V Pattabhi Ram and Mithun D’Souza
On a normal day it would be hard to pick one’s way through the Old Kent Road which bustles with trading activity in oil, grains, vegetables and other commodities. Pushcart vendors, old paper sellers and road side clothes sellers swarm the place like moths to a flame.
This was no less than an ordinary day full of trade, when China took the detour at the beginning of Old Kent Road into the market place. It was around 3.00 in the afternoon and the scorching heat was unbearable. He had finished his work in the city early and there was little point in hurrying back to his terminal at the IIT hostel.
China walked past the street peeling the orange that he had just bought at the stand. He made his way through the densely crowded area kicking a can of Pepsi with his polished pair of leather shoes which were now covered with dust. And chewing up the outer cover of the orange! Studying at IIT affects one in strange ways.
Old Kent Road had scores of businessmen on the streets. Horses and donkeys wandered around with loads of material on their backs. Brisk business was being done by men in dhoti and kurtha who occasionally got off their wooden stools to spit out paan in the gutter nearby. Transactions here were cash settled. This was the raw cash market at its best. Young boys screamed out the prices of onions and potatoes; their voices carrying like thunder to the far ends of the market.
There were no cash registers and no ledgers. The trader knew his out-standing amounts on his finger tips. No records. No documentation.. No revenue recognition. No taxes. Closing cash on hand less opening cash on hand was the profit for the day. Simple! Practical! Effective! No accounting manual. Everything was based on trust, unlike the maniacal documentation and discussions which large organizations normally have. A defaulter would be boycotted by the entire trading fraternity, thus, reputation was closely guarded.
The businessmen of Old Kent Road would be up by four in the morning to be nice and fresh when the trucks with commodities got into the city at 6.00 am. From then on it was business as usual for the rest of the day till late in the evening. 7 days a week, 365 days a year; past Diwali’s, Id’s, Christmas’s and New years. Phew! And the studs at IIT had the cheek to complain about long study hours.
Evenings would be spent in conversation and listening to the radio and attending to household chores. Wednesdays used to be different in the market. It was the day of the Weekly Mela. Village dancers, folk singers and artisans from outside the town would make their way to the streets. The local brass band would play the latest film songs in the evening when the local folk could shake a leg or two. This was rural life in the heart of the city.
China walked past a shop with huge containers of fresh coconut oil stacked in an organized way. The perfume of the virgin coconut oil invaded the air. There was an old man, perhaps in his late 70s, with a white beard streaming off his wrinkled face seated on an old iron chair in the coconut oil shack.
Seated beside him was a middle aged man with a big belly, running the show at the store, talking to customers and directing half a dozen boys working in there. Must be the old man’s son thought China These were businesses which had run for decades. From Grandfather to father and from father to son. Like kings and princes in a monarchy, the future generations carried on the reins of the family’s business.
China recalled his visit to the mall the other day with Wafers and Muskan. Loud music beating the ear drum, air conditioners running on full throttle, a mixture of perfumes in the air; super fast escalators and speedy glass elevators. Every known brand had set its shop in the 1 million square feet monolithic in the heart of the city. Families with shopping bags in both hands had walked past the glass-bordered shops. There were children running around, and mothers with prams with babies in them. Pop corn and ice-cream, burgers and fries, movies and magic. It was a thousand things wrapped up in one at the city malls.
As opposed to this , most of the inhabitants of Old Kent Road were simple folk who were enjoying a rural idyll in the heart of the city. There were children running around in the playground adjacent to the market; some eating mangoes of one of the trees close by, other trotting with worn out school bags on their backs and road side ice candy in their mouths moving about happy as larks. Then there was the wandering beggar with a wooden staff in hand, the harmonium carrying singer singing praises to the lord, the palmist who had set up shop in a closed aluminum enclosure; an economy by itself in the middle of Old Kent Road.
China sat himself down to take a few deep breath. This was India with its clear-cut split personality. Just then the heavens opened up. It started pouring cats and dogs. While people ran helter-skelter, our man was in no hurry whatsoever. Raindrops trickled down his head and spectacles.
China enjoyed the moment and made his way back home.