The stall at Sheikh Sarai

In South Delhi’s Sheikh Sarai, beside a main road that is always choc-a-bloc with traffic, you may find this wizened old woman sitting on a fold-out cot. In the years when I lived in that neighbourhood, she had a stall fashioned from bamboo, pipes and some roofing, where she sold earthen planters, pots and bowls in which water is put out for birds and other animals. I walked past the stall almost every weekday for two years and watched it change and grow.

She lived with her son in a nearby tarpaulin-covered shack. The son, a wiry young man, could often be seen asleep on the cot or lounging around with his eyes glued to his mobile phone while his mother pottered about.

Three old street dogs, almost as grey and bent as the old woman, were usually napping somewhere in her vicinity or scuttling behind her as she attended to the occasional customer. One short-legged brown female dog, whom I referred to as Chhoti (meaning ‘little one’ in Hindi), was my dog’s friend. We would often meet her on morning walks.

Street dogs were not the only animal companions. At one time, I spotted two parakeets in a cage. Later there was a tiny kitten, who was kept leashed to the cot, safe from street dogs, until it was old enough to roam free. I often observed the old woman hobbling to the nearby neglected patch of shrubbery, laying out grain, fruit and vegetable scraps, and water in separate earthen bowls for the birds, rats and the occasional passing monkey.

I have moved away from that neighbourhood, but until before the lockdown in March, I would still take that route regularly. The stall had blossomed, now also displaying more expensive wares such as ornate iron planter stands, multicoloured plastic planters, and ornamental plants that are common balcony garden favourites. The old woman and Chhoti were there too, possibly still spending their days together much like they used to three years ago when I took this picture.

The old woman and Chhoti
Photograph taken August 2017, Sheikh Sarai, Delhi

© Shreya Bhat 2020. All rights reserved.

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