This is a fictional short story. All characters and situations are imaginary. Only the locations are inspired by real places visited when travelling around the world.
“If you marry well, you will be happy,” said an old lady to a young unmarried lady savoring a homemade glutinous rice ball filled with pork, also called “zong zi” in Chinese. The old lady made this dish with love in her small room near the ‘Old’ Chinatown in Kolkata, a historical place near Tiretta Bazaar, famous for its early morning Chinese breakfast served in food stands.
The old lady owned of these small food stands. Every day, the old lady would come to the remnants of this ‘Old’ Chinatown in Kolkata and set up her own little food stand. She would place a chair and a bamboo basket on the floor and voila! She was now an independent business owner and this was her small food shop in the small busy street where the famous Chinese breakfast was served every morning. Other local Chinese Indians would also set up food stalls serving traditional Chinese breakfast foods. There were food shops selling fish and meatball soups, dumplings, steamed buns, spring rolls, sesame balls filled with red bean paste, pickled cabbage and many other traditional Chinese foods. This old lady made her special delicacies in her house, brought them to the market, and sold them to all the people visiting her stand: local Chinese Indians living in the area, Bengalis with a taste for Chinese food, migrants and tourists from other states in India or the ‘foreigner’ tourists who had heard about this exquisite place in a travel magazine or travel show. The old lady was happy to sell her delicacies to any passerby curious and brave enough to try the ‘goodies’ inside the bamboo basket. This bamboo basket showcased plastic bags filled with bamboo leaf wrapped “zong zi”, salted duck eggs, and tofu.*
*For those who haven’t heard of these foods before: “zong zi”(glutinous rice balls filled with pork and wrapped in bamboo leaves), salted duck eggs (a very salty type of preserved eggs), tofu (curd made from soybeans).
As the young lady was eating and chatting with the old lady, a middle aged man stepped in and whispered an intruding remark to the young lady, “One time I bought some eggs and tofu from this lady. The salted eggs were rotten and the tofu was sour! Be careful with what you buy from this lady.” The young lady quickly replied, “Thanks for the information but I can figure it out by myself. If you don’t mind, we were having a nice talk before you stepped in.” The man, stung by the power of the young lady’s response, backed off and went on his way. He wasn’t going to get lucky with this girl.
The old lady had very bad hearing and sight yet she fully understood what just had happened. Slowly and with a gentle smile, she leaned her wrinkled face towards the young lady’s delicate face and said with a soft voice, “These men are the worst. Never marry these kind of men.” She paused for a second. “If you marry well, you will be happy.”
The young lady nodded in agreement. In an attempt to change the topic, the young lady asked, “Do you have any sons or daughters?” The old lady replied, “Yes, I had a son and a daughter.” She glanced down and said, “My son died very young. He was only ten years old when he died of typhoid. It happened during the onset of the Sino-Indian War in 1962. Life was terrible for the Chinese living in India…” Then she looked up, and added, “My daughter moved to Hong Kong and got married there. My daughter married well, she is happy now.”
From the darkened sky above, it started raining. The old lady reached for a dark blue umbrella near the bamboo basket. She opened it and sheltered herself from the rain. Seeing the young lady without an umbrella, the old lady kindly made a gesture for the young lady to step into her blue shelter. While the old lady sat in her chair holding the umbrella, the young lady stood next to her, semi-curled, trying to dodge the incoming rain. There was a moment of silence. For a few minutes, both the old and the young lady contemplated the gently falling monsoon rain. Looking around, everything made sense, people seeking shelter from the rain, food vendors hurrying to close their shops, people eating, chatting, laughing, all under the falling rain, all in one moment, the present moment.
Once the rain slowed down, the old lady reached for her bag and from there she took out her wallet and showed an old black and white passport sized photo of a young woman. “She is my daughter”, she said. “My daughter married well, she is happy now.”
The rain stopped. The old lady started packing up her food shop. The Chinese breakfast was over. There was no fixed time for the start and ending of Chinese breakfast but generally it started very early around 5.30am and ended around 8.30am. It flowed accordingly to the temporary transactions between the food vendors, customers, weather and other unseen factors. Or a better way to explain this would be, it just flowed. Some food vendors had already packed and left while others were staying a little longer in order to sell all their perishable foods before going home or to other jobs. Especially the middle aged men and women had to rush to other places where they held other jobs. Life was tough; only selling Chinese breakfast in the morning can’t really feed their children and parents who lived with them, all under the same roof. On the other hand, many elderly Chinese Indian food sellers could return to their lonely homes and rest because most of them didn’t do it for the money; they did for the pure joy of it, to socialize with people and to keep alive their Chinese culture and presence in Kolkata. Of course, nobody could complain about the extra income from it. The old lady was satisfied with her sales. She had managed to sell all the “zong zi” though she still had leftover salted eggs and tofu. In a slow and careful motion, she packed them up. “Will these go bad?” asked the young lady innocently. The old lady slowly turned her head up, looked into the young lady’s eyes and replied as follows:
Everything goes bad, my dear.
Eggs will root,
Tofu will turn sour.
Hearts will turn sour.
Only Hope remains
That I will meet them again in Heaven.
My sight is blurring,
My hearing is deafening,
My Death is approaching.
Life is like the monsoon rain,
It comes quickly and disappears swiftly.
Flooding our senses
And receding into emptiness.
My advice to you my dear,
Is just Being in Love.
Not to men
But to God.
You can find Him everywhere.
Remember if you marry well, you will be happy my dear.
Saying this, the old lady bid farewell and disappeared into the busy streets of Kolkata. The young lady looked around and slowly started to realize the beauty of God in everything.