Ghevar Tai

In the heart of the old bazaar an old woman sat on the chair outside a shop and called out to people to walk in and try the deep fried, sugar-smeared snack that could be smelled from as far as she could be heard. Which were both a big help to the man who had taken over his father’s business and reputation as the best Ghevar maker of the town. People who knew the shop didn’t have to follow the aroma or the source of the sound, but the new ones who came looking for the famed sweet, or for some other things that could only be found in this old bazaar because the shopkeepers were too steeped in the wares and the habits of their forefathers to think of changing in order to meet modern demands. But that in turn worked out well for them. The modern demands could be met anywhere, but when people stepped out of home looking for a near-forgotten recipe to add to the fresh attempt at making pickles the way they used to make, or for a coloured ribbon for their daughters’ concert at school, or if certain herbs and spices resurfaced in a much-followed dietician’s or beautician’s columns, this was the only place they knew they could find them. The bazaars, narrow and crowded more by the sellers than buyers, offered a tour of the past and the exotic to the recently camera-phone armed city-dwellers who came here on Sundays looking for an urban adventure; while to students of photography and film-making, the place offered a frame that compensated for their own mediocre talents. To this crowd, the old woman called out with promises of the sweetest and the softest ghevars, and those who took her word along with the teasing aroma never walked away disappointed. The older locals would often remark that this was the one thing that hadn’t changed for the worse with time. And this when little had changed in the narrow lane of the old bazaar. The newer, younger set that came from the newer, more recently developed and settled part of the city and did not have the recommendations of their elders, walked away with a taste they promised to keep coming back for, but often only revisited in their promises and plans.

The other thing most of them remembered was the voice of the old woman. Not clearly, not in isolation. But the way one would always recollect the partly torn off label on the toy they had cherished all their childhood, or as the sound of the bell on their first bicycles. It was always there in their thoughts, but as a flickering light on the outer edges of their vision. Never at the centre of it. But the picture couldn’t be complete without it either.

The old woman, meanwhile, continued to call the faithful, the disbelievers, the unfaithful, the uninitiated. And they continued to go back converted. And the man in the shop, like his father, continued to give the woman a place to sleep in at night, and a place to sit at all day, with unlimited supply of water and tea that the helpers at the shop were told to give her as often as she asked, and three meals. The cotton saris she wore were handed down by the women of the sweet-seller’s family. If she needed any medicine, or those occasional requirements like combs, hair-oil, soaps or a toothbrush, she only needed to get up and walk up to the right shop and ask for it. She had, like the shops and their keepers, been around for so long that her few demands along with her voice were accepted as part of the setting. If anybody ever wondered where she had come from, they never thought to ask. It was a question that rarely occurred to anyone, and rarely stayed long enough to find its way from the mind to the tongue. If anybody had to call her, she went by the name of Ghevar Tai, a name that had stayed with her from the times when she had fewer wrinkles, a few black hair still showing between the stark white that now were universal, and when her voice — as the older people would say — wasn’t as strong. This was something everybody agreed to. Most of all, people who held shops at the far end of the bazaar. They would often remark that it was only recently that the voice had started reaching them. But the aroma never did. It was a proven fact that as Ghevar Tai got older, her voice had managed to reach out and go beyond the smell of the ghevars being deep fried. And that is perhaps what got the young owner of the Ghevar shop jealous, when people started calling his shop not by the name his father had given it, but as Ghevar Tai’s shop. When he first heard it from a young couple who had come asking for it by name, having heard of it from a friend who had posted pictures on websites of the narrow shop front where the ghevars stood, some dusted with powdered sugar, some smeared with sweetened cream; and a video of the ghevars being lifted on large sieves from hot, simmering oil in supersized pans behind the counter by three of his helpers. This young couple had first asked to confirm if this was the famous Ghevar Tai’s shop, when they saw the old woman in a white, old saree on the chair nearby, and smiled at her, taking her sight as all the confirmation they needed.

At first, the young man on the owners’ seat behind the counter and in front of the cash drawer put it to the signboard over the shop having become obscured by the years of fumes rising from the stoves below. Fauji Ghevar Wala, the name his father had given to the shop in honour of his own father who was a fauji — a soldier — in the British Army was a name that nobody had any cause to use. Only recently, when the word had spread beyond the old woman’s cries and the waft of the aroma, people had started referring to the shop by a name, and the first that came to mind was the same as the first sign they got of the shop.

One evening, the man shut his shop sooner than usual, and had his helpers pull back the counter, after pushing the pans and the stoves and the sieves to the far end. A painter turned up with a helper just as they were done, and propping up the ladder in the narrow lane, stepped up to repaint the board. The old woman pushed her chair a little back, closer to the shop behind her that sold buttons, zips, ribbons, needles and other similar items. And from there, out of habit, or nature, continued to shout out about the sweetest, crispiest ghevars. She had a sing-song voice, that she pushed a little further than the wind would carry it by pushing her head in one direction, and then the other. That evening, she disappointed a few customers, who turned up at her promise, only to see the shop out of its wares and with a signboard coming to life over it.

That night, when the shop shut and the old woman spread her mattress on the cot that was folded and stowed away at daytime, she took in the smell of the fresh paint and stepped out a few times to see the bright yellow on blue stand out in the dark of the night. She smiled, remembering the first time the board had been put up many years back. She went back in, leaving the shutters open just a little as she always did, and slipped into a deep sleep where she dreamt of the bazaar that was much less crowded, looked a lot more wider, and the ghevars — she knew for certain — a lot more crisp, a lot more fresh. She smiled in her sleep as the smell of the fresh paint got picked up by a current of wind playing truant, and brushed it over her sleeping form.

For the next few days the old woman shouted with a voice that stretched even further, sounded even more lively, and a few among the customers — both new and old — remarked as they picked up the ghevars wrapped in old newspaper and tied around with strings as white as the woman’s hair that they couldn’t resist the call, even though they hadn’t left home thinking about buying these today. And the woman, who always greeted the people walking in and out with a smile and a nod, would smile brighter, and when they shared it with friends and family back home, they would remark that the sweets were even better than they could remember. The young man at the counter was happy too, believing that at least some credit for the increase in sales must go to his initiative of getting the signboard repainted. And he was right in a way, it was the sight of the new sign that had brought out the added cheer in her voice. But the freshness didn’t last long, and though it had little effect on the woman and her voice, the young man realised that the association with his sweets, his shop, his history, everything that he had inherited, was with the woman now. Even the older customers had started calling the shop by her name. He had even stepped out a few times to see if the name on the board had not somehow changed to the one he was soon coming to detest. The fauji was having to fight a battle that it was clearly losing. To an old, frail woman who lived on three meals, hand-me-downs, smiles, a voice, and little else. What broke him finally was when his own daughter, just five years of age, when asked at school about his father’s occupation, had replied that he worked at the Ghevar Tai’s shop. Word reached him when the teacher came to buy some of the famed sweets, and expecting a discount, had related the incident.

That night when the old woman stepped out to use the bathroom behind the lane and came back to unroll her mattress saw that the shutters had already been pulled down. She put it to a simple mistake, rattled the thin metal sheet and in response, a helper who had recently been employed opened it from inside. They were still cleaning up, so she sat back on the chair outside and watched the television through the window of the barber’s shop across the lane where some young men gathered to share a drink and cigarettes. A hero was chasing a pretty girl and perhaps singing or saying something, but she couldn’t hear them. When the helper walked past her, she got up and walking in behind the counter saw that he had forgotten to push back the heavy pans and the stoves and unfold her bed. She couldn’t do it alone, so knocking on the barber’s shop, she called out to a few of the men who came out hiding their cigarettes and turning their mouths away to shield the smell of alcohol on their breath and quickly turned the shop into her room. She asked them to pull the shutter down on their way out, and smiled at how even the street’s rowdy elements pulled out their sense of respect for the old. Not much had changed in this corner of the world. The thought comforted her, and she slept easy, forgetting the mistakes of the new recruit.

The next few days the new recruit kept on making mistakes. Even getting worse, when he should be learning and getting better. Slowly, however, Ghevar Tai started realising that she was being told something. Something that no one had the strength to convert to words. It took her some time to figure this out. She was still getting her meals, her tea and her water and her chair was still in her place and she had no reason to stop calling out to people. But she could now sense a little change in the young shop owner. And she could see the glances he would at times exchange with the new helper and she could now see that the new helper did little during the day, leaving most of his work for later in the day, when it was time to shut shop. He had even started joining the band of young men in the barber’s shop, but he couldn’t stop them from helping her to do what he was supposed to. If anything, there was this time when even he was dragged along by the others to help them. But the one thing that the old woman never let change was the one thing that she could do. Her voice continued to flow through the bazaar. Her smile continued to greet the people who came to buy the fried desserts. And more and more people continued to think of the shop as her shop, and continued to return to their lives and speak of the woman and the experience of walking through a crowded bazaar, past knick-knacks and tit-bits and things best described as indescribable.

So one day, having exhausted all other means of making her feel unwelcomed, the shop owner held back the morning tea, and waited for her to ask for it. He didn’t know what it would lead to. But he had to try something else. But the woman, knowing which way time was flowing, sat on the chair, and waited. It was around 9, when the shop had opened to few customers as the ghevars were from the last night, and found little demand. But the woman started her work on time. She didn’t wait for the tea. Instead, she cried out, even louder. For the best ghevars this side of the River Parayaa, or that. In her cries now there was the mention of the sweet syrup that would drip down their lips. And when the man tried to see if not serving her breakfast would get her to walk up to him, where he could ask her what had she done to deserve it, it had no effect on the woman. Now in a voice that was a little quieter, she spoke of how the fauji’s son had given the bazaar its flavour, its lanes its aroma. She spoke of how the ghevars were the wheels that turned this little world and she spoke of the love that the fauji’s son had for the world, and how the ghevars that came out crisp and yellow from the oil were the shape of the very sun, and how they rose even before the sun itself did. She spoke of the lines of children that would line up for a taste, and how the man’s father would pick up the crumbs in his one hand from the big pan, and sugar powder with the other, and pour from both on the outstretched hands of these little children. She also spoke of how on festivals this was the first shop to open, and the last to close. She kept speaking, her voice now softer, as her cries turned to stories, and the people turned from customers and walkers and shop keepers and neighbours to people who were being played their own past, and most of them remembered being the very children she was speaking of. And then, as the day wore on, the woman got up and left. Some thought she was only going for a while. But when she did not return for over a hour, people started wondering and worrying. The silence in the bazaar was like the night’s. Not because it was quiet, but because just that one voice was missing. And from that day, it was never heard again. And for reasons no one could explain, the ghevars never tasted the same. They were never as crisp, or golden, or sweet, or fresh. The shop, after it had shut its shutters for the last time, was often discovered by people who came too late to the scene, and they would be told that the Ghevar Tai’s shop had been shut for good.

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