A Clerk's Story

01 August 2012

ABOUT THE STORY: What explains the persistent power of the salesman as a figure in literature? Salesmen represent the drudgery, anonymity and powerlessness of modern life, but perhaps also all the inchoate yearnings that lie beneath the prosaic business of selling mass-produced goods and obeying orders. Behind the forced obedience of every salesman one hears a whisper of Herman Melville’s great, inscrutable clerk Bartleby, patiently muffling every order with a “I would prefer not to.” Counting salesmen in literature, one thinks of Tommy Wilhelm in Saul Bellow’s Seize The Day and Morris Bober in Bernard Malamud’s The Assistant; and closer home, the unnamed shoe salesman in Altaf Tyrewala’s No God In Sight, crawling around his tiny shoe loft “like a prawn”, and Ramchand, the salesman in Rupa Bajwa’s The Sari Shop.

Mehboob, the salesman in the Tamil writer Dilip Kumar’s story, works, like Ramchand, in a clothes store. He lives a highly ordered, clocklike life, represented by the writer’s decision to structure the story by marking the minutes and the hours. But within these soul-crushing structures we find Mehboob a nimble romantic, marshalling a love of love, song, children, friendship, and even God to raise his days into something resembling a life well lived. Particularly striking is the narrator’s use of the word “you” when describing Mehboob’s life–a device that allows for both distance and intimacy – and his eye for the small but pleasurable details of business (Dilip Kumar worked in a store himself when very young). What might overwhelm a life that has after so many tribulations worked out a resilient peace? Dilip Kumar’s vision comprehends not just the peaceful anonymity of the lives of small people but also, more sorrowfully, the vengeful and arrogant anonymity of the mob in recent Indian history.

THE CLOCK SHOWS 06.03. Your name is Mehboob Khan;

Dilip Kumar , whose mother tongue is Gujarati, is a well-known short-story writer in Tamil with several awards to his credit. He lives in Chennai, where he runs a bookshop.