Tokens and Oranges

‘Babu…this one is much better. Here, try this one.’

With one hand, she tossed me an orange from her basket, as she adjusted her khakied sari around her waist.

My attention was onto her child barely dangling on her back as he cried for her attention. She would dexterously attend to her baby’s demands by hushing him, assort the falling oranges in place and then peer at me with inquisitive eyes. I hated myself for having to betray those expectant eyes of hers. The ones that almost seemed to beg for my satisfaction. I was her only remaining customer.

I won’t lie to you. Those oranges seemed pallid as compared to the others available in Amar Colony. But how could she look at that rotting pile so proudly? She waited patiently till I lazily took off the peel. I hoped it would turn out for the better. Her gaze of defiance did not drop down even for a little bit.

‘So? It’s good, is it not? I knew Kunwar beta would come through for me. Fresh from the orchard. And see, each one of them is labeled. So, how many?’

Now, it all fell into place. Being one of the new sellers, she had fallen prey to the middlemen’s scam.

‘Didi. I am sorry, but I won’t be buying them at all. These are completely dried up. I will pay for the one I just had. But you seem misinformed. Most of these will turn out squishy by the end of the day.’

‘Let me get you another one then. These labels don’t lie. It does happen sometime.’

My grip tightened on the basket. I breathed calmly and said, ‘Didi. I think you misheard me. You have been scammed. I think I will leave now. Tell me how much should I pay you for this?’

No sooner than the words had formed right out of my mouth, did her face lose all emotion.

She pursed her chapped lips as she carefully chose her next words,

‘Babu…I am sorry. You can leave without paying me. I will get a better lot the next time.’

I pitied her. Not at that very moment. But I couldn’t bear to stay long.

I could not will myself to buy at least some of the fruit. I was willing to spend this warm day without oranges in my own basket. But the only thing I could not accept was her going home penniless for the day.

I resolved myself to go back and pay her a token sum. With the weakening light in the horizon, I stepped out towards the fruit bazaar. It was almost time for her to go home.
Yes, I could barely see her from a distance. She stayed in the exact spot. Unmoved. Illuminated. She was surrounded by tiny specks of light. Her stale oranges had been cut out into lamps. They were coupled around the stall.
Her rags lit up that tiny section of the bazaar.

It was temporary. But the people flocked towards those tiny lights coupled around her stall.

I was not the only one entranced by the simple act of hers. She managed to save those oranges. In her own way.

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