I stood at the counter of the bakery store, at the elitist market in my neighbourhood. It was the usual fare - cookies, croissants, pastries- they sit in the glass display staring expectantly. I spotted the Keventers bar, a brand of delectable milkshake that’s famous in this city. The searing heat and my desire for it gets the better of me. So, I order a glass of milk shake and sit down at a table. I look out from where I sit, sipping a glass of chilled mango shake, there’s a small boy, probably 7 years old, in a faded, red, checked shirt and a pair of beige shorts with tattered edges, selling packets of pens. My phone rings, I answer it, engrossed in the conversation I lose sight of the little pen-seller.
I step out and decide to walk a few shops ahead to the stationery outlet. This is a favourite of mine with all kinds of pens, colourful post-its, writing pads, fancy diaries and everything that a lover of stationery items would go gaga over. I buy a pink-lacey diary to add to my collection. There’s a teenager in a pair of Gap shorts and Dolce & Gabbana t-shirt standing next to me, she buys different kinds of pens. This reminds me of the little pen seller. As I step out of the shop, I look around to check whether he is there.
I feel a tap on my arm, there he is, the pen-seller, his brown eyes seem hopeful. A lock of (reddened by malnutrition) hair idles on his forehead. I have a sudden urge to push it back. His beady eyes shine with a spark of intelligence. He urges me to buy his pens. A salesman from the stationery shop behind me, comes out and tries to shoo the boy away. “Don’t trouble this madam with your below-standard pens. People here buy branded pens like Parker. Get lost!!”
The little pen-seller looks at me, yearning for me to stand up for him, his eyes say it all. Something snaps within me; I sternly tell the salesman to let him be. “This boy isn’t begging; he is selling pens…are you not doing the same? Aren’t we all selling something or the other?”
Due to the pandemic, I maintain distance from the boy, otherwise I would have given him a hug. I offer him some money and tell him to keep it, presently I do not need any pens. He refuses to accept the money. He chirps in his baby voice, “Take the pens madam, they are good, if you use them you will want to buy again. My mother will scold me if I take money from you without selling.”
I buy a packet of pens from him. His eyes brim with unfiltered joy. His mask seems tattered too. The condition of such people makes me wonder whether they will ever get the Covid vaccine or the medical amenities that are available to us? I ask him to accompany me to the pharmacy next door and I buy a packet of masks; for him and his family. He runs to the footpath at the entrance of the market where his mother, with a baby in her lap, sat selling similar packets of pens. There’s a spring in his steps as he holds up the pack of masks in one hand and the money that he has just earned in the other. His mother smiles proudly as he approaches her.
Isn’t the child supposed to be holding a pencil and learning to write the alphabet instead of selling pens? Or probably he is way ahead of the children of his age, who live in the posh condominium next door; he is already learning to be a salesman.
I had left the pack of pens on the dining table, when I came out of the kitchen, I saw that the packet already lay open. My son shouted from his study, “Where did you get these pens from, they write so well. Let’s buy some more of these.”
Two days later, I take a detour from my usual path of walk to the market next door, hoping to catch a glimpse of the boy and his pens. The patch of footpath where sat his mother and his baby sister is vacant now. An occasional car passes by. An old man walks his dog. No boy. No pens.
Navanita Varadpande is a writer based in Gurugram, India Twitter: @VpNavanita