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The Grain Parcher’s Wife

Updated: Jan 17

Surendra Singh
Surendra Singh

The Grain Parcher’s Wife

BY: Surendra Singh - India

Short Story

The parcher, in his early forties, had strong limbs and a dark complexion. He sported a handlebar moustache and twisted it frequently. His parching oven was under a thatched lean-to behind my house in the village. A pile of sand lay in one corner, and firewood and dry leaves in another. A cauldron and a pair of sieves were the instruments with which he roasted grains. He was a skilled parcher. People thronged to him with gram, wheat, maize, peanuts, and rice. He took one-tenth of the grain as his fees. Other parchers fretted and fumed with jealousy as he’d put them out of work. Every morning he burnt the fire and put a sand-filled cauldron on the stove. When the sand became red hot, he placed the grain in it and stirred. The smell of roasted grains and the crackling of maize and gram drew children out of their homes. They stood there with their eyes popping out of their sockets and licked their lips. Taking pity on them, he gave them a fistful of roasted grams. The kids laughed and vanished from there. The sight of the popping corn was my favorite. The smell of roasted gram watered my mouth.

Why did so many men come there? I learned it a few weeks later. His wife’s presence one day came as a pleasant surprise to me. She was a tall, dark woman with big eyes, wide hips, and strong legs. A thick and long orange vermilion adored her hair parting. Its size and color were the symbols of a wife's fidelity. The men had so such a burden. She wore an indigo sari and a dark blue blouse. The kohl-lined eyes made them more attractive. Her one glance was enough to slay any male heart. She sat before the oven with her sari pulled over her knees and used an iron blowpipe to increase the flame when her husband asked her to do so. The ash and vermilion particles wafted and settled on her shiny black hair. Her face turned golden against the fire. The sight of tanned, brown legs made many men salivate. Was that his well-thought-out ploy to draw the customers? I never knew, but I gave him the benefit of the doubt. After all, how could an illiterate villager think of such a loathsome idea? I overheard some men whisper about spending a night with her. A few were thugs who could go to any length to fulfill their desire. I was worried about her but could do little as a boy.

The parcher was a fabulous storyteller. I spent time with him for the stories, many of which he made up. Some tales were good, while others were pretty ordinary. But I enjoyed them all. Like me, he was fond of cricket and asked me to get my grandpa's radio, and we listened to the commentary at his shop. During those days, India seldom won matches, and we hoped like hell that the last batsman would make a century so India could win. It was too much to expect against the mighty West Indians, whose dreaded fast bowlers created more fear in the mind of listeners than that of the batters who faced them.

His greatest desire was to buy a transistor and not a bicycle. When he purchased a Bush transistor, he shared his joy with me. His eyes misted. His throat choked with emotion. He roasted the grains, listening to Hindi songs. It relieved me. I didn't have to borrow the radio from my grandpa. The parcher was a happy man who loved to sing, though his voice was barely tolerable. In the rainy season, he sang Alha, a popular folk song of the state. He told me that people sang it during the monsoon in the glory of two successful military commanders of Chandel King Parmal of Bundelkhand.

After a while, his wife didn’t show up at the shop, disappointing the male crowd. But she, on some pretext, showed up defying his diktat. He grated his teeth and hissed but didn’t yell at her in front of others. His deafening silence and fiery eyes forebode a bad evening for her. The following day, she wore a full-sleeve, high-neck blouse that covered her midriff and the marks left behind by last night’s beating. A thick layer of kohl hid her blackened eyes. But her obedience lasted only a few days. A strange, pretentious exuberance characterized their relationship, under which lay a few dark layers.

One evening, my mother asked me to fetch the firewood. I went to the compound and ran into a man. I couldn't recognize him in the fading light. He’d covered his face with a shawl. My gaze straightway went to the thatched hutwhere the parcher and his wife lived. The door was half-open. As I inched forward, a shadow stirred and shut the door. Perhaps the stranger had gone there for a few drinks of toddy. I picked the firewood from the veranda of the barn and walked back. On the way, I met the parcher. Shocked, I asked where he had been. His wife had run out of rice, and he'd gone to fetch that. I said nothing and went home. That brief journey of less than a hundred yards broke many beliefs embedded in my mind. I conjured many stories that stretched from one extremity to another and wondered which could be true. I didn’t want to believe in the one that could hurt her image. I left it to my adult years to decide on that and moved on.

After dinner, I tossed and turned in bed. The incident shook me from within. That shock was too big for my young mind to comprehend the complexities of human life. The next day it perplexed me when I heard the parcher singing at the shop. I carried the image of people as per their behavior in public. It didn’t occur to me then that they could be any different. A half-century later, the recollection of the parcher and his wife and that incident makes me circumspect. Poverty is the mother of all sins. A poor man walks upon life's path, pebbled with sharp, pointed stones that prick his feet and bruise his soul. The parcher and his wife knew that well.


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