This early on a North Indian winter morning, only the brave venture out. Or those who must.
He starts from his village at 3 am, just as the priest of the gurdwara wakes up. He reaches the city outskirts as the priest, after completing his morning ablutions, switches on the loudspeaker of the gurudwara and starts reciting gurbani. The village wakes up to gurbani.
The tempo he has hired to bring the produce to the city mandi, marketplace, has threatened to break down multiple times. On the empty city roads, this early in the morning, it is a wake-up alarm to the sleeping city.
He pays the vehicle entry fee at the gate of the mandi. The driver helps him unload the sacks of produce. He moves the sacks to the auction area. The driver will wait for him. He waits for the traders.
He looks at the sacks like a proud father. Five months of sweat and toil. Five months of caring for the seed and the soil. Weather gods were kind, and the yield is plentiful. The extra cost of high yield seeds and expensive pesticides was a good decision, he thinks, even though the interest the moneylender would charge is a big worry. Plus, the balance of his earlier loans, costs of the failed summer crop and this year’s rent on his own land, which is pledged with the moneylender. All his hopes are on this crop.
One by one more farmers and their tempos and trolleys arrive. The auction yard fills up and is soon overflowing with the produce. It has been a good season all around. His face suddenly has a worried look. Will he get a good price?
As the village priest winds up morning prayers and as his wife, after putting feed to the cattle and having made tea, goes inside their only pucca room to wake their children, three daughters and a boy, the traders start arriving. The munshis serve their masters steaming hot tea and report the quantity of produce arrived. A good season means a buyers’ market, their market.
By the time the first trader and his munshi reach his pile of sacks, he already knows the prices have crashed. The munshi carries a curved knife, to make a small cut in some sacks for checking the produce quality. He rips the heart of a few sacks and pulls out few samples. ‘Daagi hai.’ Blotted. ‘Keeda hai.’ Worms. ‘Daana kamjor hai.’ Poor Quality. The trader rips his heart. Today the traders can be as picky as they want to. He listens with bent head and folded hands. The trader makes his bid. He gasps. It’s so low, he can’t even pay the due of the seeds and the pesticides. One by one other traders give their verdict at his pile. One by one the munshis and the traders rip apart his sacks and his heart.
He does what he has come to do. He sells.
He walks back to the tempo, light without sacks, heavy with burdens.
The driver has been a witness to mandi’s ways for long and knows that a mandi can make or break. Mostly the traders make. Mostly the farmers break. They drive back in silence. The stray dogs chase their tempo and them out of the city, out of their city.
He closes his eyes and leans back. Outstanding loan of the moneylender, rent of the mortgaged land, his wife’s medicine, the daughters are of age, the boy wants a mobile and a motorcycle, the tubewell needs repairs, dues of the kirana shop, money he borrowed from his neighbour, his cycle needs a new tyre, the roof needs repair before the coming rains, seeds and fertiliser for the next crop. His hand grips the pocket and keeps his money safe from his expenses.
The tempo driver drops him at the village square. He pays him his fare.
The village kirana shop is open. The seth is at his seat.
“Come Mohan Singh. You had a good crop. Please clear my dues now.”
He pays him. Hesitantly.
There is one currency note left with him. He looks around the shop and at all the things his wife has asked him to bring.
He steps out of the shop. His feet refuse to turn homewards. Across the road a small group is warming themselves around a fire. His neighbour greets him from the group and seems to be asking him something. He stands there, glued to the ground.
The gurdwara loudspeaker croaks to life and the priest makes an announcement. ‘Officers from town are visiting today for enrolments to Pradhan Mantri Jeevan Bima Yojana.’ The sarpanch had taken his thumb impression on these papers last time the officers were here.
His feet move. He enters the shop and asks for a length of strong nylon rope. He hands the last note to seth and hurriedly walks toward his field.
His grandfather had him plant the tree next to their tubewell when he was ten. He watered it regularly, protected it from the goats, and grew up with it. The little stem with few tiny leaves turned to a tall trunk and many wide branches, green and laden with fruit. The tree had been his companion. It is old and withered now, like him, but he knows that one branch, where he put swings for his children, is still strong enough to carry his weight. One last time.