In the suburb of Adyar, just west of Madras, a religious society dedicated to brotherhood, the study of comparative religion, and the unexplained laws of nature and man has built its international headquarters. With its large following and financial resources, it has filled its park-like estate, bordered by the blue Bay of Bengal and the ornate palace of a former maharaja, with churches and temples from every major creed in history. Though the Zoroastrian temple and many others stand deserted and uncompleted, the vibrant Hindu temple is well attended by worshippers from the surrounding area. Germans, Lithuanians, and Argentineans in ochre robes meditate at graceful Buddhist stupas or wander contemplatively among the flowering plants and trees brought in by members from around the world, and Hindu pilgrims by the thousands come to see an enormous banyan. With religious attractions like these, not to mention its famous library of rare books and ancient palm-leaf manuscripts, the society has a constant stream of visitors. And for years all of them had to pass before one small mystery that hardly anyone noticed - the life-and-death struggle between two women who sold coconuts, just outside the iron front gate.
To say that Madras is hot is a ridiculous understatement. Anyone who walks outside in the fiery depth of summer and wants to stay sane, not to mention survive, has to have something to drink. Those visitors to the society who had the money and didn't mind walking several blocks out of their way could buy an iced, sugared milk at the stand of the Tamil Nad Milk Cooperative. The Indian majority, who had smaller budgets and had walked too much already, could buy an inexpensive coconut right at the gate and drink the milk. Business was steady, if not lucrative, and, miraculously, ninety-five percent of it always went to the woman who stood on the left of the gate. Naturally this drove the other woman crazy.
It takes a certain amount of capital to go into the coconut business, enough to buy a hefty knife to slice off the tops, a box of straws, and a pile of coconuts, not the small black kind found in American supermarkets but the big, oblong green ones full of clear, tangy milk. That may not sound like a lot of money, but for someone who lives on a couple of hundred rupees a month in a thatched hut that gets flooded out twice a year by the monsoon rains it's hard to save up. Otherwise ten or twenty women might have been selling by the gate. Still, the two women were equally well equipped.
Vijaya, on the left, was rounded, in her early sixties, and had long gray hair. She wore a threadbare sari but looked healthier and more prosperous than, say, the gangly bicycle repairman who had to live and work among the branches of the small banyan across from the milk stand or the wizened old bullock shoe-er who waited motionless by the main road with his tiny hammer, tiny anvil, strip of rope, and handful of tiny nails.
Sharada was also in her sixties, but she was thin and in bad tone and wore her hair short. Her sari was torn in many places, and she was obviously not doing well. Most of the day she stood alone, glowering before her unsold pile of coconuts.
When a festive crowd of pilgrims got off the city bus in front of the society, those who wanted coconuts were drawn magnetically to Vijaya. Only when Vijaya's line was long enough to make them completely impatient would one or two pilgrims drift over to Sharada, just enough to keep her hanging on, perpetually mystified.
A gray-haired man from the neighborhood might walk up on his way to a lecture on devotion to Krishna, slender and dignified in his white shirt and linen dhoti. A beautiful young woman in a lavender and gold silk sari, with jasmine flowers in her thigh-length black hair, might arrive with her small children to see the holy sites. And although both women at the towering gate would hold up identical coconuts and quote identical prices, although Sharada even called out louder, each customer would go to Vijaya, leaving Sharada sputtering in rejection.
To Sharada, this was a terrible injustice. Years before, she had been the first of them to set up business there. A widow with grown children and a living to earn, she had searched through the area for a suitable spot for months, selling one coconut here, another there, wherever she wasn't driven away by other vendors. One day she passed before the society and noticed with surprise that the former coconut seller was gone. When she asked around and learned that the other woman had died, she seized the place as her own at once, intuitively selecting the more auspicious corner on the right. And at first she made decent money there for her trade, and thanked the gods for the good fortune that had come her way. Finally she had the chance to get out of the financial difficulties that had plagued her all her life and the near destitution she had been thrust into after her husband's death.
But after only a few months of success, she arrived one morning to find Vijaya setting up her own pile of coconuts on the left of the gate, which meant she'd been observing Sharada and should have known better. The perpetually bored, khaki-clad guard at the gate smiled at the implications, but Sharada was greatly offended. The previous seller had always worked alone, and there really wasn't enough business to be shared. Sharada glared at Vijaya and told her in loud, abusive terms that she'd better go away. But Vijaya merely nodded with a reserved politeness, pointed out that there was plenty of room, and then ignored Sharada and went about her work. After that, the two competitors didn't speak for more than a year. Their competition, however, began in earnest.
Sharada knew her business was bound to decline, but she believed she could hold on to most of it. For some weeks she watched with satisfaction as Vijaya hardly made a sale. She hoped the woman would admit defeat quickly and find some other place, but day after day Vijaya stood patiently and very still before her pile, holding up a green coconut for all to see, like a living effigy. And when someone finally bought one, her face would light up momentarily and she would hand over the coconut graciously, as if it were a blessing. Gradually more and more passers-by began to buy from her, especially repeat customers, and Sharada counted up a smaller profit each evening.
Appalled, Sharada did everything she could to stem her losses. She made it a point to arrive there first every morning. She arranged to have a larger pile of coconuts than Vijaya's, and even wiped them all down with a rag so that they looked clean and fresh. The straws in her box were pristine. She sharpened and re-sharpened her knife, and wielded it with a flourish when she sliced off the tops. But over the period of a year her sales plummeted for reasons she simply couldn't comprehend, while Vijaya's rose.
It would have been better for her to pick up her coconuts right then and move somewhere else, where her prospects might have improved. But the society had been the best location she'd ever found, and if she left she would not only face the search for a new one, but more quarrels with still more vendors, who covered literally every corner in the city. On top of that, it just didn't make sense to her that she couldn't compete. She had been there first! She had established customers! And she not only had the very same supplies, but more of them! Why should she be the one who was dislodged?
She began to observe Vijaya carefully to learn her secrets. Because Vijaya stood still with a raised coconut like a goddess, she did too. She also tried to imitate Vijaya's gratitude and graceful gestures, all to no effect. Besides, they made her feel self-conscious and ridiculous. What was it then, Vijaya's weight? Sharada ate rice ravenously for a while, but no matter how hard she tried she couldn't take on Vijaya's rounded shape. It was too expensive to eat like that anyway.
Then she tried a bold stroke. Early one morning she occupied Vijaya's corner. It was just possible that Indian pedestrians, who usually keep to the left, the way drivers there stay on the left side of the street, would also buy coconuts on the left, although everyone knew that everything on the right was always more auspicious. And her coup had immediate effects. When Vijaya arrived that day, she was plainly taken aback. Sharada watched with unconcealed amusement while the poor woman hesitated a good five minutes, but then Vijaya simply set up shop on the right.
For a few days Sharada's income increased, but then the balance of sales began to tip in Vijaya's favor again, as if on the great scale of life she had the heavier coconut. Sharada was incensed! It was like a slap in her poor face, when she had suffered so much already. Shortly afterwards she began to doubt herself, and she went that night to a temple of Lakshmi, goddess of good fortune, and prayed long and hard.
The following morning, filled with a new determination, she moved back to her old spot on the right. Vijaya let her. This time the relocation had no noticeable effect, and Sharada's downward spiral resumed as if her most earnest prayers had been ignored or rejected.
A note of hopelessness crept into Sharada's voice as tried to hawk her wares, and she fumed and sulked bitterly when she failed, which did her business still more harm. It simply made no sense to her to lower her prices, since they were standard for the market and set at a pathetic minimum anyway. Instead, she began insulting Vijaya when no one else was there, to the guard's vast amusement. And in moments of frustration, watching her rival tuck away rupee notes in the folds of her sari, she began to mutter to herself venomously and swing her knife around, which scared many customers half out of their wits.
Finally the cauldron of hot emotions within her boiled over. One day when twenty pilgrims clustered about Vijaya for her sacred coconuts made of gold, while none at all went to Sharada, she dropped her coconut to the ground with an ominous thud. Shouting incoherently, she rushed at Vijaya with her knife still in her hand. The crowd around Vijaya parted. The khaki-clad guard at the society's gate shouted something and ran out. A tall man in the crowd grabbed at her, but she darted to the side and he missed. When she was in range, she insulted Vijaya brutally and raised her knife. Vijaya turned toward her with her damned coconut and her own knife, unraised, and looked at Sharada wide eyed but hardly moving, and took a deep breath. A sad sympathy filled her eyes, as if she understood Sharada's plight only too well. Sharada hadn't expected this. Dismayed, she felt frail and weak before her. In her confused state, she remembered the graceful image of Lakshmi from the temple the night before, which in its splendor seemed to merge somehow with Vijaya's rags. Trembling with a Hindu dread of what would happen to her if she went on, through the laws of karma in this life or the next, stronger by far than her fear of prison, Sharada lowered her knife.
The tall man grabbed her, and then the guard did too. But by then her fire had gone out. She realized she was muttering something even she couldn't understand. The two men sat her down by the gate, and the guard wet his handkerchief with cool water and washed her face with obvious annoyance and distaste. No one called the police because no crime had really taken place, just a moment of anger. Eventually Sharada wandered home without her pile of coconuts, went to bed without eating, and fell into an exhausted sleep.. When she returned the next morning, dreading her losses because her coconuts sure to have been stolen, she found them all still there. Actually, they were back again, because Vijaya had paid a boy two of her own coconuts to take Sharada's home the night before and then return them to their place. It was an act of kindness for which Sharada never forgave her. Grimly Sharada took up her old position on the right, and her life resumed its apparently natural, downward course.
For her part Vijaya stood calmly on the left, doing a good trade, barely making money because that was the nature of the business, but surviving, even saving a little. A sweet-natured woman who was also widow and lived on the verge of destitution, she kept close watch of Sharada through the corner of her eye. But though she felt a sense of accomplishment and triumph that sometimes made her smile and glow when the customers crowded around her, she bore Sharada no ill will. By and large she ignored her. Instead, day in and day out for more than twenty years, she stood with perfect confidence at her post before the religious society and focused on her way in life, which was to provide refreshing coconuts as pleasantly as possible to whatever thirsty travelers might come to her, to pilgrims on their way to a banyan tree and holy places, until she came to seem serene and selfless and pilgrims were drawn to her naturally, as if she were herself a holy shrine.