Slick like Oil
While growing up, Juggernaut always looked forward for Sundays for the visits from a woman vendor that made house calls every Sunday afternoon to sell all kinds of vegetable oils such as sesame, coconut, mustard and peanut. At the center of Juggernaut’s house was a large court yard that opened into four section of the house, each rented separately for a family. The stone floor of the large court yard with open sky was a convenient meeting place for the tenants. During monsoon season, the rain falling from the open sky into the court yard was an outdoor experience in the middle of the large house. The renters gather in the court yard to buy vegetables, fruits, dairy products, oils, or even clothes and other sundry items brought by the visiting vendors. The visits from vendors attracted adults and kids alike to gather around the products spread on the stone floor by the vendors. For a short time, the central court yard transformed into a mini bazaar.
An oil vendor named Appala Narasamma, a small woman with fair skin just short of five feet visited every Sunday afternoon. She came along with a porter Veeriah, a tall man with a narrow face. For any inquiry he replied with a smile exposing his teeth with varied colors from light yellow to dark brown or black from chewing Areca nuts and Betel leaves often. He always carried two oil containers; one on his head and one with his hand. On reaching the court yard, he will first carefully rest the can in his hand on the floor and then using both hands he carefully lowers the container from his head to the ground. The container from the head was the one that attracted Juggernaut the most for its intricate design. It was an oval shaped white metal vessel either tin or aluminum for light weight. While Narasamma made herself comfortable squatting next to the oil cans to start dispensing the oil to the tenants, Juggernaut made sure that he gets to sit close to the oil vessel to observe her dispensing techniques. The vessel has few compartments to contain different oils without intermixing, one for sesame, one for mustard and so forth; the cheapest of all oils was the peanut oil purchased in large quantities by the tenants especially for frying, the peanut oil was carried separately in a tall milk can the porter carried with his hand from a thick metal ring on top of the can. He walked effortlessly with peanut oil can hanging from his hand and the oval shaped white metal vessel on his head using the other hand to hold it firmly on his head. That was a great balancing act to walk miles to make house visits to sell oil.
Narasamma measured oil using tin measuring cups. Juggernaut loved the way she used wooden ladles of different sizes to dispense oil from different sections of the vessel to the measuring cups. On every visit, Narasamma made the same inquiry “what grade you were in?” and Juggernaut replied with same answer. Perhaps, she doesn’t know what else to say beyond that to a young person.
The most important part of the oil vessel was a small compartment attached to the outside wall of the vessel to store shiny metal coins for cash transactions. To keep the paper currency safe, she kept them in a thick cloth pouch with its mouth closed by pull of a string. She pushed the currency pouch between her waist and the coarse cotton sari she wore.
Narasamma was very common name in South India but the prefix Appala was very parochial; Appa or Appala was a short name for of the deity in a famous temple in town, an incarnation of god Vishnu. As per Hindu mythology, God Vishnu incarnate on earth as half lion and half human to kill an evil king; on completing his mission on the earth he transforms into a deity for people to worship him in a temple forever. The devotees address him affectionately with a nickname Appa or Appala. This became very popular prefix to names in the local area. Narasamma wore her wealth; two large gold rings, one each side of her nose and another hanging from the nasal septum occupying her upper lip at the center, her both ears were pierced in series from top to bottom with gold and precious stone jewelry. On both ankles, she wore gold colored metal bracelets as thick as donuts more look like GPS anchor bracelet worn by parolees. Her both hands from elbow to the wrist were covered with metal bangles. Narasamma belongs to a special caste of people in Hindu society that specialize in vegetable oil trade. Her family operated large seed oil extracting press in town. The cylinder presses to extract oil from seeds were powered by a blind folded ox walking slowly in circle with a wooden beam on its yoke connected to the cylinder presses at the center, on top of which a man sitting continuously fed the press with seeds. The extracted oil flow slowly to an underneath pan. This was well before the advent of mechanical mills which took the family business from the specific caste members to anybody that can afford to own a mechanized mill.
Making house visits in town to sell oil was part of their family business; Narasamma’s borther operated a big store on the market road where customers come to buy all kinds of vegetable oils and seed meal. Seed material left after oil was extracted was called meal. Sesame seed meal is edible and people bought to use in cooking for its aroma and texture whereas peanut meal was mostly used as animal feed.
Juggernaut on his way to school sometimes saw Narasamma helping his brother at the counter. Her brother was also fair skinned with very dark mustache and thick hair. The animal drawn oil mill was located behind the store.
After dispensing oil to all her customers, any traces of oil left on her hand, Narasamma rubbed on to her face, hands and legs. Veeriah did the same as if it was following a ritual. No wonder, their bodies were always greasy and shining from repeated oil applications.
One day, Juggernaut’s mother ran out of peanut oil in the middle of the week because of unexpected family guests so she asked Juggernaut to fetch peanut oil from Narasamma store at the market. On reaching at the store, juggernaut saw few customers waiting to be served at the counter, both Narasamma and her brother were busy attending the customers and Veeriah was helping them in the background. After waiting patiently for some time, when Juggernaut’s turn came, Narasamma continued to ignore Juggernaut for a while before attending to him. She completed the transaction as if she did not recognize him. Juggernaut was surprised for her indifference knowing her to be very friendly whenever she makes house calls to his house, “perhaps she was showing off at her store,” thought Juggernaut. On the way back walking with a small can of oil, he decided to ignore her as a tit for tat tactic when she comes to visit them next Sunday.
As usual, Narasamma came with porter to Juggernaut’s house the next Sunday afternoon; she was all smiles and friendly making inquiries on well being of the tenants. Juggernaut resisted the temptation of sitting next to her on the floor near the oil vessel because of her indifference to him when he visited her at the store but couldn’t resist for too long so he squat near the oil vessel to observe her oil dispending techniques and open the lid to see shiny coins in the small pocket on the vessel. The curiosity for watching her dispensing oil got better of his disappointment for her indifference at the store. Looking back at the events after several decades, Juggernaut thinks that Narasamma was all superficial like oil slick.
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