Somewhere in a quaint town

She walks under a clear monsoon sky after the dark clouds have just subsided. It’s hot and sticky. She is wearing a black pencil skirt and a green t-shirt. In her mind, she visualizes that she looks beautiful. She wonders if the people around her are looking at her as she passes them by. Women her age in pencil skirts are not quite common in the suburbs. In her heart, she feels a flutter of excitement, the kind of excitement women can only feel when they are looking their best. Yet, in another part of her heart, she’s scared of unwarranted male attention. So she keeps her head up and looks straight, taking special care not to pay attention to the people she passes by: the idle elderly man chewing on something in the mini garden in front of his house, a middle-aged man in blue checkered lungi on his scooter looking in her direction.

She is out to do her chores, to send a package at the small bookshop that doubles up as a courier place & afterwards, to frame a photo. It’s just before dusk. The tiny colourful shops in the marketplace are just opening up. Some men are throwing splashes of water in front of the shops to settle the dust, a ritual they have done since the first day they opened their shops. Some men sit in chairs, talking to the shopkeepers across the road. She catches slices of their conversations, usual banters about the latest political gossip.

At the bookstore, the familiar man greets her. He must be sixty or older, but too thin for a man his age, so she can’t be sure how old he really is. He smiles at her.

“How are you?” she says.

“It’s going,” he says.

She waits as the man ties a package, an old cloth bag, with thin light brown threads.

“This is going to Vizag,” he says as she continues the last line of the thread.

“What is it?”

“It’s a blazer. The boy has some function there, asked his parents to send this.”

She looks at the package closely now. She feels it’s a tad small to hold a man’s suit – maybe the parents have squeezed it in as hard as they could. She wonders if the faceless, nameless boy would be annoyed when he receives the package. Would he calls his parents and say, “Couldn’t you send it in a bigger box? And why didn’t you send the original bag? It’s all creased up now!”

“Do you send stuff internationally?” she asks the man, thinking about faraway places where she will never send things. Earlier, if things turned out differently than it did, maybe she would. Now, no more.

“No. Many years back I did. Now, you need all modern tools – you need computers, you need to be skilled enough to operate it and do the work. If I had a girl like you working here, someone who knows computers, maybe I could have continued it.”

The man looks almost lost in his thoughts. “I’m struggling with even national orders now. So many orders that I can’t take.” He shakes his head and goes towards the back of the shop to keep the package aside.

“Here’s mine. Mumbai. Rakhi for my brother.”

“Sure,” he comes back.

In the mean time, another customer has come to buy pen. “Do you have a pack with pens of two different inks?”

“We don’t get those kinds of packs very much anymore… but here’s one.”

“How much?”

“Twenty five rupees.”

The man brings a wrapping paper.

“No, don’t wrap it. Just give the wrapping paper to me. Need to get a chocolate as well,” says the customer. He hands the money and takes the pen set & the wrapping paper. He folds the wrapping paper in places. She almost says to him, “Why are you folding the wrapping paper? It will have creases!” But she doesn’t. She simply watches him make neat rectangles, feeling uncomfortable with the perfect white creases that will show up when the paper is unwrapped.

Twenty minutes and three more customers later, she is finally done with her own courier. One had come to get an exercise copy for a schoolkid, another to wrap a chocolate box and the third one to refill ink.

“Come tomorrow for the tracking number,” the man says.

“No problem, I’ll call you if I can’t come and get the tracking id.”

“Take care now,” the man says.

By now, it’s dark. The shops from a distance look like a bundle of colours & lights. She walks towards the small shop with hundreds of framed photos on the walls. In her hand, she has the photo she is going to get framed. The only memory, the only luxury that she would allow of him, as a bookmark to the chapter of life she wishes had never ended.

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