Salamat stretched himself luxuriously till he heard all the joints of his body creak. His wife, Rasheeda, was shouting at their nine-year old son.
"Can't you see he has again given you one stale bread along with the eight fresh ones? Every time I send you he manages to slip in either a stale one or a burned one while you are not watching him. You just have no cleverness in you, like your elder brother has."
"But, Maa," said Haneef excitedly, pulling at one of the flat rounds of bread, "Look at this, Maa! While he had turned his back to substitute the stale 'naan' for a fresh one, I exchanged one of our ordinary ones for a greased one."
"Clever boy!" laughed his father, "That's my son. The greased 'naan' cost two rupees more than our plain ones, and there is no great difficulty in eating a stale 'naan'."
He turned over once again then sat up on the taut jute string cot. He lowered his hard feet into his repeatedly repaired but still strong and serviceable Czech-made leather chappals (bought from the old shoes shop in the market at one fourth the price of the short-lived local ones), then shuffled off into the corner of the unpaved courtyard that was screened off to serve as a privy with a wrought iron door, bought for a pittance from the watchman of the under-construction government building at the corner. He took his time, then came out and washed his hands and feet and face at the tap, and sat down to eat. His wife brought him three fresh 'naan', while her two sons ate two fresh and one stale one between them. Their father tossed over also the greased one for them to share. The mother ate the remaining two.
There was abundant vegetable curry, cooked in mustard oil, to eat with the bread, though meat was something they had only about two or three times in the year. The meal was rounded off by a large thick glass for every one, of yoghurt beaten in water to a nutritious lassi.
"Now to work," said Salamat.
The elder boy, Aslam, pulled out the large rusty tub from under the wooden bed he shared with his brother. He dragged it to the small concrete platform under the tap and turned open the faucet to the full. The water drummed noisily into the tin receptacle. But then suddenly it stopped.
"The bastard has turned on his tap when he knows it is our time," Haneef swore manfully at the unseen neighbour.
"Or maybe the Municipality inspectors have again cut off our private connection. We pay the sons of dogs regularly for overlooking it."
But in a few minutes the supply resumed. The little community had organized very efficiently its daily schedule for the use of the illegally obtained water.
"Bring the colour," Salamat instructed, when the tub was three quarters full, "I bought a new supply yesterday. It's in the pocket of my kurta."
Aslam opened the tiny packet made of a scrap of old newspaper and started tapping out the green dye powder a little at a time with his thumb and forefinger while his father swirled it around in the water with his hand.
"A little more, some more – now that will do. We don't want to make it too dark. Where are the vegetables?"
Haneef had already dragged the sack of yellowing okra to where his father and brother worked. Together the two boys tilted the contents into the water. Again, the father swished the green liquid around, submerging the okra pods completely. Then they allowed them to remain in the colouring fluid for a full five minutes.
In the meantime, the mother had been working on the larger bag of unshelled peas. With a dry rag she had been rubbing each individual pod to remove all signs of mould, and to make them totally dry.
The three male members scooped out the bright green, fresh-looking okra from the tub in large handfuls, and spread out the rejuvenated vegetables on a green-stained length of muslin (picked up for a rupee from the 'landa' in the Friday Market) to dry on the jute cot. Then they prepared some fresh green colouring and steeped the wilting peas in it. They made room for these on the same muslin sheet, and spread them out carefully.
"Turn them over after some time," instructed Salamat, although they were all familiar with the routine.
The father and his elder son set out for the wholesale vegetable and fruit market, from where they bought onions, potatoes, carrots, green peppers, and tomatoes, etc. at bulk rates. They did this thrice a week, on the farmers' market days. They bargained heatedly and noisily, buying some good fresh produce, and an almost equal quantity of bruised or crushed one at a special reduced price.
Haneef and his mother were already setting up shop in the market when the two returned with their sacks of purchases, in a taxi, with the driver of which they had had a lengthy altercation.
"We have always, always paid a hundred rupees for the fare to the weekly market."
"Yes, but the price of the CNG has not always, always been what it is today."
Each man with his complaints, mused Salamat as he and his sons arranged the sacks of potatoes with the large ones visible in the open top, the smaller and the softer ones, right at the bottom. Of course, when taking them out for a customer one always dug deep inside the sack with the pan of the weighing scales.
Salamat concentrated more on vegetables than on fruit, but he had today, as during the whole of the last week, bought some large green water melons and some mangoes.
"Oh, no! I forgot the sweetener," groaned Haneef, causing his father to glare at him angrily. But his good wife said, "Don't worry, I've got it."
In fact, she had already dipped the sharp knife into the bottle of saccharine, preparatory to its use on the somewhat second-grade water-melons. Customers insisted on a 'taanki' or small square sample of the melon cut out and given to them to taste. They always amused Salamat by their surprised delight at the sweetness, which they attempted, with equally amusing obviousness, to conceal, so as not to let the seller increase the price. Salamat pleased them all by keeping to the rate they had made him substantially lower. He was skilled in doing this with a bleakly woeful face. The glummer you look at the end of the bargaining, the more they exult, particularly the women customers. That is why they come back again and again to his shop. Inwardly, he was calculating the high profits at this stage, which would be balanced by the less profitable sales towards evening. But then only the left-overs would have remained, which naturally would bring a lower price, though still, as a rule, not much below the cost price.
To be continued...