Tirupati, balancing a basket full of steel utensils on his head, stopped in his tracks in the middle of the narrow street. Turning around, he slowly walked towards our gate. “Amma, you remember my name?” he asked, incredulous eyes shining brighter than the sweat that lined his brow.
“Of course, I do. I’ve been looking out for you. What took you so long this time?” Mother beckoned him to come in. Tirupati lifted the latch and opened the gate with one hand, the other supporting the precarious load on his head as he slowly stepped onto the portico.
“Give me a hand, amma”, he requested, carefully lowering the large basket of shiny steel utensils.
“What have you got for me this time? Something worthwhile I hope?” Mother enquired, carefully examining the variety of pots, pans, plates, and jugs in his basket.
“I have some interesting new pieces for you, amma.” Tirupati wiped his brow with the cotton coil that had supported the basket on his damp hair. “It depends on what pieces you have in exchange. Do you have any zari saris [saris embroidered with gold thread]?”
“Oh! So, now you take only zari saris is it?” queried Mother, one hand on her hip and a defiant glare that was specially reserved for bargain hunters. “I have saved lots of other clothes. First take a look at them and tell me what you can give before we talk about zari saris,” Mother said while signaling with her eyes towards me.
I ran in and, using a chair to reach up, pulled out the large bundle of used clothes from the attic-like nook in her bedroom. Dragging it with my 12-year old hands, I dropped it with a heave next to her as she settled down into a chair. She undid the knot and thoughtfully pulled out my almost-new red synthetic pantsuit that was gifted by a well-meaning Aunt but had ended up in this bundle, as it was too tight around the waist and too short for my long legs.
“This is not even silk, amma. I won’t get much when I sell it. All I can spare is this tumbler in exchange.” Tirupati said matter of factly, handing over a small steel tumbler.
“What?! This is almost new,” Mother tried to convince him. “My daughter here, she hardly wore it. You will definitely get a beautiful price for this pretty dress.” But Tirupati, driven by a tough market, had decided to take a tough stance.
Mother and the peddler haggled and quibbled, she with her wrinkled cottons and shabby synthetics, and he with his gleaming culinary implements. It went on for a good hour, by the end of which both sides had spent their clever tactics to get the best of each other.
Finally, Tirupati asked for a glass of water. I ran to do the needful, not wanting to miss a word or scene of this interesting exchange.
Gulping down the water, wiping his brow again, Tirupati seemed to gear up for the next round. “Here you go, amma. I will give you this—only in exchange for a zari sari.” He carefully drew out a unique pot, shaped somewhat like a fish bowl, only flatter and wider. It gleamed brighter than the rest and was made with a thick copper bottom so ideal for the slow cooking that brought out the best flavors in Indian curries.
Mother’s eye took on an incredulous gleam to compete with the shine of that brilliant pot. With her bundle of old clothes now almost exhausted over the miscellaneous tumblers and plates, she had no choice but to pull out the zari saris that Tirupati treasured. A quick glance from her and I needed no further instruction. Out came the smaller bundle of carefully wrapped zari saris from the bottom shelf of her clothes cupboard. Saris that had seen more festive days before they were blotched by one too many stains and saddened by threads that had begun to hang out along the lower edges, tread upon by sandaled feet. The fine, gold threads woven into the intricate borders had survived years of wear and tear and still shone through the tired backgrounds. Long retired from original service, they now saw the light of day for a new mission.
As Mother pulled out a cotton sari with the golden zari border, Tirupati strove to maintain a poker face. His eyes scanned the borders for unacceptable rips and stains. “Don’t you have any silk zaris, amma?” He asked softly.
“Zari is zari. What does it matter if is on a cotton sari or a silk one?” Mother pushed her point.
“That’s true amma, but I cannot give this pot for a cotton sari even if it has zariin it. Only a pure silk sari with zari can fetch me the correct price to match a pot of this quality,” Tirupati explained patiently. Now that he was getting close to his goal, he relaxed into a more self-assured tone.
“You are being very adamant today, aren’t you?” Mother shook her head as she reached in for her prized possession—a beautiful silk zari sari.
Tirupati lost his poker face in a flash. His eyes almost popped out as Mother unfolded the shimmering iridescent blue silk layers to reveal purple and blue paisley designs embedded in a rich gold border almost four inches wide. “This is worth a lot more than that pot of yours,” Mother said sternly. “I will give it only if you give me two more items to go with the pot.”
Tirupati eyed the sari. Mother eyed the pot. The inner tussle they went through was writ large on their faces as each weighed the value of the other’s offerings against their own precious possessions.
Finally, Tirupati took out another smaller pot that did not match the bigger one in its quality of steel or the thick copper bottom, but was of a decent, useable size. “This is all I can spare for that sari, amma,” he replied with polite firmness, nestling the smaller pot into the bigger one.
The haggling continued for some more time. The hot afternoon sun had begun to dip behind the second-floor terraced roof of our neighbor’s house across the street. A vegetable vendor yelled out the names of his tired-looking, sun-scorched produce one by one, as he slowly pushed his cart along: “Tamata … beanus … patata … kaybage …” Children screamed in the dilapidated playground nearby, chasing a stray kitten.
Mother surveyed her new possessions. They looked like small bargains for all the clothes that were now piled next to Tirupati. She then eyed the pot again. “Okay. I will take both pots. And this tumbler.” She quickly grabbed a small one that was within her reach.
“Amma! No, amma! How can you do this to me?” Tirupati reacted in shocked surprise.
“No, no, this is no less than any of my wedding saris. It comes from my Mother and yet there are no rips and barely any stains. You should in fact give me another large plate for it.”
Tirupati stood up. He handed over the pots to Mother and eagerly reached out to the sari she held out hesitantly, sentimental longing threatening to change her mind. Then, quickly stooping, he bundled all the clothes into a large sheet and carefully wrapped the sari in another scarf-like piece before tying the final knot. Rearranging the utensils in his basket, he piled the clothes bundle on top, and deftly lifted the now lightened basket. Adjusting it on the coil that rested on his head again, he turned to leave. “Next time, try to have more zarisaris, amma. I will get more special items,” he said, gently closing the gate.
Mother glared at him in friendly animosity. “Make sure your items are worth it,and get more of the better ones next time!” she called out loudly as he slowly made his way down the street. She then got up and, with a gleam of victory in her eyes, gathered her loot. Turning around and walking toward the kitchen, she instructed me, “Call your father and tell him to get some fish from the market. I can’t wait to use this pot to make dinner tonight.”
Glancing down the street, I saw Tirupati disappearing into another potential customer’s home. From the bounce in his walk I could tell he, too, felt like he had made a steal that day. What far off village had he walked from? Where would he spend the night? I wondered as I went in to dial father’s number. I looked forward to seeing Tirupati again next year, and to another summer afternoon of entertainment.
Two decades later, sitting at my desk with only a wall clock ticking away the silent hours to keep me company, I stare out the window at the clean streets, the well-manicured lawns bordered with dainty perennials, and the quiet homes bearing mute witness to long days of impenetrable solitude. I reminisce over the constant hustle and bustle that had filled our days, lives, and hearts in India, where there was no dearth of human contact.
The kaleidoscope of human interactions started at dawn with the tip-seeking night watchmen ready to retire for the day, followed by the newspaper boy and the milkman cycling from house to house, entering each gate to deposit newspapers or milk bottles at front doors. As the sun warmed the day, the drivers arrived to collect the car keys and the servant maids hurried in to clean the floors, the dirty dishes, and our clothes before they relaxed over a small cup of tea and some snacks offered in exchange for tidbits of neighborhood gossip.
Once the office-goers left for work, the vegetable vendors rolled their carts onto the streets, announcing the neatly arranged produce to zealous homemakers. Trash collectors rang little bells attached to wheelbarrows overflowing with stinky kitchen wastes collected from each house. Raggedy boys on wobbly cycles scouted around for prospective sales, arriving with suspicious looking weighing scales and leaving with overloaded bundles of cheaply traded recyclable paper and plastics.
In the still of the afternoon, peddlers like Tirupati arrived with their special goods of steel utensils, Bengal cotton saris, or just new brands of soaps and toothpastes. And in the cool of the night came the beggars, pleading with Mother for leftovers of her delicious lentil soup.
Come festival time, we saw donation seekers who came with little receipt books to collect funds for local temple events. Occasionally, there was the special visitor—dressed in loose cottons and turbaned crown and accompanied by a beautifully decorated bull which jingled the bells on its horns in timely rhythm—who treated us to musical performances on high-pitched reed instruments in return for handfuls of freshly harvested grains of the season.
The doors of our home often remained open to welcome the cool breezes of the day and the warm interactions of these rustic visitors.
Now, each time I open the door to the chirpy, paid solicitors who occasionally chance upon my American home and seek to convert my cable service, my voting preferences, or my religious faith, I see no recourse but to sigh a polite, “No, thank you,” in response to their polished efforts. I firmly point to the “No Soliciting” sign clearly perched in the narrow entryway window.
Continents away from a land that celebrated life and relationships with noise and gaiety through the seasons, surprises endlessly dotting each day of the year, my heart cries out: “Hey, Tirupati! Can you come over? I have a suitcase full of clothes for you—zari saris, too! Lots of them, as good as new!”
Tejashree Uppala is a full-time mother of two and a part-time freelance writer and editor. She lived in the California Bay Area for 10 years before moving to Austin, Texas, in 2005.
This article first appeared in the May 2009 issue of the magazine.