Wednesday, June 30, 2010

All's fair in bargaining and war

It was going to be a full house in Ratham Veedhi , Madurai. Such days were few and far between and Gomathy Patti looked forward to them more than anyone else. She planned on waking up at 4 am in time to prepare an elaborate meal for everybody. She would spend most of the night awake for fear of getting up late. Cooking for several hungry kids, enthusiastic parents and uninvited guests that would be welcome with open arms wasn’t easy. Gomathy Patti took on this daunting task with a large serving of gusto and a huge dollop of pride.

She allowed an extra 15 minutes to bargain with the vegetable seller, Chellappan, at the market. While on her way to the market, she spent all those 15 minutes, stopping to tell those she met on her way that all the grandchildren were going to be home that day. To some selected people she confided that she was going to make vendakkai (okra) curry. Her daughter-in-law Kaamatchi stayed at home, cooking other things that Gomathy Patti felt didn’t need an expert. Also, Kaamatchi keenly avoided listening to Chellappan complain about her mother-in-law. She was never sure whom to support. Kaamatchi smartly used Gomathy Patti’s absence in making some extra rice and increasing the quantity of rasam and sambhar by adding more water and some more spices. Later, everyone would exclaim that Patti’s rasam was always especially tasty when there was a large crowd to dine with.

By the time Gomathy Patti made it to the vegetable seller, word had reached him that she was going to buy okra. He huffed readying for the bullfight. He sprayed water on all the vegetables to make them look fresh. He quickly covered one of the baskets with a wet cloth and rope so that he could make it look like the vegetables had just been delivered. He removed all the rotten vegetables he could lay his hands on. He then gulped some water, cleared his throat and clapped his hands. He was ready.

An audience had also gathered. Waiting. Who would win?

Gomathy Patti came in with her nose upturned. She took each vegetable by hand and nodded her head in disapproval. Chellappan paid her not the slightest attention, tending to the banana plantain instead. Gomathy Patti took out a bunch of coriander leaves from beneath the large pile. The ones below were rotten. “Che. What good will such a bunch do to my rasam? This is why I grow my own coriander in the kitchen garden”, she said.

Gomathy Patti had opened with an ace.

15-love to Patti.

“Well, for you maami, I will give this bunch to you for free”, he said removing a fresh bunch from the top and waving at her. ” Even if you discard all my wares as old and rotten.”

15 all

“No. I don’t need anything for free. My son earns a hefty pension and my grandchildren are soon going to be working in fantastic jobs that don’t even need a pension. Why, I might even give you some of my own coriander then”

30 -15

She next went to the beans and drew out the fibre from the sides of the stalk to test their tenderness. She sighed loudly. And as though doing it out of generosity she asked him how much it was, adding that she must be a fool for wanting to buy it at all.

40 - 15

Chellappan played along knowing full well that she did not want the beans. He quoted a particularly expensive rate . He hoped that the lesser price he would eventually quote for the okra would be acceptable in comparison.


She pretended to think for a while, and then, feigning a defeated look, refused it. She now looked around the place vaguely as if her long-hatched plans had been soiled and she hadn’t a clue what her other options were. She sighed loudly again. She now turned to the okra. She took each okra and broke off the tip. The whole time she kept up a constant prattle of disapproval.
“Why are they so hard ? They’re all overripe. Much like you Chellappan. ”

“Maami. These are as tender is my 10 month old baby. Besides, okra is good for any age, for brains of any age, including yours”

He proceeded to pick a particularly tender okra and effortlessly broke off its tip.


Gomathy Patti was not impressed. She proceeded to test the okra some more. It might mean that she would break the stalks of all the okra in the stall. But Chellappan let her. It wasn’t everyday that someone prepared such a feast. He could feel his patience wearing out even as he displayed a smug smile, confident of his goods. Narasimhan, who was also making his way through the market place, was loudly gesturing at his wife Lakshmi “Buy okra from here Lakshmi. The curry you made last week was pretty good” he said.

Advantage Chellappan

Gomathy patti turned to them and snarled. Not missing a beat, she said nonchalantly “True. Chellappan can sometimes be lucky.” And she picked up an overripe okra and showed it to them.


Chellappan now found no humour in this. “Maami. Careful. I respect your age. But think about my age and what I am capable of before you start driving my customers away.”

Advantage Chellappan.

But Gomathy Patti was not that easily stymied. She waved her hand dismissively and said “ Bhagawan (God) will come to the aid of those who tell the truth”. “Anyway”, she said, this time with the look of one who is doing a favour, “now I will give you 30 rs per kilo for this okra and I’ll buy three kilos of it.

Either give it to me or risk losing more customers than just Lakshmi and Narasimhan”


Chellappan knew the math all too well. If Gomathy Patti bought the okra, chances were Lakshmi maami would buy the okra too. If Gomathy Patti didn't, Lakshmi wouldn't dare for fear of having to defend herself against Gomathy Patti's claim that Lakshmi had betrayed her. And so, Chellappan would have wasted all morning for nothing.

“Fine. Now will you please make a move? ”, he said.

Gomathy Patti finally permitted herself to smile. She loaded the okra in the choir basket and counted out the money twice before giving it to Chellappan. As she handed him the money she said “Where’s my coriander bunch you promised me? “

Advantage Gomathy Patti

Chellappan permitted himself a smile this time.

“Maami. I’ve rarely seen a more cunning lady than you”.

And then Gomathy Patti bared her large toothless smile and whispered, “and I’ve rarely seen better Okra than this. Make sure Lakshmi pays you at least 20 annas per kilo.”