You stroll with an empty trolley, reading labels and taking in the myriad of impressive colours. It is much like being in a Crossword Bookstore, your head is tilted, you mumble as you gently walk, stop, pick out a product from one of the open shelves and read the blurb-like descriptions: A great day begins with a great start / Every bowl of Kellogg’s Corn Flakes has toasted flakes of golden corn, sun-ripened in Indian fields. Kellogg’s Corn Flakes is fortified with 8 essential vitamins and iron. These nutrients can help your family perform throughout the day and stay healthy. Your eyes rest on the list of ingredients and nutrients info that remind you of author profiles inside book jackets. You do not know what to make of the detailed information, whether the 100 microgram of Vitamin A in every 100 gram of cereal is so significant that it should be advertised in large black bold letters on the face of the small box, but you read through anyway, hoping that it convinces you into buying or not buying, either. There are many products, ready-to-eat, easy-to-cook, good-to-taste, simple-to-store, on displays easily within reach, and you skim through the cooking instructions, deftly written under cute little sketches or diagrams, because, besides other reasons, you admire their deftness in language. For a great cup / Add one teaspoon (1g) of NESCAFE / Add sugar to taste / Add hot (not boiling) water/milk / Always use a dry spoon / Store in a cool, dry and hygienic place. Chuckling, the coffee jar you place back and drop in some loose sachets instead. There are no cool, dry and hygienic places in your small kitchen. Your small kitchen is a breeding ground of reptiles, a dumping zone of utensils that are washed on a need-to-use basis, 8’ x 6’ of secured space that you visit on weekends to make coffee and Maggi in five quick minutes. On weekdays, you eat out of refrigerator. Milk and cereals in the mornings, milk and cereals or cheese and bread or a Budweiser late in the nights if you are enjoying football on your high definition TV and don’t mind compromising on precious sleep. There are fruits sometimes too, and cucumber and tomato and potato and radish to prepare sandwich the way your mother used to, but half of it rots and, though you can easily afford the waste, your schooling has ensured that you get guilt-ridden.
On the other side of the main alley, there are similar rows — of cosmetics, of toiletries — followed by rows of expensive-looking cases for expensive-looking sunglasses, wrist watches and perfumes, followed by an open space for teak furniture; you don’t know why you are heading that side. You know why you are heading that side. Bare backs, bare arms, strong scents. You haven’t touched another human being in a while. Sharing spaces imbued in aroma is intimacy.
The first of the two is a mother, the second definitely married, but you don’t mind. Their plumpness, their thick, fair arms and patchy underarms — that become visible through their sleeveless kurta when they reach out for something on the top shelves — make you crave. Of late, such have been your fantasies, to be handled like an uninitiated teenager, to be exploited in bed by matrons and maids and your boss who reassure you as they undress you that this is fun and you deserve some fun.
You want them, life to act on you because you are tired in general.
A young female attendant, tiny by comparison to the two women, emerges from behind a pillar to assist them. The two women know which sanitary napkins to buy but not which of the three anti-hairfall shampoos. Across them, on her knees, is another young attendant, sticking new price tags or ‘SALE’ stickers or the store’s classic jingle, Nice to see / Good to hold / If broken / We consider it sold, and suddenly you realize there are several new recruits, sentinels to assigned posts. To you, your stroll may be random, but to them, clearly, you are strutting from one zone to another, in quadrants or octadrants or decadrants, tagged with changing coordinates. There is someone to receive you always. Willy-nilly, you are part of their plan — their floor plan. First the essentials, then the sodas, then an assortment of skin lotions and room fresheners and bathing soaps and whatnots, broomsticks and window cleaners and coffee mugs with smiley faces and printed snapshots, and just when you think you are done, and are fiddling with your cell phone in the unmoving billing queue, are appraising the life style of the person whose purchase is on display while a barcode reader is feeding prices to an elementary software on a B&W computer, your attention falls on the booth at an arms stretch, with trays open from all four sides and littered with Swiss chocolates and ball-point pens and pocket-size telephone diaries and calendars with inspiring quotes.
Despite what it is, the place is human. Which is why you come here. This Ultra Mega Super Hyper Store, where discounts for limited period are extended year round, is located in a shopping mall near the railway station, far from the posh areas of the city. Most shoppers here are middle-class people like your parents, even like yourself – though not quite. The gatekeepers keep their top buttons open and shoulders dropped, parking attendants don’t mind if you offer to pay later for want of change but usually forget to in your preoccupation with other, more important stuff. Nothing is immaculate. There is always the slight mismanagement in inventory, confusions in purchase offers, multiple billing of a single item, quarrels over accusations of shop lifting and resolution of conflicts by a staff which keeps hands over the shoulders of the conflicted parties and manages to convince in Hindi that it’s fine, things happen, like the times before people read self-help literature in your country. This place is the great unifier, a merger of social classes when the politicians and journalists and MBA graduates talk in clichés of two Indias. Look at the girls here. They use Dove, Imperial Lather, and hair conditioner of a brand that sounds Spanish. They moisturize their skins with Vaseline before they retire to bed. The skins may not glow in the manner of urban women but that’s because their rooms are not air conditioned, their gearless scooters expose them to summer sun, and they are addicted to masala-chai, which most magazines confirm is a skin blackener.
You appreciate the girls here, but they are simple, too sorted. They work hard, smile, invest in mutual funds, decline invites to parties that have drugs or hard liquor. They can sing bhajans and old songs and “We Shall Overcome.” They prefer The Alchemist and the one on Jonathan Seagull to Milan Kundera and The Art of Seduction. It is in their best interest that you stay away.
You are not that bad yourself, by the by. In fact, you are part of the great new demographic. The well-informed consumer, the speaker-of-his-mind youth, the shining new face of the country, the pillar of its growth. The hope. Overeducated, overworked, handsomely paid.
The previous generation was too trusting but you are not reacting with cynicism. If you are not happy with the way some things are, you write blogs, debate on social networking forums, get down on roads, light candles, fast for so long and in such numbers you enter The Limca Book of Records. You are awesome and powerful.
Yes, there is the perpetual isolation and discontent, but that is fault of an institution which is failing to hold its promise. Right here, in the middle of this mausoleum of merchandised products, you can deliver a cogent critique on consumerism – and that’s something. You won’t deliver it, of course, because everybody, all who are part of this great new demographic, are much too aware themselves.
Your cart is half full but you see it as half empty. You have reached your favourite section. At your feet — bucket of Cosco balls: one; bucket of SG balls: one; baskets of basketballs: three; boxes of billiard balls: many. These things are endearing. There was the childhood, of 90s. How delighted were the toads confined in the echoing wells. Who desired this dismaying shorelessness of oceans?
Arrives: Guardian of the hornet’s nest. She stands few feet away. Her arrival is an announcement for assistance, of course, but, for no good reason, you feel you are suspected of shoplifting. On the front desk with two PCs, sipping NESCAFE Classic in their plastic cups are supervisors following your every move on CCTVs; they have been right at you since you entered. You discard this notion quickly. It is either true and confirming or ridiculous outright, irrelevant either way. This girl of twenty-two, twenty-three, is here to help; look at her face. She is eager for your eye contact. She is assessing your non-existing predicament. She has come to serve, solve, simplify.
“May I help you, Sir?”
“Yes. Do you have footballs?”
“Footballs… oh. Just a minute, Sir, I will get back to you. May I know how many you are looking for?”
You like her. She is natural; trained but not conditioned. If you would stop her in a street and ask for directions to a laundry shop, or were an old acquaintance that happened to be riding on the same bus as hers, you would not find her manners much changed. She inquires about footballs with a boy, a colleague, and when she returns, her voice has whiffs of slight disappointment.
“Sorry, Sir. We are out of stock.”
“There was a complaint about bladder in one of the balls so we returned the latest stock. You can buy basketballs? We are running a limited-period discount: twenty percent.”
“Well, if you can provide us your phone number, we’ll inform you as soon as the new stock arrives.”
“That’s okay. Was just asking.” You smile. “Don’t really need them.”
She smiles too. Perhaps she attributes your unwillingness to the flurry of messages you will receive on your cell phone – hair solutions from Dr. Patra’s Homeopathy Clinic, love solutions from a hip new Indian dating website where Deepika and Natasha are waiting for guys just like you, and repeated shopping alerts from their own store. Perhaps she knows you have been burnt before. She asks, “Anything else, Sir?” waits and leaves.
You were supposed to grow like her, how your teachers saw you. Once in the junior school you went door to door in your society, preaching grownups the importance of planting trees – rain cycle and greenhouse effect and top soil erosion, things that were commonsensical. You provided them a list of viable options for their lawns — your father had volunteered to find out prices of various saplings from the nurseries nearby; and you inspired friends and strangers alike to establish The Green City Club, the first of its kind in the society. It lasted five full weeks before it transformed into Hobbies Club in the summer break, a haven for chessmen, Chinese checkers, card decks and bundles of Champak, Twinkle and Diamond Comics, available at 25 or 50 paise per day depending on the thickness of the digests — a place that adhered to its mission of edutainment and was run with fairness and frolic. Back then, you were the leader, the doer, the storehouse of ideas and energy, and people were always looking up to you.
In that sense strictly, things haven’t changed much. Maybe you really have grown up to be what you were expected to be. Maybe you are like her. Your teachers are proud of your achievements; they tell this to your classmates who pay them visits time to time. The guys at MSNBC talk with enthusiasm about the company you work for, regardless of the pulsating indices of Dow Jones, and that makes your father beam at 10ams. You touch feet of anonymous relatives with grey hair and emigrant daughters, and forward resumes of cousins who are searching for plushy jobs. This year, your appraisal at work was 4.81 out of 5 and you were described as, among other things, an enterprising team man. You are not a chameleon. You just keep who you are to yourself.
You are done. You are famished. You scan the rows of eatables and weigh options. Your mind takes you far from here, far even from the proper dining options right outside the door, away from all possibilities of physiological satiety, and dumps you on the lone park bench in your apartment building. That single bench of wet wooden strips lying untended under a palm tree steals your attention twice every day, on your way to and from the office. Sometimes you also gaze at it from the windows of your bathroom while taking a shower. You have never sat on that bench, not once, but you have long known that one day, you are going to lie down there and give fuel to dangerous ideas.
“Do you have a membership card, Sir?”
“Sir, your membership expires in three weeks. You can either cash in the points or renew your membership and carry forward the points.”
At the door, the security guard tears your bill from a corner and opens the door for you, and you are hit by the mall air thick with mixed aromas. Of buttered popcorns, of pulverised coffee beans, of Pizza Hut. Here, the Pizza Hut is open, no walls, no ceiling, just a waist-high frosted glass partition on two sides, so youngsters hanging by railings and shoppers ascending on escalators can enjoy sights of diners sparring with knives and forks and essaying the elasticity of baked cheese with their gritted teeth; time to time they hear chiming of a metallic bell and chorus of waiters responding at the top of their lungs “Thank-you!” The idea is excellent; it cuts cost, utilizes central space and lures people in.
You weigh your options again. If you get some food packed from here, or order from home, there will be time to add more slides to tomorrow’s presentation. However, there is the Thai restaurant on the fourth floor, famous for its kimchi soup, and you like kimchi soup; and there is the quiet bar and restaurant adjacent to it, which, you can tell, is running on heavy losses, and spending a portion of salary there will give you a satisfaction of charity.
And there is the call of the park bench. Since it is not smart to stroll around carrying an unwieldy package, you don’t linger. You choose what is proper to your story.