Goodwill Counting

“If an apple costs five rupees and a lemon costs three rupees, how much will you have to pay for both?”

I was sitting outside Raipur railway station, near a fruitseller’s pushcart, trying to teach a bunch of street kids a bit about money and how to count it.

“Don’t bother with them, Saab,” said the fruitseller, a greying man who somehow reminded me of hailstone lemonades that my grandmother always talked of but never made. “They are only here because you offered them each a small platter. What do they care about all this?”

I smiled at the old man, looked at the kids eating away their fruit platter and asked them again:

“If an apple costs five rupees and a lemon costs three rupees, how much will you have to pay for both?”

One of the kids actually looked at me, frowned a bit, looked at his plate, frowned deeper and finally said, “You said this was free.”

“Yes, that is free. But if you had to buy.”

“Why would I buy an apple and a lemon?”

“To eat.”

“I like idli. Hot-hot idli. I buy idli.”

“Ok, how much does the idli cost?”

“One piece three rupees. I eat three piece.”

“Nine rupees you pay?”

“Five rupees.”

“But you said one piece is three rupees and you buy three pieces.”

“Haan. So I pay five rupees.”

“Ok. Then for you, one piece idli is not three rupees, right?”

“One piece idli is three rupees.”

He went back to picking the slices of pineapple and watermelon from his plate. He savored each bite and so it took a long time for his plate to get over.

I took a moment to stare at his plate. This kid was the reason I was trying to teach them how to count. He was most likely taking everything people said on face value. He paid five because that’s what the idli-walah charged him. What if the guy hadn’t been nice and charged him ten bucks? Too many kids don’t know their numbers and are victims of such exploitation.

I broke out of my reverie, when he extended his plate to me. It still had one slice of watermelon left.

“For me?”

He nodded.

“Thank you.”

He kept the empty plate extended towards me and didn’t say anything.

“Umm. Do you want another one?”

He nodded again.

I looked at the other kids, who had caught up with the game, and were all extending their plates at me. They were coming closer with a single practised expression on all their faces. I knew where this was heading and so I got up from my suitcase (it’s really sturdy) and showed my palms out to them.

“Sorry guys. One plate only.”

I was starting to head back inside the station, when one of them shouted out:

“Eight rupees.”

I turned to see who it was.

“Eight rupees,” a boy repeated. He wasn’t any different from the rest of the crowd except for his bald head and full pants and he didn’t seem to be as clueless about counting as he had seemed only moments ago.

“Eight rupees.” He thrust his empty plate at me, impatient now, his hands desparately pleading, “Saab, eight rupees.”

“Eight rupees, yes.” I agreed and handed the fruitseller the money for round two.

I didn’t wait for the kids to get their plates. I was off to the platform, a book in hand, looking for a place to put my suitcase down. I found a place near an overhead fan, perched myself on my suitcase, and was soon lost in the story the novel offered. At least, the fiction is honest. What irony.

After about an hour, I heard:

“Take some idli. Hot-hot idli. One piece three rupees.”

The kid from before was carrying a steel bucket with idlis. One smaller container had chutney.

I called out to him. He came.

“How much for three pieces?”

“Nine rupees.”

“Five pieces?”

“Fifteen.”

“Eight pieces?”

“Twenty four.”

We never once met each others’ eyes.

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