I could smell them from far. He was carrying them in my direction, though it would be rather hard to be correct on that as I had my back towards him - so, what would be my direction? Quite a Zen question! I had had my meal by 13:30 hrs and here I had the train shuffling me in my seat and settling all my lunch into a ripple-less mass in my stomach (as one does to powders in a container) and my co-passengers obliviously unsettling the same (which their continuous pawing and petting each other).
I looked ahead and trained my hearing on the frequency with which he called out "Cutlet". He didn't quite love the dish else he wouldn't have mutilated the name to a kit-late, and stressing oh-so deliberately on the latter syllable making the dish acquire the new name of Layte (fancy spelling giving it a slightly French or Columbian-Spanish touch). It was the smell that confirmed its entry into our compartment. The minute my olfactory was grabbed, I had the most pressing question disturb my innards: Should I buy a plate of cutlet or Laytes?
I wouldn't blame you if you think that it is a question of meagre weight to deserve a post or even a slight hesitation (but aren't all posts really a consequence of having paused - hesitated - long enough to register their urgency and/or beauty?). The weight of a question - especially the kinds that deal with gastronomy - is directly proportional to the residual weight (and you realise the need to include the word residual) in the gut. Why? Simply because had there been but methane in there, you wouldn't have pondered nor paused nor postponed the arrival of a plate of cutlets or Laytes in your hand. It is when the stomach is fairly full (for it can hardly ever be completely full) that the epicurean questions of need, want, greed and laziness creep in. Hence, did I want the cutlets or Laytes?
Do dwell upon the stretch of a compartment at least for the length that I suffered the badgering of the multitude of questions that ran amuck in my little bulb on my shoulders. I was resiting turning around and seeing where he was as that gesture had two undesirable effects in the world that surrounded me. One, it would waft misleading promises to the vendor and hasten his stroll and chants. Two, it would make many a nose to cork-screw in tch-tch-ing conclusion about my ungentlemanly desperation for food. Not that there was a single interesting woman in sight whose impression of me would matter, but it does good to maintain good habits so that they become less habit and more instinct. So, I didn't turn around, but used my knowledge of physics to judge his approaching pace and the nature of his pauses. Based on the increasing amplitude of his commercial cries I was able to guess how far away he was and I hope there would be more pauses in his chanting as that signalled a purchase and in turn a sliver of extra time to devote to my questions.
So what really were my questions?
Was I hungry?
I wasn't, but cutlet... that is not something for the hunger of the stomach, but something for the hunger of the soul (as Anthony Quinn puts it in Walk in the Clouds).
But E, you just had a meal. Is it fair to stuff your stomach? Think of the kids in Somalia and in Darfur....
But this serving of cutlet was never going to reach them (come on, I was getting desperate and hard pressed for time) and not all of life can be measured on such a yardstick (why then was I travelling in A/C? Why was I carrying the snack that my mother had made for me? Why was I wearing Gucci? Well, I wasn't...). So the issue is whether I need this cutlet or not. I surely want it, but do I need it?
He was at my shoulder when I turned around and asked him: How much?
3 for Rs. 15
That sounded fine so I went on to the next question.
Will you be coming around 18:00 hrs?
He quickly whipped out a paper plate and picked 3 pieces for me. He started pouring the sauce when he replied, "Sir, no guarantee. If it gets over by then, you won't get any. There are batches of sales. Earlier it was vada and dosa. Now, kit-layte", and he shoved the plate under my face.
I was caught feeling guilty that I had made him prepare that plate for me and refusing to buy now wasn't fair. I also wasn't sure whether to believe him about the futures of cutlet (see? No more business news for you, E!). Consider the options (naah! this is the normal usage): what if he were right? I would miss out on indulging myself. What if he were wrong? Then I would surely get to buy some slightly colder cutlets.
Don't be bullied, E
Forget it, E
Brown and crispy
Well, I bought it then! And I held on to the plate staring at the back of the vendor wondering how did I let him bully me (of course, he had already prepared the plate before I told him to thereby raising my guilt quotient, making me react on unfounded sentiments. "Yum" isn't founded enough)? How many people I have let bully me (no point invoking the karma theory and figuring out how many I have bullied. I have never psychologically bullied someone.) into doing things that I didn't want to do? I wanted to throw the plate at him and at all (salesmen, hawkers, teachers, friends, relatives, colleagues, et al) those who had employed such means to unsettle my already unsettled mind.
Bullied or not, the single question that remained was whether or not we can know whether something will be available in future. Predicting the future is such a tough thing and having to do that at gun point (or cutlet-point) is not an easy job. So much of this world thrives on making a call at a point when there are very few knowns and terribly numerous unknown-unknowns. Like the Indian marriage system, like the stock markets, like a career choice, like buying a house in someplace that might see growth or not... Of course, had one found true love, or been born wealthy or had a passion or just wants a good place to live in, none of the above would be such difficulties, but give me the address of one person who has all of that and I am going to request him/her to adopt me!
My frustration of that evening was not - surely you realised that but humour me - whether cutlets should be consumed or not. It was two-pronged: the way people can force you into doing things their way (but this is a silly point as no one really asked you to, though I shall elaborate more) and the need to be able to predict or at least find the predictions lying somewhere accessible at the point of deciding on something.
Of course everyone is entitled to cajole and convince, but forcing someone into doing something which they are uncertain about is simply indecent to me. In the presence of other human beings, it is vital to maintain one's integrity and genuinely present the world to the benefit of the other person. If a particular commodity is substandard, then it only makes sense for the seller to properly educate the buyer about the trade-offs. I recall a seller on Fashion Street (a rundown stretch near the posh southern tongue of Bombay) who would clearly tell me that a particular shirt would hardly last 10 uses but then made me realise that a shirt that lasted 10 uses and priced at 30 was the same as a shirt that was designed for 100 uses and cost 300. Compare that with the branded shirts that cost 1200! Point is, people didn't come to FS to buy for their wardrobe. They came there to get something for an occasion and then probably another before tossing it off. FS was dirt cheap if you knew how to bargain. That seller earned my respect.
There are several issues that we need to recognise and discriminate between.
- The case for dishonesty being a form of indecency
- The case for the objective honesty being vital
- The case for the larger good
In any interaction, whether a commercial one or not, we require to note the need for being honest enough to not be detrimental to the other party. An innocuous lie about whether one ate their spinach or not, is not something I am concerned about. If my actions and words are intended to trick, deceive or undesirably coax somebody into taking a particular action, then I would consider myself indecent. That the salesman needs to make a living too is none of my concerns. If s/he is interested, s/he should be the salesman for another product which doesn't require cheating and or pushing someone into a corner and forcing them to act according to the way they want the cornered native to. I believe it is vital to be honest and outline the truth about situation, commodity or issue. It doesn't mean that you need to pour out information and convert the interaction into a confessional, but I think it is important to provide sufficient information to the other individual to make an informed decision and in case they need more time and or information, to provide that as well.
The secondary issue which is actually of paramount importance is the need to have some confidence in matters that are yet to arrive in one's life. So much of life is based on the unknown future dangling on known hopes. Will this job be the one that will make me feel excited and competent? Is this car going to be a good buy? Will this person be the right one in my life? Should I take that offer in Chicago or the challenge in China? Should I invest in gold or in real estate? How does one know? Undoubtedly, there are certain hints that one gathers or stumbles upon, but certainty is certainly not one them. The urge for certainty is quite a common one which stems from our basic need for security, but my question is, why not want to be secure? What is so macho about shunning security and surety (don't bother; I am neither for nor against security, but just for raising questions!!)? If we are, like the wise old men, to accept that security is as elusive as elixir then a sense of responsibility cannot be inculcated in an individual which leads to the fraying of the very fabric of society. Families are created and nurtured primarily to ensure security to the various participants. A tribe being a collection of families provides security (directly or indirectly) to all those who constitute the tribe. So be it with a society and a civilisation or nation.
But the problem with the unknown future is that there is no way of finding out whether one option is better than the other. Multitude of options doesn't improve the situation. Since a human being can live only one life, s/he has no way to verify the productiveness of all the options before picking on one. I cannot marry L, M and B, in turns or simultaneously to know whom I should actually get married to in order to have a happy life. Add to that my favourite option of remaining unmarried and there is certainly no way you can decide whether marrying L or M or B would be better than staying unmarried. As it is said in German, Einmal ist keinmal: something that happens but once, rather not have happened at all. Life is where we need to learn the script for enacting our life and there is no re-take.
All this an more coursed my mind as I waited till 19:00 hrs to satisfy myself. No, no, I had eaten the cutlets immediately, but I waited and hoped that he didn't serve anyone at 18:00 hrs. Well, I was saved. The cutlet stock had run out and there was no serving made after the first trip!