The Rattrap Salesman 

Sometimes you find common ground where you least expect it.

(BOMBAY) -- India is driven by commerce. Despite its widespread poverty, Indians buy and sell everywhere -- on the streets, in their homes, in stores and tiny stalls, even in the middle of traffic.

Once the doorbell rang in the Bombay apartment where my family and I are staying with relatives. It was after 10 p.m. When I looked out the peep hole and described the old woman in a sari I saw in the hallway, the people inside just laughed. Apparently they had encountered her before. She was selling sleepwear -- lingerie -- door-to-door.

Every morning we are awakened by a cacophony of sounds, which includes car and truck horns, crows cawing, and the sing-song shouts of hawkers outside the apartment selling fruits and vegetables from push carts. In the amazing tangle that is Bombay traffic we are offered toys, flowers, books, magazines, and miniature Indian flags (January 26 is Independence Day). Outside the most upscale stores, vendors set up shop, selling everything imaginable. There are even people on the street who will shine your shoes, give you a shave, or clean your ears.

Then there was the rat trap salesman in Hyderabad.

My father-in-law operates a liquor store that was owned by his father before him. One day during our stay in Hyderabad, I noticed a man outside the shop with some unusual wares. On closer inspection, I saw that he was selling all kinds of rattraps and rodent poisons. He had humane traps (both wooden and metal) for catching the rats alive and the more traditional metal traps that break the rodent's neck.

It was an impressive array of goods and I stopped to look more closely. The man, who had very dark skin and appeared to be in his 30s, smiled at me. I returned the smile. By this time I had learned to avoid the frustrating dance of two people who don't speak the same language. Since I don't speak Telugu or Hindi and he didn't know English, we were confined to smiling at each other and making the universal signs of greeting. We nodded a lot.

I found myself watching the rattrap salesman as he went about his daily chore of laying his rug down on the sidewalk and then putting out his display in an orderly fashion. He didn't hawk but waited for an interested customer and then began the inevitable haggling. We continued to smile at each other as I went to and from the house (which is above the store).

The night before we left Hyderabad to return to Bombay one of the relatives who works in the store told me at dinner that the rat trap salesman wanted to come back with me to the United States. He had assured the relative that he would be no trouble to me and that he would be available to do any chores I wished him to perform both at my home and in my office.

Because there are so many people in India and so few jobs available, there are people who do all kinds of work. A middle-class family can easily afford someone who will come to their house and cook, another person to clean the floors and make the beds, and another to wash the clothes. (This man is called the "dobhi.") Likewise it is affordable to have someone drive your car (or wash it), bring you a newspaper, or run your errands. This is the world the rattrap salesman visualized; this is the world he knows.

The next day, I gave him a 100 rupee note -- about two U.S. dollars. (I had originally wanted to buy one of his wooden traps, but decided it would be too cumbersome to bring back.) He smiled. I smiled.

When it came time to load the cars for the trip to the train station, I shook his hand before getting into the car. From the front seat, I could see him deliberating. Finally, just before the car pulled off, he handed me a note. It read:

Respected Sir,

I wont to go to America with you. My passport is ready. I shall feel oblige if you kindly arrange for a "visa." I can work at your office or at your house also.

Thank you.

He did not include his name. He obviously had gone to great lengths to get the note written. He couldn't have known many people who could write English. Still at the last minute he could not decide whether or not to present it to me.

I wish I could have talked to him, explained the many reasons why he could not go back with me. But the car was pulling off. There was only time for one more universal sign. I shrugged.

That night as dusk settled on the countryside along the train tracks, as shepherds drove their goats wherever it is goats go at night, I thought about the rattrap salesman and how different his world is from mine. I felt sad -- for both of us. n

You can e-mail Dennis Freeland at freeland@memphisflyer.com.

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