By Dr. Venkat GA
She was selling pineapples, her bony hands barely managing to balance the basket and probably hurting from the weight of the fruits. Abject poverty was visible on her face.
The different vendors were all trying to sell stuff from boiled chickpeas, berries, some vegetables to pineapples, when this rather old and frail looking lady was trying to get heard in the crescendo of hawkers’ voices.
The town was Muniguda. It has remained etched in my memory as a picture of an India from the bygone years; and thankfully so.
Nestled at the base of the Niyamagiri hills in the green hilly district of Rayagada in Odisha lay the sleepy town of Muniguda.
The railway station was probably the only connection to the outside world in the absence of good motor able roads till the advent of the current millennium.
The rail head hence automatically qualified as a hub of communication, commute and commercial activity.
Vendors, mostly tribals from surrounding hills, sold local food, fruits picked from the forests and other wares at the station that came to life with the arrival of a passenger train only to fall asleep with the train’s departure.
Back in the 1990s(1995-99), I was witness to this village fair of sorts, twice every year during my bi-annual journey as an undergraduate student at Christian Medical College Vellore from the Steel City of Jamshedpur.
The 40 plus hour journey traversed 4 states, covering the entire length of two of them Odisha and Andhra Pradesh, the blessing being a direct connection for the entire stretch.
The train, then 18689/90 Bokaro-Alleppey express (now Dhanbad-Alappuzha express) used to meander its way along Western Odisha, before joining the Howrah-Madras (now Chennai) mainline at the fort town of Vizianagaram travelling further South.
Old Woman of Muniguda
On one of my journeys, our train was lazily waiting for one of the many crossings in the section, then a single line section, at Muniguda when I saw her selling pineapples.
Now, I had seen so many starved old people by then, but something inside me stirred and I got glued to her to see if she would be able to sell any.
She noticed me and asked if I would like to buy some?
I asked her how much would she give the entire basket of fruit for but she surprisingly refused.
I persisted and took out a 100 rupee note. She took it but could not recognize it as a currency denomination.
She probably hadn’t seen a 100-rupee note before in her life and said “give me 10 rupees for each of these fruits.”
I tried explaining that this note was worth 10 such 10 rupee notes but she wouldn’t have any of it.
I had change only for about 50 odd rupees. I gave it to her and picked 3-4 fruits before hurrying back to my coach as the semaphore signal ahead lowered to give us a go ahead.
My train let out a loud horn echoing from the hills of the Niyamagiri to our West much like the incident that has recurred within the grey convolutions of my head from time to time ever since.
Every time I buy, or have a taste of the sweet-sour juicy Bromeliad, I go back in time to that emerald patch named Muniguda. I would have probably made a painting of it but for my horrible drawing skills.
Photos: Dr. Himagirish Rao
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