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The International Writers Magazine


Many shopkeepers in Burra Bazaar wanted to avoid her. If the spice merchant spotted the woman in the distance he would lower the corrugated metal gate that closed the shop and would hide inside the stall until Jenny Balasanta, the loquacious Anglo-Indian woman had clearly passed.

My God, they were difficult, those loud cheeky, half-breeds always yammering away, putting on airs. "My father was No.1 railroad engineer at Bangalore Cantonment," she'd always boast. My Uncle this- my cousin that - and my cousin's brother commissioner Inspector on the Express Line between Bombay and Trivandrum. These Anglo bastards, they were all the same, a deceiving lot of outcasts, leftovers from their whore mother's one night with some English lackey. That's what the spice merchant, Mr. Mukerjee, thought of Anglo-Indians. Their kind generally had such a poor portion of self-respect that he feared it would diminish his own respectability just to be seen with her. This Jenny creature would come to beg strange things from him. She'd come to his stall in her faded flower print dress and her oversized heeled shoes at the end of pale bony legs, her face powdered to appear whiter.

"Mr. Mukerjee, I saw your mother at Juhu Beach. She was looking grand. Such a sari, gold trimmed. It's a fine thing to have such money. My grandfather, bless his soul, started your mother in this business. This spice business was built on money Bunsi Balasanta gave her, did you know that? Oh poor me, yes not a loan, he gave her the money. Yes he did. Uncle Baba was that way, always with the handouts. Didn't you know? My father was at your wedding. A feast he said. He put a thousand rupee note in your pocket, wishing you a good life. Oh Papa, what a special prince of a man. Resting in peace now. And how many came to his funeral? Thousands! Mararajahs and movie stars, the best people, first class. He begged me to go into the movies but I had so many other things to do. So much to take care of."
"Miss Balasanta, please, I am a busy man. What can I do for you?"
"The same. I want your old spices. Old cloves, cardamom, whatever your sweet hands want to throw away, not chili or cayenne, but sweet kind, darling, tamarind, coriander, a little cumin, turmeric, old so the hotness is gone."
"I do not get my spices free, Miss Balasanta."
"Just old throw-away spices. My cousin 's brother spent too much rupees here in your store. A fortune he spent with you."
"Miss Balasanta, what do you do with these old spices? They're not good for cooking."
"No, for smelling, darling man. For the sweetness."
"Why not fresh spice like a regular person buys. Why always old spice? It's the money isn't it? You want to save money."
"On a beautiful day like this you want to insult me? My sweet Papa left me an inheritance. What his great father left him. We people have money. Never find a beggar named Balasanta. Never find my family begging!"
"Aacha. I will find you old spice - free spice, as you wish, but this is the last time, I am telling you. Please, don't ask again."
"Mr. Mukerjee, don't disgrace my family's name like that, please. Someone has to care for their honor, yes for the family's sweet honor. Someone must take care. I look after my family's honor. Generations of our people built your railroads, operating the rails for India. Who remembers them? Someone has to. We have English blood in our veins. Isn't that a thing to be honored? We are not trash. Respect must be paid."
The spice merchant was stunned and annoyed. He did not like to have one of her kind talking to him that way. Her incessant talk made him nervous. Her insecurity, covered by a feeble haughtiness and exaggerations made him very nervous. He didn't want to talk to her any more. He reluctantly reached behind his shelf of spice jars, gathering the old spices into a banana leaf which he then wrapped up in rice paper and attached a rubber band. Mr. Mukerjee was anxious to be done with her.
To his surprise she offered him money, a few rupees that she pulled out of a tiny purse. She fumbled clumsily for the money. Mr. Mukerjee shook his head gesturing for her to just hold on to her money.
" No charge. Not important. Please, take it and go."
" Well, I thank you kindly. Bless you; my dear dead family thanks you. We won't forget your service. Someone must take care of them. Father always said you were such a decent man."

The spice merchant turned away focusing his attention on a paying customer, hoping that might help him get a hold of his nerves. Miss Balasanta took her package and ambled out from her monologue and into the streets outside the market where she continued yapping away to herself. She carried the spices as if they were as precious as sacred offerings.

She walked the curving street passing the dome and minaret of the inner city mosque. She mumbled to herself, "These people, these Muslims are a minority, yet they have grave-yards for their departed." She grew tired at one point on her long walk and had to stop and rest just beside the Hanuman Temple. Mumbling on to herself, she said, "They let monkeys into this temple but not me. The way the Brahmin priests look at me. I have my family I belong to. I don't need their idolatry. My family had Jesus. And Hindus, what about their deceased? They are burned expensively, cremation ceremony and all. Not the Christian way, father always said."

At the north end of the city was the Railway Cantonment. A lane of small bungalows beyond the station stretched toward the modest lane of small houses that were provided for the families of the railway officials, many of whom were Anglo-Indians, respected and remembered only by their children and relatives, their own kind.

She had a set of keys she was proud to own and she fumbled with them coming up with the silver one that opened the front door. She turned the key after knocking and opened the door. Inside was her aunt busying about with a broom and a little spade. The floor that spread from two charpoys to the rear of the small cottage was not cement, not stone at all. The house she had entered had a floor of dirt. Jenny Balasanta took off her shoes and walked over to the area of earth mounds where her aunt was digging a hole with a spade. There were crosses on the four mounds. They had pictures at the front of them. Old photographs of her deceased father was attached to a cross. Rosary beads were coiled around the pictures. Next to that mound dedicated to her father was another bearing her mother's photo. The two other graves contained the bodies of her uncles, her mother and father's brothers.
"Auntie, what have you been doing? Are the holes dug? I have the spices."
The aunt hurried about on bent gnarled legs finishing the holes with her spade. Jenny, bent over the graves. She poured the old spices into a tall cup and poured the contents into the holes.
"Someone," Jenny said, " has to take care to sweeten the memory. It's only right and respectful, you know. Someone must attend to their honor."
© Richard Meyer Feb 2004

Richard Meyer

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