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”.

 

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The look in his eyes

Our eyes met again.

I hurriedly looked away, while an eerie feeling engulfed me, feeling his eyes still on me. Shuddering as I drove away, I decided once again that I will take the longer route to the bus stop starting tomorrow.

Tomorrow finds me hurrying my baby along as she jumps and skips to the car. I check my watch. Nope, no time to take the longer route. Its pouring heavily and I can barely see a feet ahead. I take a deep breath, and take the shortcut to her bus stop through the slum at the back of our society. The slum provides us with all the work force that run societies like ours – the bais (housemaids), the dhobis (washer men), the drivers and watchmen. There are also daily labourers, who congregate on the roads every morning, I presume waiting for contractors to come hire them for the day. There are always men huddled together in groups every morning all along that narrow road that I use as a shortcut for reaching my daughter’s bus stop. There are tiny cramped houses with peeling paint and flapping clotheslines almost on top of each other spilling onto the road on both sides so that you feel boxed in. Women can be found filling water in vessels or washing up right outside their tiny houses, practically on the road. The rain has turned an open garbage dump nearby into a stinking decaying mess and there are children rollicking in the slush and the puddles that have formed all over the pot holed road. Every morning when I enter the area, I feel a familiar wariness creep over me, as if I shouldn’t be here, that I stick out here like a sore thumb. And I drive extra cautiously so as not to hit any wayward children, staring straight ahead trying not to have eye contact with anyone. Lest they see the disgust and the fear in mine. Except, he saw me.

He was one of them, dressed in a cheap shirt and trousers and waiting. Waiting, and looking. One day when momentarily I had forgotten my rule of not looking around, I caught him looking at me. He was clean shaven and his clothes were as clean as they could be, though rumpled. But his look had me unsettled. What was going on in his mind? Was he right now thinking about the unfairness of it all? Was my presence there an everyday reminder of all that he could probably never have? Hurriedly I looked straight ahead again and adjusted my top. Was I dressed inappropriately? I felt vulnerable..

“Ouch! Sorry sweetie” I said to my daughter as the car lurched over a pothole I could not see due to the lashing rain. My car harrumphed like a wheezing horse and then spluttered and died. Just like that. Suddenly the only noise I could hear was the steady beating of the rain and my little girl squealing “yayy muddy puddle…” Stumped, I kept staring at the steering wheel as if somehow that could get the car started, when a tapping at my window made me jump.

It was him.

I froze. No, no this can’t be happening to me.. My vision blurred as my mind raced through a hundred different possibilities none of which ended well…I frantically searched in my bag for my mobile to call my husband when there was a louder tap on the window. I spun towards the window expecting to meet leering menacing eyes. Instead I saw questioning eyes full of concern. What? Have I fallen into a delirium? He seemed to be saying something and beckoning towards the back of the car. With my heart beating loudly enough for the whole locality to hear, I slid the window open an inch. “Start the car, we will push. Your wheels are stuck in a pothole” He had to repeat it again, slower this time, since I was displaying all the understanding of a gargoyle. Somehow I managed to nod, and turned the key in the ignition. It was then I noticed that a few other of those men were all standing at the back of the car ready to push.

Ever get the feeling you are part of something unreal? That’s what I felt when a bunch of strange men I wouldn’t generally associate with heave- hoed me out of that hole with my little girl playing the cheer leader. As they came around to the front, I still couldn’t get up the courage to get out of the car, but I felt relief and gratitude wash over me. I tried to put all of my feeling in my “thank you so much” when blushing, he said “Didi, my wife works in your society looking after a kid. Roma? You had given your cycle to her?”

I started to turn back home with my delighted daughter, too late to catch her bus, a multitude of thoughts welling in my mind, but most of all knowing I wouldn’t feel unsafe on that route again.

You can hear the whistle blow a 100 miles…

As the train finally started moving, I could barely contain my excitement. Pressed to the window, watching the people & the hawkers & the waiting room & the Wheelers Stall all pass by with increasing speed, my mind crowds with multiple emotions- excitement, anticipation, & somewhat strangely, a peacefulness.
I love train journeys. I am traveling with my dad to my native town in interior TamilNadu, and apart from the excitement of meeting all my relatives, the most awaited aspect of this vacation was this – the train journey! That I am traveling with my dad, after ages, brings back a flood of nostalgia…and the landscape outside changes to twenty five years of flashes of memories…

Train journeys – how much preparation went into them! Days before we (us kids) would decide what luggage to take & argue with mom about the clothes to carry, the number of books & comics, what games to fit in. Travelling games usually would be Uno, Memory, Ludo etc. There was this phase when all the kids in the neighbourhood, probably the country, went crazy after WWF cards, and Racing cards & what not & my brother was one of them. So these would be carried along too.

Food preparation used to be a huge activity in itself. Now that I have seen more of the world I have realized that every family has its own staple travel food- For example,My husband’s family, who are from UP, used to carry parathas or puris with a dry aloo ki subzi. In fact, we are carrying some of the yummy stuff with us right now. Many of us must have seen Gujaratis or Marwaris travel- boy- I don’t think they have any separate journey food- They somehow manage to carry the very same meals they have at home on travel too, from farsaan to salad to pickle!
For us, Tam Brahms that we were, Idlies & thayir sadham (Curd Rice!) was the most common staple. Mum would prepare idlies by the dozen & would carefully smear each with an oil & gun powder paste, instead of carrying the usual sambar-chutney which would spoil. Sometimes instead of idlies we would have puliyodharai (tamarind rice) or lemon rice. Curd Rice however was omnipresent. It was fragrantly seasoned with coriander & curry leaves, green chillies & ginger for a subtle bite with a sprinkling of mustard seeds & urad dal. If it were summer, we would have freshly cut pieces of raw mango with salt & chilli paste to go with- merely the thought of this combination is making my mouth water! Its true – curd rice & Tam Brahms are inseparable-whatever part of the world they are in or however many cuisines they enjoy! Now apart from the food we carried, there would be a lot of intermittent snacking going on, where every hawker who passed by was stopped, his wares examined, & more often than not, sent on his way lighter.. and what about all the chais & coffees?

“Cha—i—ya, chai-yya…” “Bhaiya- ek chai dena.” As I sip on my third chai of the journey, I can’t help but think how those days have undergone a change.
Those were the days when second class travel was the norm and AC a rare luxury. When train bathrooms didn’t give you nightmares from days before.When train food was fun & hygiene was simply a word in the dictionary. When hawkers added to the excitement instead of being a nuisance. When time was our own and no one was in a hurry….
You know we would usually reach the station about 2 hours earlier, because , well, my father is a cautious man , to say the least. So that would mean a good 2 hour time pass at the station – as a child I guess a railway platform is a fascinating place – there s so much happening! Now, all that I can see is an unbearably dirty station, stinking & smelling of the sweat of all the people jostling each other for space with railway carts, luggage, hawkers, beggars & the odd stray animal. Hair raising to say the least, but then, I am the one who has changed…

I like to simply look out the window… the whizzing varying landscape fascinates me…here field after field of sun flowers.. there you have mangroves for miles.. rice fields pass by now, with a solitary farmer trudging along side his crop…then a beautiful serene vast expanse of water- was that a crane that broke the surface?…then a bridge comes & the steady clatter of the wheels changes to a slower deep baritone & I look in awe at the river flowing beneath, always thinking, what if…? Here comes a city..a line of impatient lorries & cars & scooters straining against the level crossing….the window is actually like a bioscope..
There usually would be a mini World War between my brother & me- who would get the window seat? Usually, I being the elder one, always got to be the larger hearted one & had to give him whatever he wanted. The many sacrifices an elder sibling has to make for the ever-demanding never-satisfied greedy younger ones is not funny  Well anyway we would arrive at some kind of amicable arrangement for the window…I remember this one time when he & I were traveling all by ourselves for the very first time- from Chennai to Hyderabad to meet our cousins. Boy were we excited or what! I remember we kept chatting & giggling non stop throughout the journey….

Its getting dark as I am writing this now. I am snuggled beneath my sheet with my curtains drawn & my little over head light shining a little round spot on this page as I write…I think am sleepy now.

As I switch off the light & lie down, I am happy & peaceful as my eyes are lulled to a close with the soothing rhythmic movement of the train echoing in my sub conscious…

Run!

Why isn’t running the same anymore as it used to be when you were young? Why isn’t running the closest thing to flying anymore? And why is a non exercising lazy bum like me asking these questions, you wonder. Well, I run these days. Yes! One Part inspiration, and three parts-tension, that he, may grow fitter while I, grow a paunch & a double chin and also not wanting to throw away pots of money into a gym, I decided to run too.

Remember when we were young, running used to be the most natural & effective way of motion…Oh how I used to love it! Didn’t all our games involve running – Lock n Key, Chain Sisters, Seven stones, even Hide n Seek, Kho- Kho( I used to love this game, do they even play it anymore?), Dodge Ball and millions others whose names I cant remember…but I do remember running all the while and I do remember the whoosh of joy while taking off with the wind trying to avoid getting caught …

Soon enough though, we seemed to grow up, and girls no longer wanted to play.Things like propriety & appearances & complexion ( ! ) became more of a reality than games that were suddenly childish… time passed by, places, people, schools changed…my own priorities changed…probably Badminton was & is the only game I took forward with me for whatever little while at various points in my life after that…

Anyway, since the last two days, I have been reliving those memories and trying to feel again the sheer exhilaration that I used to feel then, while doing my morning run…yeah I am constantly pulled into reality by my groaning old muscles and the zillions of to-do s zooming in & out of my head – go to the bank, finish that assignment, talk to the boss, shit we are going to end up over spending this month, what exactly did he mean when he said that and so on & so forth– but then, just for a few minutes, I remember, and I fly.

My Best Friend’s Wedding

She and I started off as roomies in college. Cliched as it sounds, we couldn’t be more different. She is as outgoing as I am reserved. She calls a spade a spade where I might just keep mum. While music is emotion for me, she is indifferent to it. While I would any day prefer to read than talk, she is exactly the opposite.
But then friendship isn’t really an outcome of analysis, is it? You either click with someone or you don’t. You meet so many people, talk to so many people…while most drift away, a few remain and slowly etch themselves as an integral part of your lives….

So it was with us. I am perfectly comfortable telling her anything…without fear of judgment.Making plans always, she is my Idea buddy.

She is my willing accomplice in all things stupid, and impulsive & fun! If it’s a t shirt I want to paint.. or get drenched in the rain…I know she will join me. I remember our numerous walks to eat Mango Dollies..and drink chai at the tapri…and make ambitious plans to buy & redesign all the houses on our way…

Memories abound…Driving on a rented bike on a hot summer afternoon, gorging on water melons and fighting over a seed spitting contest…Our long chats into the night …sneaking upto the terrace to watch the stars…Visiting a pub for the first time …and together going through the embarrassment & thrill of being in a hitherto forbidden place by ourselves! And on our walk back to college when we pretended to be drunk, singing aloud together on the deserted streets (no, we were not drunk 🙂 )
I know there is some one I can always count on when I want to trek up unexplored paths…go parasailing with me, some one who will love the idea of tree houses ( 🙂 ) & camp fires like I do and dream crazy dreams with me…

Well she is getting married this week and will soon move to another city. With marriage will come a different set of priorities & responsibilities & I don’t know how often it will be possible for us to meet…or even talk but the emotional impractical fools that we are – we have already started making plans for get togethers in the months & years to come ( I remember the plan we made where she comes in with her 5 kids in tow and the 6th on the way 🙂 ) I will be going for her wedding .But between the bustling wedding preparations & the swish of lehangas & jewellery , the pull of relatives, between maintaining proprieties & the plethora of rasms & festivities , I don’t know if i will be able to convey more than a hug and an inadequate wish…

So, Pallavi, this one was for you & for our dosti

I wish you a fantastic life ahead with Abhishek & hope you weave crazy dreams together & share the joy of seeing them come true…

Love, Always.

I am not lazy…

“How much is it?” The medical Rep looked at the reading, & then at me, & then again at the reading. Not saying anything, he re adjusted the pad against my arm & made it tighter & waited for the new reading to come. “Your Blood Pressure is very low, you should get it checked by a doc” he said after the second reading. What , me? I have low BP? I got up & went back to work, not really knowing what to make of it. After all, till now, BP was something I associated with old people, & put in the category of all those formidable new age life style diseases like diabetes & Sugar problems & what not. Nah…I can’t have low BP…., can I?

 

“Mom…do we really have to?” She gave me an exasperated look & simply continued ahead, like she had had enough of her only daughter. We arrived at the Doctor’s place. Well, I was confident that the earlier reading was wrong. After the initial pleasantries, the Doc took my BP again & lo & behold, the reading was the same! She took one look at me, & declared that the main causes for a low BP were low nutrition & high stress (!) I must look really woebegone, I thought, is it the colour I am wearing…?

On asking what the symptoms of this condition are, I was told it is usually drowsiness, lethargy, tiring easily etc.

Now, as a child, and I am being very honest here, I have always been lazy. Other than playing, my most favoured activities used to be( and continue to be) to curl up with a book in a corner of the house or that most magical thing- sleep! I could sleep at any time of day, & be happy doing nothing…Mom & dad used to tire of getting me to do any work at all ( they still keep their fingers crossed now that I am a working professional ) Some people are happiest when they are active & doing things, but that’s wasn’t for me ( Imagine the frustration of my dad who thrives on a Daily To Do List & whose happiest moments in  the day are when he ticks off an activity as done! ) I whine if I have to go out & do chores. I try to wheedle out of doing my routine work. On holidays, I simply turn a deaf ear to all the negative energies around me forcing me to do work.

 

I am therefore, called ‘lazy’.

 

And after twenty seven years of carrying this label, I learn that I am not lazy, no – I just have Low BP!

And the only treatment according to the good doctor herself, is to Eat, eat & Rest!

Escaping from the shackles of the Heat Monster…

Escape!

The heat is so overpowering I could cut it with a knife…no, I think I would need a sword…Each movement I make feels like I m attempting to move the earth…and an unknown counter force seems to be resisting my every feeble attempt.

I am languishing like a lazy lizard…and the bean bag into which I have dug myself is covered in a layer of sweat outlining my body underneath…I feel the little droplets of perspiration trickling one after the other from my neck & down my back and into nothingness- spreading a patch of wet where it gets squashed..

Am I with the living? Do I know how to walk & talk & move….It all seems so far away, is it real?

Up above, there are pregnant clouds looming over me…wait… they are moving away ! …they seem to be mocking me…

I see a blue lake beckoning to me, into its calm cool interior… & I jump into the ice cold water! The cold permeates my being & I become one with it…..ecstatic in attaining freedom at last from the gripping shackles of the heat monster !

I m stuck to the bean bag.

Has the heat addled my mind?

Monsoons…I need u soon…to retain my sanity!