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Dried Oranges

Dried Oranges

Saturday mornings in the market were always slightly busier than usual: with the place more crowded; the cacophony more discordant, and more dust interlaced within the air than usual. However, I never complained. I suppose, when the duty of doing the week’s grocery shopping for our household had initially been relegated to me, I found it rather challenging to accept the relentless energy of the marketplace, but I eventually grew to realize that in fact it was this lack of order and discipline that was the charm of the place.

On Saturday mornings I woke up an hour earlier than I did on rest of the weekdays and got dressed, making sure to cover my hair so that the dust didn’t damage the softness of it. Though I didn’t have a particular clothing item for the event, I did create a tradition of wearing the same shoes: my red sandals. The red sandals never really fit into any certain situation with their glittering straps too flamboyant for a causal evening, and the white stone at the intersection of each strap too sombre for a wedding. But when I stumbled upon the understanding that at the marketplace everyone would be too selfish to attain the best bargain for themselves; therefore, too preoccupied to spare a glance for my aging red sandals, I didn’t hesitate to reserve them for that spot of the week. Before I stepped outside of our house with an oversized green bag- which still managed to be incompetent in size for the amount of shopping to be done- I carelessly threw my red sandals in front of me and slipped my feet into them. It always used to amaze me how despite all the scratches and the once striking red hue withering away by the touch of time and dust, I never questioned its ability to carry me to the places I wanted to go to. It reminded of an old woman who used to live next to us that had died a few years ago. The old woman used to be incredibly beautiful during her fleeting moments of youth: her big, round eyes that glistened a light brown at the touch of orange sunlight; her nose beautifully curved like a comma and ending with a softened tip; her small, feminine lips like a fresh petal of a red rose, and her angular face that only served to accentuate the perfectly sculpted features. But as time thoughtlessly passed by, eroding away the treasures of her face and eating away the softness of her skin, she sunk into a mould created by the depths of her own age and time. Her beauty soon became a tale of the past told by the photos in the album collecting dust and her grand-daughter, who resembled her from a very particular angle. My red sandals reminded me of her because both served their purposes well like a brilliant soldier, but once forgotten they never complained yet, continued to fight on because their duty was merely to care for whom they loved. My red sandals protected my flesh from the small, pointy stones scattered across the marketplace ground and carried me back home just like that old woman, who sat on her rocking chair peeling fresh oranges from the tree in their yard for her grand-children until the day she died, despite her beauty melting away with each breath she took and her skin resembling a dried up, crinkled orange peel.

When I was around 14 or 15, a new stall selling sundried orange peels had been put up in our marketplace. At initial thoughts, I failed to understand the purpose behind it for I could not fathom the reason as to why anyone would want to buy scraps that had been thrown away by someone else? But soon, I remembered another woman with paper-like skin who my mother once used to work for. She had a very specific kind of lifestyle that she would abide by with almost every detail of her day etched permanently into this mechanical routine, and she never argued with that. The woman would sit in the same manner at the dining table: her legs pressed together with her back straight as if a puppeteer were pulling her tight with a string from above. She was a difficult person to deal with, and I say ‘deal’ for she had become sort of a burden; an old, cumbersome furniture that simply lied there after all its use extracted out of it completely, but refusing to be discarded for all the historical values it represented. I still remember the way she would serve her servants scraps of food left over from her meal, but concurrently cringe at her own leftovers whilst doing so. She had a habit of having two oranges after her lunch and as she would peel her oranges, she would turn her haughty gaze sideways as she dropped the orange peels to the ground, awaiting her maid to come and take them away. The maid would come and pick up the peels like a beggar picks up pennies from the streets and instead of discarding them in the bin, the maid would thinly slice them, scatter them onto a silver plate and place it near the kitchen window. The orange peels, after having found a new home, would bask in the afternoon sun until all its moisture had been sucked out by the hungry heat and had crispened up like newly washed and dried clothes. The maid would later take the orange peels and grind them into a paste for her Madame. Then, every Sunday the maid would gently rub the orange peel paste on the woman’s face, who lived unbeknownst to the fact that the compliments she would later attract for her rejuvenated skin from other women of her kind were because of the scraps she had previously disowned.

After I purchased all the usual, mundane things that I had to every Saturday, I approached the woman at the new stall. The stall wasn’t conspicuous from afar at all. It had no features that would perhaps give it its own sense of identity: the similar red-blue colour scheme that the majority of the stalls had in the market; the name of the stall, ‘Sundried Orange Peels’, displayed in bold black paint was akin to all the other stalls, and the woman selling these dried orange peels dressed in a dull orange long-dress with an even duller orange shawl covering nearly all of her face. Even the way that the item being sold was displayed across the table didn’t capture one’s attention until the point had arrived when one had to look down in order to choose which one to buy. The orange peels were packaged in a plastic bag and tied with a white thread, and varied in the sizes one could buy them in: big slices, medium slices or small slices. There was no price tag attached because I think the woman realized the futility behind that for it was guaranteed that the buyers would bargain to always lower the price, regardless of some stores strictly displaying the ‘fixed price’ signboard. I glanced at the woman quickly before making my pick.

“How much are the small-sized peels?” I asked, as I switched from holding the bag with my right hand to my left hand.

“What will you be using them for?” I was slightly taken aback to be responded to by a question, but I suppose it was no different from someone replying with a ‘why’ when you ask if you can borrow any money from them.

“Um…I don’t really know, I guess. I haven’t really thought about that.”

“What do you mean?”

“What I mean to say is that I will probably figure that out once I have bought it, you see.”

“Don’t you think that is a little unfair?”

“Unfair?” I started to feel as though I had entered an argument with my younger, opinionated sister.

“The thing is, when you bought your fish, your potatoes, your chillies, your spices and all your other items, you held an air of certainty- you knew for sure what they were going to be used for and more importantly, the fact that they would not be wasted. Why can’t you be certain about the dried orange peels?” I felt unprepared to be dealing with her increasing aggression. My silence momentarily melted into the persisting bargaining amidst the humid background, until the woman barked at me again.

“Is it because they are scraps that you are not being so careful?” I was reminded of the woman again and how she hadn’t ever found out that the beauty ritual she took the most pride in was because of the things she imagined were lying somewhere in the garbage. I began to wonder how she would have reacted if she did find out and how the other women would react also as they sipped their tea, which would have a perfectly round slice of dried orange swimming in it like a lily pad gently moves around on the surface of a lake.

“You don’t have an answer, do you, young girl? I knew it! I knew from the moment you stepped up to my stall that you wouldn’t! You are as dull and insipid as your disgusting red sandals!”

I had never imagined that my red sandals could catch anybody’s attention. After that encounter, I didn’t reply to any of the assumptions made or questions asked by that woman, nor did I proceed to buy any of her sundried orange peels. I hired a rickshaw and made my way straight back home. On the way back though, anything that contained orange caught my attention: the orange stripes on the rickshaw puller’s gamcha; the red seat of the rickshaw fading out to an orange; the sun in the sky resembling a big, fat orange. Even the air tasted like orange.

As the rickshaw pulled up to my house, I noticed that the orange tree in the yard of the deceased old woman’s house had died. The leaves had lost their vibrant green and laid scattered in a disorderly manner on the ground. The branches, from where many plump oranges used to dangle from like the way the old woman’s earrings used to do, now were empty and dead just like the old woman. I continued looking at the graveyard-like place and spotted a solitary orange on the ground, a horrifying shade of mould eating into its flesh and insects flying around it like witches circle a fire during the night. I thought back to the times when the old woman would peel oranges for her grand-children and how perhaps the orange tree may have lived longer if she were still alive. I thought back to how that old woman would keep beside her a separate plate on which she would place the orange peels, and how she would rub them on her sagging skin in hopes of that even a little bit of her beauty would return. But soon, she stopped doing that when she realized that was fruitless and that she would never be as beautiful as she once was. Thereafter, the old woman stopped keeping a separate plate next to her for the orange peels and simply asked her grand-daughter to put them in the bin in the kitchen.