I was out on my post-dinner walk. It was quite late. Under one dim street light on my street, the old man was talking to a younger man. I had seen the old man a few times, pushing a handcart with a small pile of lemons around the area. He usually parked his cart for the night inside one of the vacant sites on my street. I didn’t know either man, but that night, something about their talk, hushed voices and body language disturbed me. The old man was all bent, seeming to cringe at what he was hearing. I passed them a couple of times but couldn’t really understand anything. The younger man then left.
On an impulse, I hurried back home, dug out all the cash I had, went out and handed it all to the old man. It wasn’t a whole lot, just a few hundred, I think. The old man was totally surprised when he realized that I was telling him to just keep the money. Then his face seemed to light up the night with an almost toothless smile. He folded his hands to thank me. I had a lump in my throat so I quickly walked away.
I would see him around sometimes after that but I don’t think he recognized me in daylight. It had been dark and he was an old man after all. Then Covid came and he too disappeared, presumably to his native place.
Earlier this year, I was medically advised to add lemon juice to all the water I drank during the day so I would need to buy quite a few lemons regularly. The old man had reappeared and was usually near my house in the mornings with his cart so I started buying lemons from him. I had asked him the price the first day and he had said “Rs. 20 for 3” and I started buying some lemons every 2-3 days. He sold good quality lemons and had a fresh pile almost every morning. I don’t like to bargain so I just went with what he asked for.
He didn’t seem to recognize me from that night and I didn’t remind him, though I was tempted at times, to be honest. One does want one’s magnanimity to be appreciated. But I couldn’t bring myself to tell him. Somehow it seemed petty.
Anyway, once I became a regular customer, he became friendlier and started helping me pick up the best lemons. Sometimes, I used to give him a hundred rupees and if he had no change, we would adjust it next time. But I am forgetful and so is he.
One day, quite needlessly and for whatever reason, I don’t know, I mentioned to my cook the rate I was paying for the lemons and she exclaimed that the guy was cheating me! She was getting 4 for the same price and sometimes even 5!
It was totally unnecessary for me to know the price. 3 or 4 or 5 really did not make a difference to me, but it probably made a hell of a difference to the old man and to my cook. Still, I couldn’t really get it out of my mind. All sorts of questions came to mind. Was he really charging his other customers less? Had he actually recognized me and taken me for a kind sucker who could be conned out of one lemon at a time? Or was he just taking me for a sucker anyway? To be honest, at the bottom of it all, was the shameless thought of his ingratitude for my kindness. It’s a very mixed and dirty feeling.
It’s not that I said anything to him. But I started casually asking him the rate on occasion. He never gave me a better rate and I did not insist. After a few weeks, he started giving me one extra lemon. I don’t know whether he was being nice or guilty. Or whether he had suddenly recognized me. I refused to take it most of the time. I didn’t want him to think that I was taking advantage of my donation and his gratitude. We have all kinds of complexes.
He accepted only cash and it was often inconvenient. I started asking him to get one of those phone payment systems as it would help his business. But he said he is uneducated and doesn’t understand written numbers, leave alone the technology. He probably identified rupee notes only by colour. Anyway, he did get one installed a few weeks back. But I do feel a bit offended when he peers at my phone’s screen and then into my eyes after I make payment as if trying to divine whether I was cheating him. The gumption! As if I had made him get the system so that I could gyp him out of a few rupees every time I bought lemons from him!
One day, as I was stepping away from his cart after my purchase, a lady stopped by and asked him the price and unwittingly he told her it was Rs.20 for 4. He probably didn’t realize I was still around or he didn’t care. I paused for a second, wanting to turn around and tick him off, or at least give him a meaningful glare, but I couldn’t. I should have. It was the ideal moment. I moved on. I kicked myself later. What if the lady had bargained with him and got 5 for the same price?
The next time, I told him that I had heard he was selling at a lower price to others. But he didn’t accept that. In fact, with hands folded, he said “How can I give you anything but the best rate?”. It seemed to me that it was his way of saying that he recognized me from that night. Or maybe not, since he was not really giving me the best rate. Or he was just playing me. Whatever it was, I really didn’t know what to make of it.
In time, I have worked out a compromise between my empathy, my conscience and my petty-mindedness.
I still buy my lemons from him. But I have started accepting the extra lemon. And if he forgets, I ask for it.