“The Green Chillies” won second place for the 2017 Robert A. Boit Writing Prize for short stories.
“Ah! I forgot the green chillies again!” Arya’s mother exclaimed in disappointment, still rinsing the yellow lentils. Like a raging bull, the rice cooker hissed and puffed before going into a loud whistle with a jet of hot steam rushing out of its nostrils. Sweet smell of onions, garlic paste and ginger pervaded the small, two-room apartment situated among the living quarters of Pathankot military cantonment. Like the bed-room and the living room, the kitchen was small and congested – just spacious enough for Arya’s mother. A kerosene stove stood carefully balanced on a concrete slab protruding out of the wall. A cylindrical container for storing rice was placed in the corner below the stove. Onions, potatoes, tomatoes, and a box of spices were neatly arranged on a layer of old newspapers on the ground slab. The sink had an old plastic tap that leaked water continuously, spraying a small stream onto the floor where she stood. Having gathered multiple layers of grease, a dim incandescent light bulb struggled to keep the kitchen well-lighted, but an iron grill window let just enough daylight into the cramped kitchen. Between quickly chopping the vegetables and washing the lentils, she frequently glanced at the dust-laden clock on the wall behind her. Usually she would start cooking at twelve in the noon, but today she had started an hour earlier. Arya’s father had invited two of his friends for lunch, as a celebration for his promotion from a sepoy1 to a lance naik2. They were expected to arrive at two and the wall clock read ten-past one.
“Arya? Arya? Could you come here for a second?” Her mother called, slowly reducing the heat on the kerosene stove. Five-year-old Arya who was playing with her Barbie doll in the bed-room, came running into the kitchen, her arms extending out as if she were an airplane.
“Watch out Arya! The floor’s slippery,” her mother scolded. Arya slowed down and tiptoed through the wet floor towards her mother and stood next to the big rice container.
“Can you keep an eye on the rice cooker for a few minutes? When it gives out another whistle, turn this knob off – like this,” Arya’s mother pretended to twist the knob on the kerosene stove. “Do not touch anything else! I am going to Mantu’s for some green chillies.”
“Maa! Maa! I’ll come with you. Barbie wants to go out as well. She is so sad inside the house,” Arya begged jumping up and down, ignoring her mother’s instructions.
“No Arya! Your father will be back soon and I need to get the chillies before the lentil soup boils. Did you hear what I said about the stove?” Arya’s mother asked as she reached out for a small hand-towel drying on the window grill to wipe her hands.
“No! I want to go outside. I can buy the chillies for you.”
“But beta3, I cannot let you out alone and somebody has to look after the rice. Your father will be angry if the food is not good. You know that. Also Das uncle and Sabhar uncle are joining us for lunch. What will they say if the food is not good? Hmm? Be my good girl and watch the stove, will you?”
“Maa, you always let Rishi bhai go out alone but not me,” Arya said in a disappointed low voice, while tapping the metallic rice container with her little fingers.
“You are too young beta! I promise we’ll go to the park in the evening. Now will you watch the stove for me?”
“No! I am not too young. See I can already count all the way to hundred. One! Two! Three! Four…” Arya began counting on her fingers. Her mother quickly glanced at the clock again. It read seventeen-past one.
“Uff oh! This girl is so stubborn. It’s all her father’s fault! Giving the Queen all she demands.”
Arya’s mother walked out of the kitchen and into the bed-room, diligently followed by Arya. She took out a five-rupee note from her red velvet purse and handed it to Arya, who clapped in excitement and accepted her prize for being persistent. Her mother opened a small box of kohl and applied it around Arya’s eyes. She also put a little dot of kohl on her forehead, to protect her from the evil spirits outside. Arya was delighted as she felt the cool kohl in her eyes.
Mantu’s shop was two blocks away but Arya had never gone to the shop on her own; she instead accompanied her mother on Sunday evenings. Together they would buy the same set of vegetables – a kilo of tomatoes, two kilos of potatoes, a few green beans, a cauliflower, and a few green chillies. After shopping for the weekly ration, Arya and her mother would take a walk in the cantonment park that stood in between two rows of apartments. The cantonment was securely guarded by military personnel and nobody was allowed in or out of the barbed fences. While men were on their duty, women would prepare food for their husbands and their children who would return from schools in the afternoon. Only in the evenings, women and children could procure enough time to walk around the park. While Arya played hide-and-seek with other kids, Arya’s mother would sit with wives of other soldiers, knitting sweaters and gossiping about their housewifely lives. But today was different, for Arya knew that the application of kohl on her eyes meant that she would definitely get to go outside, all on her own.
“Go straight to Mantu’s and bring me green chillies worth two rupees. Don’t forget the change and come back quickly!” Her mother said, as Arya dashed out of the apartment, flying like an airplane, with Barbie doll in one hand and the five rupee note tightly clasped in the other.
“Papa would be so proud of me!” She thought as she walked through the rows of apartments. She imagined her father patting on her shoulder for proving that she had grown up and now could go out alone for shopping and playing in the park. She chuckled at the thought of Rishi’s sullen face when he she would boast to him about her adventures.
Her yellow frock with blue polka dots shone brightly in the afternoon sun. Her long hair, which was parted neatly from the middle and plaited with red ribbons, smelled thick of mustard oil. A honeybee hovered over her head, buzzing loudly. With one rapid sweep of the hand, Arya scared the bee away. She was not afraid of the bees. Not today. She was feeling brave, like her soldier father. She was confident. A superwoman on a mission. She stopped for a moment as a blue marble on the road caught her eye. Just as she bent to pick the marble, she felt the five rupee note in her palm, reminding her of the chillies. She chose to ignore the marble, for the mission was more important in that moment. Wearing bright pink but oversized sandals, she walked briskly towards Mantu’s vegetable shop.
Mantu was a fat-bellied man with a sparse stubbly beard that looked like a dried cactus. His large round eyes made him look like an owl. He wore thick glasses, carefully balanced on the tip of his nose, through which he would look suspiciously at the money people gave him. Children called him ‘pumpkin uncle’ because he looked like one, when he would arrive at his shop every morning at eight, his moped overloaded with big bags of vegetables tied all around him. He would clean his little cabin, which barely had enough space for his size. He would diligently offer his prayers to Laxmi, the goddess of wealth, by burning two incense sticks and reading a verse or two from his prayer book. Then he would carefully lay out vegetables in baskets, on the two charpoys placed side-by-side in front of the cabin. Customers would start trickling as soon as he would set up everything. Between rapidly changing the weights on his hand-held scales, Mantu never failed to complain about how much commission he had to pay to the middle man. He would complain about failing crops around the world, even if the crops were doing fine. He would tell stories of how the transport union strikes had caused the price hike. He would meticulously explain why he was charging two rupees for a lemon. If anyone tried to bargain with him, he would start all over again, telling them his stories for the price hike until the customer gave in. It was impossible to beat him in a battle of bargaining. The shop was full with people when Arya arrived. There was a constant sound of metallic weights clanking against the scales, interspersed with Mantu yelling the prices of the vegetables and the consequent disgruntled voices of customers. The cabin smelled of the incense sticks he’d offered to the Goddess that morning.
Squeezing past the women clad in colorful saris, who were scrutinizing every tomato, every potato and every bean, Arya reached the counter. Mantu was busy telling his usual stories as he weighed onions on his scales. Mantu couldn’t spot Arya’s short body from behind the counter. She raised her arm as high as she could, waving the five rupee note and demanded,
“Mantu uncle, give me green chillies for two rupees.” Mantu looked around to see where the sound came from. “Uncle, here! Green chillies for two rupees.”
Arya waved the five rupee note again. Mantu looked upset about being interrupted while telling a young lady about the strike in Mumbai because of which the potatoes were twelve rupees a kilo today, two rupees higher than yesterday’s price. He looked at Arya from his glasses on the tip of his nose and then looked around her to see if he could spot her mother.
“You came alone today? Where’s your mother?” Mantu enquired.
“Yes! I am came alone. She is cooking so she sent me to get the chillies. Can I have some?” Arya said, waving the five rupee note in front of the counter and at the same time feeling pleased that Mantu noticed that she had come to buy the chillies all on her own.
“Bring me exactly two rupees. I don’t have the change right now,” Mantu replied and then continued telling his story to the young lady.
“But Mantu Uncle…”
Mantu wasn’t paying attention to her. Bewildered by his lack of interest in the five rupee note, Arya looked at the note again, wondering what was wrong with it. The number ‘5’ was clearly marked on the top right corner in shiny blue color. Below the number was the face of a smiling bald man wearing round glasses.
“One, two three, four and five. Five is more than two. Why does Mantu not want it?” she wondered as she counted on her fingers. She squeezed past the sari clad women once again and went out of the shop. She thought of going back to home to ask for ‘exactly two rupees’. But her mother might not let her go back again. How could she return home without the chillies? How could she fail her mission so easily? Beads of sweat appeared on her forehead. She paced up and down near the shop, feeling anxious. Her father would not be proud of her anymore. No more patting on the shoulder. Rishi would laugh at her failure, like he laughed at the clown in the circus show last week. And then, her father would be angry at mother for not making good food. Her mother would be upset with her for failing to bring the chillies. She might never get to go out again, not for shopping, not even to the park.
“No! We must bring the chillies home,” she told her Barbie.
Her mother needed the chillies before the lentil soup began boiling. She could not lose any more time. Going back home for the ‘exactly two rupees’ was not an option anymore. She looked at the note again, carefully. Suddenly a neat idea popped into her mustard-oil-smelling head. She counted on her fingers again and beamed with pride. She carefully tore the five-rupee note into two equal halves. And then each piece into two more halves.
She counted the pieces, “One, Two, Three, Four. Four?” Realizing that she had only four pieces, she tore one of the pieces into two, making three large pieces and two small pieces in total. Arya ran back to the shop and squeezed past the women still struggling to decide which tomatoes to pick. She went up to Mantu, who was still explaining the details of the strike in Mumbai. She carefully separated out two large pieces from the five she had torn the note into, and placed them onto the counter.
“I brought ‘exactly two rupees’ for you. Now quickly, can you give me the chillies?” A confident Arya demanded.
Mantu stopped telling the story. He looked stunned, his mouth wide open and his eyes fixed in astonishment at the torn pieces of the note.
“Uncle, I need the chillies now!”
Mantu picked up the two pieces and looked at them suspiciously through the thick glasses resting on his nose. Arya was growing impatient. She could not understand why Mantu was not giving her the chillies. She had given him what he wanted, she thought. In fact she had given him the two large pieces, which were probably worth more than the ‘exactly two rupees’ and yet he was not ready to budge.
“Uncle! The chillies!” Arya shouted.
Mantu stared at Arya for a while with a twisted eyebrow. He continued gawking at Arya and the torn pieces of notes. Meanwhile Arya was growing more anxious. Her mother would be waiting for her to get the chillies. She hoped that the soup hadn’t began boiling yet. She just wanted to get the chillies and run towards home, as fast as she could.
Suddenly, she heard Mantu burst into a wild laughter. He fumbled the onions from his scales onto the ground but he could not contain himself. Arya looked around. All other women around the counter joined Mantu and began pointing at Arya and laughing hysterically. Some women clapped vociferously, while others held the side of the charpoy to avoid falling over.
Arya’s face turned red like the tomatoes in the basket. The air around her felt prickly hot. Thick sweat appeared on her forehead, mixing with the mustard oil. Drops of oily-sweat stuck on her thick black eyebrows. A couple of honey bees hovered and buzzed on her head again. But this time, she did not want to scare them away. She tried to focus on the buzz instead of the laughter, but her concentration broke when someone from the crowd yelled.
“Your mother is going to beat the hell out of you today!”
Arya could not hold on anymore. Her eyes filled with warm tears. Mantu’s laughing face looked bigger and bigger through the tear-filled eyes. The images of the women clad in colorful saris, the tomatoes, the potatoes, the torn pieces of notes and the buzzing bees, all seemed distorted and mixed together into an ugly painting. The colors, blue, black, green, yellow and red all seemed to flash in front of her eyes blinding her from the laughing faces. She could hear the raucous laughter of Mantu, followed by giggles and claps from the women. Even her friendly Barbie seemed to be laughing at her. She remembered the clown show, where everyone laughed at the clown uncontrollably at his stupid actions. But this time, she was the clown in the middle of relentless laughter. She waited for what seemed like eons, for the first tear drop to run down her red cheeks. And then she began wailing – first softly and then loudly.
After regaining some of his composure, Mantu picked up the onions he had fumbled onto the ground while laughing. He took a fresh white polyethene bag and dropped a handful of green chillies into the bag. He put his left hand into his shirt pocket and searched inside until he found a crisp new five rupee note. Tearing a piece of paper from his billing pad, he wrote in his semi- legible handwriting – “Mrs. Jena, you owe me five rupees for the new note I gave to your daughter. Consider the chillies free.” Underneath the message he scribbled a couple of symbols that were supposed to be his initials. Still laughing, he folded the paper and looked up at Arya. Her face had shriveled up like a dry tomato. She was wailing uncontrollably – her eyes swollen thick. Dark smudges of kohl mixed with tears, had smeared over her face. Some kohl even made it to her lips and into her crying mouth.
Mantu looked at the piece of paper he was about to give to Arya. He paused and looked at Arya again. He seemed lost for a moment, as he turned his head towards the family photo hanging near the image of Goddess Laxmi. He was standing beside his wife, holding in his arms their three- year-old daughter, who seemed to be crying as well. He smiled gently and shook his head to and fro as he slowly crumpled the piece of paper in his hands and dropped it onto the floor.
“Aye, Shh. Don’t cry little Arya. Don’t cry,” Mantu said, holding Arya’s hand.
He handed her the chillies in the polyethene bag and the crisp new five rupee note, along with the torn pieces and said with a benign smile, “Take these home and tell your mother what happened. She won’t be angry, trust me.”
“What happened? That’s what I don’t know!” Arya thought. Without saying anything, she took the bag and notes from Mantu. She clasped the notes tightly into her palm, still unsure of what was wrong with her note in the first place. Did she count the ‘exactly two rupees’ correctly? She could count all the way to one hundred. How could she fail to count till two? Or was it the size of the notes that was wrong? She wondered, as she squeezed past the laughing women in colorful saris once again. There was a brief moment of silence as she left the shop.
Then suddenly everyone burst into another round of laughter. But Arya only wailed louder and louder, still unable to comprehend what had gone wrong. Wearing bright pink but oversized sandals, she walked briskly towards home.