Knock Knock, who's there

By Paromita Vohra | Mumbai

As Bombay housing societies have begun to have Delhi-style aspirations, they have begun to disallow so much: no bachelors, no living-in, no non-vegetarians.

Illustration/Ravi Jadhav

As Bombay housing societies have begun to have Delhi-style aspirations, they have begun to disallow so much: no bachelors, no living-in, no non-vegetarians. But also, no door-to-door vendors. I am not sure how I feel about the latter, as I am a little nervous of doorstep sellers but not for security reasons, as the building societies might claim.

It's not that I was scarred as a child or anything. Summer holiday mornings at my grandmom's building society were like a travelling corridor market. After regular purchases like the milk and pooja flowers had been delivered, the ad hoc purchases would start. The pao wala with the square bag of brun and naram pao first. Then the bhaji wali, would settle down in the corridor with her gigantic basket, bursting with shiny, purple brinjals, smug red tomatoes, naughty yellow lemons, perky green chillies, genial bunches of coriander, self-satisfied curry leaves.

It was like a live version of that nursery rhyme — aaloo kachaloo beta kahan gaye the/baingan ki tokri mein so rahe the/baingan ne laat mari/ro rahe the (Hey potato and yam, where were you?/Napping in the brinjal basket it's true/But the brinjal kicked us, boo hoo hoo). All the flat doors would open and an a capella shopping concert of chit-chat, recipes and bargaining would commence. Ah! Bargaining. The roothna-manana of shopping. Berating, adjusting, ignoring, cajoling, claims and counter-claims all arriving at that truth in the middle called a fair price — and then repeat it with the fish seller after sardonic critiques of his bangda and pomfret and mandeli.

This rarely happens now, but is vestigially present in the forbidding interaction with the single door-to-door seller. My friend H would often get nervous if the doorbell rang while we spoke on the phone. "It's the banana man," she would say in haunted tones. At times she tried to pretend she was not home, but he always knew and kept knocking. She would say no, "I bought six just yesterday." He would say, "So, you're not buying then?" This would go back and forth until she finally gave in to his unblinking persistence.

In my life, there was a coconut seller who, every day, as soon as I opened the door would say, "It's very hot today. Lift also wasn't working." I would dither. My mind would say, "No, today I don't want." But, somehow it came out as, "Okay, give me two malai-wala coconuts." If I managed to say no, he would say,"These are my last two. You haven't bought for so long. Tomorrow I will be gone to my village for a month, so last chance". Whatever it took till you gave in. You can ignore the government's endless SMSes and the bank's fraudulent circulars about linking your menstrual cycle to Aadhaar, but you cannot ignore eye contact with a doleful ande- wala or steely banana man.

But, unlike that link-Aadhaar-style bullying, there is always the option to say no in the interpersonal
transaction. Bargaining is a form of apnapan, a demonstration of trust, individuality, but most of all mutuality. There is an attempt to seduce, but no coercion — it has to be consensual. To be confident in bargaining, is to be confident about love. Everything is possible, if we both try to see each other's point of view, it says.

Paromita Vohra is an award-winning, Mumbai-based filmmaker, writer and curator working with fiction and non-fiction. Reach her at www.parodevipictures.com

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