It was October, the festive month. A giant pandal, wrapped with spotless white cloths, was built by one side of the bazaar. And from that side hawkers were temporarily evacuated. A narrow street ran across the bazaar. Some hawkers went to its extreme ends; others sat on the outer fringes of the bazaar.
Today Rupchand was lucky. He sat on Mondal’s place. Mondal’s child was ill and was admitted to the General Hospital.
The bazaar was buzzing with myriad shouts of the sellers—low, high, sweet, gruff. They sell everything under the sun. And buyers were hair-splitting to save a coin. Some sellers sat like stones. Some were too busy dealing with customers. Some waved hands to buy from them. A few were dozing in the sun.
Rupchad was small, lean, unshaven, uncombed, lungi-clad and bare-footed. He sat on a sack with cucumbers and four wood apples. He sat silent. People had a hurried look at him and passed by.
“How much?” I asked, and stared at his sunken cheeks.
“What?” the old fruit seller tried to ask aloud so that his voice could reach me overcoming the hubbub of the bazaar. And he coughed.
“Thirty per kg. babu” he drily said.
I carefully followed the size and color of each cucumber. Some were too white and smooth and fat, some were deep green and small. I minutely observed the beads of sweat on his half-bald head.
Beside the old man, there was a fixed fruit shop. There a young fruit seller, sturdy, in shorts, sandaled, red-mouthed, shrilled, “Cucumber at twenty per kg. It’s cheap as water! Take as much as you like. Sale today…brothers and sisters, sale, sale, sale…at the price of water, you get fruit juice!”
I turned and saw the same cucumbers the young seller was also selling. I am confused. However, I bought from the old man and plainly asked, “What’s the case?”
“Babu, it’s Mondal’s place. As I sit and sell beside him, he is underselling. People make a beeline before him. He wants to ruin me. I am a poor man and have only twenty kg. and four wood apples. He is rich. He sells apples, pears, apricots, grapes, cashew, dates, and coconuts. If cows eat them, he will have milk. But babu, I can’t undersell. I have bought them at twenty-five. How can I sell it at twenty? There are four stomachs at home. I have to stuff them anyhow.”
A young gentleman, tall, clean-shaven, fair, skin buttered, broad-shouldered, five bags of varying sizes in hands, rushed to Rupchand and with a sneer asked, “How much is a kg? Not so good!”
“Thirty, babu. Take babu, take, I bought the choicest ones. They are soft, juicy and seedless, babu,” Rupchand pleaded.
“Twenty per kg. Fill your bag, Sir. Sale, sale…” the young seller cried eyeing at his likely customer.
“Are you a thief? You’re stealing at broad daylight! He is selling at twenty and you…. I call the Secretary of the Bazaar Committee and report it. A thief cannot sell here. Ten rupees difference! Tomorrow if I see you, I beat you to death,” the gentleman threatened.
“Babu…babu he is underselling to ruin me. Judge the bazaar and then pay me,” Rupchand begged.
In the whirling air, Rupchand’s voice got lost.
The gentleman stared at Rupchand with fiery eyes, abused, left and lined before the young seller’s shop. He shook hands with fellow buyers and groaned against the thief.
The lined men and women nodded and agreed with the gentleman. They threw a contemptuous glance at Rupchad.
For a while, I looked at the crowd and Rupchad alternately. The young seller was sweating in profusion to serve his customers. His hands and shoulders ached for continuously weighing and delivering the cucumbers. Sweaty, his vest was tucked to his monstrous body.
Rupchand felt lonely. He was moving lips looking at the sky kissing turrets of the makeshift pandal. They glistened in the sun. He wiped the corners of his eyes with his languid hands.