At night, before going to sleep, he asked his younger child to rub a bit of the pain-removing balm, the one with the wonderful scent of eucalyptus and a household brand name, on his forehead. And that is what triggered off the memory – this story.

As he sat outside the grocery store where they were compiling his orders, he was approached by a young girl, younger than his younger child. She was a salesgirl who had taken up her position for the day outside the pharmacy beside the grocery store. She was selling a spray version of the balm. Newly launched, the product was available at a discount if bought at the spot. Although young, she had had the common sense to approach elderly men as the most potential customers for pain-removing sprays. “You must be suffering from some ache or the other?” she asked him. It was a good guess, but he replied gently and untruthfully, “No, not really.” If you used this spray, you shall not only not have to rub it, like the old balm, but also, the pain won’t recur, explained the girl. He didn’t think he needed it, he explained. “Then you won’t take it?” asked the young salesgirl, younger than his younger child. “All right.”

But it wasn’t all right, he admitted later to his child, as the latter rubbed the balm on his forehead. “Younger than you,” he said, sadly, “and standing outside shops these hot days, trying to sell… Who knows how many she manages to sell? How much or how little commission does she earn? Does it even pay for a snack? I caught sight of her face as she said ‘All right’. I saw the disappointment in it. I cannot forget it.”

It reminded his child of a similar incident. Several years ago, a salesman had come to the door. It had been a sweltering summer afternoon. He had been selling incense sticks, the man, sweat pouring down his face, skin black under the sun. Out of sheer habit, the habit of automatically refusing salesmen and women without even ascertaining what was being sold, because nothing that was on offer was ever bought anyway, the child had shook the head, hardly opening the door fully. “No?” the salesman had asked, with an attempt at a smile, and the door had been closed. Within minutes, the child had been tormented with remorse. How much would incense sticks have cost? How poor could have been their quality? Why hadn’t there been a moment of thought, of consideration before the automatic ‘no’? But the salesman had disappeared.

Now, the child recounted the incident to the father, who could not get over the remorse of having refused a little salesgirl. “Had I needed it at all, I would have bought it. But I didn’t, not with all the pain-removing sprays already in the house,” he shook his head. “She approached another elderly man after me. He agreed to have it sprayed on his wrist, unlike me. Maybe he bought it,” he added hopefully. “Don’t worry, buy one the next time you see her,” suggested the child. “Even if I do, how much will that help her? How hard she must have to work. How terribly hard so many people must have to work for so terribly little. I don’t want to let my mind turn that way. For the questions are too difficult. One must be hard-hearted, my child, to survive in this world. Turn away from other people’s sufferings. For, once you start thinking: is this life all about me and my happiness, you cannot find an answer, a solution. You get lost.”

His child remained silent, knowing how little the speaker endorsed his own words. The child hoped, rather, that the man will find the young salesgirl some other day and buy a spray and feel better. Unfortunately, even if the salesman with the incense sticks reappeared, he wouldn’t be recognised.

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