The bookseller

I stopped for a red light at the Worli signal on my way back from the Strand Bookstore sale on Republic Day.
As my daughter and I chatted, a little boy ran up to us, trying to conduct a book sale of his own. He was one among the ubiquitous sellers of pirated books who man Mumbai’s signals.
As it became clear that I wasn’t buying, he asked me whether I could give him a lift to Siddhivinayak Temple, a few kilometres down the road. It was an unusual request, but I would be passing the temple anyway and he seemed a decent sort, so I agreed.
He hopped in. As the car started again, he tapped me on the shoulder and asked whether I read books. I pointed out the bags of books we had bought and said I had enough to last me a year.
Seeing his disappointment, I tried to steer the conversation to something else. I asked where he lived, and with whom.
“My father died from drinking too much,” he said. It would have been a matter of fact statement if it hadn’t been for that ever-so-slight quiver in his voice.
“How old are you,” I asked.
“Ten.”
“Why are you selling books at the signal?”
“After my father died, it fell upon my mother to earn the rent we pay for our house. But in recent times, my sister has been keeping unwell and my brother and I have to earn the rent now,” he said, adding that his name was Ajay.
I fell silent as I tried to imagine what Ajay’s life was like. Studying him intently, my daughter was just a foot away from Ajay but they may as well have been inhabiting different planets.
She had spent her morning having breakfast while watching cartoons, had driven in air-conditioned comfort into town, had bought books on subjects as diverse as pirates and reptiles, and would probably go out for dinner later.
Ajay may or may not have had a meal that day and had obviously been hawking books at signals all morning. That’s what virtually every day of his childhood must have been.
Ajay broke the silence by asking whether I had a job for him. “Everybody I ask says they would get in trouble with the police for hiring somebody so young,” he lamented.
“Don’t you go to school?”
“I used to before my father died…,” he said.
He then went on to explain how he made his money: No matter what book they sold, they would have to pay the seth (boss) Rs 150. The boys’ profits depended upon how much they could talk their customers into paying.
“Buy one book,” he exhorted. “How about Khaled Hosseini’s A Thousand Splendid Suns? Rs 250 only”
“OK,” I said, pulling over as the temple came into view.
It was when I handed him Rs 300 that I realised that, though Ajay may be facing a tough life, he had picked up all the tricks of Mumbai’s street trade. As I waited for the change, he said he didn’t have the money, repeating mournfully that he wouldn’t make much anyway. He had to give Rs 150 to the seth, remember?
I let it go. It struck me that I may have been had by somebody who knew the right emotional buttons to press. But it also struck me that a kid in his position may have had no choice but to learn how to hustle customers. How else could he have survived?
I wonder if Ajay and I will ever meet again. If we do, he can be assured of another book sold.