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Photos by Sejal Saraiya
Sejal Saraiya reflects on a moment in her hometown of Mumbai as part of an assignment for MatadorU.
Beads of sweat develop on his forehead as he smears a generous lump of fresh green chutney onto two slices of bread. It is a busy day for him, Mondays usually are. Young boys huddle around his tiny wooden booth in their school uniforms—pants folded to keep the sand off their clothes–so that their parents don’t find out about their furtive excursion to the beach. I realize it’s going to take a while before I can place my order.
He pulls the grubby napkin resting across his shoulder and wipes off the sweat. Then, pushing it back to where it belongs, he begins to slice tomatoes, onions, potatoes and finally cucumbers, swiftly but nimbly, and tosses them onto the bread with such precision that every bite of the sandwich has a bit of each vegetable.
It is nearly evening, but the heat is piercing. The tide is low. Grey clouds traverse slowly from the Arabian Sea. The street children have seized this scorching hour to play cricket. Their tan skins burn to chocolate brown but they play passionately because the boys from Young Guns Soccer League will invade their space in the evening for their daily, after-college, beach soccer practice.
I sit on the wooden bench by his stall and dig my toes into the cool damp sand. The paint is wearing off, and green specks stick onto my moist palm. The inevitable smell of camels reminds me of my early childhood, of days when my mother used to bring us here—my sister and I—for camel rides in the evenings. 10 rupees per ride. There are no camels on the beach anymore. Nor is anything offered for just 10 rupees.
A woman sits next to me on the bench and munches her sandwich greedily. Her son tugs at her saree impatiently. She’s probably South Indian because she talks swiftly, swallowing alphabets. She’s thin and dark-skinned, and has a garland of mogra (jasmine) in her oiled hair. The fusion of the two smells—the flowers and the oil—is repelling. Her son bursts into tears and she trashes her half-eaten sandwich exasperatedly [and shamelessly] onto the beach and lifts her son into her arms. They walk towards the sea swiftly.
A dog totters to the tomatoes and now-soggy bread lying on the sand and licks it, wagging its tail. The driver in a Lexus, parked on the road not too far from the beach, honks impatiently to remind the sandwich wallah that ‘madam’—the wife of the owner of the Lexus—doesn’t have all day, and that he should hurry up.
The clouds are overhead, and it’s starting to cool. Two women in a traditional salwar kameez and white Nike sports shoes—quite obviously here for their evening brisk walk—walk past me, hardly briskly, quite tired, talking loudly, their buttocks jutting out. I can’t help but chuckle. Not too far away, the South Indian woman enters the sea in her saree. I’m nervous for her, her saree could come loose against the force of the water, but I notice that she’s not the only one. There are many tourists from other, non coastal parts of India, in sarees swimming in the sea.
The crowd around the sandwich wallah finally subsides. I place my order. “Ek Veg cheese grilled sandwich. I hate potatoes and onions in my sandwich and he must know that. “Bina alu aur kaanda…” I continue, but he has already started making the sandwich. The clouds are approaching and I have an hour’s jog on the beach before I get home to get ready for my cousin’s wedding. Not too far away, the coconut vendor is shaving off the top of coconuts dexterously. I’m thirsty. I hand over a twenty rupee note to the sandwich wallah and accept my grilled sandwich—packed in yesterday’s newspaper. I hold it tight as I walk to the coconut vendor. “Ek Nariyal paani.”
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