Tuesday, August 16, 2005

Portrait: The horse-cart man

How much will you pay, he asks, dripping wet, his spectacles lying unused in his lap. How much? As little as possible, but I don’t tell him this. You never do because this is a negotiation, and the first rule of any negotiation is to not let anyone know what you’re thinking. At least that's my rule. So I throw a price at him that keeps him on the negotiating table and gives me a chance to not pay too much and get what I want. He is thoughtful, and honestly, disappointed. His face falls and he looks all martyred. Real martyred, not virgins-in-heaven martyred. He looks at his horse and frowns. It stands by, shaking its head. It probably disapproves, too. I’m having second thoughts about this already. But he doesn’t feeling like haggling anymore. Climb on, he says, but know this: I don’t earn much money.

He isn’t smiling now, as he sets the horse on its way by pulling the feathered reins. He’s just looking ahead through the rain at the hills, at the free horses trotting about down the beach, at the Janjira fort far across the gray sea. Conversation might be needed here to make him forget and to appease my conscience. I ask about the horses running about the beach free. Are they his? No, he starts up, they are not his. They belong to a rich man who lets them gallop about like this all day, can you believe it? He never puts them to any work. Maybe he doesn’t need to, I say. They look healthy. So does his own horse. How much does it cost to take care of the horse everyday? Food for Lakshmi costs 200 rupees. It works out to 6000 a month. And Lakshmi is the goddess of prosperity. This is clearly a difficult profession and religion isn’t helping much. This is the only thing I know to do, he says. My father taught me this, and now I do it without thinking. How much does he make? He does not mind the question. Some days, 400. On days like today, nothing. He does not look at me or smiles or betrays any emotion as he says this. For him it is a financial transaction. The straighter his face, the guiltier I feel. Am I undercutting his earnings with my thoughtless negotiation?

Now a strange thing happens: he smiles. A cold wind has picked up or is it the horse trotting faster? His smile is infectious and his face so telling that I smile with him. Of course now I hate myself for undercutting anyone whose smile is so luminous. A right prick. This ride is getting better and better. His price was a bargain! We reach one end of the beach. Rocks cluster beneath a tough slope, and around there grow coconut trees and other sorts. You live in a beautiful place, I tell him. He smiles sweetly, says nothing, and concentrates on food-guzzling Lakshmi. After a while he stops and points to the sand. Look at it, it is black. Do I know what that is? He waits, listens to the guesses and says that it is iron. That’s the other thing I learnt to do when I was young, he says, and I enjoyed it. It was a job. A difficult job. But he managed. He took a sieve to the beach and sifted through sand grains, separating the golden ones from the black ones – individually – so the iron dealer who hired him would fork out money – 3 rupees for each batch of iron. He says it was donkey work, but still loves it.

Imagine that. Fond memories about sifting through sand to separate different coloured grains. The suggestion that anybody at all could enjoy this work makes me wonder. I ask which of the two jobs he likes more. He actually thinks about it while wiping his glasses. If he answered, I didn’t hear it.

At some point, he notices a family with children stepping out of a large jeep. My man looks at them for a few seconds and decides that they will want a ride on Lakshmi. And what if they negotiate with you, I ask. Again, he doesn’t reply. The ride is nearly over. The beach is deserted and I want to hang out with Lakshmi the brown horsey. Curses. What to do? He has an idea. Go back home. The rain will get worse, he says, so go on home. We trade more money than was agreed upon and he speeds off towards the family. There is little money to be made here. But what else will he do? Search through sand again? He’ll figure. Everybody does. Maybe he’s already figured.


KB said...

poignont and everyday. I guess there is nothing else to say ...

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