Monday, March 31, 2008

Oranges, Anyone?

As was the custom those days, my grandfather moved into his bride’s matriarchal household near Cannanore when they got married. He was used to hard work, physical labour and a tough life. By contrast, the men in her family, traditionally the landed gentry, were not used to physical work; they only supervised the farm-related activities.

For the young man newly inducted into the affluent joint family, this was traumatic. He had time on his hands, a lot of it, and nothing to do. Control of the farm labour was the portfolio of the men of the family, and the sons-in-law were not to be burdened with such responsibilities.

The forenoon’s schedule began with an early morning bath and a visit to the temple followed by a hearty breakfast. After that, there was precious little to be done. He had to be generally busy, doing nothing during the daytime. Couples were allowed each other’s company only after dinner.

Grandpa was not alone in this predicament. There were other such young men married into the family. They would engage themselves in pastimes like jokes, gossip, aksharashlokam (a precursor of the present day Antakshari), siesta and such other harmless activities.

But how long can you put an enterprising young man down, tying him down to an epicurean life? He was raring to go. And he did. He bought himself a second hand truck (A Buick, a Chevrolet or a Leyland, I do not recall) and learnt how to drive it.

Grandpa would buy coconuts from the village and sell them in Mysore, a couple of hundred kilometres east. Early mornings on Fridays, he would set off on his truck, with Kittan, his Jeeves, for company. After the sale, he would buy oranges from the wholesale market the next day, bring them to coastal Cannanore and sell them there. It made sound economic sense.

This went on for long. During one of those trips in an October, the orange-laden truck developed some trouble. He tried to move ahead. It went on for a couple of kilometres but the engine stalled.

It was nearing noon. There were no workshops nearby. Did I say this was in the early 1930’s? Someone told grandpa help would be available only at Virajpet in the west or Nanjangud in the east. The former, another informed, was ill-equipped and it may be better to engage the Nanjangud mechanic. As there were no telephones, the only way was to go and fetch him. So Kittan was assigned the task of fetching the repairman with his equipments.

Kittan hopped on to a truck going Mysore-wards. After six long hours, he returned in another, alone. When he reached Nanjangud, the only mechanic was winding up for the day. He was leaving for his village, and would return only on Monday when he had some pending work to attend to.

It was the Dussehra season. On Monday evening, the tools would be kept away for worship, for that was the Aayudha Pooja day and he would not touch the tools till Vijaya Dashami on Wednesday morning.

That was bad news. Kittan and he would have to keep watch over the oranges for three days. And exposed to the elements for three days, the ripe and succulent oranges in the hold of the truck would be useless.

Several trucks sped past the disabled and stationary counterpart. Drivers of some trucks were more compassionate: they would slow down and stop to enquire, say a few words of commiseration and move ahead. Grandpa toyed with the idea of persuading a driver to carry the oranges to Cannanore for sale, but that would mean abandoning the truck.

Sensing that grandpa had no choice except a distress sale of the oranges, some enterprising truck drivers offered to buy the oranges at prices about ten percent of the cost. Incurring a ninety percent loss was not grandpa’s idea of doing business.

Villagers were going back to their homes after work, with bags and baskets containing the purchase of rice and provisions made by them from the local market and shops. He had a bright idea. He announced to the passers by: they could pick up as many oranges as they wanted and carry them home for their kids.

Rather than incur a 90% loss, he would be a Santa Clause for the kids. Would you call that ‘making a virtue of a necessity?’

1 comment:

Santanu Sinha Chaudhuri said...

This is such a beautiful story, KTR. I read it earlier. I think I liked it even more on second reading.