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”.



A friend indeed

“Hi Anu, its me” said a voice I hadn’t heard in over two years. Pressing the phone hard against my ears, as if to make sure it was her, as if I couldn’t recognise that voice, I offer hesitantly, “Shania?” “Yes. Can you talk now?”

We talked endlessly. All through those years when we were together and apart. We met in the 8th standard when my dad was first posted in Ahmedabad. We hit it off right away, partly because she was one of the few with whom I could converse (it is difficult being a non-gujarati in Gujarat) and partly because we discovered a mutual love for reading. We studied together, we exchanged and discussed books and authors and everything else there is, sat next to each other in class and always had lunch together. We were perfectly happy in the little world we had built for ourselves where all others entered only in the capacity of a guest role. Our mums & dads got used to accepting the other as a permanent feature in conversations and occasional meal times.
The Rasheeds were successful doctors, both husband and wife. They were also well regarded as they were very active in taking up causes for the benefit of the local community. Shania got her activism from them. She was always fighting for something – the plight of the local stray dogs, teaching the children from the nearby slum, mobilising people to clean up their own society – small causes maybe, but they made her so big in my eyes. As is usually the case, we were very different. While she stood up for her causes, I was largely non-confrontational. She was used to voicing her opinions, I was used to keeping them to myself. She was unafraid whilst I had my insecurities. But we were inseparable.

“ I .. I am stuck. I am afraid. I just felt I needed to speak to you.. If in case…I don’t…”
“What? What are you saying? Where are you??” my voice urgent, because there is something in her voice I had never heard before. Fear…

She was fearless. “We will report you to the college authorities. Even the police! Then you will know the consequences of troubling women!” she angrily proclaimed to two men who had been harassing me on my way home every day after I had finally confided in her. It was all they could do to slink away in shame. She was my rock and my saviour.
We went to college together. Both of us had hopes of being writers and had enrolled for a course in mass communication. Even though I had been away for two years in between ( my dad got transferred , and back again to Ahmedabad after two years) it felt as if we had never been apart. College was a riot. We bunked classes together, hiding in the bathrooms to escape our principal doing his rounds. We rode around the city on our two wheelers and our new found freedom. Hot bhuttas in the rain near Law garden, pav bhaji at Honest, pizza at Tomato’s or dessert at Upper Crust… riding, walking, talking -Our eyes were full of dreams, heads full of idealism, and our hearts full of excitement for the future.
In the final year, however, I panicked. Journalism doesn’t really pay well. Nor do Advertising agencies. Plagued by insecurities – what if I am just not good enough? – I decided to pursue my Masters in business administration. It was safer. At first, she tried to talk me out of it, but when she saw how scared I was, she helped me with my applications. And so it was that I went on to do an MBA while she took up a job as an intern with a prominent newspaper.

“ I …am in a village in south Gujarat. Have been living here for the past few months for a feature. Something happened and … the Hindu Muslim situation in the village is on a boil. We are all surrounded by a mob…”
“We all? Who we?” I shout desperately into the phone.
“We Muslims, Anu”

Yeah. Shania Rasheed was Muslim. Of course. But back then, it didn’t really mean anything to me. In the general course of our interactions I never found anything really different about them and us (except for my family’s fanatical fondness for curd rice which I am told is shared only by other Tam Brahms) It was such an inconsequential thing in my scheme of things, that there was no curiosity in me to find out anything about our cultural differences. I was utterly ignorant and I wasn’t even aware of it! That little world we had made? There was no place in it for religion either.
Much later I wondered. How did she feel being a Muslim in our country. Did she even think about it? Was it different? Were people different to her? Much later it struck me that the area she lived in was predominantly Muslim. Was it coincidence? Could they not find a house elsewhere? I never thought to ask her how exactly they celebrated Eid. Being a vegetarian and a Tam Brahm at that, food, to me then, was just something to appease my hunger and I didn’t know what their traditions were, what did she like… how callous had I been?
Afterward, as our career paths diverged, we got immersed in our own personal lives and like it so often happens we had little time for anyone else, including each other. We still made efforts to do something special, like the time I surprised her for her 25th bday in some remote rural outpost in Rajasthan where she was holed up for work. But the moments became lesser and lesser.

“We Muslims..Anu”
The deathly calm in her voice as she says those words chills me. I could physically feel her fear emanating from the phone.
“Where…where exactly are you? Give me the details properly. Fast.” I say equally calmly, trying to send some support and solidarity her way. But I feel numb with fear. What can I do?

“What can I do?” I couldn’t mouth those words when I held her tightly in my arms, tears pouring down my face. I couldn’t even manage the courage to face her as her whole body convulses with painful sobs that I want to delete from memory for ever but can’t. I was practically useless, as I watched what was left of her family gather around for the funeral proceedings. The one moment I looked around distractedly, my eyes fell on a large blowup of her parents laughing together, so happy and content, unaware of the gross misfortune that was to befall them. I could say or do nothing as I mutely watched the proceedings by her side. It was the year 2002, and their society had been burnt to the ground alongwith many others. That year brought the weight of the word religion to our notice for the first time in our pseudo-liberal elitist worlds. It threw up the fact that it is a non-entity only for the privileged and the naive. The whole country was horror struck at the planned carnage revealing itself in Godhra that snuffed out hundreds of Hindu lives mercilessly. The intervening days of confusion and chaos and the subsequent mayhem unleashed on the Muslims, the reports of a condoning government and an administration complicit in the violence.. I watched my city fall apart in my mind in disbelief and horror.
That was the beginning of our moving further apart. After I joined back work in Mumbai, I completely threw myself into my job. I deliberately made myself so busy as to not have a moment to myself. I began avoiding her calls or cutting her off with an excuse the few times I did speak. She even wrote to me a couple of times, asking me what the matter was. That she needed me more than ever. I never replied. I did follow her career though. Her reporting assignments were getting meatier and her writing more confident. I watched unbelievably as she seemed to grow from strength to strength. How come someone whose life has been so rudely torn apart be so sane? How can someone who has all the reason to be boiling over with rage and venom have so much compassion, so much love? One day as I was reading an article written by her about the change brought about by mobilisation of local women in a small town in Orissa, a stray memory from college popped into my head and wouldn’t get dislodged. That moment in the past was so real that I could smell the passion I had felt back then, and the common ideals we believed in. What had happened? And just like that, something changed in me.
“What do you mean you are quitting? You can’t just do that!” squealed my manager at work when I handed in my resignation a month later. “Arvind, am actually very sick, and the doctor has advised me to take it easy. So I am taking a break” I lied, easily, already able to feel the cool breeze of freedom. I had finally landed a job in a newspaper on a probationary basis.

“Saji, I have got a lead. There’s something brewing in Arvad in Navsari. It could be big. You know Shania Rasheed right? She is there, and if she is there, you can be sure that it must be something big.”
“Are you sure about this?”
“One hundred percent. She is there on the scene. We should get there immediately” I say with some urgency. Saji, my senior and mentor considers what I have just told him. “Please…we should cover it. And I want to come with you” He looks at me. “OK, lets do it.”
After a few frantic calls and some rather nervous packing, we finally leave Mumbai for Navsari in another colleague’s car. The journey is just 4 hours, but for me its 4 hours too long. What must be happening there right now? Image after horrific image flits through my mind. I screw my eyes shut in an attempt to stop them but it seems to make them worse. “Anu, are you going to tell me what it is?” I open my eyes reluctantly. “It’s a long story” I say. “Well we are stuck in the car for the next 3-4 hours….”
“And so you cut yourself off from your best friend because you couldn’t face her for what was done to her? By your community. Our community? That doesn’t sound too extreme to you?
“They were burned alive, Saji. We did that. Us Hindus. And for what? Because they were Muslims. Any Muslims. ”
“Those people were fanatics Anu. There are enough on both sides aren’t there? And they might claim a religion but fanatics are essentially independent of religion. Of reason . Of humanity. As is friendship. Friendship is independent of religion too. If you didn’t think of her as Muslim when you were friends, why are you doing it now?”
“Guys, we are here”, warned Ashutosh, as he drove into a decrepit town, whose most striking feature was the silence that was thick in the air.
I looked around in terror, fearing the worst. Suddenly, we heard another vehicle come in from the distance. It turned out to be a police vehicle. Noticing us, the vehicle stopped, and a policeman approached us suspiciously. “Who are you?” came the brusque question. “eh.. we are from the Bombay Post. We had got a tip that there is a dangerous situation brewing here between Hindus and Muslims….” “So you came to add fuel to the fire? Eh? You journalists are all alike.”
“Hmm sir.” I ventured, diffidently. “Can you tell us what is happening? One of my friends is here and she had called me. She seemed to be in danger. Please…” The policeman looked me over, as if deciding whether this chit of a woman needs to be shoved away or pitied upon. “They are out over there near the school. There is a woman. A Muslim woman. One of your people I think. Reporter. She is helping negotiate. “
There was no doubt it was her. I couldn’t care less what she was negotiating except that it meant she was alive!! Relief almost made me faint. But I said, “Lets find them.” And we trudged along on foot, as the road ahead didn’t look too safe for our old Maruti.
As we approached the school compound, we saw people milling around, some listening patiently, some shouting slogans while a few policemen slouched about on the perimeter but all of their attention was riveted upon the figure of one woman who was trying to out shout and out talk the men. It was her.
We pushed and shoved our way to the front and soon everyone in the compound noticed the presence of strangers amidst them. It was then that she saw me, disbelief writ large on her face. I grinned, and ignoring the questions and shouts went forward and engulfed her in a huge hug. She dissolved in my arms, as if carrying the weight of the world all alone had been too much even for her. “How…What are you doing here?” she whispers.

“I have come to save you of course, you maniac” I smile.

Vested interests may time and again try to tear people apart. . Politicians and their uncles may say that Hindus and Muslims can’t coexist. But then, for many many of us, it is the truth we live in. What do they know?
It is all going to be okay.