For forty years the Fruit Walla had pushed his four wheeled cart laden with fruit and vegetables onto our residential estate in Pune, India. He cut a fine figure in his spotless white dhoti and kamise. During our period of residence we watched his son grow from child to manhood as he accompanied his father on daily rounds.
The old gentleman had established a kind of ritual in his movements between expatriate bungalows. The wily fellow would make a point of finding out which nationality each family claimed as they moved to the estate. For US citizens he’d American apples, for British English apples, Canadians were favored with Canadian apples and Australians were fortunate to have Australian apples supplied. We couldn’t figure out how those apples from the same basket could be naturalized so effortlessly, but even though we were onto his tricks we enjoyed the humor of it all. We’d tease him by pretending to be angry previous days apples delivered to our Australian household came from America. The old man enjoyed our banter, and we came to the conclusion it was social contact rather than sales that kept him going.
His claims for the quality of his wares and their pricing were outrageous. We assumed he never told the truth, and he assumed we all knew it. It paid to do a daily check on prices at the Bazaar for, if you somehow missed that precaution you were sure to be cheated. We often heard outbursts in the early morning from a next door neighbor who discovered they’d been cheated the previous day. The Fruit Walla would be “banished forever” from that house, departing to the shouts of an enraged victim. But he’d reappear next day with a cheerful “Salaam Memsahib.” The woman of the house would ignore him for some time, but an increasingly agonized wail “Memsahib” always broke the good woman’s resolve, and she’d emerge to do business as usual as if nothing had happened the previous day. How could we turn him away? We all secretly loved the Fruit Walla. He was the Maharajah of the estate, and expatriates acknowledged the fact.
But our Indian co-workers would have nothing to do with the old fellow. They understood his character very well, so he didn’t attempt to sell his wares to them. He was a problem that belonged to the expatriate community. The locals had absolutely no sympathy for those of us who’d knowingly and consistently allow ourselves to be cheated.
Probably the most blatant abuse was his habit of under weighing things sold. The weights were of a hand held variety, and the Fruit Walla had worked out a system whereby, with slight inclination of the wrist balances would be tilted in his favor. The Memsahibs attempted to defend themselves by purchasing weighing scales, and would weigh everything purchased in the kitchen before making payment. Weights came up short every time and Memsahib would return to do battle before handing over payment. In a strange kind of way expatriate wives would look forward to the exercise each morning. It was something to talk about among them of an evening.
As far as the old gentleman was concerned he was doing no wrong. The goddess Laxmi had placed us all at his disposal. We were opportunities presented to ensure his family was fed and prosperity ensured. The goddess expected him to seize these opportunities so his good fortune would bring her glory in the sight of neighbors and friends.
Expatriates had come and gone over the years, and each in turn had attempted to explain the folly of cheating. He’d smile broadly, exposing red stained teeth from a lifetime of betel chewing and go right on following his proven methods of selling fruit and vegetables. What special knowledge did these foreign low castes have? They knew nothing of India! Tomorrow they’d forget and let down their guard, and that was all the opportunity he needed to build his fortune.
Laxmi had cared for his ancestors, and he was passing this knowledge along to his son as he accompanied him each day. The son would faithfully pass this knowledge to future generations in timeless Bharat Mata.
“© Copyright Ian Grice 2012 All rights reserved”