The Smiling Salesman

“Ma, look! Look what I found in the book!” squealed Nethra in excitement.  “What is it ma what is it?” Shoving the piece of paper in front of my face, she breathed, “Is it about hidden treasure?!”

“Okay, let me first see” I laughed at her excitement and took the paper from her while carefully closing and placing the Encyclopaedia on the side. It was an old book, much used; one that had lasted me all my childhood and now was seeing my daughter’s. The paper in my hand seemed to be a page torn out of a notebook. I curiously opened it out. Nethu was going through an explorer-pirates-old parchment-treasure phase, and no wonder she thought it was a treasure map, as the page had yellowed, and the writing was quite faded. I could make out that it was my mother’s writing though. Even while scribbling her handwriting was so beautiful…  “Its written by your patti” I told my impatient little girl. “And it seems to be a story. I think..” “Can you read it for me ma..please..?”

There he was again. Wearing a crisp blue shirt and dark blue tie and the usual cheerful smile, he was working the road on my right, expertly weaving through the vehicles. How does he do it, I wondered. How can he manage to smile all the time? That too when no one had given him reason yet to do so? I glanced at the signal impatiently, and again looked to my right. He was moving closer now, coming onto my road. I drummed my fingers on the steering wheel, fuming at the amount of time wasted at this signal every morning .It was one of the busiest crossroads in Pune and I always spent at least 10 minutes waiting for the signal to turn green and for my turn to hasten to my office. Why do I even hurry? I wondered today. Its not like I even enjoy my job. I looked up just then, and there he was, approaching my car with a wide smile when the signal turned green. Shrugging my shoulders at him, I whizzed past with the feeling of having been released from jail. Ironic, since I was actually rushing to one!

I got off from work early today. I had a few errands to run. I found myself at the same signal, and there he was, still. He was there in the morning at 830, and here he is still, at 630 in the evening. And yet, he was smiling. There s something to be learned from him about attitude, I chided myself as he approached me .As I rolled down the window, he recognised me as one of the regulars and said “Hello madam. Are you sure you don’t need them?” he said, smilingly pointing at the heavy book in his hands. “No, thank you” I returned with a smile and he shrugged and smiled widely again. He never ever pushed.  He was a salesman of Encyclopaedias, possibly one of the worst jobs one could have (I had to admit, even worse than mine). How often does a person buy an expensive encyclopaedia? And that too at a traffic signal? In fact, how many people even want to read these days? And yet, there he was, day after day, wearing a crisp shirt and a tie and his ever present smile, always polite, never pushy, apparently selling encyclopaedias. The thing astounded me.

Soon I changed my job, and with that changed the route I took. A year had passed when I came to be at that junction again, and I was in a good mood. My eyes automatically roamed the crossroads looking to see if he was there, my salesman with the attitude. A knock at my left hand side window had me turning, only to find a familiar smile. Smiling back, I rolled down the window. “After a long time madam?” He enquired. “Yes. How are you?” I asked. He still had the book in his hands. “Oh!” I put my hands on my belly at the kick. I was happy, and I wanted to share the happiness. I looked at the signal. It was about to turn green. “Will you come over to that side? I want to buy your book” I told him to his astonishment. “There, right there” I pointed as the light turned green and the multitude of vehicles moved as a mass forward. I stopped to the side and he soon caught up. “You will really buy, madam?” he asked, unsure. “Yes!” I exhaled exuberantly while placing a reassuring hand on my tummy again. I felt a rush of joy and goodwill. Was it my expectant hormones at that point? I don’t know, but I feel gratitude for that man, who unwittingly made me happy just by being himself. How many of us can claim such an honour?

Who knew there was a story behind the first book I laid eyes on?! Thus it was that the encyclopaedia was the first book that was bought for me, before I was even born, before any picture books and flap books and 3D books. For the first 6-8 months, my mother read to me from it. I would turn the pages curiously, looking at the pictures, probably wondering about an exotic mysterious world (This is what she told me) Much later when I was big enough, I remember many an evening spent thumbing through it, lost in fascination in this ocean of information. I was a product of the internet generation, but I retained the love for a book, a lasting legacy of my parents, and in a way too, of the smiling encyclopaedia salesman.

“What does patti mean ma? I don’t understand! Was he a nice man?” asked my little five year old, squeezing her brows together in confusion. All the times spent with that book flashed through my head like the reels of a movie, and all the times I have seen my one thumbing through it… and I said, “Yes baby, he was a nice man”.

 

Sri. Me.And the ghosts of childhood past

I am sitting on the steps in front of the house underneath the cool green canopy of our jasmine bush. While breathing in the subtle fragrance of these delicate white blossoms, I can’t help thinking of my grandpa; my thatha.It is my favourite place in my grandparents’ house in my small hometown of SriRangam. He had planted and nurtured this bush and I can’t help thinking this is his lasting legacy. He passed away a few years ago at the ripe old age of 94. Sitting on these steps, my mind travels through myriad moments across multiple summer holidays , many of which were spent at my uncle’s place a few doors down, where my grandparents used to live before they came here. This summer holiday is a little different from the others. This time, I am here with my little one for her summer holiday, to show her the town that her mother and grandparents hail from. Is it because I want to show off that my heart seems to have more affection for Sri?

I actually like her now.

It wasn’t always like that.

I never really liked Sri growing up. She was too small and too crowded. One had to share space on the streets with shops whose merchandise overflowed on to the street, roadside stalls and raucous vendors, adventurous auto rickshaw wallas, honking cycle rickshaws, cows, hens and sundry other domestic fauna. Oh yeah, every so often, there was the temple elephant too ambling along taking coins from passersby and blessing them in return.

Everyone spoke in Tamil. Of course they would, the town was in the Tamil hinterland, you say. But for me, understanding and navigating the different accents, the various nuances and the localisms was very intimidating.(I am used to speaking Tamil only at home, having mostly lived outside TN. This was Iyengar Tamil, which, I learnt much later, was different from Iyer Tamil and Chennai Tamil and ten thousand other variants of Tamil, apparently. Even Lord Ranganatha (Vishnu), our resident deity, couldn’t save me!) I couldn’t get comfortable.

Life in Sri pretty much revolves around the Ranganatha temple. She has grown that way, with settlements all around the grand temple complex expanding outwards. Going to the temple is an unquestionable requirement, not a choice. And though I enjoyed the walk through the glittering shop lined street and loved even more the wide open spaces in the huge, beautiful old temple complex, I hated going for the darshan. I had to brave serpentine queues, rude guards and pushy maamis( “we come here every day for this sevai, how dare you presume to tell us not to push you and squash you?”). All this, barely to get a glimpse at the deity before being shoved and shouted out of the sanctum. Spiritual experience, it definitely is not.

Staying with my grandparents meant adhering to the rules of my formidable grandmother, my patti, who I haven’t stopped being scared of even now at the ripe old age of 35! Her rules include(d) everything from personal appearance , to personal hygiene to random things that defied logic (like this time, she said you can’t go back to your husband’s house from your parents house on the 9th day. Why? Beats me) It was sacrilege to be without a bindi and an unadorned neck and hands. Leave my hair open, and I risk angering the whole pantheon of Hindu Gods! Gods or not, I was more worried about incurring my patti’s wrath. All good girls had long, well oiled & plaited hair adorned with flowers (Imagine how I felt, I who rarely had hair long enough to stick a pin on, forget the plaits and the flowers). It wasn’t just her though, it was the town. The neighbourhood maami would come and insist I wear flowers while the maid would remind me that my forehead was bare (Lady, I just woke up, haven’t even sniffed the coffee yet!). And my mother, anxious not to let her child be seen in a “bad” light, would suddenly turn into a big nag. I felt stifled, and out of place.

This is not to say I didn’t have fun. It was loads of fun to meet aunts and uncles and cousins. Awesome to be part of weddings and engagements and ceremonies for which we all usually congregated. Fun to get my local cousin to buy ‘panneer soda’. Eat masala dosas by the dozen. Gorge on the tons of food lovingly fed by my patti and other aunts. The whole lot of us sleeping together on durries in the large hall. Good times, but if I were to make a list of my favourite places in the world, Sri would have been hard pressed to find a place on it.

In retrospect, it was probably when I got married to my north Indian husband that I felt closer to my roots. As if being part of a new reality was making me more aware of mine, and more appreciative of it.

So it was, that this time when I wanted to introduce my little girl to the place and reality I come from, I felt more ….accepting of it. And this acceptance made me look back at things in a different light. When the present becomes a memory it somehow becomes rosier, doesn’t it? Sepia tinged. Gilt edged. Instagrammed.

I felt I had been given a chance to rediscover the town that I was born in, but have never felt attached to. I was determined. Born and brought up in Srirangam, my mother became my willing aide. I visited the Ranganathar Temple armed with an audio guide app and my mother and set out to enjoy every gopuram and every story of this magnificent structure of history and faith. Not once, but thrice in order to cover it to my satisfaction. My daughter loved the stories, the wide open spaces, the elephant sculptures and dropping coins in the Hundi.  And in her laughter I remembered the fun I had had too. The darshan was still a crowded, pushy affair, but this time I chose to marvel at the immense faith of the people that made them brave the heat and crowds just to catch that one glimpse of their God.

After years I was enthusiastic about climbing up Rockfort, a Ganesh temple set atop a hill. And got sorely beaten by a 5 year old and a 65 yr old in enthusiasm and joy. An old friend and a weekend visit from a cousin and his wife added to the merry party.

Kolams (Rangoli) in the morning are an intrinsic part of my tamil identity and of my association with Sri. For the first time in all these years, I took the responsibility of making the morning kolam in my patti’s house and felt a new sense of belonging.  And I realised, is it Sri’s fault that I had never made her my own?

My daughter fed a cow. Gave a coin to the elephant, which she could not have enough of. Met goats and squirrels. She sat on the stairs by the window, and read, like I once used to do. Along with her, I dressed up with gusto. We happily tied our hair and wore jewellery and wore a bindi. Small everyday things, but I felt relieved, in a way. I wasn’t rebelling any more. There was no need to.

This is not to say that I have become more religious or traditional or ritualistic. I am still the same. But, accepting Sri for what she is, even for a brief period, made me happy and content.

This trip therefore, was important and memorable in more ways than one. One of the best moments however, was when I told my mother that I wanted to wear flowers, white & orange, enough to cover my hair. The shock on her face was equal to her look when I broke the news of wanting to marry a North Indian, Non Vegetarian, Non Brahmin!

Both times though, it was worth it.