Buying a textbook

By Abhijit Menon-Sen <>

I walked down to the market this evening to buy some textbooks for my daughter's new school year. I bought three out of the six needed at the first shop, and another one at the next. The third shop I went to had an old man slowly adding up the prices of a stack of items, while a crowd of customers gathered around.

In the shop was also the man's young daughter, who was doing much of the fetching and carrying. She darted out to ask for some change from a shop nearby, then returned and started dealing with the waiting customers. I asked for the two remaining textbooks, and she checked and said they had only one. Another customer asked for a certain kind of pen, and she went to see if they had any. A third customer gave up on the man and stepped around to her side of the counter.

Throughout all this, the father was (while still adding up numbers) grumbling about her. When she left to find change, he complained that she had not braced the flip-top counter correctly. When she asked him where something was, he would reply as if greatly put upon (paying no heed to the customers). He ignored some of her questions, and snapped at her when she repeated herself to double-check if they had the other textbook.

She brought the textbook from a shelf to the counter. Then she took a sheet of plastic and a roll of sellotape, and covered the book with a few swift, well-practiced movements. She took my hundred-rupee note, and politely asked another customer what they wanted while looking for change in the till. When she couldn't find change, I offered to come back for it later; but she asked if I was sure I didn't need anything else (pen? notebook? file?), and I realised that I could use a new pen.

By this time, her father had finished with the stack, and moved on to the next customer. Then he scolded her for being in his way.

I've always been bad at judging ages, but the girl looked only a couple of years older than my fifteen-year-old daughter. Or perhaps it was her spectacles that made her look older. I smiled and thanked her when she handed me the neatly-wrapped textbook and pen, but she was already turning away to attend to another order.

I never did get that last textbook.