Mr.BharatLal, the shopkeeper on the corner of Brigade street and Leyon road was dusting the lint off an old case of books when he heard the high-pitched voices of a group of young men outside his shop.
He glanced over the rim of his glasses which were slowly
slipping down his nose, and saw them saunter by. There were about five of them crowding the
sidewalk with their impatient , youthful bodies; Occasionally one would spit a
wisecrack and girlish laughter would
spill out of their mouths, carrying itself deep
into the dimness of Mr.Lal’s shop. When the group started to move, a young man stayed behind and entered the shop.
He stood by the door for a second as if hesitating to enter; In the darkness of the shop Mr.Lal could only make out the outline of his lithe body; He stopped dusting and came around to his place behind the counter.
“Yes sir?”-He said-“What can I help you with?”
The young man took a few long strides into the shop and stood facing Mr.Lal behind the counter. He drummed on it with his fingers.
“A razor”-He said-“ I want to buy a really decent razor”.
Mr.Lal could make out his features now; He was hardly more than a boy with the early signs of a moustache and a thick head of hair that kept falling into his eyes.
Mr.Lal placed a small plastic package on the counter in front of him- “This has five razors”-He said-“ For twenty rupees”
But the boy was looking at a brightly lighted showcase just under the counter. “What is that?”-He asked, pointing to it.”
Mr.Lal brought out a key from his pocket and opened the glass door to the showcase. He placed the item on the counter.
“This is our new collection of electric razors”-He said-“ One for a hundred rupees.”
Mr.Lal had bought twenty of them from a traveling salesman at fifty rupees each; It was an expensive investment, which was why he kept them under lock and key.
The boy whistled softly-“American?”-He asked.
“No”- Mr.Lal replied—“It is called Schwabbs,A German company”
The boy appeared to think it over for quite awhile, twirling both items with his fingers several times. Then quite suddenly, he took out a bulky wallet, and opened it,
revealing a wad of cash.
“I will take the electric razor “-He said-“ Oh,and give me a pack of camel’s too”.
The money was given and Mr.Lal put both the items in a brown paper bag,
Stapled it and handed it over to him.
“We sell textbooks also”-He informed him. But the boy had already stepped out of the shop and did not hear him.
Mr.Lal sighed softly and turned on the television which was perched high on a wooden bar so that it wouldn’t take space in the shop. He watched the cricket match
That was on for a while, then returned to dusting the books leaving the sound of the
television to fill the silence of the shop.
It was true; His shop ‘Bharat and son’ sold a lot more than razors,cigarettes,and candy that most locals came around to buy. He had inherited the shop from his his father the senior Bharat , even though it was the last thing in the world that he wanted. But fifteen years ago, when he was twenty-five, Mr.Lal’s father had a heart attack leaving him bedridden for a year.; Mr.Lal dutifully
abandoned his student life to take over the shop. He had thought that after his father’s death he would sell it to the bank and use the money to pay for his tuition when he returned to college. But the old man refused to hear of it; .
“Too manyof my years were spent on building this shop”-He said hoarsely-“I built it so you could have it one day”.
Then his father requested that his son complete his final wish; He wanted to see his son married before he died; He already had the girl picked out ,he said;She was young, pretty, and from a very decent family.
The wedding was a small affair; There was not a lot of money, so only a few close friends and the families of the bride and groom. Bharatlal the senior sat on his chair ,a thin gaunt man with glazed eyes and ten blankets to keep him warm from the cool monsoon rains that had begun to sweep the city of Bombay.
When Bharatlal had placed the garland around his bride, a tiny woman by the name of Bharati , his father suddenly collapsed in his chair. They rushed him to the hospital, but by then it was too late; Young Mr.Lal found himself with a business he never wanted to own, and a wife he did not know or love.
The old grandfather clock chimed nine times.;Mr.Lal put down his dust mop and switched off the television set. He took out a set of keys with which he locked the shop each night. Outside he saw the group of boys eating food from a vendor on the street. The boy who had come into his shop stood with his friends and had placed the brown paper package carelessly on the ground;.Oil stains from the food he was eating, spotted the bag.; Mr.Lal wanted to tell the boy not to be so careless with the package. After all, it contained an expensive item from his store. It saddened him to think that all the products he bought into making his store more valuable, were treated so casually once they were sold to customers.
Someone knocked on the glass door of his shop and he turned around Karmchand,the owner of the saree shop across the street stood abnormally close to him, grinning foolishly.
“Bharat, these glass doors, you must replace them, you know “-He said.
“They are not very sturdy I know”-Mr.Lal replied, But they look better than the steel doors everyone else has. Replacing the sturdy steel doors with the glass doors was one of the first renovations in the store he had made upon his father’s death.
Karmchand smiled even more. “That is just like you Mr.Lal always thinking of the big picture”-He said, drawing an imaginary circle in the air with his pointed finger.
Mr.Lal knew what the saree shop owner was getting at; Every Friday evening the man would come up to him asking him if they could go out for a drink together. Mr.Lal had refused the invitation every Friday for the past six months, when Karmachand would shrug his shoulders and walk away. Mr.Lal would hop on his bicycle, riding home through dark streets hooded by a row of elongated fluorescent lights. The next morning at work, he would see the disoriented saree shop owner walking into his shop, often tripping over jutting pieces of tiles that made up the sidewalk, and slipping on some pieces of broken fruit that had fallen from a vendor’s cart. It was one of the few things that made Mr. Lal laugh on a Saturday’s morning; But tonight he found himself accepting Karmachand’s offer and they soon were walking briskly towards the bar two streets away. Karmachand kept chattering away, and Mr.Lal did not pay attention to him. Instead, his thoughts returned to his shop and family..
He never sold the shop after his father’s death because his wife became pregnant with their son. They needed the money for the baby, and then they needed to put him to school. Each year he saw new students walk to college in groups and he would become jealous. He wished he was one of them, laughing, with not a care in the world.
Five years ago he began seriously renovating the shop; Began buying textbooks, notebooks, and even souvenirs to attract customers.; In spite of this, his business did not pick up much. Locals still came around to buy cigarettes, wrapped candy, and razors. College students came only now and then, opting instead to go to the well-lighted bookstore called Jagans around the corner. Occasionally, some tourists would wander into his shop. The young ones would come with their bulky backpacks, casually look around the store, leaving just as casually without buying anything.; The older ones, like the couple who came in last week, usually stood around for a while, and left with the same result. ; The man in his flowered-print shirt and khaki shorts had stood outside the shop while his wife was inside looking at the small rainbow-colored elephant dolls on display. She was fingering the cloth around each doll carefully as if assessing the workmanship . Since she wore a large straw hat and dark sunglasses, it was hard to make out whether she approved them or not.
“It is from Rajasthan madam”-He told her-“ Top class workmanship.”
The woman turned around to face him and he saw that the bright red lipstick contrasted sharply with her pale skin. “How lovely, isn’t it John?” She asked her husband who stood with his arms crossed, staring somewhere else.
The husband looked at Mr.Lal then at his wife. “Honey, maybe we should check out at some other places before getting anything”-He said.
They left the store then.; Mr.Lal looked at them as they walked down the street hand in hand till at last they disappeared from his view. Yes, he did feel disappointed when they went away.; It was an insult to his shop ,and therefore to him when he did not buy anything. ‘Maybe I should have put a new set of lights to make the shop more attractive,’ he, thought kicking a coca cola bottle on the street to the side.
They entered the bar which was filled with a cloud of smoke and drunken laughter.
The men that were there were of his class. Their shirts stuck to their chests because of the sweat (and perhaps some of them had doused themselves with their drink). The two men went up to the bartender to ask for their drinks.
“Two whiskies for me and two for him”-Karmchand said ,pointing to Mr.Lal.
In five minutes,Karmchand had finished both his drinks and was already ordering two more. Mr.Lal was still halfway through his first drink.
“Isn’t this great Lal?”- Karmachand said loudly smacking the table with his fist-
“We should do this more often ,no?”
Mr.Lal nodded slowly; This behavior wasn’t like him; His wife would be worried if he was late coming home. Yet he accepted two more drinks and the cigarette Karmchand offered him.
He wasn’t really sure what time it was when he woke up, but when he looked out of the window, he saw the sky was a soft light purple. Karmchand was gone, and the place was nearly empty. He got up slowly, a bit woozy from the dink. He made his way out of the bar without bumping into any tables, and began to walk home.
Half –an-hour later he stood in front of his apartment, and rang the doorbell. Bharati opened the door.
Her hair was falling out of the bun and hung over the fine features of her face.
“Where have you been?”- She asked in a panicked voice-“I thought you had gotten robbed on the street or something” .
Mr.Lal did not answer. Instead he walked into the living room and plopped himself onto the bed that served as sofa. She followed him. “Did you hear me?”-She asked, “Where were you?”
“Nowhere in particular”-Mr.Lal replied tiredly, running his fingers through his thinning hair.
She took the cigarette that stuck out of his shirt pocket and shook it in his face-“So now you have started smoking”-She said, sniffing the air-“And drinking too!”
“Look Bharati, I am tired now, just let me have a up of tea, and I will go to sleep”- He said.
She sniffed again, adjusted her saree, and went into the kitchen to prepare the tea.
Mr.Lal propped the pillows against the bed stand and lay down ; He had closed his eyes for maybe five minutes when he felt a tug on his shirt sleeve; He opened his eyes and his son stood there grinning at him.
“What is it?”-He asked sleepily.
“Where were you papa?”-His son said mimicking his mother’s tone-“And now you are smoking cigarettes,. . . . .and drinking too!”
“Go to sleep, beta”-He said, turning on his side to face the wall.
But his son continued to chatter away, jumping on the bed and annoying him. Mr.Lal lost his temper and before he knew it, he had smacked the child on the side of his head, just above the ear, sending him reeling onto the floor.
The boy sat on the floor dazed for a minute, dazed for a minute; Then tears began to well up in his eyes, and spill onto his cheeks. He got up and ran into the kitchen.
His wife came into the living room soon after, carrying the tea and a tray of biscuits. “Why did you hit the poor child? How could you/”
“He should be asleep now “-Mr.Lal said angrily-“Why is he still awake/”
“May be he missed you, did you ever think of that? “-She retorted-“ But no,you are always thinking of that stupid shop of yours’
Mr.Lal exploded. With a surge of energy he smacked the tray containing the tea and biscuits his wife was carrying . The cup of tea went flying and stained the whitewall a chocolate brown. The biscuits fell on the floor and broke into a million little pieces. His wife stood far away from him ,clutching her bosom, obviously stunned.. Their son stood clutching his mother’s saree,frightened by his father’s odd behavior.