The relentless pursuit of everything

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Source: Sharon S. Aruparayil

By Sharon S. Aruparayil

He was just a little boy, tasked with a difficult job. 

He was supposed to bring the correct change back, twenty and two rupees, after buying three kilos of bright red tomatoes, dusty brown potatoes and his favorite, raw green mangoes. It was too early in the summer to expect the sweet, luscious taste of ripened mangoes, but the unripe ones were his favorite. He couldn’t wait to go home and watch his mother submerge them into a tub of water, letting them sit for a few minutes before washing the sticky sap off. 

She would peel and slice the mangoes with the same knife, rusty at the handle but still sharp at the edges, making sure to save as much of the flesh as possible. She would then coat them with pepper, salt, and chili powder, asking Binoy to wait for a few minutes as she got the secret spices. She knew he would gobble up a few pieces anyways, wiping his mouth with the back of his hand to hide any evidence. 

He would watch as she gathered up several pleats of her sari, tucking them into her petticoat as she walked to the almirah, her anklets jingling softly. She would reach at the end of the sari slung over her shoulder, called the pallu, to retrieve the keys always tied in a secure knot. She always said she was the queen of the household, and that was her crown.

She would get the little glass jar out of the safe, allowing him to take the tiniest pinch to sprinkle over his mangoes. He wanted to savor the mangoes, but his siblings would be home soon, and he did not want to share. The flavors danced on his tongue – tangy, spicy, salty, and even sweet – and he would lick his fingers for hours in a futile attempt to prolong his experience. 

He was one rupee short. 

“You have nothing. You are nothing. You will never be anything”

He brought home twenty-one rupees, and his father rewarded this mistake with twenty-two sharp slaps on his wrist with a metal ruler; one for each rupee he was supposed to bring back. He would go to sleep with tears in his eyes, rubbing the angry red welts on his wrist as the three phrases echoed in his mind. 

He did not get his mangoes that day, or any other day he lived in that house. 

By the time he turned sixteen, his older siblings had left home. Abhijeet was a banker in the big city, Kolkata, wearing a neatly pressed suit and his leather oxfords as he carried the briefcase Baba gifted him to work. Indrani was married off to a nice family that lived a few hours away, and she rarely visited since she had young children of her own. 

Binoy couldn’t stay in school, the math and science and literature dancing around his head as the letters and numbers refused to stay still. Abhijeet had gotten him an apprenticeship at the bicycle shop at the corner of his neighborhood. He liked the job; he liked working with glass jars of grease, the soft whirr of the bicycle chain after a job well done, and most of all, the stories he heard while he worked on the cycles. 

Today, Mr. Chatterjee told him about his relentless search for a suitable groom for his daughter, Debjani. They wanted someone that lived nearby, a family from a similar background, and had already rejected quite a few men. He considered a thought which made him break into raucous laughter, slapping Binoy’s back as he said, “Not a bicycle shop apprentice, for sure. Keep dreaming, Binoy.”

Debjani, the syllables seemed to roll off his tongue as he watched her saunter towards her father, smudged kohl lining her eyes and sleek black hair contained in a fat braid, lazily slung over her shoulder. She was dressed in a rich burgundy sari with a sensible matching blouse, and a red Bindi on her forehead. 

When their eyes met, right in the middle of her animated conversation with Mr. Chatterjee, it was nothing like the Bollywood movies he spent his meagre salary on. There was no background music, no flower petals falling from the sky, and certainly, no rain. It felt like homecoming; the raucous laughter and bustling sounds of the city fading into oblivion as the universe stopped for a moment, giving him just enough time to really see her.

He didn’t even know what he was looking for until he found her. But all he knew now, was that he was never letting her go. 

Surprisingly, Mr. Chatterjee agreed to the arrangement. He only had one condition, that Binoy and Debjani would have to live in his house, and Binoy would leave his job at the bicycle shop. He would be responsible for the hundreds of acres of paddy fields that Mr. Chatterjee owned, making sure that the fields were regularly planted and harvested, and sufficiently watered. 

His father’s words echoed in his head, calling him shameful and feminine for accepting the label of a ghar-jamoy. A ghar-jamoy was the worst insult a man could have, literally meaning house-husband, but alluding to his inability to support his wife and eventual children. The words in his head always came to a still when he looked into Debjani’s eyes, colored like the fertile earth below his feet, and perpetually lined with smudged kohl. 

He knew he wanted to marry her when she told him about her favorite snack during their secret walks in the park. He watched as she stopped mid-sentence, rummaging furiously through her bag for her tiffin, a steel lunch box, filled with raw mango slices, the peel carefully cut off to save as much flesh as possible, and coated with a spice mix she carried everywhere with her in a little glass jar. She licked her fingers long after they ate the mangoes, hiding her face in embarrassment when she noticed him looking at her. 

She did not know why he embraced her so tightly, or why tears sprang to his eyes when she offered him some. She did not know why he liked keeping the spice jar in the Almirah, or why he brought her anklets that jingled when she walked. 

Binoy did not tell her. It did not matter to him what label he would have to live by for the rest of his life; neither did he want to hear what anybody had to say. He could care less about respect or honor in society. Nobody mattered except Debjani, and he would spend the rest of his life creating a world that honored her.

He had lived his life feeling like he would amount to nothing, but she made him want to be somebody, like he was capable of everything.