First brush


Sujaya and I went shopping for stuff for the plantation. “Beware the fertilizer,” we'd been told. “It is often out of stock.” We went to the Tata Plantation Supplies in Sakleshpur. It is a quiet store on a yard behind a busy bus-station. The name of its manager is Muthapa, a serene young Coorgi who speaks only as much as necessary.

The fertilizer had been equal to its reputation and was sold out three days ago. We began working out the alternatives so that we have it when the rains come and wet the soil—that's when to apply the fertilizer. A man came in who wore an Adidas cap that emphasized his baldness by concealing it. He pulled a sheet of paper from Muthapa's table without asking, similarly took Muthapa's diary for use as a pad, and took brusquely over. We sat muted before Muthapa who twiddled his pen and raised his face to the newcomer.

The man’s technique to dominate was to speak from deep in the throat every time I tried to take back my transaction to where he'd interrupted it. The method worked well—Muthappa was forced to pay attention only to him. Our writer stood by the man's side and tried to break in, at which unpardonable impudence the voice inflected and went deeper still, his head cocked to an angle, and his well-built torso turned an imperceptible inch edgeways toward the writer and paused and returned. The head held its angle.

He wrote down prices pulling each item from a long checklist in that head. Muthappa tried coming back to me between the man's questions, but the man wouldn't have any of it. “It's okay, please finish with him,” I told Muthapa, and searched the man's face for some contrition. There was none, and he went on. Such a long list he had! Our writer tried to move in a second time. This time the voice shot lower and sharpened and twisted. “Let him finish,” I told the writer.

“I'll go back to Ballupet and send my truck,” the man said, when done. “I don't load these things in my Jeep.” I looked out the barred window into the yard, saw his Jeep parked by my car. It was fresh and clean and bright in the noonday sun, much like its owner, who looked as though he'd just stepped out of the shower and dressed in clothes newly arrived from the laundry. Even his sports watch with its large dial and plastic strap shone like new.

He did not look at me at any time, not even while leaving.

Only one other planter came in while Muthappa pleasantly resumed our business. This one's clothes were laundry fresh also; his shirt fell over the trousers; a shiny black mustache was prominent on his clean red face—he barged in too, but shyly, and he inquired for only the fertilizer and left.

The visit ended well. Muthappa accepted a cheque on this very first visit, and offered credit for next transactions. The writer got himself a load of the other things he needed which filled a small truck. We left the place three happy people.