In the Pursuit of Candy
Ayush sat on the pavement in front of the candy shop, his chin nestled in his hands and eyes wide open. The shop was lit with bright ceiling lights, its walls painted snowy, the floors an ivory marble. The counter was an even harsher color of blinding white. However, the candies provided a stark contrast to its surroundings: the jelly beans of various hues; the monochromatic dark chocolate and the colorful blow pops; the crunchy bars and the silent licorice; the warm brown of fudge and the honeyed brown of caramel; the snowy rocks and the sunny money. He could stare at them for hours.
Ayush had asked his Baba once, when it had newly opened near their house. But, just like all the demands Ayush put forth, Baba cut it down swiftly. Baba had this tendency to refuse every whim and fancy his children caught. It was his way of parenting. Ayush knew there was no point in asking Aai to buy the candies for him. Aai was different. She would try her best to fulfill her children’s demands. However, her methods were different. She would never buy anything for them. She preferred to make everything at home. If there was a wish that needed to be fulfilled by shopping, she would quietly tell them to ask Baba.
Just then, a boy, about the same age as Ayush, walked confidently into the candy shop. Ayush walked slowly towards the shop, getting as close as possible to see what the boy was upto, making sure to stay out of the way. He marveled at how the boy placed the order for a candy and paid for it with the money in his pocket. All this while, he was used to see kids accompanied by parents. The kids would point excitedly at all the candies in the shop. The parents would make the choice for them and pay for it from their purses or wallets. But, this kid was so world-wise, he did not even look at other candies; he knew what he wanted. As he watched that kid walk away, he had a rising sense of hope in his chest. Maybe, just maybe, he could do that too. And he will. Someday.
“Aayuu, dinner is ready!”
The smell of stuffed eggplant and potato curry wafted through the kitchen and filled up the bijou flat of the Patil family. Ayush kept aside his Geography textbook, which secretly held a Batman comic inside of it. He carefully hid the comic right below all his textbooks and sprinted into the living room where Aai had already set three plates. He wanted to finish dinner quickly and get back to the comic. He had reached the point in the story where Batman had just come face-to-face with the Joker. He wanted to watch the movies too, but his parents would not allow it. “You are too young to watch these violent movies,” they’d retort. He tried to throw a tantrum many times, or even coax them, but they would not budge. So, he had to make do with comic books borrowed from friends. For now, he told himself.
He sat down and was almost about to start eating, when Baba asked him, “Aayu, did you wash your hands?”
Without replying or even looking at Baba, he quickly ran to the bathroom. When he returned, Baba started reciting, and his little sister, Ashwini joined in. Ayush still had not learned all of the verses and pretended to mouth the words.
“Vadani kaval gheta naam ghya shree hariche |
Sahaj havan hote naam gheta phukache |
Jivan kari jivitva anna he purna bramha |
Udar bharan nohe janije yadnya karma ||”
The eggplants were stuffed with a filling of onions, groundnuts, and a variety of spices, and were cooked to a smoky flavour. The potatoes in the curry were cut in cubes of the right size cooked in tomato gravy and topped with curry leaves and cilantro. The perfectly round rotis were warm, soft and fluffy. Ayush grimaced as soon as he spotted Aai walking out of the kitchen with a plate of brinjal.
“I hate brinjal! Why do you always cook it?”
“Stop complaining about the food on your plate. There are people out in the world who don’t even get to eat what you are eating.” Baba said.
“I like it. It is very delicious.” Ashwini said, licking her fingers.
“But, I don’t like it. I am tired of eating the same food every day. Why can’t we ever go to a restaurant?”
“Fast food is not good for you, Ayush.”
“I don’t only like home cooked food. I like fast food as well, but you never let me eat it. It is not fair! All my friends get to eat burger at least once a week.” He clearly seemed to be on the edge of a temper tantrum.
“That’s enough now! Eat your food quietly.” Baba reprimanded. Ayush pouted and ate the food with his head down. There was a slight quiver on his lower lip which threatened tears, but they were blinked away. However, lost in his own desolation, he completely missed the extremely sad expression on Aai’s face.
The next day, Ayush opened his tiffin to find pakoras in one box and fruit salad in the other one. He was surprised that Aai had packed this instead of the mundane roti and sabji. He bit into the first pakora. It was crunchy. Ayush loved crunchy food. Before his friends could even open their tiffins, he had already finished more than half of the pakoras.
“Hey! Slow down, Ayu! What about sharing our tiffins? You promised!” Vishesh complained.
“Oh yeah! I am sorry. Here, take this.” Ayush offered the tiffin to his friends, who devoured the rest of the pakoras in less than a minute.
“Ayu, I always love what you get for lunch. Your Aai is a wonderful cook!”
“Yes, she is.” Ayush smiled, feeling a weird sense of pride at the adulation Aai was clearly worthy of, but he would never admit to her.
“They were brinjal pakoras!?” Ayush asked incredulous, looking inside the empty tiffin, as if the leftover crumbs held some sort of explanation.
Aai smiled at his expression, “Yes. Did you like them?”
“Yes. I liked them. All of my friends liked them. Why did you not tell me it was brinjal?”
“Because then you would have declared that you don’t like it even before you tasted it.” Aai sighed.
Ayush couldn’t argue that this wasn’t true. He just nodded and walked out of the kitchen.
That night, Aai cooked batata vada. The mashed potato stuffing was cooked separately, with ground ginger, garlic, green chillies adding a kick of spice; it was then coated with a batter of gram flour and deep fried. She had also prepared three different types of chutneys: green pudina chutney, red groundnut chutney, and sweet tamarind chutney. The pav was from their local bakery.
“Here is the burger you asked for yesterday!” she said, bubbling with excitement.
“This is not a burger!” Ayush countered, “This is Vada Pav!”
“This is the desi burger. Way better! It has more variety of spices and dressings and the patty is tastier.”
“No! This is not a burger! Don’t try to make something into something it is not.”
“I would prefer this to a burger any day, Aai.” Ashwini said, sending a quick guilty glance at her elder brother. Ayush had told her to agree with him during his arguments with Aai. She was barely six; four years younger than him. He glared at her and then looked at his plate. It did not look like a burger. Yes, there was a patty, and a bun, he thought; but that didn’t make it a burger.
“You don’t know what you are talking about.” Ayush mumbled. He picked up the vada pav. It smelled good. He slowly bit into it. He was too young to describe all the tastes and textures that hit at the same time.
“Small victories.” Aai whispered to Baba when Ayush asked for a third helping.
“Guess what we brought from the market?” Ashwini exclaimed as soon as she walked in through the door. She had gone shopping with Aai. Duck Tales was screening on TV, and Ayush threw a distracted “What?” at her.
“Come on, Dada, you have to guess.”
“Um, Pepsi?” he replied, unable to peel off his eyes of the television.
“No, but you are close.” she giggled.
“Hmm. Coca Cola?” he asked, still unaware.
He jumped up from the sofa and ran towards the bag of groceries. After digging through the entire bag, he finally managed to get his hands on the can.
“I am going to drink this in one gulp! Yay!” he exclaimed, holding the can up in the air above his head.
“No no no! Aai said we will have to share it. I get to drink half of it!”
“No, this is mine, and I am going to drink all of it!” he said stubbornly, sticking his tongue out.
“Aaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiii! Dada refuses to share the cola with me!”
Aai walked in to witness the siblings caught in a tussle, each of them pulling at the can.
“Hey! Stop it! Right now! Ayu, you will share the cola with your sister. She is the one who paid for it with the money Aaji gave for her birthday. And Ashu, please, stop crying.”
Aai bought two glasses from the kitchen and set it on the table.
“Here! Divide it equally. I have to sort all the vegetables.” She went back into the kitchen.
Ashwini quipped, “We should shake it before we open it! Just like we do with the cough syrup!”
It was decided that Ayush will open the can since Ashwini got to shake it to her heart’s content. The noise and the mess that followed resulted into Aai running out of the kitchen and then subsequently, her patience. The siblings were promptly sent to their room, with the announcement that henceforth, no carbonated drinks will be ever bought into the house.
Ayush quietly patted his shorts which held the coins that Aaji had given him on his birthday. Usually, he would daydream while walking back home from school, about all the things he would do when he grew up. He would eat burger every day, and follow it up with different flavours of ice cream every night. He would only keep Maaza and Coca Cola bottles in the fridge. He would stock up on all the candies from the shop—a mini store in his house. Or maybe he would just open a candy shop himself. He would buy all the candy he wanted and eat it all the time, even while working. He would never eat any vegetables. But today, he did not need to find solace in his imagination. He was going to make one of his dreams come true.
He held his head high and looked at each person on the road, trying to gauge if they were as happy as he was. That is when he spotted the old man sitting at the bus stop, holding out his small begging bowl of steel with a stained bottom. A solitary coin fell out of it. He seemed to be blind, and his face displayed such a profound sadness Ayush had to tear his eyes away lest he catch it himself, like a communicable disease. He kept walking without another glance at the old man. Each step got heavier than the last. His chest started to pound, and his bright glow of happiness extinguished. After crossing the entire street in this state, he halted, took a deep breath and looked behind. The old man was still there, bravely trying to smile and failing terribly.
He ran to him and put all his money on his hand. The man was surprised by the amount of notes he could feel. He closed his hand and opened it repeatedly, an unbelievable look on his face. He looked up and for a second, Ayush felt he made eye contact and could almost see him clearly.
“God bless you, my child!”
He walked back home with a sense of satisfaction, mixed with a tinge of sadness. Little kids were playing with green marbles in the building compound. Girls were skipping around in boxes drawn with chalk on the ground. Older kids were playing cricket in a small alleyway next to the building. Deepak spotted him and called out to him.
“Hey Ayu! Do you want to play? We just started.”
Ayush smiled at his friend and gave a nod. “Okay!”
He dropped his bag in the pile of school bags lying at the mouth of the alley. They played for almost an hour before Vishesh’s mother was the first one to call out for him to return home. Her voice prompted a litany of calls from various windows. Sighing, everyone slowly took their bags and made their way home. Ayush put his hand around Vishesh’s shoulder and smiled,
“You will never believe what I did today!”
“What?” Vishesh asked.
“I gave money to that Ajoba who sits at the signal.” He said proudly.
Vishesh had a quick counter to it, “Why would you do such a thing? That Ajoba is probably a part of a beggar racket. And your money is not helping him but the evil man who owns the racket.”
Ayush was dumbfounded for five seconds. He thought back to the look of disbelief on the old man’s face.
“That is not true. There is no such thing as a beggar recket!”
“Yes, there is. And it is called a racket, not recket! Aai told me about it the other day. She warned me to stay away from beggars and street urchins. I can’t believe you are so stupid to give money to a beggar. How much money did you give, anyway?”
“Pfft! Hardly two rupees. I would never give more than that to some street beggar!” Ayush lied. He had given fifty rupees to the old man. But he did not want to seem even more foolish to his friend. He walked to his home, softly repeating the word ‘racket’ to himself.
“Dada, what are you thinking? You have been staring at that wall for ten minutes now.” Ashwini stood near his study desk, smiling at him with a mix of innocence and mischief.
“Go away. Stop pestering me.” He almost scolded.
Ashwini scowled and started to walk away.
Guilt hit Ayush when he saw her crumpled face. He was about to apologize when pride took the upper hand. He started preaching instead, “Ashu, listen carefully. There are times when you will be walking alone on the street. Remember, you have to stay away from beggars. No matter how young or old. Never ever go close to them. Alright?” She smiled and nodded, forgiving him with an ease only little children are capable of.
Dinner that night was Masala Bhat, with fried papad and pickles. Aai had returned late from work, so Baba had cooked instead. She worked in a bank, and the bank was being ‘audited’ that day. The children failed to understand what that really meant, but this particular information didn’t spike their interest enough for them to prod any further.
“The food is delicious! Ayu! Ashu! I will serve this with loads of ghee and sweet curd; it will enhance the taste even more,” Aai quipped as soon as she had eaten the first morsel. It was far from perfect, though. The chilli in the rice had been overdone and it had become very spicy. Baba couldn’t help but smile at the lavish praise Aai had heaped on him. He had not realized his folly, and Aai was too kind to point it out to him.
Later, when everyone had retired to bed, Ayush quietly walked into the kitchen to find Aai still awake, chopping vegetables and sorting them.
“Why are you still awake?” she asked without even looking up.
“I can’t sleep.” Ayu replied. There was a knot in his throat that he could not quite explain.
“Let me heat up some milk for you.”
Ayush sat on the stool in the corner of the kitchen and looked out the window. The orange street lights gave the empty road an eerie look. An old guard was patrolling near the gate. His presence gave an odd sense of comfort to Ayush.
“Do you think giving money to beggars is foolish?” Ayush asked warily.
“I don’t think it is foolish as long as your heart is in the right place. Why do you ask?”
“Oh, it’s nothing. Vishu says that all beggars are part of a racket, and the beggars are stealing people’s money.”
“Well, you never know, some of the beggars might genuinely need help.”
Aai prepared hot chocolate in a mug and handed it over to him. She continued sorting the leafy vegetables as he started sipping it.
After two minutes of silence which was intercepted only by the chirping of crickets, Ayush confessed, “I gave the money Aaji had gifted for my birthday to the old man at the corner of the street. All of it.”
Aai took a minute to process the information before replying,
“I see. Well, that is a good thing and a bad thing. Charity is a good thing. But, that does not mean you give away all that you have. You need to have some money kept aside for your own emergencies. Helping others is good, but you can’t be penniless due to charity. Understood?”
“Yes, I understand. But, I have a bed and clothes, and you and Baba and Ashu. That Ajoba sleeps on the street and he has no one to look after him. He has no clothes. And he has to beg for money so that he can eat every day. So, don’t you think he needed all of that money?”
Aai looked at him strangely for a few moments before pulling into a hug. “Sometimes Ayu, your obstinacy breaks my heart but your innocence fills it right back up!”
That was clearly not the answer to my question, Ayush thought. But, the hug felt warm, warmer even than the hot chocolate.
Ayush carefully handed over Amey’s sketch book along with his water colors.
“Wow, Ayu! This is a very good painting.” Amey quipped, admiring his friend’s handiwork. Removing all the coins from his pocket, he held it out to Ayush. “Thank you for finishing my project for me. As promised, here is the money.”
“Amey wait! Is this all you have right now?”
“You should never give away all of your money in one go. Give me half of what you have.”
“But why should I keep some money with me?”
Ayush thought for a while as to what emergencies would befall his friend. He had forgotten to ask Aai about that part. He stared at the chalkboard for a few seconds before replying, “Suppose you need to buy a pencil urgently but you’ve given all your money to me. How will you buy it then? That would be a disaster!” Disaster was their ‘word of the day’ clearly written on the chalkboard.
“Oh! You are right, Ayu!” Amey replied and they shook hands like two adults at the end of a business meeting.
“Dada! What is that?” Ashwini asked, looking at the pig shaped plastic toy Ayush was fiddling with.
“This is a piggy bank. Aai gave it to me. I am going to save all my money in this, and then buy candy on Diwali.”
“Wow! Dada, I want a piggy bank too. I will save money to buy a sari for Aai. Like the hero does in the movies!” Ashwini said proudly, for she had come up with an idea of her own.
Ayush shrugged, “Alright, we will tell Aai to get you a piggy bank as well.”
Diwali had arrived in the midst of the October heat which had decided to stay well into November. Frantic last minute shopping however did not deter Aai’s well-planned preparations of Diwali delicacies: crescent shaped karanjis stuffed with a filling of grated coconut, jaggery, nuts and cardamom; perfectly shaped square naralachi wadi; flaky, crunchy, diamond shaped shankarpale; anarse made from rice and jaggery and coated with poppy seeds; chivda made of spiced flattened rice, groundnuts, shev and dried coconut pieces; spicy, crispy round chakli.
It did not amaze the kids at that time as to the quantity and the quality of the delicacies being prepared, but it earned the compliments of many neighbours and relatives.
“Dada! Come here! Look at all the crackers Baba has bought!”
Ayush was busy counting his coins that he had saved all year by completing art assignments for his friends. “Thirty-five, thirty-six, thirty-seven, thirty-nine…” He sighed. He probably needed more money. He quickly put the coins back into the piggy bank and ran outside.
He ran to light up a cracker, and darted away immediately, putting his fingers into his ears. This earned him a hearty laugh from both his parents and sister.
The next day, their grandmother arrived, along with a lot of sweets packed neatly in boxes, some home-made, some store-bought. Mawa kachoris with a crunchy exterior and a soft filling; motichur ladoos which were soft and crumbly all over; syrupy gulab jamuns; thin flaky sugary sutarpheni; silver foil coated kaju katlis. Ashwini was excited about all the sweets that had accumulated in the kitchen dabbas. Sometimes, she would open them just to gaze at the sweets. Each Diwali, she would smile from ear-to-ear, going about her regular day with happiness bubbling over.
After the exchange of initial pleasantries, grandmother said to Ayush, “Your Aai told me what you did with the money I gave you for your birthday.”
“I am sorry, Aaji. I will never give away your money again.”
“No, beta. Don’t apologize. I am very proud of you!” She said.
He looked at her in puzzlement.
“I just wanted to give you this. As a Diwali gift.” She said, handing him twenty rupees.
He accepted the cash with a big smile on his face.
Ayush slowly opened the glass door to the candy shop. A blast of cold air hit him as soon as he stepped inside. He smiled at the shopkeeper.
“Excuse me, Sir. Which is the best candy in your shop?”
The shopkeeper was writing something in a large notebook. Ayush waited patiently. The shopkeeper finally looked up at him and frowned.
“What?” he asked impatiently. A lone kid in his shop meant trouble. The shopkeeper always preferred an accompanying adult.
“Which is the best candy in your shop?” Ayush repeated, his confidence somewhat deflated by the stern frown.
“All of them are equally good, kid. Which one do you want?”
Ayush felt flustered now. He looked at the display and the array of colours. They had seemed enticing from outside the shop but now intimidated him. He kept on staring for ten minutes, panic rising steadily. He could feel his heart going ‘thump thump’ in his chest and hear it in his ears.
The shopkeeper finally asked him, “Do you have the money to buy candy?”
Ayush nodded and removed the money from his pocket to show the shopkeeper, feeling extremely terrified by that point.
The shopkeeper softened at the scared expression on the little boy’s face. Surely the kid was not an urchin; he belonged to a decent middle class family, he thought.
“How much money do you have?” he asked.
“Fifty nine rupees.” Ayush replied.
“Fifty nine? Hmm. Tell you what, I will pack a piece each of my best selling candies. Is that okay?”
Ayush seemed unsure of the idea, but he nodded anyway.
“Can you give me two of each?” he asked, suddenly reminded of Ashwini.
“Then, the types of candies will be less.”
“That’s okay. I want two of each.” Ayush said in a firm tone.
When he reached home, Aai and Aaji were busy cooking in the kitchen. Ashwini was scribbling something in her notebook. As soon as he walked in, she looked up.
He beamed at her and asked her to follow him. Both of them quietly crept to the terrace of the building. It was lit up with diyas kept in all the corners, and there was also a lantern hanging from the stairs to the water tank. The atmosphere was filled with children’s yelps of excitement and the burst of firecrackers.
“I have got candies! Many different types! We will both have one of each!” Ayush announced, plopping himself in a corner and opening up the packet.
Ashwini’s face lit up, and she quickly sat down while he divided the candies among them.
“I want the red one first!” she demanded.
The first candy was sweet with slight hint of sour; it was so chewy that the candy stuck to his teeth. He gulped it down with great difficulty. This one was a let-down; maybe I will like the others, he thought.
The second one was a yellow M&M. The outer covering felt too hard to bite, with very little chocolate inside and a peanut. He was not very fond of peanuts, and this one tasted quite bitter.
The third one was a brown lollipop with a caramel center. He tried to lick it slowly, trying to enjoy it, but then got impatient, and bit down most of it.
Feeling quite dejected, he looked over at Ashwini, and realized she was still on her first candy, licking it thoughtfully. He rolled his eyes, and was about to ask her if she liked it, when they heard Aai’s voice.
Pocketing the rest of the candy, they rushed downstairs.
“Where were you? Aaji has been calling out for you for the past ten minutes.”
“We were on the terrace, watching the fireworks.” Ashwini replied.
Each of their plates was served with puran poli, puri, shrikhand, and amti. Ashwini quickly took two large bites of the puran poli. Ayush looked at her in surprise, and whispered softly,
“Hey, why are you eating this poli as if you will never get to eat it again, but took your sweet time eating the candy?”
“Dada, I was just trying to figure out what the big deal about the candy was. I understand you love it, but I didn’t really like it.” She spoke with her mouth full of Aai’s cooked food.
“Hey, no talking while eating!” Aaji scolded.
Looking at Ayush, her expression softened, and she asked,
“Ayu, why have you not started eating? Here, let me feed you.”
He tried to protest, but one look from Aai silenced him.
Aaji broke a piece from the Poli, and fed it to him. The poli was soft and warm. The ghee melted the outer covering and the taste of the sweet jaggeried chickpea stuffing filled his mouth. Were they always this delicious?. He looked at Ashwini and smiled,
“You are right, this is way better than the candy.” He mumbled between gulps.
“Yes! Aai is the best cook in India!”
“No! She is the best cook in the world.”
In the kitchen, a smile slowly spread across Aai’s face.
Dr. Mrunalini Wani is a mother of a toddler and a wife. She is a practicing anaesthesiologist. She was born and brought up in the suburbs of Mumbai, India, which is now her permanent residence. She loves writing short stories and poems in her free time.