"Who Aimi? That woman stronger than Banga stone! She is ah hard working woman, dem woman nowadays cyah touch she!"
That was the description I got of Aimi Maharaj as I asked for directions to her home last Wednesday. I had seen her before by the Wallerfield junction just opposite the Agricultural office and Milking station selling sorrel and pigeon peas in the tray of her white pickup van. Just recently she was selling from a new Kia but on both occasions she had the same no-nonsense expression on her face. Through drought or thunderstorm she was a regular feature at the rural crossroad which takes you to Sangre Grande, Cumuto or westward towards Port-of-Spain. On the Wednesday I decided to interview her, her fellow villagers couldn't contain their excitement and admiration for the stalwart vendor.
As I drove into her modest dwelling house surrounded by fruit trees and ornamental plants I spotted Aimi wearing her signature shirt, skirt and sneakers. "Good afternoon ma'am," she said, with curiosity etched on her face. I introduced myself and my intentions and her firm expression softened. Maharaj wasn't expecting a paparazzi visit but she was accommodating as she wasn't going to sell at her familiar corner today. Business was slow these days. Pigeon peas wasn't bearing as it should because of heavy rains last December which caused the flowers to drop off before fruiting, she explained, and sorrel season was long gone.
"With this vending business you have ups and downs. Around the Christmas season I was booming. I had pigeon peas and sorrel like mad. I sell green vegetables too but sorrel and pigeons are more my market," the slim Indian woman declared. "You buy from farmers and then retail?" I asked. "Yes I buy and sell, I selling produce since I was 14. My parents used to have a garden and I used to work in it. Was cocoa first then we start planting cabbage, yam and other short crops. I from Tamana you know, I only move to Wallerfield when I get older," the former student of Tamana RC School informed.
Watching her gesticulate with her toned arms I understood what the villager meant by "Banga stone". "I come from humble beginnings. I was never rich; I and my eight brothers and sisters had to work hard for everything we have. We used to get up two a.m. every morning to go in the garden. Some days we didn't have anything to eat and we had to eat roti and mango!"
"Roti and curry mango?" I enquired. The mother of three laughed heartily, "No dearie, roti and ripe mango. In those days we couldn't even afford chicken. We used to eat provision and simple food. No KFC, and back then wasn't KFC, was Sunday Basket. My mother used to cook vegetables from the garden with either rice or roti. Times was hard but we learn to make do with what we had."
"Was it these foods that gave you the strength you have today?" I asked.
Blushing, the 53-year-old vendor avowed, "I guess my strength come from home cooked food from the soil. I remember days when we used to eat fry green tomatoes because the tomatoes didn't ripe yet and we had to cook something. That is why I does always tell my children, what you can't have do without and make do!" I learned that Maharaj used to sell in the Port-of-Spain market growing up and she used to have to travel from Tamana and overnight at the market with her sister and mother.
Later stints of selling her produce on Charlotte Street and Prince Street trying to make a comfortable living as the breadwinner for her family and saving every last cent she had in order to put her three children (two girls and boy) through school were later chapters in her saga.
Listening on eagerly at his mother's interview was a young man who Maharaj said was her son, Amit. Not being able to resist the opportunity to "big up" his mom, Amit interjected, "I apologise for butting in but I have to tell you that my mother is a strong woman with guts. She mind all ah we with vending money. Everybody respect her from the market people to the people in Wallerfield. She is a real role model for my sisters and me. Do you know she make front page of the Express aready in a random picture they take in 2001 selling sorrel in the market?" Maharaj responded, "Oh God Amit, you didn't have to tell de girl that!"
I shook my head at the news. "Ms Aimi you are a sorrel celebrity!" She let out a long steups and smiled, "Girl I believe that hard work does pay. Do you know that I used to drive ah old white van before and I actually qualify for a loan the other day to buy a new Kia? Hard work does pay. What I also tell my children is that liars doh reach nowhere in life. If is one thing I hate is for somebody to lie to me. I doh lie at all!" "She also tell us don't let what others have burn your eyes and to be contented with what you have!" piped in Amit again. "Amit!" Maharaj insisted. It was as if she was so humble that the slightest compliment made her uncomfortable.
"Girl, life nowadays need the old tricks of long time. You see me here I could work a piece of land all by myself and not get tired. Why? Good food. You ever hear bout curry fig?" she asked. I knew about curry fig as some of the workers on the estate where I work love this delicacy. "You could curry fig just like how you curry potato, chunkay it the same way. That is healthy food, fig have real iron in it. You ever hear bout Yam puri?" Yam puri? Okay so she was hitting on some gourmet country dishes that I, a bonafide country girl, didn't know about. "Yam puri is like a dhalpuri with yam in it. You have to boil the yam and season it up and then add it to the roti dough and then put the dough on the tahwa and make it like dhalpuri," the sorrel selling chef advised. "If we eat more of these country foods we wouldn't have half the health complications we have today. I never thought that I would live to see the day where chicken getting big in six weeks, I from the old school of yard fowl. But if is one thing, nowadays people still like their fresh pigeon peas. I know this because my pigeon peas does sell out real fast."
Chatting with the vendor extraordinaire from Wallerfield was becoming so enjoyable that I began losing a track of time. It was only when she told me that she had to go out to purchase some vegetables from a farmer that I decided to wrap up the interview. "Girl, life real short but you have to make do with the time you have on this earth. Just imagine my daughter Karen teach me how to use Facebook and how to surf the Internet. I never went to secondary school and I just have school leaving and look at me on the computer just like all these young people. That proves that you never too old to learn. But I want to tell everybody, before you reach your next goal in life or you even plan to reach it, you have to be contented with where you reach so far. What people don't understand is that contentment is the secret to happiness!"
Maharaj's conclusion was food for thought, just like her interesting recipes. Aimi, the woman strong like banga stone had many secrets to success to share with me. The villager was right, a hard working woman indeed, Aimi Maharaj is one who the divas nowadays can't touch.
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