It was a day in the summer months, and a hot sweltering summer it was as well. The dogs lounged in the shadows of trees, or under cars; many a time a person would roll out of a parking lot, and be greeted by an irate band of mongrels, foaming at the mouth, which looked as if they would love nothing more than to rip out a portion of his hindquarters. People perspired; a group of workers in a plywood shop nearby contributed to a roaring sound, which drowned out all the surrounding conversation; to put it euphemistically, it was a violent sort of white noise; albeit one which curdled the blood, and gave one a blinding migraine. A customer at a street vegetable shop was engaged in a shouting match with the vendor, convinced that she was trying to rob him; their argument was punctuated with a lot of violent gestures; some I knew, the others I derived. The lady was formidable; she was short and fat, and had a rich coffee complexion. The gajra in her hair fooled no one, if anything, it made her even more fearsome, and I pitied the vendor.
In the midst of these very human activities, I spotted what I had been looking for. Sandwiched between a shop selling Asian Paints, and a very dodgy looking hardware store, stood the stationary shop. It was quite ordinary; mundane, even. As I approached, I skirted a stream of tobacco juice by a cyclist, and reciprocated with a few violent gestures of my own. Clicking my tongue, I reached the shop, and leaned my forearms on the counters, looking for someone. As I waited, I was a bit apprehensive as well. People had informed me ominously, in a manner that a doctor tells a healthy patient of imminent death, that this was one place which had a rather stern reputation of being conceited. I couldn’t see about what, really. It was dark, and it was musty. It had the appearance of the houses of genteel, yet impoverished families; a few dim light bulbs interspersed in the darkness, so that they glowed luridly like gigantic fireflies. I could see a few exquisite cobwebs as well. A ray of light threw caution to stacks of cartons shoved out of sight, where I was certain one could find an undiscovered species of the genus Araneae. I was doubtful. Even if there was an infinitesimal chance that this shop; this grubby, nondescript shop could provide all that I was looking for, there was a possibility that I might pick up hygiene related disease, or a dust mite allergy, and being of delicate constitution, I was quite concerned.
I tapped my fingernails on the glass counter, and examined, with distaste, the grime that it left under my nails. On any other day I wouldn’t have given this shop the time of the day, figuratively speaking. However, it was afternoon, and I was tired, so I had resolved to make the best of what I had. I peered over the counter, wishing, not for the first time, that I was blessed with nocturnal eyesight when someone popped up in front of me, like a jack in the box.
“Excuse me, you want something?” He enquired rather belligerently in a heavy accent. Pompous, I thought. I was the customer, wasn’t I? Who was serving whom? The man in question had a swarthy face, black tee shirt, which went wonderfully with the ambience of the store. On a dark night, all I would have seen was a head, and it would have been perfect to send a chill down ones spine on Halloween. The way the shop was looking, it wouldn’t have surprised me one bit if it contained a species of genus Chiroptera as well-and that would go beautifully with Dracula’s castle, would it not? The man had a few golden chains hung around his neck as well, in a manner reminiscent of Bappi Lahiri. A pair of shades, and he would look like quite a devotee, because isn’t imitation the sincerest form of flattery?
“Excuse me, you want or not?” The man rapped out impatiently, disturbing my reverie. I grew slightly annoyed. I was allowed to lapse into the recesses of my mind every now and then, wasn’t I? Besides, I had braved obstacles equivalent to the ones faced by Tenzing Norgay and Edmund Hillary when they climbed Mount Everest, to reach this place. The most anyone could do would be to acknowledge this feat.
“Yes, I want!” I rapped right back, forgetting my grammar and the nuances of the English language all in one go in my indignation. “I want a lot of things, actually”. I delved into my bag, rummaging for my list of stationary that I had to buy. As I rummaged, I found a random assortment of objects in my bag-a stick of chewing gum, Wrigley, a rock which had “Peter” scrawled over it in black marker, an earring which I had thought I had lost, and a few pieces of cotton bound with wool, resembling a voodoo doll. I was concerned about myself for a fleeting moment, before I went back to rummaging for the list. I looked through my bag with the thoroughness and the precision that one would expect from a surgeon going through the contents of someone’s abdomen in search for an elusive tumour. While doing so, I noticed the man’s fingers tapping the counter with a greater frequency. At that very moment, my fingers closed around a piece of rolled up paper, and I pulled my hand out of the bag, sweaty strands sticking to my face, in victory. I felt as if I had conquered the world.
The man had turned and was eyeing my rather unimpressive looking treasure with scepticism. I raised an eyebrow in retaliation. And, with the flourish of a herald making an announcement, I shook open the roll of paper, which was quite significant in size. In fact, a little greater in width, and it could have been worn quite convincingly as a dupatta. The man’s belligerent expression melted of into that of the utmost servility. His condescending expression disappeared and he gave me a beaming, gap toothed smile that exposed his cavities, and was quite out of place with the glowering expression he had put me through a few moments back. He reminded me, for a split second, of the Hekatonkheires, the Hundred Handed Ones in Greek mythology, who have fifty different faces (to complement their hundred hands).
I started off with ball point pens and micro tip pens. As I went on to sketch books and handmade paper and bond sheets, the expression on his face became even more gleeful and servile, if possible. I was revelling shamelessly in the experience, and on occasion, would tap a particular item with the back of my chewed up pen, and screw up my nose, shaking my head slightly. His face would turn grey and exhibiting quite a spectacular lunge, grab the item, push it off the counter and blast a lacquey in the back of the shop in irate Kannada, accompanied by a few violent gestures. The lacquey in question would look puzzled, but still, nod and accept blame with a plaintive expression.
As the pile of items on the counter began to rise higher and higher, the man at the counter hired three of his assistants. Two flanked him on either side. If the item required was on the right side of the shop- a part of the stock was placed on the other side of the counter as well- the man at his right would leap over the counter, the shelves, and in some cases, over the heads of other customers for it, and similarly for the assistant on the left. The third assistant’s primary concern was happiness of the customer; that is, me. He had been given strict instructions to request a cup of tea for me, or a glass of chilled water every five minutes, irrespective of the fact that my answer was almost always no. How many cups of tea or coffee was I supposed to drink anyway? I remembered reading an article that articulated the negative health effects of drinking too much tea. Finally, I said yes out of consideration for said assistant. He was only doing his job, after all.
Customers came and went. Most of the purchases ranged between pens and cartridge sheets, and the occasional canvas for an oil painting. There was also the odd customer, who was looking for play dough in unconventional colours, or acrylic pens, or twenty boxes of oil pastels-all in the colour black. Some, he treated with a minute amount of deference and respect, however, it was the customers who bought single quantities of stationary for whom he reserved his haughtiest expressions. For example, there was a lady, relatively well dressed, with a slightly harassed expression; akin to what I would have looked while navigating my way to this obscure shop.
“Black ball point pen?” She queried, placing her black leather purse on the counter. The relief that it gave her was audible as well as tangible. The man nodded to her, waiting for her to specify the quantity of the pen. His hands reached out to the pen holders and lingered above the uniball variety, which was fifty six rupees per piece, though strictly speaking, it was gel, not ball point. She noticed his inclination towards the gel pens, however, shook her head.
“Five rupee one.” She said. “Only one pen.” The man’s change of expression was gradual this time. It was like a reverse of the Christmas-come-early expression that he had graced me with, except it was slower, like he was waiting for her to burst out and sing in colloquial terms, “LOLJK. I actually want your most expensive variety of pens, hundred pieces please.” Really, what was he expecting from her? She looked like an ordinary working mother, with three adolescents who probably gave her attitude frequently, and had emotionally black mailed her to venture out on such a day to buy an ordinary black pen. As he realized that she was actually in all honesty just asking for a single five rupee black pen, his head dropped to the notepad that he had been scribbling furiously on. It was the one which contained my list, but not before he had fixed her with a look of haughty derision and with a flick of the hand indicated that he did not deal in mediocre art materials. He portrayed it in a manner that somehow, it was her fault, something that she probably did in a past life. Karma. He responded similarly to a man looking for a slam book; the customer had to look for it himself, because every hand in the shop was occupied; they were hunting for KG Cardboard.
I spent a lot of money in the shop that day. It was a good thing that I stopped when I did, or when the list ran out actually, because the man’s servility was bordering on obsequiousness, and it was making me quite uncomfortable. When I bought the art materials officially, by handing the money over to him, I half expected him to call me “Your Highness”, or something akin to that. He folded his hands in a Namaste, and gave me a huge gap toothed smile again. It was so wide that I could see the fillings in his molars. He bowed solemnly to me, as did his assistants as he handed over the packets of stationary to me, and stared at me with an expectant expression. I felt as if he wanted me to say something meaningful and deep, perhaps even bless the shop? I had an irrational urge to say Vijayee Bhav. However, I squashed that urge, thanked him politely, accepted the packets, and made my way to the nearest bus stand, skirting a stream of tobacco juice again, this time by a passerby.