The book I didn’t buy

I often wonder how exactly the average person earns a living in India. Obviously I know there are people here of all trades and professions, just as there are back home, but there are so many of them, can they really all find a job or occupation of sorts to bring in sufficient income? I suspect there are proportionally more businesses than we have, simply because many of them are so small. They are small not only in net worth, also often small in physical size. The local motorcycle mechanic, for example, may be a man with a makeshift hut erected on a patch of waste ground, who owns one tool box and an oil can. The nearest “provisions store” may fit the description of the entrance to the Lonely Mountain in The Hobbit, “Three foot high the door, and two may walk abreast” (though these shops often extend far back, into narrow spaces criss-crossed with shelves brimming with an astonishing variety of goods). And the bakery where you buy your daily bread, may be a glass display cabinet housing loaves and cakes, with an area the size of a phone booth for the salesman, and a man toiling away at the back by an oven, in a space no bigger than a cupboard.

But obviously a good proportion of the population must be employed. The other day, emerging from a post-prandial nap, I was surprised to hear a knock at my front door. No sooner had I opened it, than a solid, hardback book was thrust into my hands, and two well-dressed young men stood beaming at me with practised demeanour. They were both slight in build, and wore dark pleated trousers, shiny leather shoes, and identical red shirts. One was dark-skinned even for a Southern Indian, which made his smile all the more dazzling – I got the sense he’d be the one doing the talking. His companion stood back a little, wearing a neutral expression. He assumed the attitude of an assistant, and slipped a rucksack strap off one shoulder. The book I had been landed with was a National Geographic book of facts, with a patchwork of glossy colour photos of places, animals and things splashed over the white cover.

I have never been very good at dismissing door to door salesmen (I seem to be better at Jehova’s witnesses), nor, fortunately, have I ever needed to be. Furthermore, I had time on my hands, and saw no reason to be unduly blunt or curt. So I let the young man spill his patter. First he showed me all the wonderful books he had to offer, his colleague producing each one from his well-filled pack precisely on cue. There was an encyclopaedia, a thesaurus, an Oxford English Dictionary, and a little box packed with six slim volumes of some other reference work.

“What is the most spoken language?” (in the world, I assumed), the salesman asked.

“Er, Chinese,” I responded (though since Cantonese and Shanghainese, and possibly other dialects, are so different from Mandarin they’re more or less other languages, I can’t claim to be absolutely sure).

“Yes!” the young man exclaimed in delight. “Most people say English!” (do they?), and he flicked open the encyclopaedia with a flourish, to the page which statistically confirmed my reply.

Perhaps I was now supposed to feel smug and knowledgeable, and, more importabtly, favourably disposed towards the idea of parting with a nice wad of rupees for more facts. The idea was that these two young gentlemen would ask only for the purchase of a single book, and all the others would be mine for free. (Each volume was priced at around 2000 rupees, the equivalent of one hundred masala dhosas at the Vishnu hotel restaurant, about the same number of coconuts, or 250 chais at Amruth’s).

Now that the irresistable deal had been exposed, I could see it was time to wriggle out of the situation and allow my two visitors to be on their way. I attempted, with a slow but deliberate gesture, to push the book back into a pair of hands. But to no avail, there were no takers.

“What is the fastest animal?” the forthright one continued.

But I was already no longer on responding wavelength.

“Most people say cheetah!” he told me enthusiastically, “but actually it is hawk!” Once more he proudly showed me a bar chart comparing the speeds of various living creatures. (I was tempted to point out that a hawk is not, strictly speaking, an animal, but the way things were going I could see it was best to stick to the point and not digress).

I explained to my booksellers that I was here traveling, that I had more than enough luggage already, and that I was not about to lug around any more books. I also reminded them that in this day and age, reference books and factual information were available online, or formatted for use on computers.

“Do you have children?” the speaker asked, changing tack. “Will you not bring back something for them?”

I explained that I have no children that I know of (he didn’t get the joke), and that were I to buy gifts for loved ones, I would buy presents typical of India. Once again I tried to return the book to its rightful owners. But the pair had not quite given up yet.

“Which one do you like best?” I was asked, while Mr. Assistant dutifully displayed all the books like a hand of cards.

“I can’t say I actually like any of them,” I found myself saying. “I would only use them if I needed information.” I reminded them once more of my status, succeeded at last in placing the book more into the mouth of the rucksack than into receiving hands, and prepared to close the door. It seemed I had at last made myself understood, with the two young men now resigned to this outcome. They retreated respectfully down the steps, still smiling, still perfectly courteous, and with their enthusiasm seemingly undiminished by their failure to secure a sale.

A couple of days later, just a hundred yards around the corner, I spotted the pair again, ringing the doorbell of a house. The Indian man who opened the door, clearly far less accommodating than I, adopted a preventive stance, and the door was firmly shut once more before he’d even touched a book. As the two salesman turned away, the talking one looked up and caught my eye. I could have sworn his face lit up slightly, at any rate he smiled and waved. But the smile was a tired one, the wave almost apologetic. I sensed the poor fellow was now drawing on reserves of inner resiliance.

And then a further two days later, I saw Mr. Speaker yet again. He was alone this time, and as he plodded slowly down the hill towards me, his shoulders sloped and his eyes to the ground, he looked utterly dejected. I had intended to stare straight ahead and pass him without a sidelong glance, but he looked up suddenly from over the road and noticed me. I gave him a brief nod and walked on, but I had time to see the quiet desperation in his eyes, and for some reason it profoundly moved me. It seemed to me I had read intense pain and suffering in that gaze, and I felt for the poor fellow profoundly. This must have unsettled me somewhat, because when a few minutes later he rang once more at my door, I reacted unduly defensively and harshly. I told him he’d already been here and that I’d made it clear I had no interest in buying his books. (It is only in hindsight that I wonder if he actually had the rucksack with him then). But selling encyclopaedias was not on his agenda that day.

He looked at me forlornly and asked, “Can you not give me small help sir?” I refused bluntly, then tried to soften my tone and suggest he ask the people staying in the fancy, expensive rooms near the main shala. He did not insist, and left with his head hanging low, a defeated man. Even now I’m not sure I did the right thing – it would not have cost me a great deal to give the man enough for a meal and a chai, (in truth, I refused more to avoid creating a precedent than because of financial concerns). And in fact, since he and his acolyte have provided me with a story to tell in this blog post, if I see him again I may yet do just that. He would certainly have earned his pay for this piece.

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