On a hot July day, my colleague Moses and I were trying to locate our car on Chennai’s Nungambakkam High Road in front of Nalli Silks when I saw a roadside cart laden with cucumbers. The seller was vacantly gazing at passersby. Clad in a white shirt and a dhoti worn in the traditional Chennai style, he had long hair and an unkempt beard. I did not know Tamil, and asked Moses to find out the price. One rupee apiece, came the reply.
We wanted one piece each. The cucumber seller began deftly slicing them to put salt and the delectable red chilly powder on the neat halves. As we bit into the cucumber, I asked Moses to tell him that his pricing was too low, and that he should raise it. Moses conveyed this. The seller shook his head, and replied that “customer satisfaction” is more important than extra profit. The words ‘customer satisfaction’ were in English. I gulped my patronising comment. At this time, Moses excused himself to find our car. After a few moments, the seller asked me in English where I was from. From Bangalore, I replied. What follows here is our conversation. His statements are highlighted.
Isn’t the Karnataka budget due to be presented tomorrow?
Yes, that is true. Living in Karnataka, it was easy for me to concur on this.
I wonder how the governments of Karnataka and Tamil Nadu will ever solve the watersharing problem. Man cannot solve this problem. It has to be God. After all, it is an issue of how much rain is going to fall!
I nodded. I was not sure if I had a view at all.
See the way the monsoon is progressing. It does not look good. The progress of the rains is leaving a ‘V’ of a dry patch as the clouds move north. Bihar, Orissa, Madhya Pradesh and the states up north will have problems. Politicians are the ones who use such problems to create a divide among people. They always do it. They use water, religion, anything they can, to create a divide. Look at the way Amarinder Singh of Punjab is taking a stand.
I looked at him, in part admiration and part disbelief.
You’re from Bangalore. Things are going well for you folks. But I don’t understand how people with shady business interests can become representatives of public opinion there.
It was part complaint and part observation.
At this point, a fellow peddler arrived — helped himself to some of the cucumber, and the two had a quick conversation on some issue I did not understand. After the other person left, I asked him if selling cucumber was his full-time vocation. He told me that right now it was. Earlier, he sold lottery tickets, the trading of which has since been banned. As a result he had to switch his business to selling cucumbers on the wheeled cart. No complaints and no issues. Meaning to engage him further, I asked him his religion. This drew an instant look of disappointment from him:
“Sir, I am an Indian. That is my religion. In my eyes, all people are equal, and it does not matter to me at all.”
The clarity of his response and his conviction took me completely by surprise. His net worth was probably equal to his day’s turnover. The newspaper and magazines he reads, to keep abreast of things, wipe off the disposable income he generates. Bare feet on this busy, dusty road, he sold a low-value, perishable product from a rickety cart. At peace with himself and with the world rushing past, this man was dressed in poverty. But in his presence, it was I who felt poor.
“We are not complete if we are not connected. It is only when we are connected that things make sense. Only when things make sense, we can form an opinion. Standing there, I wondered how many in the corporate world know who the chief minister of Punjab is, and about the progress of the monsoon! How many have an informed view on river water politics and budget proceedings of another state. “
Soon, Moses appeared with our car. It was time for me to go. I shook hands with the nameless cucumber seller of Chennai.
Actually, I wanted to touch his feet.
At peace with himself and with the world rushing past, this man was dressed in
poverty. But in his presence, it was I who felt poor
The author is co-founder & chief
operating officer at MindTree