It was a stormy evening, and all that Natarajan could conjure at that instant was to find some basic form of shelter that could keep him protected from the chilly winds and incessant rains. It was a hard day at work, and this was something that he really hadn't asked for. He had to get back home on time, as already his busy schedule was preventing him from spending quality time with his family. He realized that being the head of the Accounts department at Ramanujan Textiles was doing no justice to his personal life. He had to attend to so many different things at a time. He was always held up in some kind of discussion, and that always prevented him from completing his daily work within the stipulated hours. The extension of his professional life encroached well into his personal life. So, that morning, while leaving for work on his two wheeler, he had made a resolve to leave work on time. It was a perfect day for him until he was stuck in this situation. His mind was clustered with worries and a thousand other things, none of which looked seemingly important now.
The bus stop on the way provided temporary shelter to a sizable population. The crowd was diverse, and the groundnut seller was using the situation to his advantage. He was sitting in the corner with a jute bag and a copper bottom vessel lit by a small flame. A crowd was automatically drawn to the aroma of the roasted groundnuts. He was pretty adept in transforming the pages of a magazine into cone shaped structures, and pouring into it the exact number of groundnuts that only his eyes could gauge. There were cones of different sizes to match the different denominations of purchase by the customers. A steady stream of customers formed a beeline for his wares. He eyed Natarajan from a distance, and immediately discerned his disinterested expression. It was raining for the past half an hour, and Natarajan was becoming increasingly agitated with every passing minute. All his evening plans were washed out.
Sir, Why don't you buy a pack of groundnuts from me? Natarajan looked around to see the seller standing by his side. It was just a moment ago that he saw him at least a few paces away.
Oh, no, no, I am not interested right now. I am in a hurry! It was a casual dismissal, highlighting his superiority over the seller.
But, I am sure you don't plan to leave in this rain. A cone of fried groundnuts will do you a world of good now. Moreover, you can also take some for your family.
The very mention of family brought a concern to Natarajan. He had sensed that it was going to rain at least an hour before he left office. He cursed himself for not taking the extra hour off and reaching home on time. Rama had specifically told him to come early, if not for her sake, at least for the sake of the child. She had told him in the morning how Arjun was becoming dependent on him for everything, and that he should show some interest in his activities. He couldn't believe that Arjun was seven years old, and that he was married to Rama for ten years now. Life had progressed a lot in the last many years. It felt as though it was yesterday that he tied the three knots around Rama's neck, and now, all that he seemed to be concerned in life was about the third member of the family!
His reverie was broken by a low voice. Sir, Sir! So, shall I pack groundnuts for ten rupees? I will give you more than the normal quantity. You can also call up home and tell that you are buying groundnuts. Your child will be very happy.
Now, this was getting very irritating as well as embarrassing. The groundnut seller seemed to know everything about him. How did he know that he had a kid? Was his physique giving away everything. Of course, he was taking the typical shape of a middle aged married Indian man, but Rama had made sure that his pot belly did not protrude to gargantuan proportions. She did not serve him rice in the evenings, and strictly maintained a low fat diet for his well being. Call up! From where will I call up, thought Natarajan. He was surviving on a decent, but not a hefty pay cheque, and he tried to cut down on luxuries as much as possible. He did not even have a mobile phone, when today, kids were running around with that electronic gadget. I am either at work or at home. Why do I need a phone? was Natarajan's argument, on not having a mobile device. Well, that was how he always put it. Now, how can he say that to the groundnut seller? He also had a secret worry that the groundnut seller might have a phone, and offer the device to him to make the phone call.
No, I don't want the groundnuts. You don't have to show your magnanimity in offering extra groundnuts at such an astronomical price. You guys always raise the price before hand, and act as though you are really giving a discount. How many tricks I have seen by now! smirked Natarajan.
The groundnut seller, in the meanwhile, had filled a large cone with groundnuts. He was seriously offering him more than the usual at that price. It was not too surprising to expect more than the normal at the fag end of the day. The sellers are generally keen to dispose off the leftovers as quickly as possible and head home.
But, Natarajan refused to budge. He was actually annoyed by the audacity of the seller. What right did he have to interfere on his personal life, he thought.
I am not going to give you even a single paise, he said. Moreover, I don't want to take anything back home in this rain.
Sir, I can put two extra plastic covers, and you can keep it safely tucked in the side bag of the bike. I am sure people will have a good time at home with the spicy groundnuts.
I have a lot of other important things to buy, and I don't want to be spending so much on the unwanted things. The gruffness in Natarjan's voice was just too palpable.
Hahaha! The seller burst out into laughter. Sir, if you are worried about ten rupees, what should I, a husband and a father, do to take care of the family.
Please do not make a scene here. I do not want to buy anything at this point. It also looks like the rain has stopped. Goodbye! Natarajan began to walk towards the bike.
Suddenly, he heard a voice of a kid in the background. Appa, I want some money to buy books for the school. He turned back to see a ten year old boy, totally drenched from top to bottom, and panting heavily, as though he had just run a race. He was talking to the groundnut seller.
Yes, yes, I am ready to leave now. Come, let's go get your notebook from the nearby book store. So, how many books do you want? What happened at school today? Why did you get wet in the rain? Your mother must be getting worried.
Natarajan went back to the groundnut seller. There was an instant when both of them made the perfect eye contact. Natarajan had the look of I know what it is to be a father, and the groundnut seller did not say anything. He gave the packet of groundnuts to Natarajan without uttering a word. Natarajan pulled a note from his wallet, placed it in the little one's palm grasp, and walked away without waiting for the change.