Every evening, as the sun begins to descend from its high perch, a bhel vendor quietly rolls his rickety food cart down my road. It is a daily, late afternoon ritual, when the sun’s rays take on softer tones, and people emerge from mid-day slumbers, ready to revive spirits in a once-again hospitable milieu. For many, the starting point for the evening festivities is the local bhel food cart.
This bhel vendor has an endearing look about him. A squat fellow, he wears white pajamas and a white, full-sleeved shirt buttoned at the cuffs, in traditional Maharashtrian style. His hair is spiky white, cut in the typical style known to village barbers. He seems to be in his 50s.
Belying his age, however, is the youthful feel created by his unusual ears. They stick out, perpendicular to his face, as if eager to hear every sound that dances in the air. This is matched by the expression on his face, which seems to always have a laugh bubbling underneath.
The first time I saw him, I snuck a glance at the pile of puffed rice sitting atop his cart’s platform, surrounded by tantalizing tomatoes, juicy lemons and spicy red onions. I met his inviting gaze, and politely indicated a decline. He inclined his head slightly and bowed his head in acknowledgement.
Since then, I have seen him many times, and we seem to have struck up a friendship. He gives me a toothy grin every time I pass by, recognizing me. I wave to him and he bobs his head, happily, in acknowledgement. I still haven’t bought any snack from him yet, nor has he invited me. The friendship is untarnished by commercial exchange. It is, quite simply, an awareness of each other and a recognition of a familiar soul.
I imagine it is lonely for him for much of the time that he is standing out there. Arriving early to greet folks as they step out, he is by himself on the desolate road. A random pedestrian walks by without a second look at this cart. A dog rests under a tree shade nearby, also uninterested in him. Alone, he waits. In this solitary state, it must be a welcome diversion to see an open, interested face. Not all bhel vendors are like him, though. Most have a surly look, casting a cultivated disdain for those that ignore them as they pass by. This gentleman, by contrast, looks at the world around him good-naturedly.
I can’t explain how good it feels to see him or to have the slight exchange. Neither of us gets anything out of it and yet, we both get so much at the same time. Perhaps it’s just me, pining for the old world when people knew each other and greeted each other, reaffirming one’s existence in the world. It feels important, this affirmation. Instead of looking down at a mobile screen, we choose to look at the real person standing in front of us, making them feel seen, allowing for a human connection to forge.