The instructor looked really awesome in his khaki pants and sky-blue shirt, open at the neck. His shiny black shoes reminded me of that old shoe-polish ad: Did you Cherry Blossom your shoes today? This one sure had. His hair was fashionably cut and blow-dried, as on a model. And he wore mirrored goggles. Wow! Not only that, but he spoke with an American accent. He was the epitome of cool.
“Think about it,” he said, “In every situation of life you are either selling or being sold to.”
I didn’t understand what he meant, but I nodded because all the others did. We were in a classroom of St. Joseph Memorial School, being trained for a superlative sales job that was advertised in the Bhopal edition of the Times of India.
On the third and last day, our group of twenty had dwindled to five. The instructor was tough; some of the boys had been destroyed, reduced to tears by his sarcastic words. He was funny at times and stern at others. Impatient, demanding.
“Think about it,” he said, “Do you want to fly with the eagles or scratch with the chickens?”
This I understood.
I left the room with a stack of glossy fliers; they stuck to my sweaty palms. Around my neck a lanyard with a laminated ID that bore my picture and my name: Rajiv Malhotra. And my position: Sales Associate.
I had been assigned to a new housing colony near Raja Bhoj airport. I was told that most of the homes belonged to Non-Resident Indians, temporarily or permanently returned from their foreign stations. These NRIs have heaps of money, saved up from their years of working in America or the Gulf countries.
“Five hundred rupees is nothing to them,” the instructor had told us, “nothing but small change. In America you can buy toilet paper with dollar bills printed on it,” he added. “Obviously they pay no mind to the rupees that fall into their laps when the exchange rate is in their favor, as it is now. So go and sell, sell as if your life depends on it.” Which it does in a way, where I’m concerned, what with my impending fatherhood.
An old man with an old rifle sits in a roofless recess by the entrance to the colony. The sun beats down on his balding skull. He casts a look of suspicion in my direction.
“Where are you going, what house number, what name?” he barks.
“Uncleji, I am handing out these leaflets to all the residents,” I say. “They will get a huge discount at our new Chuna Bhatti store.”
He sizes me up. I am sweating with nerves but I pass muster. I have tried to emulate the instructor’s style: baby-blue shirt, khaki pants, black shoes. No goggles, no fancy haircut, I can’t afford those yet. But I will, and soon!
He nods assent and I walk through the gate. I imagine some goondas, hell bent on looting, forcing their way in. The old man wouldn’t last long, gun or no gun. He’d be no match for them.
Here comes house number one. The front door is open, only the screen door is closed. The carport’s padlock is dangling unlocked. Should I push open the gate, walk up to the door and ring the bell, or just yell from the roadside?
“Auntie?” I shout.
A middle-aged woman appears behind the screen. “Go away, I need nothing!” she says.
I’m not ready to give up.
“Please Auntieji, listen to me, I have good news for you! You are a winner! You will have to feed me some sweets to celebrate!”
She turns her back to me and disappears into the shadows of her house.
The next one will bite, I promise myself.
At this time of the morning, the women are home alone. The kids have gone to school, the husbands to work. The ladies walk around, still in their printed cotton housedresses. They are supervising their maids or having their second or third cup of tea, with half an eye on the TV screen. Not much going on. So this Auntie in question, a Mrs. Srivastava as it turns out, takes the bait.
“Auntie,” I tell her, “this is your lucky day!”
“I don’t want anything,” she says.
“Please, just give me a chance to explain. This is a very special Diwali promotion.”
I can see she is curious.
“Please take a flier, no obligation!”
She looks at the fliers in my hand as if they were contaminated with the swine flu.
“We have opened a new store in Chuna Bhatti. And because this happy occasion coincides with the holiday season, we’re having a special Diwali event. Your neighbor just won a microwave oven,” I say.
Now I have her attention. She steps out of her house. It is of the utmost importance to take her to the next level: she has to draw a flier.
“All of these fliers have a scratch-and-win,” I say. “You can win a geyser for your bathroom or kitchen, a food processor, or a hi-fi system!”
“Did Mrs. Kekre really win a microwave?” she says.
“Most certainly. All you have to do is take one of these fliers. If you win something, you have to pay no more than 500 rupees to collect your prize, which may be worth thousands of rupees. If you don’t win, you don’t pay.”
I can see a glint in her eyes. The old greed is kicking in. I fan out the packet of fliers. She picks one. She disappears back into the house to find a coin. After what seems like an hour she reappears, flier in hand.
“It says here I’ve won a steam iron, but I already have one!”
“No problem, you can exchange your prize for a 30% discount on anything in the store, after you pay me the prize-collection fee.”
“How much was that again?”
“Are you crazy? Why should I pay Rs. 500 to get a 30% discount on a mixie?”
“Auntie, you’re entitled to three more chances.” I whip out the receipt book. “Just fill out your name and phone number here and pay me the five hundred rupees. Then you can draw another flier and if you don’t win, you owe nothing, not even the first five hundred. But if you win…”
“And what if I win something else that I already have?”
“Then you get another discount on something that you do want.”
I can see her thinking.
This is my lucky day. Mrs. Srivastava hands me a crisp five hundred note and draws another flier. After she scratches off the gold cover layer, she discerns her prize.
“It says here, 31% Discount on Usha Sewing Machine,” she says, “But I don’t sew.”
“You could always learn,” I say without thinking.
“Beghairat! Who do you think I am? A bloody seamstress?”
“Sorry Auntie, no, that’s not what I meant!”
“Get the hell out of here, before I call the police!”
This is much harder than I thought it would be. The instructor made it seem like the foreign-returned Indians would welcome us with open arms. But they are proving to be tough cookies, one and all. My throat is parched and I am tempted to give up. But then I think of Pooja, waiting for me at the boarding house. Pooja who is expecting a baby; my baby. And who needs better food, milk, and almonds to ensure a healthy baby boy. I can’t let her down. Not after she defied her stuck-up Brahmin parents and eloped with me. Our wedding was like the love matches you see in the Bollywood movies: we exchanged garlands before a lone pujari at a remote temple in the countryside. Ever since, she has proudly worn the vermillion sindoor in the parting of her hair and called herself Mrs. Malhotra. She continued to go to college until her pregnancy started to show. Too many people started asking too many questions. In the end she refused to go back. There’s no way she will graduate now. I have to take care of her.
I walk a little farther into the colony. A wiry mali is tending the lawn at the center of a cluster of houses. The colorful play structure in the middle is deserted. The children are still at school.
Number 7 looks promising. Seven is a lucky number. I will collect at least Rs. 500 from this house, I tell myself.
There is a car parked in front. Maybe the husband is home. A retiree, perhaps. I don’t want to deal with a retired accountant or businessman. They could outwit me anytime.
Let’s look at the house next door, number 9. No vehicle, that’s a good sign. Lots of potted plants, a fragrant creeper that climbs up all the way to the second floor.
“Auntie!” I say. For some reason I am unable to raise my voice beyond a croak.
I open the gate and walk up to the door. I ring the bell. A woman appears. A blonde wearing a Fabindia-style loose tunic over palazzo pants. Hey Bhagwan, what am I going to say to her? She probably won’t understand my Hindi. And my English all of a sudden deserts me.
“Ma’am, may I have a glass of water, please?” I manage.
She retreats to the kitchen and comes back with a tumbler. I gulp down the water and hand back the empty glass.
“Thank you so much.”
“Madam, if you please?” I muster my courage.
She arches one eyebrow. She is not young, I can see now. I find her gray eyes unsettling.
I launch into my rehearsed speech. Se says she does not need anything.
“Kuch nahin chahiye,” she says, in Hindi.
I am amazed. Encouraged also. My tongue is unshackled; I plead and cajole. She agrees to take a flier. Yes!!! She writes her name on the receipt. The first name looks English, the last name is a local Muslim name. I can take it from here. Just watch me.
I fan out the fliers. “Recite bismillah and pick a flier,” I say.
She chuckles and draws a flier.
“Now please find a coin and see what you have won. Don’t forget to take the name of Allah, for luck, before you scratch. And don’t scratch too hard. Just the top layer!” I say.
Her smile is ironic but she does as I say.
“30 % Discount on LED TV,” she reads. “I already have one and I don’t even watch TV,” she says.
“No matter, ma’am, pick another leaflet. If you don’t win a prize you don’t pay, and you get your five hundred back.”
“What five hundred?”
“You owe me five hundred as the prize-collection fee.”
“But I don’t want anything. I really don’t need anything from your store.” She makes as if to go inside.
“Please, please, Mam, I am a student, this will be taken out of my pocket if you don’t pay. Your name is already in the book.”
“In my book this is cheating,” she says over her shoulder.
I can’t help myself. Everything is going down the drain. I am so disappointed. “Shit,” I say. “Shit, shit!”
“What was that?” She has turned around. “How dare you use this kind of language in front of me?”
“But Mam, how can you say I am cheating?” Unbidden, hot tears well up in my eyes.
“I’m not saying you are cheating. What I mean is that these sales tactics are dishonest. Your bosses are to blame. And you can’t use that kind of words in front of your elders. It’s very disrespectful!”
Here I thought Americans used “shit” and fuck” in every second sentence. The instructor did not warn us about this.
“Mam, please. I am an MBA student. I am very poor. Look, this is my official ID, it has my name and employee number on it.” I lift up the laminated badge but she does not even look at it.
“Mam, up to four chances, please Mam! If one of them no win, then pay nothing.” I realize my English is deteriorating but I keep talking. It’s all or nothing now.
“And if I do win? I get to pay three or four times five hundred rupees? For what?”
“You get prize Mam. Or you get discount, at least 30%.”
“Did you pass elementary arithmetic? I will still pay at least as much as the cost of the thing, whatever it is I am buying.”
I can’t just give up. Fly with the eagles, don’t scratch with the chickens. I must convince her.
“Madam, you are a winner! You have to feed me sweets!”
“No, you are the winner, collecting five hundred rupees, if not more, from every house in this colony. You have to feed me sweets!” she says heatedly.
The mali has finished watering the lawn and passes us on his way to the main gate. He gives me a dirty look.
Think on your feet, is what the instructor said. What can I tell her?
“Mam, I have a wife and baby,” I blurt out.
“I thought you were a student. You look all of eighteen.” Her voice has become loud and indignant now.
“I am a student but…”
Someone has grabbed the collar of my shirt and is pulling me back. I look over my shoulder. The mali, thin but more muscled than I, has me by the scruff of my neck. Beside him stands the guard, rifle in hand.
“This man is making a nuisance of himself?” the oldster inquires.
“It’s OK. It’s under control,” the white woman answers, but he pays no heed.
The mali tugs at my collar and propels me towards the gate. He’s calling me sisterfucker and other bad names. The old guy prods me with the barrel of his rifle.
Aunties and servants are leaning over hedges and railings to watch the spectacle.
“I am going, I am leaving. Just let me go!” I cry.
As I am pushed out the gate I feel the impact of a boot in my backside. It’s all I can do not to fall headlong on the tarmac.
Copyright © 2016 Elisabeth Khan
Khan loves writing fiction, nonfiction, and poetry. She divides
her time between Michigan and India (her main source of inspiration).
Her stories have appeared in Driftwood and The MacGuffin, her poetry in Hanging Loose Magazine, The Iconoclast, and The Feminine Collective, and her nonfiction in CoffeeShop Blues. If you enjoyed this story, you can read more on her blog, https://elisabethkhan.wordpress.com/