When I was a child growing up on Mt. Apo Street, there was a dark, turbaned man in brightly-colored trubenized togs, who came to call on our neighborhood every now and then. He peddled all sorts of goods, from woven mats to Matadujong – a strong-smelling eau de cologne.
At first, I thought he was a Muslim, but my mother corrected the misnomer. “He is an Indian.” The man spoke a curious blend of Filipino and English with a funny accent. I always wondered why he wore long sleeves. Later, I learned that he wore on his arms all the wristwatches he was selling.
My mother bought a lot from the Indian peddler, whom she called Pakat — a Muslim term for “friend.” Since then, I came to associate the trivial necessities in our household with Pakat, the Indian peddler: mats, mosquito nets, unbreakable Duralex glassware, and the scent of Matadujong that permeated my mother’s closet.
It seems now that time had elevated the Indian peddler — whom everybody calls Bombay (even if he had come, not from Bombay, but from any of the 2,500 towns and cities in India) — from scouring the streets to owning a few department stores in the heart of town. Where the hub of business thrived, there was the Bombay, manning his merchandise with unequalled zeal, sales-talking even the most reluctant of shoppers into buying his wares.
But the Indian peddler is found not only in our country. He is everywhere!
While in Koln, my sisters and I spied a mobile kiosk marked EIS parked along the River Rhine. It was manned by a young man, whose handsome features we could not immediately attribute to a particular nationality, until we saw a picture of the Hindu god Krishna on his wall. In fluent Deutsche, he offered us five flavors of EIS (Ice Cream), which we readily bought, despite our doubts about its flavor (and cleanliness). But how can we refuse such a good looking fellow? So there we sat along the River Rhine, overlooking the dark, impressive Dom of the City of Koln, lapping scoops of unremarkable ice cream from the handsome Indian vendor!
We would see a number of his countrymen engaged in similar occupations in Western Europe. We were not surprised to learn that most of the souvenir shops are owned by Indian businessmen. In Ecksterstein for instance, where the Teutonic rock formations are found, there was an Indian who sold replicas of the rocks and sugar-coated nuts. In Amsterdam – where porn is treated like any ordinary merchandise – the Indian shopkeeper was not to be left out, having the widest collection available of condoms in every imaginable hue. In France, on the bridge spanning the Seine at Choisy Le Roi, an Indian man set up a little portable kiosk where he roasted sweet corn. I was tempted to sample a cob one evening, but my sisters chided me for being baduy! Imagine therefore our consternation when upon reaching the promenade of all promenades — Champs Elysees — we saw Parisians walking about while munching ham and cheese baguettes, and salted roasted corn on the cob!
In Costa Brava, we were frantically foraging for cheap souvenirs to take home as pasalubong. It was high noon. Consciously ignoring the circadian trough, we embarked on a last-minute shopping spree, only to find out that the Spaniards of Cataluña adamantly adhered to the traditional noontime siesta. All the shops were closed until 3:00 p.m. All, except the Indian store.
It was located on a narrow backstreet behind a tourist apartelle in downtown Malgrat de Mar. The young Indian proprietor who spoke excellent English introduced himself as Nandu. (And he had a Filipina girlfriend!) After selecting our choices of t-shirts for our nephews and nieces, I saw hanging from an elevated display rack, a charming woolen coat. I expressed my admiration and Nandu was quick to the draw. He immediately brought it down for my closer scrutiny. It wasn’t woolen after all. Just acrylic. And cheap. I hesitated and said I’d just come back for it. “LEDY!” Nandu exclaimed. “You are missing e golden oppertunity!” I did not buy it then. But I did go back the next day to find the coat waiting for me on the most conspicuous spot in the store. It proved to be a good buy. Charming. Chic. 100% Acrylic. Made in Portugal. It made me quite glad that I did not miss e golden oppertunity!
In sunny Barcelona, we found ourselves in the midst of a big celebration. It was the feast of the patron saint and there was a parade. Crowds flocked to the Las Ramblas as giant figurines paraded from morning till night. A large assortment of vendors gathered in the famous promenade: students doing mime, clowns selling balloons, magic tricks, candy men, and dancing monkeys. We had been warned of the notorious Las Ramblas pickpockets, so we carefully avoided being tangled in the crowd. And what better place to find refuge than in a souvenir shop? As expected it was owned by – you guessed it! An Indian! This time there were two of them – brothers obviously. They sold mementoes of the two main Barcelona attractions: the Olympic Stadium and the unfinished Neogothic Basilica of Gaudi. We browsed through their selection, which were made of a variety of materials. Unfortunately, none caught our interest. A typical tourist trap, the prices were ridiculous! The Indian siblings who did not speak any English took our refusal to buy rather graciously. We took the Ramblas route back to the tranvia station for Santa Susana. On the way, we saw a young Indian dressed as an Aztec, blowing a huge nautilus horn. He was so colorful and exotic, we just had to part with a few of our pesetas.
Mainland USA is another place where the Indian businessman thrives with measurable success. I can imagine even Saks 5th Avenue would have an Indian-owned boutique, as downtown Big Apple has shawarmas – even pizzerias. Craving for that all-American Italian dish after two days of burgers, my niece and I went in search of a pizza parlor in New York. Wearing my golden opportunity coat which was especially useful in beating off the icy cold winds of autumn, we spotted such a place at a corner near the Roger Williams Hotel. We went inside with great expectations. At the counter was an Indian guy wearing an apron whom we took to be the proprietor. As we entered, the all-male customers turned around, and all at once we were greeted by a spectacle of black leather, silver jewelry, long hair and skin heads, beards and tattoos. My niece and I immediately made an about-face and left the joint. As we passed the counter, the Indian shopkeeper smiled and waved at us.
We settled that evening for sushi and took a taxi home driven by – yes, an Indian.
In every corner of the world, wherever there is a golden opportunity to make a profit, we can be sure there is an Indian, doing business — as usual.
Josie Tejada is an actress, director, and writer. Her book of prose, The House on Calle Seminario was published by the Davao Writers Guild.