounding of the marble mortar and pestle scoops me out of my reverie. “If you mash it well, the texture is smoother. The machines don’t have the authentic taste.”
My need for the toffee had brought me to the elderly woman’s house. She has lived alone since her husband passed away last year. Tapered walls, black and white wedding photos, and a rocking chair next to the window, all of it felt too familiar.
“We shifted here five years ago. For some peace and quiet,” she said without any prompting. “Do you live here?”
“I used to. With my grandparents,” I said as I suddenly felt very aware of the void in my chest. It felt heavier.
“Oh, are you visiting them?”
“Him, yes. Grandma is in Singapore, helping my sister with her pregnancy.”
“Oh, congratulations! I can make a special laddu also with this tamarind paste. It’s great for pregnant ladies.”
“Thank you but I think the toffees are more than enough for now. It’s almost 8 anyway.”
“Oh, look at that! How time flies! You have to stay for dinner,” she says as she starts melting the jaggery in a big pot.
“Oh no. I don’t want to trouble you more than I already have.”
“No, no. It will be nice to have some company,” she says with a gentle smile.
Who could say no to that?
As I head towards the gate, it’s almost 10:30. “Are you sure you don’t want to take some dinner for your grandfather?”, she says as she steps into her verandah.
“No, no. But again, this was delicious. It’s been a long time since I had such food.”
I turn to look her in the eye. “Thank you for this. This is very special for me.”
“Anytime. It was fun making it,” she says with a smile that reminded me of my sun.
“Are you sure you don’t want me to pay you? Please?”
“Don’t even think about it”, she says as she closes the gate behind me.
“It feels heavy. Like I am carrying ten kgs on my chest.”
“Feels like this feeling is planning to make itself home here,” I say as I stab my chest with my finger.
I plop myself on the rock slab carved into a small bench the sapota (sapodilla) tree. Grandpa steadies the ground with one feet then brings his other next to a bench and slowly sits. “It just wants to be felt. Some feelings are stubborn,” he says.
“Chocolate?” He holds out the toffee.
“What are we celebrating? My complete failure to move on?” I say as I reflexively undo the wrapper, take a quick lick, and pop it into my mouth. The sweet tamarind taste feels like a hug.
“No, your courage to love. The grief you are feeling is telling of the love you carried. It doesn’t seem like it now, but the heaviness is also rooted in love. Don’t rip it out, let it go on its own.”
I turn to him, but his face gets blurry. He put his arm around me, I rest my head on his shoulder and we sit in silence until grandma calls us for dinner.
“I feel like this feeling is not going to go at all,” I say as I wipe the dust off the bench and sit. “This is a bit too heavy and too stubborn, unlike any other.” I take out the box of toffees and put it next to me.
“Well, looks like they stopped making the Bittoo Toffees. But this nice lady, god knows where she came from, made some for us.”
I check my phone. It was almost 12. I take out the Happy Birthday card with the hibiscus flower. “Happy birthday, grandpa. Got you grandma’s flower. Sorry, couldn’t save the plant.”
I look around to the place where the hibiscus plant used to be. It had left us the same year as grandpa. Grandma refused to enter the house without him, and this was my first time since.
Traces of the sapota tree was still there, looking down on me. I open the box, lick the toffee before popping it in. “Promised you I would share.”