It was an early spring morning in Benaras.
The freezing winter was slowly giving way to the hot and sultry summer. The world had exploded in a symphony of colors and fragrances. The pundits of Asi ghat were busy in their daily rituals with a new vigor, to please Mahadev. The fruits and vegetables market near Shivpur was gearing up to face the lovely day with the typical small town lethargy. Gopi was dressing up to go to the market. He was a small time fruit seller who sold his wares in a small wicker basket.
The beautiful morning had made him sing in a tuneless voice. Beauty is an aphrodisiac for a heart, which is at peace with happiness as its companion. A troubled heart never appreciates beauty. Gopi was always happy.
He was humming a popular song, while tying his gamchha at his waist. His biceps rippled through his dark brown skin, while he caressed his fashionable moustaches and picked up his wicker basket. He looked at the small pile of ripe green pears in his basket and clicked his tongue deprecatingly. Pears were a cheap fruit and usually had no takers, but as these were the first batch of pears in this season, Gopi hoped that he may get a better price and will be able to buy something better to sell tomorrow. His jolly nature overrode this unusual worry and he left his hovel, twirling his handlebar moustaches.
Small towns have a pleasantly relaxed atmosphere. No one is in any hurry to reach anywhere. People care more for a small talk than for a pressing appointment. The market was slowly populating with various sellers setting up their small shops. Gopi saw the better stocked carts and baskets of his peers and then looked at his small pile of pears, made further diminutive in comparison. The only consolation was that he was the only guy with this fruit, so anyone with a fancy for them will have to buy it from him. This thought gave him a heart. His friends were sitting under a sprawling banyan tree and were smoking a hukka. They hailed him and chaffed good naturedly if he ate the remaining figs after his daily wrestling exercises. Gopi smiled.
It was around 10 am that the market reluctantly came to life. The sellers started to call out the prospective buyers with enticing and creative calls. Gopi finally stood up and hitched his dhoti a bit higher. He carried the basket at his hips and called out in that curiously inhuman voice of the small time hawkers which is like nothing in God’s Kingdom! It was something like a dictaphone inflicted with a hoarse throat and palsy at the same time!
“Pears! First pears of the season! Clean your bowels of the poisons of the winter! Beautiful and juicy! The cost is slight and the taste is free! Pears from heaven! Pears…!”
His kohl lined eyes darted like a flitting hummingbird through a flower garden and scanned the thin crowd for any interested guy. His eyes met with that of an elderly farmer and he increased the amplitude in his voice and brought some pantomime in his act. “Pears, oh my friend! Ayurveda says that the first pears of spring have magical qualities and make a stud of an old horse!”
“How much?” The old farmer asked gruffly.
“O lord, just look at them! With their tiny faces staring up like small kids of spring, they are ready to shed their heavenly tears, these pears!” Gopi marveled at his dormant talent at poetry and pressed happily. “I was lucky enough to get them yesterday from a seller from Kashmir. He was asking an arm and leg as the price and kidney as bonus. I beat him to it and got these dirt cheap, lord. Here, these beauties are yours for 8 annas a dozen.” Gopi smiled in what he thought a winsome smile.
“Too costly!” The farmer grumbled. “Your Kashmiri was a crook! I can get these 2 annas a dozen! You and your bloody sales talk!” He said dourly and walked off.
“Your mother met the bandit from the Black Mountains, my friend!” Gopi muttered, while rearranging his wares, which the uncouth farmer had scattered during the bargain. He resumed his sales pitch. “Pears! First pears… ”
“O pears wala!” an imperious voice commanded him. He stopped in his spiel, where he was explaining how good it can be for one’s sex drive and looked around.
A guy in white suit, which was preferred 10 years earlier by British nobles, stood before him. He had that artificially superior look, which high class servants and low class serpents have. Like that Thief Moon, they steal the glory of their lords and illuminate their own lives. In doing so, they also cast a luminosity around them. Like everything pompous in this wild universe, they are just a cog and not the whole machine, but believe themselves to be the machine itself. They are your Friendly Bureaucrats. A large and rich phaeton was standing behind the White Collar.
“How much for the entire lot?” The Peacock asked importantly.
Gopi was simply an illiterate buffoon with the inherent daring of the simpleton, which always stopped short, like a truck before a red signal, when faced with his betters. He Looked around for help and found a yawling open space! All his friends had vanished at the sign of the Royal Flag depicting a golden sun on a saffron background. He looked at the flag on the huge chariot again and shivered! The Chief Minister of Kashi! He tried to say the price, but his whine was totally indecipherable and incoherent.
“Here!” The Peacock impatiently threw a gold coin in his basket. “Malik wants it.”, and Gopi gasped at his good luck! A sovereign!
O reader, in today’s day of demonetization and devaluation of Indian rupee, I’m not sure that you actually followed what transpired monetarily. Let me explain the coin system during the British Raj. 12 pai made a paisa. An anna was 6 paisa. 4 annas were a coin with His Majesty, King George, the II stamped on it. A rupee was 16 annas, i.e. 64 paisa. A sovereign was worth 768 annas, or 48 rupees. A government clerk, who earns around ₹30,000 today used to get paid around 15-20 sovereigns a month.
The beauty of British rule was that one could make a fortune in the exchange rates, if he could understand the discrepancy between conversion rates of rupee to dollar, as proscribed by the newly formed NYSE Board during those days. A rupee could be bought for 64 paise and sold for 100. Many people made a fortune in conversion and in cotton market during those days.
Gopi picked up fresh Betu leaves from his basket, which he always used to pack his fruits and was packing them, when a voice boomed abaft…
“O shareef! Kitna hai iska!” A towering Pathan walked over and blocked the horizon. He was dressed affluently and shone like a diamond in a basket of coals in the poverty ridden market. He had a long curved sword at his hip and everyone knew him as the personal bodyguard of Raibahadur Seth Chintaram Kirorimal, the richest man in Kashi.
“Malik, it’s sold!”
The Pathan looked at him with contempt and and then appraised the royal servant. He saw the sovereign in the grubby basket, gleaming in the morning sun and threw two sovereigns. “It’s not sold till I say so! I’ll take the lot for Raibahadur Kirorimal.” He boomed.
Gopi looked at the towering guy and the royal bureaucrat. He was perplexed, his bundle in his trembling hands, which had begun to sweat slightly, in spite of the morning chill. He slowly extended the tiny bundle towards the pathan.
The bureaucrat said importantly, “The deal is finalized with me. I’ll pay four sovereigns for them!”
The pathan got visibly angry and threw 10 sovereigns in Gopi’s basket. The bureaucrat looked at the royal phaeton for guidance. The curtain of the phaeton twitched imperceptibly, and he cleared his throat and told Gopi, “I’m sure that you are aware that my patron and the Chief Minister of Kashi, Thakur Baldev Singh, has commanded me to buy these pears. Not all the money in the world can defy his wish!” He looked at Gopi and extended a small bag of chamois skin. “Here are 50 sovereigns. Hand over those fruits to me!”
50 sovereigns were an astronomical amount for a beggarly pile of pears! The pathan hesitated and looked at the triumphant smile of the servant. He looked at the closed buggy coach. A hand emerged from the closed buggy and he smiled at Gopi. “50 sovereigns! What a measly amount for such heavenly fruits! My lord, Seth Kirorimal has set his heart upon these beauties and nothing is too dear when he wishes it.” He looked at Quaking Gopi and commanded. “Here, take these 100 sovereigns and hand over those peers.”
Gopi was frozen on the spot. Lost and floundered! He was being buffeted in this storm of high finance and was surreptitiously pinching his arm to wake him up from this dream, or nightmare. All his life he had known that it were always the dogs who got trampled in the race of elephants. It were always the poor, who got hurt in clash of the rich and mighty.
The spring sun was rising lazily. People were starting to gather cautiously and at a safe distance. Most of them pitied Gopi for getting caught in the crossfire of the Titans. In most of the ego wars, the parties never deal with each other directly and always employ a mediator. Talking directly to each other is always beneath their level. However, it’s usually the mediator, who gets mauled in such clashes.
The pathan was caressing his beards smugly after extending his offer and smiled at the perplexed look on the face of the bureaucrat, while the latter looked towards the phaeton. The curtains again twitched. The servant smiled triumphantly and announced in a loud carrying voice, for all the world to hear, “I’ll pay 500 sovereigns for those pears!”
The crowd gasped in unison! The world stood still. The lazy sun suddenly opened his eyes with a jolt and stared incredulously at the gathered crowd, then laughed at the human folly. Gopi was in a daze and looked at the pathan. The pathan was trying to close his open mouth. He looked at the buggy. There was no movement inside. The sweating pathan lowered his head in shame and slowly returned to the buggy, and rode off. The bureaucrat pulled out a large jingling bag and threw it in the dirty basket of Gopi. He accepted the small bundle of pears in both hands carefully and carried it proudly towards the phaeton, as if he was carrying the victory flag of another enemy estate, while the crowd cheered. Gopi was standing in the middle of the crowd in a daze. The sun realized that he was getting late and moved off to illuminate other corners of the horizon, to watch another drama unfold.
Next morning Benaras woke up to the news that Seth Kirorimal had committed suicide because now he can never show his face in Kashi.
The monetary value of any object is based on three basic things: its ease of availability or scarcity, its need and the level of desire to own it. That’s the reason a tiny piece of inedible crystallized carbon is sold in millions, whereas a life-giving packet of bread is sold in coins. The latter is easily accessible, though a necessity. All the auction houses in the world operate on this principle.
I had read a similar story as a child. Don’t remember anything about it other than the message it conveyed, which left a deep imprint on my impressionable mind. I don’t even remember if I read it in Hindi, Urdu, Marathi, Gujarati or English. So, presenting it in my own whimsical way. 🙂