Wednesday, February 23, 2011


On one of my forays into the real India via the welcoming doors of a second-sleeper bogie, I had an interesting experience. A young boy was wandering up and down the train selling air-pillows. He could not have been more than 10 years old and as I watched him I was greatly impressed with his salesmanship as well as his obvious entrepreneurial spirit. Most boys his age would have resorted to the much easier occupation of begging or at least cleaning the compartment in exchange for a few coins. But this guy was obviously cut out for greater things. I imagined his future - either he would rise slowly up the path of entrepreneurial fortune and end up with a business that gave him food, shelter and clothing. But more likely, I thought was the path that so many of our smart, yet poor young people take. He would come up against insurmountable obstacles all the way that would at some point break his spirit and 50 years hence he would still be on the train hawking his wares, or worse just begging. Of course, there was a third route. He would reach one of our big cities where he would get sucked into the alluring belly of the mafia where criminal means would secure for him either a fortune or death. I said a prayer for that young man then and I repeat it now - may God be merciful to him and bless him in his endeavours.

But that bit of philosophising was not really the point of this post (and for those of you whose jaws fell off yawning, I apologise!). Now when this guy came over to our coupe, everyone was interested to see what he was selling. After all, air-pillows are not among the things that are packed before most train journeys. Of course, having traveled regularly for the last 10 years by our beloved Indian Rail, I had my old-reliable air-pillow and so was not really interested. But when I witnessed what transpired, I was rather disappointed with the psyche of our people. When asked how much the pillows cost, the lad replied - Twenty Rupees. I did a double-take! What! I had bought my air-pillow at least half a decade earlier and was sure I had paid at least twice that amount! Agreed, the pillows were not luxurious, but even then, twenty rupees seemed abnormally low!

But my surprise did not end there. I did a triple-take (apologies if there is no such thing!) when I heard my fellow passengers begin to bargain with the boy. And they had obviously never heard of such a thing as polite bargaining. They treated the boy as if he were a piece of dirt to be crushed under their feet. I was reminded of the many books I have read about slavery, apartheid, untouchables and every other form of human discrimination. It was playing out in front of my eyes.

The young man was no push-over. He quietly gathered together his wares and prepared to move to the next coupe. Just as he left, I quickly bought two of his pillows and paid him what I though they were worth. But there was a bitter taste in my mouth. For I knew that this enterprising young lad would face this sort of behaviour every day for at least the major portion of his life. And I also realised how easy it was to sell your soul all for a measly five rupees. And I remembered my father, who I have never heard bargain with a vendor.

The incident has remained in my mind ever since. As have the pillows. Now, whenever I buy vegetables, or fruits, or things from train vendors I give them exactly what they ask for. It is rare that I know I am being cheated. But even if I am, I know it is only by a few rupees. And while 10 or 20 rupees are not really a big deal for me, they may be the difference between an empty stomach and a full one for someone else. So whenever I see a little boy vendor, I try to buy what he has (if anyone wants some paper-soap, well, I have a huge stock!), when I see a shoe-shine man I ask him for a shine, even if I got one just an hour earlier and I pray that in my foolishness I will never sell my soul for a few measly bucks.


  1. Some of these pint-sized entrepreneurs are truly inspirational. Years ago (seems like lifetimes ago) while traveling back home during MBBS holidays, I happened to buy a cup of tea from a young boy on train. That tea was exceptionally good, and I offered him some extra money (a rupee or two - I don't remember - it was a while ago) as a tip. He, to my surprise, refused to take it. He said that he had sold me one cup of tea, and it would be wrong on his part to be paid for anything more than that. All I could do was buy another cup to encourage his business.

    I've often wondered about him, and about where life might have taken him. I hope it is somewhere good - he had both the spark and the sincerity.

  2. Wow - that's something rare! It's difficult not to feel a tinge of sadness when we hear stories like this - the challenge like you said is to have hope.... I hope this young guy made it.....

  3. Unfortunately, bargaining is a way of life in India. And the shopkeepers know it. Also, regrettably, there are more vendors out there trying to make a quick buck than there are honest sellers. Most purveyors inflate their prices in the first place to account for the fact that the customer will haggle and force the price down. This leads to a vicious cycle with a great variation in the price of commodities, depending on where you shop.

    The only places that have a fixed price and don't encourage dickering are the posh boutiques that don't really warrant our sympathy.

    I guess everybody starts out honest - it is their circumstances that corrupts them. After years of disparagement and denigration doing the honorable thing, they end up taking the easy path to immorality. As Robert Frost so famously said in The Road Not Taken -

    "I took the one less traveled by,
    And that has made all the difference"

    On a lighter note, the things we now know after this wonderful post by AJM are:

    1. AJM now has 3 air pillows (including one that is at least 5 years old and is falling to bits, not to mention the dust mites and bacteria that it is probably teeming with)

    2. AJM is the proud owner of a rather large consignment of paper soap that he is willing to sell to the highest bidder - No bargaining please!!

    3. He wears extremely shiny shoes that shine brighter than the surface of the sun.

    - The Black Mamba

  4. TBM - you are as astute and witty as ever - enjoyed your observations - both the serious and the lighter ones - thanks!