Listen to the audio version of the story read by the writer, here.
Decalepis root, as it is called in English, is a strong, pungent smelling root that is pickled in south India, at least in north Madras where I am from. Known for its medicinal qualities – of purifying blood – it is equally known for its effect on the olfactory senses, in south Indian schools as children opened their lunch boxes at noon. Some hated it, many loved it, but none ignored it.
Though many brought the said pickle quite often, only Hari brought it almost every day. His house, a stone’s throw away from the garden where we sat for lunch, was conveniently placed for instant delivery of lunches. His mom, half tired after working at their little ice cream making shop next to the school compound wall, extended the lunch box over to Hari lovingly, with the aid of a long stick. The wire basket descended every day, and in no time, we were competing for a handful of the tasty stuff.
Though on some days Hari jumped over the school compound wall to eat in his home, he preferred our shaded garden. At these times we bonded over food, discussing anything from cricket matches to chemistry classes. When he snapped open the tiffin box, the top container often had the pickle that was always a source of comfort for me. I would take a quarter of a piece from Hari and then wait for him to give me a quarter more by himself. Though I loved the pickle a great deal, somehow, I never asked my mother for the same. It amuses me now that back then, I thought my mother somehow wouldn’t approve of the pungent smell in our kitchen.
One day at school, in sixth class, I teamed up with Saravanan and fought with Hari, who was almost on the verge of crying. But to my surprise, instead of crying, he hit us both and chose to eat his lunch from another corridor, avoiding the garden. The missing pickle smell was too much to bear for a few days. After we made good with Hari, the pickle lunches were back.
One day, soon after, we got into a fight again. Right after finishing our lunches we had begun hitting each other with stones. Smarting from rather strong blows received, we were hurling the stones back with increased strength than before. And then all of a sudden, I hit a small girl, from first standard. The stone had hit her bangles and broken a whole bunch of them, the sparkling glass pieces strewn everywhere. She held her left wrist and wailed uncontrollably.
With a lot of guilt I went closer and tried to comfort her. But she wailed some more. Lucky for me, only the bangles had taken the blow and her hand had not suffered any cuts.
That day, I did not eat dinner at home. I was brooding. I went to my favourite god, Shiva. I stood in front of a colour poster of his that was once a part of 1989’s calendar. I prayed that the girl be alright and that she should get new bangles.
Afterwards that day, my mother compelled me to have dinner. As I walked to the dining area, I was surprised.
“Where from, amma?” I asked, my eyes lighting up at the sight of my favourite pickle.
“Eat! I spoke to Hari’s mom. I got it in the market,” she said.
My mother’s thoughtfulness made me happy. Then, I poured out my anguish and confessed about the little girl bangle incident. She listened patiently.
When I left for school in the morning, she gave me a little box. It had a gleaming set of plastic bangles. I smiled, and hugged Amma.
In school, I delayed my lunch and stood near the spot where I’d hit the girl. She was not there. With the bangle box clumsily hid beneath my white uniform shirt, I entered each of the primary school classrooms and searched for that girl. She was nowhere. May be, she did not come today, I told myself, half-heartedly. I hid the box in my bag and went to the garden to have lunch. Hari and my other friends had almost finished lunch, but he was thoughtful and had saved a rather big piece of pickle for me. I ate in silence.
The following days were agonising, for every day, I desperately looked for the girl, and could not find her at all. I was too shy and afraid to seek the teachers’ help and in some days, I let go.
The bangles finally ended up on the hands of a neighbour’s kid.
My mother comforted me that night with an additional serving of my favourite pickle.
Ram Kumar is a mechanical engineer who works for Ford Motor Company. He has lived in north Madras since 1994.
Bangles, image courtesy: Photo courtesy: www.flickr.com/photos/priyamn