On the outskirts of a small town in the middle of a paved platform stands a proud banyon tree. Around the trunk frolic demons, elves, nagas, Ganeshas and an artistically sculptured granite Nandi. In the shade of the tree three women stand by their market stalls, patiently waiting for customers. They wait stoically, grateful for every tiny bit of business, as they have done for years
Today, by the third hour of the afternoon, they have not sold a thing. They have hardly seen a person the whole day. The few that have appeared were either dashing into or out of the little town. So far, no one has been attracted to their displays.
Usha is sitting on a stall in front of a mass of dangling roots, offering incense sticks, bidis and tobacco for sale, a cigarette butt between her tightly pressed lips.
Next to her, Mira crouches on an old jute sack, occasionally polishing a mandarin or a sweet lemon with the corner of her sari.
Diagonally opposite Jayamma leans against the base of the statue. From time to time she dips her hand into an old powdered milk tin, which is filled with water, and sprinkles the dark yellow and red flowers.
The three market women fight valiantly against boredom, discontent and sleep. They regularly rub their necks, stamp their feet, or exchange meaningless utterances. "My bidis are running out of breath!", "The mandarins are shrinking like the mayor's balls!", or "I'll make myself a flower bed in a minute!".
Slowly it turns to dusk, and the disappointed women think about packing their wares, and returning home. One last time they try to attract customers: "Bidis, tasty Bidis, nice smelling incense!" , "Fresh fruit, sweet mandarins and juicy lemons!" , "Beautiful flowers, blooms as red as sunset, as yellow as the holy butter in the temple of the great Devi!" Their voices sound somewhat hoarse.
There's not a person in sight, ? and yet, on the corner of the Shiva shrine, next to the busstop, a skinny man appears. An old man with a beard and long matted hair, adjusts his loin cloth and, blinking, looks around the group of women. After he clears his nose and spits in the dust, he slowly shuffles his way over to Usha.
"Greetings, sister, give an old man a Bidi. May Shiva fill your open heart with his breath." He croaked, tapping his forehead, mouth and chest with the fingers of his right hand.
"And your open mouth and lungs with the smoke of my Bidis, of course at my expense." scorns Usha. "What does an ascetic want with a Bidi? Haven't you foresworn all earthly desires and pleasures?"
With a dignified inclination of his head, the old man replies: "It helps in my meditation, in the observation of the universal reality, the experience of the truth. The smoke makes me aware of how transient everything is. Through the smoke I recognise that in reality everything is an illusion. Maya."
"Oh really", says Usha, rather unimpressed, "then assume that my Bidis are an illusion, a deception too. Good day."
"Oh sister, don't be so hard. I am old and poor." With these words, his eyes fill with tears.
"Okay", sighs Usha, and hands him a small pack of Bidis. "Take that, and go in peace."
The old man again touches his forehead, mouth and chest, mumbles something, and turns his attention to Mira. "Greetings, sister, give a holy man a mandarin. May Shiva fill your heart with the nectar of immortality."
"Aha", says Mira , with a grim voice. "and in fact, your mouth and stomach with the flesh and juice of my fruit. And you don't want to pay for it, of course. What does an ascetic, who has vowed to be hard to his body, want with mandarins and lemons?"
With a gesture of understanding, or benevolence, the old man says: "Through the peel I recognise that reality is only veiled. Through the seeds, I become aware that the truth of life slumbers behind hard layers and seductive sweetness."
"Well then, go and collect some peel and pips. Maybe the cows have spat some out!"
"But sister, have pity on an old man."
"Fair enough." Mira sighs also, and hands him a mandarin. "That will give you strength for your long journey."
After he has thanked her, he turns to Jayamma: "Greetings, sister, give a holy man a few flowers. May Shiva sprinkle you and your generous heart with the pollen from the garlands of the heavenly dancers."
"Hmm", grumbles Jayamma disdainfully, "In fact though, your dusty and stinking locks will be adorned with the perfume and colour of my flowers. And at my cost! Why does an ascetic, to whom scent and colour are nothing but deception and trickery, adorn himself with flowers and blossoms?"
For a brief moment, the old man closes his eyes. "The blossoms in my hair will wilt. Through this, dear sister, I experience the passing of all earthly things, and experience the eternal truth, that life and death are as one, beauty as ugliness, pain as pleasure?."
"Then I advise you to sit on a few thistles!"
"But sister, show kindness towards one of the lowest under the sun."
"Oh well, my flowers will be good for nothing tomorrow."
With a bidi in his mouth, a mandarin in the one hand, the flowers in the other, the old man heads for the road, into the sunset.
The three market women watch him for a while, then pack their things together and meet by the stone Nandi.
"So! What did the holy man teach you?"
Usha waves her hand dismissively: "To me, he made clear that I will go up in a puff of smoke if I give everything away!"
"He taught me that I'll rot in hell if I give something to every scrounger who crosses my path!"
Jamaya, with a toss of her head, swinging her greying plait over her shoulder says: "He made clear to me that I will very soon wilt and die if I sell no flowers!"
At these words, they stare into the sunset for a few moments, before breaking out into hearty laughter.
"Open hearts, open mouths!" says Mira, and gives both companions a mandarin. "Here's to the ascetic, both before and after our meal!"
"So now let's smoke out the illusions in our brains!", says Usha, and shares out a few bidis.
"Although we all despise beauty, let's adorn ourselves for once!" declares Jayamma, as she offers the others her most beautiful flowers.
After smoking the bidis, and eating their mandarins, they lay the butts, the peel and the pips before the base of the stone Nandi. "We'll add a few flowers as well, and then Nandi will come back to life, awaken, then follow the old codger from before, who'll manage to persuade Nandi into becoming his mount!"
Giggling, they pick up their packs and make their way homewards. From the opposite direction, a peasant approaches the banyan tree, pulling a magnificent bullock on a rope. In front of the Nandi, he bows, touches the Nandi's forehead, and then his own, and mumbles something. In the meantime, the bullock presses forward, and begins to eat up the mandarin peel, the flowers and the bidi butts. Finally he seeks out the mandarin pips from the crevasses in the stones around the base with his tongue.
The three market women are enchanted: "The living truth!" , "The true Nandi!" , "The lifeless stone proves to be an illusion!"
These words have hardly passed their lips, when the bullock lifts his tail, and places a rich brown cowpat exactly on the spot where the three market women have just been standing. The flies don't waste a second!