“Today is the day,” thinking, Raju jumped over a puddle outside his house, making sure the sack in his hands didn’t fall. The whole street was choked with water from last night’s rain. Although monsoon was still a month away, the shower was an early reminder to get prepared for this small village in Northern India. Raju was a farmer who grew vegetables on his small ancestral land. Like most farmers, he was dependent on the rain for water. It was a relief that he had picked the vegetables a few days ago. But the downpour had restricted him from going to the market and selling them. These vegetables were the bundle he was carrying. He could feel the vegetables had turned softer to the touch even from outside the bag.
He looked up at the sky; clouds hid the sun again, calling in the rain.
He took a deep breath and decided to ignore them. It will be a difficult month ahead if he doesn’t sell the harvest today. He decided to take long strides, urging his body to feel alive, “today is the day”, he reminded himself. Raju needed to make it to the Mandi, the vegetable market soon. He was already late. And this meant only one thing; he would not be able to get a good spot at the market. The bag in his hand suddenly seemed very heavy. Stepping out of the narrow alley, he shifted the sack from his hands to on top of his head. Then, balancing his steps, he started walking, careful not to let his bare feet get too deep into the mud.
“Raju Bhai, how are you today?” a familiar voice stopped him on his way. Rahim was arranging some mangoes on his little cart in a corner. The fruit looked old and brown instead of the usual yellow. “Is this all you have for today, Rahim?” Raju looked at his friend, balancing the sack on his head.
“Yes. Fatima’s not well, and I couldn’t go to get more fruits from the big Bazar” Rahim tried to smile, but his face remained unchanged.
“Oh! I forgot about that, Rahim; how is your wife? Rina told me she was not well?” Raju said, stealing a glance of the street. All the customers he could be losing by standing and trying to talk to a sad man. Embarrassed at the thought, he looked at Rahim.
“Fatima is still in bed, still unable to speak,” Rahim was speaking; the creases on his forehead began resurfacing after every word.
“Oh! Allah will listen to you, Bhai; everything will be fine,” Raju blurted out the standard sympathy lines he used in situations like these.
“If He has to, He must do something soon; every single penny of my house is spent on that woman. The doctor is not ready to give more medicine. And our children go to bed hungry. If she must die, Allah should take her now. In fact, I don’t believe if there is a God anymore,” saying Rahim fell into a fit of crying.
Raju looked towards the market; it was filling up with people. He might not even get a place to sit if he stayed here any longer. He felt sad at the thought. Sighing, he put his sack on the ground and walked closer to Rahim. Putting his arms around him, Raju started patting his back.
“Allah is not that bad, Rahim. he only tests those he thinks are strong. And when we cannot take it anymore, he sends help,” the words surprised Raju, but he decided to stay with them. Rahim had put his head on his friend’s shoulder and was sobbing softly now. Raju took a deep breath and then pulled himself apart from the embrace. He wiped Rahim’s tears with his hands. There were wrinkles underneath Rahim’s eyes that Raju had never noticed before.
“I am not strong, Raju Bhai. My strength lies in my wife. We have lived through many difficulties together, but she never left my side. And now I’m wishing for her death!”
“It’s not your fault Rahim, this rain has destroyed everyone. Look, I
need to go. I should have sold these vegetables two days ago. If I don't sell them today, I don't know where our food will come from." Raju looked at the clouds again. The monstrous dark forces, bringing more sadness to their lives, were nobody’s friends. He had no intention to pray. No amount of prayer could push that away.
Rahim was more composed now. He wiped his face and blew his nose, then looked at Raju, “Better late than never. Go, may Allah give you a good wage today.”
Raju was off before Rahim finished. He counted how much money he needed to make ends meet. Rina wanted a new saree. She was three months pregnant, and he hadn’t given her any gift yet. But then her face came to his mind. It was swelling up for some reason. He couldn’t take her to the doctor, but a friend at the local hospital had scribbled a medicine’s name on a piece of paper. Because Raju could not read, he kept the paper in his pocket all the time. ‘The saree can wait,’ he thought, rechecking the little piece of paper in his vest’s pocket.
‘I must sell all these vegetables today,’ thinking, he finally sat down on the ground, the only open spot in the market – a corner next to a pile of garbage. He decided to ignore the trash and untied the red cloth tied around his waist. He spread it neatly on the ground and started taking the vegetables from the sack, arranging them strategically on the cloth, the stale ones mixed cleverly with the fresher ones. He looked up at the clouds again, ‘Why now?’ he whispered before constricting all the muscles in his throat to project a loud sound of “Sabji le lo!” (come, buy vegetables).
After many days, the rain had stopped, and the market was teeming with people. The air was stuffed with humidity and various smells; wet earth, vegetables of all kinds, cattle, rotting garbage, and perspiration. Most of the sellers were farmers who had traveled from multiple villages to sell their harvest here. The buyers were primarily women, clad in colorful sarees; they carried small cotton bags in one hand and umbrellas in the other. As their eyes surveyed the carts in the market, Raju couldn’t help but think of small birds fighting over the first worm out of the wet ground. The clouds rumbled, and Raju’s mind came back to the market. He saw a woman walking in his direction, and he shifted his weight from one foot to another, hiding his nervousness.
“How much?” her bright pink saree scared Raju. How could he afford such a gift for Rina? The woman’s chubby fingers picked up an eggplant. He counted the rings around them.
“Bhai?” she shrieked.
“10 rupees a kilo Didi”, he mustered the most polite sound he could manage. Calling her sister was a good idea. The woman’s face softened and gave Raju the courage to pick up cauliflower and bring it near her face. The woman got interested. Building on that confidence, he slowly put the vegetable on the weighing scale to finalize the deal.
“Cauliflower for 8 rupees a kilo,” a voice came from the side, and Raju’s eyes grew wider.
The woman didn’t even look at Raju to say she wasn’t interested in his deal. She was gone. Before Raju could understand what was happening, it was done. How could someone sell vegetables for such a price?
“Bastard! Thinks he can afford to outprice me! He doesn’t know what it means to go to bed hungry,” Raju picked the cauliflower from the scale and threw it on the pile. It tumbled down and settled next to the potatoes.
Raju’s angry eyes looked at other vegetable sellers closely now. They all had more vegetables on their carts, more cheer in their voice, and probably more money in their pockets. And here was he, with no cart of his own, sitting on the ground, selling vegetables that even he wouldn’t eat. No wonder he had no customer. The only attention he received was from a cow patiently waiting for him to give up.
“Hurrrr”, he shouted loudly, and a couple of women jumped in surprise. Raju looked in the direction of his opponent. His cart was surrounded by people. It looked like this seller had outpriced everyone in the market.
“Bastard”, he muttered again as two boys making their way to his
little pile of vegetables turned towards the enticing call of the other seller. Raju grew desperate now and tried calling his produce “cheapest but best,” but his own voice irritated him. The grey clouds were closing in, making a deep rumbling sound.
Raju put his hand on his chest to feel the piece of paper again. The sudden darkness had created a sense of urgency in the market. People were taking faster steps, stepping into the puddles instead of avoiding them and hurrying towards the most attractive carts. One by one, Raju watched vegetables disappear from all of them. Then he looked at his little red cloth and the haphazardly arranged vegetables on it; cauliflower, lemons, squash, eggplant, potatoes, and green chilies.
He looked at the cow and shrugged his shoulder. Maybe Rahim was correct; there is no God after all. Deciding to call it a day, he began gathering his vegetables in a pile.
“How much for the whole bundle, Bhai?”
Raju looked up and saw a thin man standing in front of him. He was wearing a white dhoti (pants), a white kurta (long shirt), and a red turban on his head. A golden chain sparkled around his neck. He looked rich.
“Ji?? For the wh...whole ?” Raju repeated the question, afraid that this man would change his mind.
“Yes, yes for the whole. My daughter is getting married, the guests are at my door, and I couldn’t buy vegetables because of the rain. I don’t have time to go into the market. So tell me, how much?
“These are 10 kilos of cauliflower, 5 kilos of potatoes, the eggplant although not much is very expensive saheb!” Raju started calculating on his fingers.
“It would cost 300 rupees, Ji.” He said at last.
“Hmm.. okay, tie them up quickly. I don’t have time,” said the man pulled out a bundle of crisp hundred rupee notes.
Raju began to tie everything happily, thanking God for finally listening to his prayers.
“Saheb, I would give these vegetables to you for 250 rupees only.” Raju froze. He knew the owner of this voice. The seller Raju had avoided looking at the whole day. But now, he couldn’t avoid it any longer. He turned to face him, knowing the sight would not please him. A young man with a strong built was smiling behind the cart, his black hair oiled and parted precisely to the right. His clothes were ironed. The thin mustache on his clean-shaven face gave him an air of… air of what? Raju wondered.
“250? Why my friend?” inquired the buyer.
“I have a big stall, sir; I have many vegetables too. I have sold enough for today and would like to wind up before the rain comes. You can have these vegetables for 250, and chilies are free!” saying, he smiled. ‘An air of smugness’, Raju concluded. He could never compete with that, or could he?
“Okay! I think it’s a good deal. You, you there, stop tying that, I will buy vegetables from this man,” saying the buyer started walking away.
“200 rupees saheb!” Shouted Raju rather loudly, “I want to close for today too, and chilies, as well as lemon, are for free,” Raju stopped the buyer from making up his mind. His chest heaved with pride.
“Okay, sir, only for you - 150. This is my last price. If I sell for less, I will bear a loss. You look like a God-fearing man; you wouldn’t take from a man his bread,” a blow even Raju couldn’t challenge.
The rich man looked towards Raju. He was enjoying the battle.
“100 rupees! What does God have to do with it?” Said Raju finally.
“What do you have to say to that?” the wealthy man looked expectantly at Raju’s opponent.
“But why?” He was looking at Raju in disbelief.
‘Because I can’t lose another battle’, Raju wanted to say, but he smiled and shrugged his shoulders instead. It felt good to see defeat in eyes that were not his own.
“So, 100 it is?” the wealthy buyer challenged both of them. One threw his hands in defeat, the other started tying the vegetables in the red cloth.
As the rain came down, Raju ran towards his house, grinning from ear to ear. He was clenching the money in his hand – a hundred rupee note. How this piece of paper gobbled up his sadness.
“When we can’t take it anymore, God sends someone to help us,” saying he laughed out loud. He had enough money to buy at least a week’s food and medicine for his wife. He could worry about the rest later.
So elated was he that he totally missed seeing the person running towards him from the opposite direction. Before he knew it, the two collided. While Raju tried to comprehend what had happened, the other tumbled and fell to the ground.
“Bhai, are you fine?” Raju was in no mood for a fight. Instead, he tried to help the man get on his feet.
The man didn’t say anything but pushed him away and started running again. Raju suddenly realized what was happening. There was a crowd running after him, shouting, “Thief! Thief! Stop him!”
It wasn’t hard for Raju to hold this man again. He only had to jump and pin him down. And so he did.
“For God’s sake, leave me. I am not a thief, I’m not a thief!” the man started fighting back. It was hard to see his face in the rain, but the voice sounded familiar.
Raju looked closely.
“Rahim? Is that you?” Raju was panting because of the struggle to keep Rahim down.
“I do not have time to waste. My wife needs medicines. She will die.
I have to run,” A desperate man who needed to save his wife, he looked nothing like Rahim. Raju let go and watched his friend disappear in the rain.
“Where is he? Why did you let him go?” The four enraged men chasing Rahim stopped and enquired.
“I... I couldn’t hold him. He was too fast for me. What did he do?” asked Raju, trying to look concerned.
“He stole money from my shop”, said one of them, “I would break every bone in his body when I find him.”
Before Raju could say anything, a young boy appeared from the direction Rahim had gone to, excitedly announcing, “I saw him going towards the hospital. Let’s catch him!”
“No.. . wait ...you shouldn’t go there”, Raju put his hand out as if to hold them from chasing Rahim.
“Why ?” asked the man hurriedly.
“How much did he steal from you?” asked Raju.
“100 rupees,” the man said.
“As he escaped, he dropped this,” saying Raju opened his palm and
revealed a hundred rupee note.
“Oh! My money… that’s what he stole, that scoundrel. God bless you!” saying the man snatched the note from Raju’s hands and thrust it into his pocket.
“Just when I thought I had no hope, God sent you!” saying; he hugged Raju tightly.
Satisfied with the ending, the men disbanded with nothing more to do. The dark clouds had given all they had to offer, and the rain finally receded. Raju made his way back home. He looked up and shrugged his shoulder.