Friday, September 27, 2013

Chronicles of a Travelling Salesman

The sun shone down endlessly, without any respite, as if with a vengeance to absorb every drop of water that existed around the area. Despite the heat, I walked around with a determined look from one shop to another in the village, talking to retailers and taking a sip of water from my mineral water bottle to replenish the water I was losing quick and fast. My mind ran back to my CAT preparation days “Water in a tank is leaking from a hole. A motor running, pumps in water to the tank at a particular rate … and so on” and I gave myself a wry smile and walked to the next store to continue the never ending push for targets.

“So how is the business going?” I ask the old man who is running the store. “Ok types sir. Just about enough to rotate money and run my family. Things aren’t looking so good.” I probe him a little about his business. “Sir, my son used to run the shop before. Now it isn’t really enough to sustain the entire family. So he has left to Chennai to look for a job and I look after the shop. But he isn’t liking it there. He says things are too costly and he might have to go abroad to work for a bit.”

The road never taken :)
“Where is he going abroad?” I ask. With the look of a proud father, the old man said, “This Saudi, Dubai somewhere sir. So there are many construction jobs there. He will work there for a few years, save up some money and return to expand this store into a much bigger one; and also get married.”

How much did he study?” I ask, with the hope that recent emphasis on Right to Education etc. did have some impact. “Sir, with great difficulty I made him study till his 10th. After that, neither him nor me saw any point in continuing his education, as the money I would have spent on his college fees and all that; was better off being spent in running the store. So he joined me in the store to work with me.”

I sighed, and wondered what if my parents had thought about it the same way. What if I was born in a place like this? And I moved on, towards the next shop. There was a government school, with kids in the maroon uniform running around the playground; and a few of them ran out of the school when I reached there in my cab. “Anna, anna, oru ride kudunga” (A ride please). With the formal tucked-in shirt and dusty shoes, with a company ID card slung around my neck, I looked like someone who had landed there from an alien world.

Jobs never done before!
I gave them the joy ride they wanted, and the smile on their faces made my day. “What do you study?” I enquired. “History, Geography, Tamil and all na!!” I was curious about what the kids do to pass their time. “Facebook, Youtube videos and we listen to songs.” Internet penetration has surely increased and these government laptops are definitely doing a world of good in these small villages. Their joy ride was to the town nearby, vacation was to Madurai, and Chennai was like the new world they’d land up after crossing a few seas.

I met a few village elders, who spoke about how they rain had dried up there was not much agriculture happening. “Income is drying up here sir. A lot of fights are happening these days. Thieving has increased over the last few months. People want to get to money somehow.” I ask them if the government does nothing about it. “Sir, there is drought relief money given. But we have to run from pillar to post to get that. Even to get the form, it is quite troublesome. The government guys come here just for the votes, and after the elections they don’t really bother much.”

I move on to the next village which is quite close to a fireworks factory. There’s a guy at the retailer talking in broken Tamil. I go over to him, and start making small talk in Hindi. And the guy is quite eager to talk to me. I ask him how he sends money home with the thought of pitching him Airtel’s m-commerce offering. “Mera manager hi bhej deta hai har mahine ghar ko. Free ke liye.” And I had hit a dead end. But I was quite surprised with myself that I managed to walk up to a random guy and speak to him. Things sales does to you!

Evening came, and with it, better weather and a slight drizzle. The smell of chemicals hits the air immediately. My activity for the day involves a kiosk for selling SIMs. People walk up to enquire, and most of them have a silvery tinge to their hands, from hours of stringing together crackers. A guy purchases a SIM, and has trouble putting it in his phone. I offer to help, and open his phone’s cover, and a spoonful of the hazardous cracker chemical falls out into my hands. I ask him if this doesn’t harm him much, given he talks with the same phone. “Sir, we are used to this now. We’ve been doing this for a long time. Our kids will probably end up stopping their education midway to join the same business.”

There had been a fire accident nearby a few days back, and hundreds of people had a lucky escape as no one was in the factory when it got blown up. I enquire about the frequent accidents and how people still end up working there despite the threat to their lives. “No other choice sir. What else can we do to earn a respectful livelihood? We are not educated like you and all. This is all we can do to get our food for the day. And things are improving slowly, after every accident. Roads are now atleast wide enough to accommodate fire engines. There have been tragic cases where the fire engine has not been able to approach the factory and hence a lot more lives have been lost.”

It’s time for me to call it a day. I say goodbye to him for his anecdotes (some of which I couldn’t write down here as he didn’t want me to) and pack up. He gives me a chemical filled handshake, and walks away into the sunset. “Sir, if you are born in Sivakasi, your death will be at the hands of these fire crackers sir. That’s our fate”

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