April 16, 2010

The Cabbage seller

I stepped out of my office. The power cuts were getting worse, and the heat had gotten to me. I needed a breath of fresh air.

As I stepped out, a vegetable-seller was going past in his cycle. A bamboo container filled with cabbages was placed behind the bicycle seat.

He motioned to me.. asking if I wanted to buy cabbages. I shook my head. He continued looking (perhaps pleadingly, but he had a face that suggested he was always in this state).. and asked if he could speak. I went to him.

"Kannada baratta", he asked. ("Do you speak Kannada")
"Swalpa", I replied ("Yes, a little")
"Do you speak English"
"I need help with my daughters' education"

I shrunk back. This is one of those money grabbing stunts, I thought. Something else told me to continue listening, and not walk away. He pulled out a sheet of paper.. it had a list of textbooks and authors.

"She got 92% in her finals.. and is now preparing for her MBA". I don't exactly recall what he said next, except that it was genuine pleading (atleast sounded genuine). The gist was that he needed help with getting those books for her daughter.

What struck me most was his English. I have friends who abuse the language and grammar, what is termed locally as Hinglish (a mixture of Hindi and English). Yet this wretched man seemed to speak in an almost perfect grammar. He didn't use big words, but what he said was simple and correct.

I now looked at the numbers on the list.. books listed at 275, 300, 150. The college asked for the "latest editions", he said. This could be construed to mean he'd rather have cash, than the books themselves, in case I had any. But having experienced this "latest edition" gimmick in college myself, I gave him the benefit of the doubt.

The suspicion that I was being suckered never fully left me as I stood there listening to him. Perhaps the previous experienced with being cheated still left a bad taste.

Then I mulled, So what if I was being tricked. The man stood there.. in worn-out clothes. He was educated (by his good English). He was going from door to door, on a dilapidated cycle, trying to trick people by pretending to be a cabbage seller. Isn't that a bad enough state to be in? To be forced to seek charity as a way of life. Where begging, rather than being a state of last resort, is instead the common state.

I'd decided to give him 100 Rs (I spend that on coffee with friends). He didn't thank me.. but said something else. I think it was in Kannada, to the effect "can it be 200?", but I'm not sure. I answered "Sorry, that's it". His expression said "Thank you". He handed me a cabbage. We both knew that was not a fair trade. Was it a gesture of thanks, or simply a ploy to convert the act that took place from charity to a trade. What misery was his, to be put in such a position?

I refused the cabbage, asking him to keep it. He cycled forward, looking for the next person to sell to. I went back into the office, back to being concerned about the summer heat.