A rose obtained by any other means…

26 Aug

The Rose

…smells just as sweet.

This rose carries a remarkable story. It was obtained on the streets of Pune, India, from a seemingly pleasant woman.
I’d idly spent my Sunday morning on my own, walking the streets of Pune. I’ve seen all the sights, even things the locals don’t really know about. I could take my neighbours a unique tour, I’m sure. There’s not much for me to do right now other than travel beyond this city or trawl the internet. But I’m much in need of exercise and refuse to pay gym membership.
So here I am, after a long walk, about to stroll into one of those popular fast food chains. It might have been a typical American place, or it might not have, I won’t tell. I never made it in. Moments before I had walked past a woman setting up a jar of long-stemmed roses. I thought it was quaint but wondered who might buy them. I smiled to myself and kept on walking.
If there’s one rule I keep breaking, it’s to not smile on Indian streets. Even to myself, when looking at anyone, a smile is a dangerous thing. It seems to be code for “I’m a pretty foreigner who’s vulnerable and really wants you to come ask me for money or to go into a shop or something”. Every single time I smile, I seem to attract weird attention. I’ve mostly taken to walking down the street with my head bowed and my mouth fixed in a firm line, but it’s my nature to smile, and my nature often wins.
In this case, my smile may have been taken for an acknowledgement of the pretty flowers – fair enough – and encouraged the woman to send a little boy after me, with a rose in hand. “Excuse miss, miss, flower?”. No, I think to myself, I don’t really need it, I should just have lunch and go. “Miss, flower? A gift? … Miss you buy food for flower?”. Well, things have just got interesting. This young boy, maybe 9 or 10 years old, is asking directly for food in exchange for a rose. Not money for food with some sop tale like the beggars on the street. I feel sympathy, and I stop to listen. I look at this food establishment I’m about to walk into, and consider how my lunch today would amount to a fraction of what I’d pay back home, even for something home cooked. I nod my head, and offer the Hindi of “let’s go”, which sounds a lot like “cello”, the instrument.
We take a few steps but the woman is calling us back. I figure she wants me to buy lunch for her too, which I’d already figured would be part of the bargain. No, no, she says she wants groceries, not this unhealthy food. Well, she speaks with reason and I feel a bit like I’m caught in a trap. I feel like I should reward her for having so much sense – she’s hungry and wants something that’ll last a long time, she’s not like other beggars who want money to squander on alcohol or goodness knows what else. At this point the boy hands me the flower, as if to signify that I’ve already agreed.
So I decide to go along with her. She leaves the boy to look after the pot of roses, and takes her little baby along. The baby must be about 2 years old. The grocery store is about a five minute walk away and she explains along the way that she lives in a church just outside of Mumbai, and she catches the train everyday, buys flowers from the market and tries to onsell them. She travels a lot by train and walking to make this happen. I’m a bit more sceptical of her at this point – why not just stay in Mumbai? There are more people there, surely. She also explains that she needs food for all the people she lives with – they each get a bit here and there from foreigners, but they’ve just ran out. They never ask for money, try earn what they can, but sometimes are desperate for food. It’s very convenient timing to have met me the morning after they run out of food, no? She continues on, because she lives with so many people she will ask me for “3 of milk, 3 of rice, 3 of oil”. It’s apparently all she needs. I’m thinking 3litres or 3kg of each, and think it’s a bit too ask but not too much in the grand scheme. She explains how she wants me to know the expectations now so that I’m not shocked when we get there. I figure it’s fair enough and say to myself I’ll handle it when we get there. So I keep walking, asking a bit more about her.
We’ve been walking a few minutes though and I haven’t before been to a grocery store on this street. I start to imagine us taking a sudden corner and being led into a pack of rough men ready to steal my money and abuse me. I’m definitely a little worried, but I’ve come this far, and she does sound like she has good intentions. She starts talking about Jesus, how she prays to Jesus when her baby is sick because they can’t afford to see a doctor. She demonstrates, holding her baby in two hands as if offering him at a sacrificial altar, and with a sober face says she prays to Jesus and her baby becomes just a little less sick. She asks if I know Jesus. We keep walking.
Shortly we get to the supermarket, and I’m relieved. I mentally chide myself for getting into such a strange situation, but am thankful we’ve not been waylaid by a gang. At least I’m not that stupid, right? We get in and she takes a shopping trolley, and off we go. We get to the milk and grabs 3 x 1L cartons. So far so good, it’s not too pricey and I’m feeling like I’m doing a good deed. We get to the rice, and she takes 3 x 5kg bags. Oh dear. Still not that pricey, but I’m a bit stunned. That’s a large appetite. But rice is the staple food. We get to the oil. She reaches for a 10 or 15 litre bottle, whichever it was, it was massive, and it was pricey. She wants three of those too. Oh god.
Don’t worry though, I might be a bit of a fool right now, but I still have some backbone and explain that it’s too expensive for me. She looks sad and says that I can just use my card if don’t have cash. Aha! I think, I’ve just thought of something brilliant. I use a prepaid mastercard and forgot to top it up, I don’t have all that much money on there right now anyway. So I tell her, she doesn’t quite understand so takes the big oil bottle and one smaller one and off we go to the checkout. By now I’m confident I can’t pay for all this – I feel a little evil, but figure she’s already tried taking advantage of my expectations so there’s not much I can do.
At the checkout, she asks if she can buy some chai powder and some sugar too. I say it’ll have to wait, I don’t think I have enough money. I was right. After the card was declined, the baby started crying immediately. The shopping staff made to take away the trolley. I figured now wasn’t the time to be a jerk, I’ve come all this way and besides, they’ve already given me that damned rose. Sunk cost fallacy? Guilt? Or maybe I’m just that nice, I don’t know. I say we can try again with less stuff. We do, but the lady is still quite greedy. The card declines again. We stand there for a while after the staff have taken the trolley away, probably scared if left with it we’ll try to make a run for it. The baby cries more than ever. Man, I feel so guilty. In the end, we buy just one bottle of oil and one bag of rice. It’s still more than that rose is worth, and it’s probably the last good deed I’ll do for a while.
I help her get the rice and oil back to the buy and roses. I don’t know how she expected to get the intended grocery load back, as we walked and the whole load would have been impossible. She was this tiny, tiny lady, no muscle at all, and kept insisting I let her carry the oil bottle.
I never did buy my lunch. I went back home, a little dazed, a little relieved. If not for this rose, and the debit to my bank account, I might have believed it was all a crazy concoction of my over active imagination. A very crazy dream. In truth, it was a very stupid situation to get into, and I’m lucky to not have been led into some horrid trap. At the end of it all, though, the rose smells sweet.

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