Fiction Jade Edition
Jinxed In Love
A Girl Called Hira
A toy ukulele for Christmas is the start of Ian’s life-long passion for music. He is accepted in the prestigious Juilliard School of Music, much to the pride of his parents. But Ian decides to join a music band in New York instead. What does destiny have in store for Ian? Steve Carr narrates a beautiful and touching story.
I grabbed the white, plastic toy ukulele from the back of a mostly emptied shelf of assorted toys. As a Christmas present, the ukulele had no significance. It was simply handy, easy to grab, an afterthought, something to add under the tree. The price of $6.99 was as cheap as the toy itself. I pitched it on top of the cart filled with other presents, checked out at the cash register, and left the store, happy to be free of the din of marauding last-minute shoppers. It was Christmas Eve.
Christmas morning it was the ukulele among his toy trucks, cars, fire engines, balls, action hero plastic dolls and electronic games that Ian became fixated on. Sitting among ripped Christmas wrap, ribbon and bows, he pensively strummed on the nylon strings, attempting to form music. Neither his mother nor I had any musical talent. He had learned how to hold the ukulele and run his fingers across the strings by seeing it done on television. Ian was five. An average youngster. Our only child.
From that morning on, when not at school, he carried his ukulele around the house all the time, plucking and strumming the strings attempting to play the songs he had learned in kindergarten. He never sang the words to what he tried to play, he only hummed along. It was his humming that allowed us to identify what he was playing. That was until one evening he played the first notes of ‘Old MacDonald.’ The tune was unmistakable.
Up until that moment I had observed Ian with a sense of detachment. It wasn't that I didn't love or care for him, but it was his mother who tended to his needs who spent the most time with him. I was never certain of what my role as a father should be. My own father never talked about being a father, and I observed him in the same way I observed Ian, as if I was seeing him from afar, not actually attached to me. I had read somewhere that what a child will do for a career later in life is formed in the child's first five years of his or her life, along with their personalities, in general. The idea of having a son who would play the ukulele for a living both excited and alarmed me. Hearing him play the tune to ‘Old MacDonald’ awakened me to my son's potential. To nurture his talent, I also knew it meant I would have to do what I hadn't done up to that moment: be an involved father.
The summer that Ian was twelve, we sat on the dock at the cabin we spent two weeks at every year, the acoustic guitar Ian held, resting its body in his lap, was as nearly as large as he was. I was watching my fishing line, hoping for a bite, dubiously hoping that Ian's playing wasn't scaring the fish away. He had acquired an interest in sea shanties and was teaching himself how to play ‘What Shall We Do With The Drunken Sailor.’ By accident while surfing the internet he heard an acapella rendition of the sea shanty ‘Spanish Lady’ and it captured his interest.
“Why?” I asked him.
“I like the idea of sailors from the olden days out at sea on those old ships and playing their guitars while singing that song.”
“I think they sang it without any musical instrument at all.”
He looked at me quizzically. “Are you sure?”
“I think so. Guitar accompaniment is a relatively recent thing.”
Before I could say another word, he Googled ‘guitar shanty songs.’
A week later at the music store I wouldn't have recognized that he was playing ‘The Drunken Sailor’ song if he hadn't been humming the lyrics along with the rapid strumming of the guitar strings. He wasn't a very good singer and resorted to humming or whispering through parts of it, as he did all songs. The salesperson urged Ian to consider buying a beginner's guitar, which was smaller in size, but Ian wasn't interested.
“I've been playing the ukulele and banjo since I was five,” he told the salesperson. Ian didn't mention that he had only graduated to playing real and not toy ukuleles and banjos when he was ten and that while he had mastered the ukulele, he was far from mastering the banjo.
At sixteen, Ian stood at 6'0” and was still growing. He had been asked to play on his high school basketball team, but hating sports, he declined. His red hair was as unruly as he was – he took being a teenager seriously. His moods fluctuated wildly from outright hostility to regressing to that little boy who sat with me on the dock playing his toy ukulele. As a guitarist he was a marvel to hear play. He made use of discordant chords on his electric guitar in a way I had never heard before. He played rock music as if his entire body had been set on fire and the only way to extinguish the flames was to pound and pluck music on the strings at a madman's pace.
He formed a 3-person band that practiced in the back storage room of Shelly Forbes' uncle's furniture store. Shelly was the singer and bass guitarist of the band. They named themselves Rusty Bullets for a reason Ian could never adequately explain to me.
“It's just something to think about,” Ian said. “A rusty bullet. What comes to mind?”
“A bullet that's rusty.”
I often sat on an overturned crate and watched the band rehearse. Actually, I was there to watch Ian, but it was hard to ignore Shelly or Jesse Cairo, the drummer, another female. They were attractive girls and decent musicians, but they changed their hair color so frequently and to such extremes in the choice of color and style that the only way I recognized them sometimes was by the instrument they played. In height, he towered over them. At home I pressed Ian about his interest in either one of them other than as band mates.
“Dad, I'm there to play the guitar, that's all,” he would say, rolling his eyes.
They played on the Sweeney River Park stage a few weekends during the summer. With the slow-moving current of the river in the background and the lights that lined the bank reflecting on the water, it was a beautiful sight. A few hundred locals, mostly older crowds, showed up every weekend with blankets to sit on and coolers stocked with refreshments and baskets of snack food. They weren't a rock music crowd. Ian tried to arrange songs that had titles or themes that fit the location, like ‘She Took Him to the Lake’ by Mallory Knox and ‘Walk Into the Sea’ by Johnny Marr. It was obvious the audiences weren't into it. They spent time while the ‘The Rusty Bullet’ played with their heads in the baskets of food, sorting out what they were going to eat, and shouting to one another, attempting to be heard over the loud music.
In his senior year, after a trip to New York and an audition, Ian was accepted into the famed Julliard guitar department.
Before he left, we went to the cabin for our annual two-week stay. Despite his mother and I acting chipper, a cloud of gloom hung over us, somewhat muting our joy in Ian's achievement. He was 6'3” and had already lost the appearance of still being a teenager, so treating him as if he was going away to summer camp was out of the question. Every morning he and I went down to the dock where I cast out a fishing line while he played tunes on his old acoustic guitar. I had watched and heard his evolution as a musician and marveled that other than the past year of receiving training from a guitar pro to refine his skill his ability had been mostly self-taught.
On the last morning before heading back home, we sat on the dock just as we always did. He slowly plucked the strings, as if pausing between every note, playing the Otis Redding classic ‘Sittin' On The Dock of the Bay.’ The tune was unmistakable but surprised me since he rarely played rhythm and blues or soul music. When I looked over at him, he smiled at me, wanly.
“I don't want to go,” he said.
“Yeah, going back home is always a letdown after being here,” I replied.
“No, I don't want to go to Julliard.”
“It's cold feet,” I told him. “You'll feel better when you get there.”
“Let me put it another way, Dad. I'm not going to go to Julliard. I'm going to New York City, but I want to try hooking up with an up-and-coming band and try my hand at playing at concerts and clubs.”
Ian's mother and I had always encouraged Ian to make his own decisions. How could I tell him that he was making a mistake? I bit my tongue, waiting for the next shoe to drop.
“Dad, I need a loan to see me through until I find a paying gig.”
“How much do you need?”
A few days later I accompanied Ian to the airport. His mother was too upset to go along, although she hid the reason why from Ian. From his fifth birthday to the age of seventeen I had always been close enough to wherever Ian was that I could get to him in a matter of minutes if he needed help of any kind. As I stood at the airport terminal window and watched the airplane as it lifted up from the runway, its wheels disappearing inside the underbelly of the plane, my heart sank.
It wasn't until several days later that we heard from Ian. He called me on my cellphone.
“Dad, I've met a girl who I really like.”
He dated sometimes, but never really showed much interest in getting involved with the girls he met and rarely mentioned them.
“Who is she?”
“She's a cellist with the New York City Philharmonic. Her name is Sue Lin”
“Where did you meet her?”
“On the plane coming here. She took me on a tour of the city. On the ferry ride to the Statue of Liberty I decided to give up the guitar and try my hand at playing the cello. If you came here, you'd really like taking the ferry. It's not a lot of time on the water, but it was fun.”
“Wait, Ian. Did you say you were giving up playing the guitar?”
“Yeah, but it's no big deal. One instrument with strings is a lot like the other.”
I had no idea if that was true or not, so I didn't challenge him regarding it. I asked him to call his mother more often because she worried about him. He assured me he would and hung up.
His calls after that were infrequent, with irritated claims he was busy learning the cello and building his relationship with Sue Lin when we called and asked him to call us more often.
After a year he called me in the middle of the night. “Dad, I'm going to Venice?”
I was barely awake. “Did you say Venice? Venice, Italy?
“Yes, that Venice. I got a job playing the violin for a small restaurant. Background music. While customers eat.”
“I didn't like the cello.”
“What about Sue Lin?”
“We broke up. Well, I have to get ready for the flight. I'll email you as soon as I get there.”
“You're leaving no . . .?” He cut me off.
“Bye, Dad. Give Mom a kiss for me.” He hung up.
Debris from the plane Ian had been on was found floating in the middle of the Atlantic Ocean. A tag with Ian's name on it was found attached to a violin inside an empty life raft.
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Scientists Find Cure for Cancer
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Swamy has spent 15 years in the city of Bangalore as a vegetable vendor but when the pandemic lockdown happens, like many of his ilk, he goes back to his village. A new and happy chapter in his life begins as his days are spent cooking for his friends and enjoying their company. This is the beginning of his new avatar as the famous Rural Chef. Ranjit Kulkarni writes a story that is simple but makes us believe in everyday miracles.
I sometimes wonder if people are crazy or from some other planet. But I am not complaining. Why should I? Not at all. After all, what more would a simple man like me want? All that I do nowadays is to sit in my farm, cook my food and eat it with my near and dear ones, and my special group of friends.
But it was not always like that. Let me tell you, my story.
Two years back, before my current avatar, I was Swamy, the vegetable vendor in the hi-tech city of Bangalore. I got up at 4.30 AM every day. I went to the wholesale market with my pushcart. I loaded it with tomatoes, potatoes, onions, and other vegetables. Before I left, I made some space for chillies, coriander, and lemons. All with my bare hands, all alone. With my pushcart full by 7 AM, I left the wholesale market.
It was a journey that took an hour and a half to push it to the apartments where I sold them.
That day, in fact, for all days that week, the season was cloudy. The cold wind gave me shivers while I pushed my cart. The swaying trees suggested that the rain wasn’t far. I glanced above and saw a bunch of dark clouds. A sign of things to come. Dark clouds first, then an outpour.
I stopped the pushcart in its tracks. I removed the plastic cover from under it in the chamber above the wheels. I wrapped it around the vegetables. A couple of tomatoes and some potatoes fell down in the rush to cover them. The rain had started coming down, not in torrents but in drips, like sprinklers that I have now fitted in my farm.
When I reached the first apartment that day, I was wet. It was almost 8.50 AM. The residents were up and running for the day’s business. I parked my pushcart near one of the walls of the compound of the apartments and sounded my bugle. It had my pre-recorded voice in it.
It wasn’t easy to keep shouting all day, every day. So, a friend had recommended this marvel device a few months back. Every one of my vendor friends had started using it. Technology came to my rescue then too. As it did now. While recording in it, I had shouted, “Vegetables, Fresh Vegetables.”
When I pressed the speaker button, the apartment area reverberated with my voice. I thought that would ensure that everyone knows I am here. I waited for my regular customers to step out into their balconies or walk out to pick up the vegetables. “Tomatoes. Potatoes. Onions. Take them by the kilo,” was what echoed when I pressed the second button.
I peeped into the small by-lanes of that apartment on the left and the right. Water had filled the walkways and play areas. Boys and girls in uniform rushed beside me to go to school, climbing into the waiting school buses. A couple of women walked out towards my pushcart with an umbrella. A bunch of men in tracksuits and raincoats walked past me. Some of them asked me the price of tomatoes. When they heard it, they walked away. I tried to stop them, but they didn’t wait.
“Chillies. Lemons. Coriander. Take them by the bunch,” I pressed another button on that device. I raised the volume so that no one misses it. It seemed like I was yelling at the top of my voice.
A few morning walkers picked up some of my vegetables, but no one bought anything. By 9.40 AM, with few people turning up, I gave up and started moving my pushcart to the next apartment.
I checked my phone. Till a few weeks back, I used to get loads of orders on the phone. They had now come down to a trickle. I called those numbers to check if they needed anything.
“No, nothing Swamy. Not today,” most of them said.
“Madam, send me a message if you need anything,” I said and moved on.
At the next apartment, the same thing happened, more or less. A few morning walkers found empty entertainment fiddling with my cart. They lifted some of my vegetables and kept them back on the cart. Some women walked past my vegetable pushcart. They stared at my fresh tomatoes but did nothing else.
I wondered hard and long what was wrong. People still ate vegetables. But over the past few weeks, my orders had dried up. But why?
A few days later I found out why.
That evening, some boys came to my cart and bought all the vegetables that I had in my cart. I was struggling with selling them throughout the day. I hadn’t found many takers in my regular apartments. These boys came late in the evening to my cart.
“We will take everything, Swamy,” they said. They started filling their baskets with whatever was there on my pushcart. I watched them working in their uniform t-shirts with awe. I thought I was lucky to have finally found someone to buy my vegetables, but my happiness was short-lived.
They paid me less than what I had bought them for. I had no choice. It was the end of the day. I told myself that at least, I didn't lose all my capital.
When they finished, I asked them what they would do with these vegetables.
One of them pointed me to their vehicle. It was a tempo that had loads of vegetables and fruits.
“We will supply them to the apartments early tomorrow morning, with their milk,” he said.
I scratched my head. “But no one is buying vegetables in those apartments,” I said. I did not realise my stupidity and naivete then.
The boy laughed and shoved his phone in my hand. He opened an app and showed me the list of orders he had received from my old customers in those three apartments.
An acute sense of anger and envy welled up inside me. I felt like someone had snatched the food on my plate. My face tightened. I clenched my fists. My eyes turned red for a moment. But even from my state of anguish, I could see my impending doom in store.
“They have already ordered?” I asked.
“Yes, and they have already paid,” the boy sniggered. “Online.”
He sat in his tempo vehicle and patted me on the shoulder. “Swamy, get rid of your cart. There is no point in going to the wholesale market early in the morning tomorrow. If you have a bike or a tempo, join us,” he said and drove away.
That week changed everything for me.
The government announced that everyone had to stay at home for the next three weeks due to a virus. The tempo boys who came to pick up my vegetables that day, for the last time, said that three weeks was only the start. “Don’t expect any business for two or three months,” one of them sniggered.
I was stuck. Swamy, the vegetable vendor, had no reason to stay in this ruthless city. The tempo boys had already stepped on my stomach over the past few weeks. The government’s announcement was the death knell. There was no way I could survive in this hi-tech city.
Someone in my neighbourhood told me to take the first bus to my village. I packed my bags and did it on the next day. I don’t want to tell you how much I had to struggle to get on to that bus. That bus didn’t go the full distance. I walked for a day as there were no more buses. But that is history now. Why should I complain? I didn't know then what was in store.
I landed in my village farm two days later. Today marks two years since that day. Little did I know then that I would never go back.
Egaperungumagalur in Puduttikkottai district. That’s the name of my village.
I walked that day for forty kilometres from the bus stop to my home in that village. When I told my old mother, she cooked my favourite Jackfruit Kuzhambu recipe. Yes, raw jackfruit. I ate it to my heart’s content. I had never felt better after a meal.
A few days later I went to the pond to catch some fish and crabs. Garfish. I cooked it myself. I smiled after a long, long time that day. My mother was happy. My wife was happy.
Life in the village is simple. I fell in love with it all over again. Ten years in the city as a vegetable vendor had pushed those memories to the bottom of my head. They came up again.
But there was nothing else to do other than cook, eat and be happy. All I did all through the day was to get some fish or chicken or some harvest from the farm and cook and eat.
You never know what’s in store though. Never try to outguess God’s plan. I realised that soon.
It was on one of those days that an old friend’s nephew came to our house.
“Did you finish your computer course?” I asked him. He nodded but not with his usual smile.
“So why did you come back?” I asked him.
He kept his eyes on his phone for a while before he looked up with a twisted mouth.
“Company closed,” he replied. “No job.”
I stayed silent. Was there no difference between a vegetable vendor like me and this educated boy? Why did both of us find ourselves in the same predicament, coming back to our village from the city?
“Have lunch here,” I told him. He nodded. He liked my idea. “Tell Chittappa to come,” I said. He nodded again. I could see his twisted mouth straighten up a bit. He called my friend and asked him to come over. “Tell him I am making fish and prawns, and some chicken. Like old times.”
The smile on his face returned now. When my friend came in, the decibel levels in our small house went up. We cooked our favourite village recipes. The boy was happy. With phone in hand, he recorded a video of us cooking it, eating it in our thatched hut. It was a wonderful memory. Life is unpredictable.
After a few days, we met at our farm with our families and some old friends. There were ten of us. We had a nice time. We made the most of it. We cooked huge quantities of Varagu Arisi Pongal. The boy called it Organic Millet Rice. Then we made Kambu Koozh. He named it Organic Millet Porridge.
We ate our food all through the morning and afternoon right there on the farm. We made a lot of noise, talking and playing. The boy was happy. He recorded everything again.
I wondered why he did it and what he did with it, till a few days later, when he and my friend came running to my house.
“Half a Million views,” the boy shouted.
I didn’t understand what he was saying. My friend jumped with excitement too. I had no idea why.
That is when he explained what he had done and what his plan was. He had uploaded our videos to YouTube. Close to five lakh people had seen it there. He wanted us to upload more.
“The more the number of people who see it and like it and subscribe, the more will we get paid,” he explained.
Since then, we have uploaded more than one hundred videos of our village recipes to this channel. He has named it ‘The Rural Chef.’ Four other friends from the village have joined us now.
Naat Kozhi Rasam was our biggest hit. No, was it Mudakathan Keerai? How can I forget Vathal Kuzhambu? And of course, Ulundhu Kali. And Thippili Rasam. And Panakam. And, of course, Paruppu Thuvaiyal. And not to miss, our Temple Prasadam and Village Marriage Recipes. So many of them.
It has been fun. A heady ride. I never thought I will be anything other than a poor vegetable vendor.
Every week, once a day, we buy the ingredients and go to our farm. Then we cook our favourite foods, and eat them together with a lot of noise, and a lot of song and dance. And the clever boy records it and uploads it to our channel. He names it and puts some commentary and subtitles in English on it.
As the boy promised, YouTube pays us. It has been only increasing over the past two years. And for reasons that I haven't been able to figure out, people watch it. I don’t know who is crazy enough to watch a bunch of villagers cook and eat and talk. All we do is enjoy ourselves in a lovely farm in a remote village. Some people find it interesting. I am not complaining. Whoever it is, I am happy.
I am going to tell my vegetable customers from those apartments in the city to subscribe to my channel. They can buy vegetables from elsewhere, from the tempo boys if they like.
But they can always enjoy my videos and use my village recipes, isn’t it? I heard that they are still at home. The virus hasn’t gone away. I will send them the link.
And like you, I will tell them my story. Who will believe it? Well, whether they do it or not, I don't care. Because it is true.
I am not going back to being a vegetable vendor Swamy again. I like being Swamy, the ‘Rural Chef.’
And now, let me go record this week's dish.