Maya had been sweeping the verandah when the papaya man first appeared. He came slowly down the road, wheeling his bicycle along, one hand balancing the basket of papayas perched precariously on the seat. He did not yell out in a singsong voice, like the other hawkers did, and Maya, busy with her twig broom and her pail of water, became aware of him only when his still, silent shadow fell across the steps of the verandah.
She straightened up, one slim hand tucking a loose strand of hair behind one ear, the other hand quickly letting down the crumpled pleats of the cotton sari bunched up around her knees. From within the house, the mistress, suspicious of the sudden silence, called out, “Maya! Maya, have you finished?”—and then, “What is it? Has someone come?”
Maya, quiet for the briefest of moments, answered, “Papayas, memsahib. There’s a man selling papayas… do we need any, memsahib?”
And that day, for the first time in what was to be a long and literally fruitful association, Maya stepped down into the dusty road, to stand beside the papaya man’s bicycle and examine the fruit he sold. Easily, unhurriedly, she smelt and felt each papaya, aware at the same time of the man who stood by, watching her. A quiet young man, who silently appraised her; admired the curve of her chin, the sleek golden slimness of her waist, and the thick silken plait which snaked its way down—
“This one,” Maya said, and glanced up to find him looking at her. He looked away hurriedly, and Maya, to her chagrin, flushed as she handed him the money, and wrapping up the papaya in the end of her sari, walked quickly away into the house. The man stood for a while, all by himself in the road, looking down at the crumpled money in his palm; then he continued down the road, not bothering to stop in front of any of the other houses.
And so it continued; for days, for weeks, for months. Long after papayas were not really in season any more—the papaya man would come, even if he only had one or two papayas to bring. Wheeling his cycle along, a quiet figure walking through rain and sunshine, dust and gale, stopping always at just this one house in the street. And Maya would watch for him, with a barely concealed tenseness, an eagerness she herself did not acknowledge. Even when the papayas were bitter and unripe; even when they were no good to anybody but Maya- she would buy them. To cut in thin slices and sprinkle with salt and red chilli; to eat, even if not to savour.
Until the day he said, in his characteristic quiet manner, “I won’t be coming from tomorrow.”
Maya gasped, her world suddenly tumbling to her feet. “Why?!”
He paused—perhaps for effect, perhaps because he was nervous—then he said, “I’ve got myself a job, in a printing press—”
She stared, perplexed. “But why? What’s wrong with selling fruit?”
“Doesn’t pay much,” he muttered, and then, gathering up all his courage, he looked her straight in the eye and added, “I’m thinking of getting married.”
That was all the proposal Maya could get out of him; but, a month later, when she stepped into her new home and looked in awe at the grove of papaya trees next door, she could not help but turn and look at her husband in wonder.
Her husband grinned shyly. “My neighbour’s papayas,” he murmured. “I really don’t think he’s missed any.”
(Highly commended winner in the Commonwealth Broadcasting Association’s Short Story Competition, 2002)