That Little Shop

The man dressed in a formal attire, rolls down the window of the taxi, and sticks his head out both in pride and joy. The pride of being called back to his higher education college to deliver a lecture and the joy of smelling the air of the place that is the foundation of who he is today. He sits witnessing the changing cityscape while recalling anecdotes of the days that he spent in between them, a decade back. As he takes the final turn off the main road, he halts the taxi a few steps before the institute and alights.

With a little smile and excitement in his heart, he walks up to the shop on the opposite side of the road and asks, “Did you recognize me?” The shopkeeper peers carefully. As the man broadens his smile, the shopkeeper calls out the man by his surname. And with that, the shopkeeper becomes ‘Bhaiyaa’ and the man turns into a teenager. ‘Bhaiyya’ calls out to his wife to come see who had paid them a visit, and in his usual response places a cup of tea, a cigarette and two mouth fresheners on the counter. Before the man can grab them, a round of questions array from both ends.

Where was he nowadays? How was Bhaiyya’s daughter and child? Which city does he stay now? Where were their children now? What was he doing for a living? How are their living?” Each coiling into a series of cross firing exchanges to catch up in a nutshell the years gone by. Ending only with a cheeky question from Bhaiyaa, “Are you married? To that same girl?”. To which the man smiles, turns back, takes his usual seat, lights up the cigarette, takes a sip of tea and with that relives his studenthood once again.

The man realizes that in this shop the title preceding his name, the degree decorating his surname and the position in which he is today, did not matter anymore. He was just himself – that boy who was not adulterated by the workings of the world but composed of the dreams of a teenager. As the smoke and the steam blurs his present, the past appears clearer and time stops for him. Meanwhile, ‘Bhaiyaa’ turns shopkeeper again, attending to others.

“What do these teenagers call this shop? Do they have the same schedule? What do they come and discuss? How do they spend their time?”

The time he feels ought to be either 10:15am, or 1:30pm or must be 3:30 pm coinciding with the recess in the timetable of the college schedule. Or was it that odd hour of bunking a class?  Whatever it may be, the ritual remained. To make a measured and calculated pitstop, sometimes in the company of friends, most times alone, each day of the week, each month of the year. Then get himself the same articles. No need to exchange words, no need to make a request and at time no need to even pay immediately. It was almost as if he owned that place - a little place in the world, just like the others around him.

And, why would not anyone feel the ownership? Not because it offered supplies on credit, but because no one here was being judged based on their academic prowess, no one answerable and no one to curtail expressions unlike the rigours of the educational set up.  Each one here just a student – not known for their marks, not their ranks and not even by their seniority. It was the only place in these growing years, where he was not being tamed, but was independently choosing how he wanted to be part of this world. At times even diminishing boundaries - between a professor and a student. Here everyone was ‘human’. This place put no barriers to thoughts.

This place, whose name no one knows and even the man sitting today does not check to know, is christened by each based on how they associated. For some it is named after their assumed relationship with the owner, or by the articles they buy or even by the size or colour of the shop. It means something to each.

As the man sits moving the last few sips of the tea in his cup, he thinks to himself, “What do these teenagers call this shop? Do they have the same schedule? What do they come and discuss? How do they spend their time?

Do they discuss on subjects that are not part of the syllabus? Or topics about politics, caste, democracy and the betterment of the country? About the good- looking girls, the dinner date from last night, the status of someone’s relationship? The monthly expenses or the blueprint on how to pass an examination? The minuscule shop which spanned few footsteps nested a spectrum of debates, discussions and dialogues of scales that were much larger than its physical presence. About individual, family, college, the world and life!  

As another student arrives to take a seat beside the man, he gently vacates his own, stubs the bud, approaches the threshold and makes the payment. He also quickly checks, “Bhaiyaa, are there some dues?” Bhaiyaa shakes his head, gesturing a “No”. While they exchange some last pleasantries, he asks, “So how are the rest? Are you in touch with Tiwari, Sharma, and Khan?” The man, apologetically shrugs his shoulder, turns around, walks back recognizing that these names under the umbrella of the shop were merely a reference. Only in the world outside it yells of an identity.

"The shop was a little world for each – from where one could choose to see what one wanted and how one wanted, ignoring the rest. An emotion that the man, felt even today."

He stops one last time and looks at the shop from across the road. He looks to see what has changed in so many years. He peers carefully at the shop itself, for he does not recollect what it looked like. There was never anything extraordinary about it. No decoration, no fancy posters and not even signages to attract customers.  Just little jars kept next to each other, objects stacked awkwardly behind the glass, some sachets hung, and even varied items just kept on the shelf at the back. The blue corrugated sheet awning, supported on poles, the little black stone seat and the curtain however remained.  The curtain that defined the threshold between the shop and the house at the rear. The only element he realized that went missing was the ‘STD ISD PCO’ booth.  The man’s love nest. The little cubicle where he spent hours on the phone expressing, defending and fighting for his love. A love that no one in the world witnessed – except this little shop.

Then has anything changed around the shop! But what was there around? Was this tree always this large? Who was the shopkeeper next door? Is this building new? Recollections that had no answers.

 

For once inside the shop the view of the world hardly mattered! The shop was a little world for each – from where one could choose to see what one wanted and how one wanted, ignoring the rest. An emotion that the man felt greatly, even today.

As he tries to recall, few other enquiries surface. What did the shop ever sell? What all did Bhaiyaa ever keep? How come he seemed to have whatever one needed? How did he keep accounts of everyone? Questions that had never occurred to him before now lingered in his mind. He raises doubts of how it survived and how will it survive with growing globalization! The man starts to think through the world again, only to register that it is not like rest. Here there are no customers, only coming here is customary.

He frames a photo of the shop on his mobile and quickly posts the same on his social media page. More as a heartfelt tribute than to reveal where he is ‘checked in’ and heads to the institute.

"That little shop, that is different in shape, in size, in what they sell and in how it operates for each one of us, but one that we have all encountered in our growing days.  "

On his way back, he sits in the cab and glances through his social media page that is now pouring with comments on his photo. Some friends reminiscing a few incidents; some gathering thoughts of that particular night in the rain; some asking about the owner; some with whom he never shared a bench in college talking of how they spent time on the stone seat and a few acquaintances tagging a lot many others to relive their moments. A few of his friends even planning a reunion at the image of this shop. The messages have no common consensus but just a unified connection. This shop belonged to everyone and more importantly everyone belonged here. The man sits back casting his mind to some of the comments, while struggling to equate some, but he reads them all.

The man gets off at his destination – his friend's place in town. As he enters and settles himself in the house, his friend launches a complain looking at his son returning from school, “Again you have bought these condiments? What is this habit!” The little boy shy’s away and comes and sits beside the man. He knows a guest at home is currently his only possible shield. As he sits there biting off little red round like objects, the man peers into the boy and whispers to himself, 'That little shop'

That little shop, that is different in shape, in size, in what they sell and in how it operates for each one of us, but one that we have all encountered in our growing days.  What only remains constant, is that this shop was borne out of a distinct schedule, grew as a habit and developed as a souvenir of our days associated with education. Contrasting in stature and style to the institute in whose proximity this is located, it also juxtaposed the two different worlds.

On one side the institute – orderly and regulating and on the other the shop – unbounded and free. Free for a young boy to learn how to transact, for a teenager to form an opinion and a maturing adult to introspect. The shop which has no independent recognition but one recognized by individual impressions. 

The man sitting beside the little boy stares at the condiments and ponders, "College di gate de is taraf hum life ko nachate hai, te duji taraf life humko nachati hai, par yeh shop wich life aur hum ekattha nachte the...” (On the inside of the college gate, we make life dance, and on the other side life makes us dance, but in this shop life and us, we dance together...)

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