“Sekaaaaaaarrr … Go to the market and get me kottamalli for four annas,” amma called.
Kottamalli is coriander, you know.
Living near the Yediyur lake, the Lake Titicaca (so called because of all the caca that used to flow into it whenever it rained—I kid you not, that was a limnologist’s, if that’s the word I want, dream lake!) of Jayanagar, Bangalore, had many advantages. It’s all geography, hon. We were right by the main road on which the various vegetable vendors from the south of Bangalore carried their fresh produce from the previous afternoon to the Krishna Rajendra Market—a.k.a. the City Market. They took the produce on bicycles, push carts, bullock carts, bus, mini-van, and, of course, on their heads.
Result: You got great fresh veggies, organically grown, at reasonable prices.
Shekhar could not go to any old veggie vendor and get said kottamalli. Oh, no, no, no… He would get into trouble if he did that. He had to go to this one particular woman.
I forget her name. Let’s call her Rakamma.
Rakamma did not have a store or even a stall. She set up shop at the base of that electric pole—METAL, one of those rail thingies—spread out her gunny sack cloth and thereupon piled up all her bunches and bunches of greens. No, not any other veggies, usually, save green chilies—which, the smaller they were, the deadlier they got.
She specialised in greens—’soppu.’
Shekhar had to go to Rakamma and Rakamma alone. She was the “Soppu queen.”
But, little Shekhar couldn’t just run over to her and get the kottamalli. NO!
The Brindavan Express had to be ‘formed’ (Indian Railwayspeak for assembling the train). Then, the starter signal (that in front of the train) had to turn green. All these morons who wait till the last minute to get to the Railway Station!!! I hope they make it before the train starts.
Ah, here’s the underguard’s (he at the front end of the business) whistle and green flag. The chief guard (he at the end of the business) has agreed with him—what an agreeable chap HE is!—and …
… Shekhar sounds the VERY LOUD horn!! Then he slips the gear lever into slot # 1—just as he has done a zillion times on the real Brindavan Express when he has gone riding with Lionel Pacheco, then the senior-most engine driver in the Southern Railway.
The train starts.
By about the time the train reaches Mr. Tirumale’s house, three houses away, it is time to slip into second gear. By Mr. Narasanna’s (in future to be my geography teacher in high school) house, the train was in pretty much top gear and roaring along at high speed. It’s so nice not to wear any chappals—the traction and speed are SO much better!! Sure, there is the occasional animal caca or banana peel or spittle to dodge—this Brindavan Express is so agile! It_jumps_over these obstacles, because it has to maintain a straight track.
At break-neck speed, the Brindavan rounds the corner, and starts slowing down, Madras Central is nearing. Rakamma sits there, surrounded by her soppus and several customers, most of whom I recognise.
The train slows to a crawl and stops. Perfect braking. Stopped exactly at the right spot.
Now, this Rakamma scared the daylights out of me. I DREADED going to her. She was so STERN, curt, and forbidding. Not an imposing woman by any means—I have rarely seen her standing. But she had this enormous tumor on the right side of her face which she kept covered with her sari.
That tumor scared me.
Hesitantly, I approached her.
She looked up.
“What?” she demanded.
Little puny, scrawny, diffident Shekhar, gulped once or twice and hoarsely cackled out, “kottamalli.”
Is this ordeal never going to end?
She waved me over to the side. “Wait there!” she expectorated.
Shekhar waited there meekly. Not a pip out of the heroic driver of the Brindavan Express!!
She dealt with all the other customers there—you did not haggle lightly with Rakamma! Having sent them on their way—were they too afraid of her?? —she motioned to me.
“For four annas,” squeaked Shekhar.
“H’MMm!” and she handed me five bunches of kottamalli. For the same four annas, the others there had got three bunches and a couple of extra stalks of kottamalli.
I got five bunches, because I am ammavara maga (“ammavaru’s son”).
Her handing me the kottamalli was tantamount to an imperious wave of dismissal. Shekhar sheepishly walked a short distance.
“Brindavan Express, bound for Bangalore, is now leaving from platfaarum numberr vun…”
In record speed and time, the Train arrived in Bangalore. The heroic engine driver raced into the house to hand over the merchandise.
Amma was a tad impatient. “Finally!” she said. The rasam was ready to have kottamalli added, and the kottamalli chutney had to be ground.
Soon, there were delicious idlis—idlis that were so fluffy, I used to wonder how they even stayed intact. I wolfed down several with the delicious chutney.
Oh, I so wanted to be an engine driver. Just like Uncle Lionel.
Rakamma has since passed on. So has Uncle Lionel.
Brindavan Express is not quite as fast as it used to be, nor is it the unchallenged monarch of the Bangalore-Madras route, upstaged by a young rowdy with pretensions to grandeur and calling itself Shatabdi Express. Speed is not all that imparts character to a train, you know, Shatabdi? You should learn to be a bit more humble.
Shekhar became a geography educator.
Even now, when I walk along that particular road, I still look, quite nervously, at that corner to see Rakamma.
She’s not there. I wish she were. I would chat with her calmly and amiably—I know that she was a kind woman. My loss.
I walk on.
As for what held those fluffy idlis intact: A mother’s love.
– Ammavara maga.