You could not walk on the footpaths of Gariahat in those pre-Operation Sunshine days (Operation Sunshine being the controversial drive to clean Kolkata’s footpaths of illegal hawkers that became the first nail in the coffin for the CPM in Kolkata and marked the rise of the Big M) without being assailed by them.
“Sale boudi sale” [not to be translated as Bhabhis for sale but Bhabhi, we have a sale”] they would shout, a never-dying cacophony that seemed to emanate from the bowels of Hell. As you tried negotiating the narrow rope that was left of the sidewalk, you would bump into people standing and bargaining, their sweat mingling with yours, with directed howls of “Ashun dada ashun notun shirt wholesale” [Come Dada come new shirts at “wholesale” prices] aimed at your eardrums making you stop in your tracks, just in time for someone to stomp your right toe.
This tedium would sometimes be broken by comic relief provided by cries of “Boudi boudi blouse niye chole jacchen” [Bhabhi is running off with blouse] as a hook of some garment hanging from the rope strung across the footpath would catch the hair of some lady walking by or by a violent diversion provided by two shopkeepers, angry at being undercut by the other, hurling the most poetic of abuses. And no sooner had you crossed the zone of clothes-salesman would you be set upon by the “greeters” of illegal egg-roll shops that lined the footpaths. They would literally hold you by the arm and with avancular words of empathy (“Boy, you look tired after school, why don’t you have some chicken cho-men with extra sauce?” or “Going to tuition son? Ei Bhola whip up an egg roll double pronto for this gentleman right away”) entreating you to sample their wares while you tried to extricate yourself from their grasp, your senses nevertheless drawn to the chunks of meat of doubtful provenance sizzling like a seductress on the tawa .
You were not safe from salesmen even if you vowed never to go out on the streets. They would come a-knocking right when you were going to take your afternoon siesta or when you were bang in the midst of it, or when you were sitting down for lunch with your hand dripping with daal or just when you were going to put the first mugful of water on your back . No they would not go away easily, banging on the door and assaulting the bell. Nor would they be satisfied by “Barite keu nei” (No one is at home) as they would retort, somewhat logically, “But you are there.” And some of them would not stop even there—for instance sellers of “products for leddies” would sometimes start doing their sales pitch from the other side of the door, in their loudest voice so that the neighbors giggled, till the “leddy” in concern would open the door out of embarrassment.
Salesmen. Sometimes the object of irritation, sometimes of anger, and sometimes of awe. It takes something special to be able to take the first step, to reach out to a stranger, suppressing ego in the face of possible rejection, often conveyed in a manner that is hardly gentlemanly. All this in order to make a sale.
My favorite salesmen however were those whom one encountered in the book fair (an old post I wrote about them) , authors and poets who would roam around, engage book-hunters in banter and then sell them their writings. They were my favorite because of the quiet dignity they bought to the joy of writing, radiating an earnestness and love of what they do in a way that would touch even the most cynical of us.
And now I find myself, in a very different context and using a very different medium and using words like “buzz creation” , in the ranks of those who sell their words, peddling my own book “May I Hebb Your Attention Pliss” as I use my own little corner of the cyberfootpath to block your virtual surf path for a second, entreating you to do the needful.