A Hundred and Twenty Six

Amelie is amused by Nino’s growing bald spot. She rubs this spot every night when she is done creaming her feet and stuffing them into socks, and likens it to peach fuzz. She is older, the skin around her mouth has softened a little. She finds herself appraising her shoes more and more, wondering, is this a little cloddish? There is a young colleague who is trying to get her to appreciate bold colours of lipstick, but Amelie is mostly captivated by how expertly the young colleague applies a steady line of red on her lower lip in just one stroke, and how when she purses her lips together, a perfectly symmetrical other half blooms on the upper lip like a red Rorschach butterfly.

The manufacturer of her favourite eau de cologne has shut shop. She has discovered a weakness for clove cigarettes. In the world outside, a few kings and princes have been overthrown by artful coups that she is lesser inclined to follow. These days, Nino mostly goes down on his knees at birthday and bachelorette parties where photobooths have become a big hit. Amelie has fashioned patches for his trouser knees, and is starting to insist that Nino doesn’t ruin his good pairs of pants. She thinks he works in the DVD business, but he’s actually growing into a millionaire. Neither of them knows this yet.

Across from where they live, an American chain of donuts has appeared. When it is summer, Amelie indulges herself a donut with a syrupy core of orange peel. She reads the English on the paper bag in careful pauses, and realizes she has never been to America. This may not have bothered her before, but now, she’s not so sure.

Ever since her father passed, Amelie has wondered off and on about Mathematics. She read somewhere that long ago in China, the government forced couples to have just one child, so after parents passed, they had effectively halved the population. She thinks, they may now be at 1/64th their strength, and yet, they remain the world’s most populous country. She tries hard to wrap her head around how large the world is, and how random and scattered her own acts of goodwill must seem. She hopes it will pass, because she hasn’t even admitted it to Nino yet, but she’s not sure she believes in solitary moments of gold and god-light anymore.

She dusts cocoa powder on a batch of freshly baked muffins. The cat tinkles the bead curtains and slinks away in apology, but nothing tears Amelie away from watching the cloud of cocoa settle. She is awed by how each and every individual speck of this chocolate has come from somewhere in Ghana, that she, here, remembers her mother recommending. She feels a familiar flutter. She has understood with great clarity her undertaking for humanity. These are not acts of randomness. These are choices that she has known in her every pore; knowledge that has only now made it to her brain. She knows she is not cruel to be unmoved by drunkards crumpled by dawn. But it definitely rules out being Florence Nightingale. She stirs her tea and analyses all the things that break her heart – a car with a teddy bear being towed by a helpline truck, a dead pigeon by the road, dirty snow, a blind man trying to key a hole – and finds that these are things that nobody in this world can exercise the illusion of control over. She cannot remedy these, but she can, using that same Brownian system of the universe, cause kindness and wonder, and maybe, just maybe, gold.

But she pauses. Does the dust of cocoa matter on a hot muffin?

She reminds Nino to brush his teeth. She peels the duvet and slides in. It takes her a while to fluff the pillow into comfortable submission. She sits in bed worrying the band-aid on her finger. Nino is scrapping together what seems to be a hairy –

“What do you think this is?”

She leans over and tilts her head and runs through all the words that Nino has taught her these past few years. They were appalling words, words far more potent than “shit”, “nincompoop”, “retard”, or “Idiot”. She locates the right one and smiles remembering how they had giggled conspiratorially and had said the word over and over and over till it lost all elasticity and became a strange lump of sound, not knowing which the bigger offence was – the word itself or the undignified stripping of its definition. It had been a moment when the universe’s hollowness had been exposed, but they had taken to it like the brave new world under a tablecloth.

Amelie looks at Nino, and smiles.

They can’t stop laughing.

Inspired by a conversation with the extremely talented Philip John.

Bangles & Betelnut in Basavanagudi

A version of this appeared in Mint Lounge on March 22nd, 2014.

I don’t think even I have understood my mother as well as the proprietor of Payal Fancy Store has.

Everyone – or at least, every Bangalorean woman, her friends and relatives – has encountered the Fancy Store owner. He’s usually wheat-skinned and looks perpetually in his late twenties, with a wisp of a barely-there moustache, a twinkling stud in his ear, and fingernails colored deep orange from continued applications of henna. His negotiating tactics are a study in the fine art of persuasion, delivered in a lilting Kannada whose unfamiliar intonations betray his Marwari roots.

His strangely accented Kannada cannot conceal his pride in the fact that his Fancy Store is a well-stocked trove of unexpected surprises and delights for us Bangalorean women. The Fancy Store – with names like Lakshmi, Kajal, Karishma, or Modern, names nobody actually pays attention to or remembers – has been designed to cater to every middle-class female need and vanity, and to pander to every Bangalorean woman’s aspirations of being an active yet sensible participant in the vicissitudes of fashion.

In these Stores, it’s not uncommon to be welcomed by cello-taped cutouts of A-list actresses from glossy magazines. Here, sticker bindis inspired by every K-soap vamp rub shoulders with a wide range of Love-in-Tokyos: rubberbands with bauble ends named after the 1966 Bollywood hit that Asha Parekh used to tie her hair into a ponytail.

Technicolor nail laquers from chic fashion journals find imitations in the Fancy Store’s humble glass display. Gun metal jewels inspired by famous designers or reigning sensibilities sit pinned to folded pieces of plastic, accompanied by paper bits announcing single or low double-digit price points. Elastic, safety pins, buttons, electronic razors, sanitary napkins, bangles, cones of mehendi – everything that belongs in a woman’s closet or dressing table – is available here.

Saw an absurdly expensive innovation (say, that rainbow-coloured static duster) on teleshopping? Well, guess where you’d find its replica for one-tenth the price?

Chronologically, the Fancy Store pre-dates the supermarket, and is distinctly different from the latter in one very important aspect. The supermarket is where the Bangalorean woman plays her role as wife or mother, but at the Fancy Store, she is woman first. To not let anything get in the way of her shopping sprees here, the Fancy Store also stocks plastic cricket bats, coloured balls of all sizes, action figures, and carrom boards, all to appease young boys who might get in the way of their mothers’ and sisters’ indulgences.

The Fancy Store is among the few places in today’s Bangalore (old vegetable markets and some stalls at the many BDA complexes are others) where the martial art of bargaining for goods still thrives. It’s where a good middle-class woman earns her fleeting indiscretion with a hearty haggle. She flexes her harmless-flirtation muscles in a verbal thrust-and-parry with the Fancy Store management: “Bhaiyya, it’s my birthday, how about a discount? I come here all the time, please give na?” In my entirely non-Hindi-speaking youth, I’d practice in these shops what little Hindi vocabulary I’d gleaned from Bollywood movies.

And what savvy middle-class woman doesn’t want one-upmanship over mercilessly priced big brands whose costs soar ever higher as malls pack Bangalore’s skylines? No wonder the Fancy Store stocks bootlegged versions of products from Jergens, Bath & Body Works, and MAC, among others. The supply chain remains murky because one never finds multiples of the same product, so if you decided to come back to buy another bottle of that body wash you took home today, you may never ever find it anywhere again. Fancy Stores also often resort to some adroit rechristening; Beebok, Adibas and Upma are all brands I’ve found in these shops I frequent.

And yet, the Fancy Store invokes much affection, and not entirely because of nostalgia. Walking into such a place gives one a humbler, sharper perspective of money, a more basic articulation of our desires, and a more open, honest admission that we think that self-worth indeed lies in the things we buy.

Almost like an antithesis – or on second thoughts, precursor – to Bangalore’s changing ideas of what is sacrosanct, is the middle class woman’s second best friend: the Gandhige Angadi. Gandhige is a corruption of the word, Granthike, which roughly translates to herbs and holy articles, and Angadi means shop.

If Morocco’s charm and essence are in its souks teeming with exotic meats and spices, Bangalore’s romance, mystery, and very smell, is in its Gandhige Angadis in its old neighborhoods of Basavanagudi, Chamarajpet, Malleswaram, Jayanagar and their ilk. Here, piles of turmeric, vermilion, and multicoloured rangoli are heaped onto plates, amidst garlands of plastic flowers, strings of tinsel, and cotton wicks. Small plastic frames and effigies of all kinds of deities (usually season dependent) await prayers. The air of the Angadi smells of something ethereal, with distinct accents of ash, camphor, arecanut, cinnamon, and sandal.

The biggest draw of the Angadis is the affirmation they lend to tradition – that everything of worth in this world must be made from scratch. According to tradition, even Puliyogare (tamarind rice, a traditional Bangalore-staple) must be made right from raw tamarind, and to use pre-mixed powders and concentrates would be blasphemy. And so, it is that every item required for every puja has been accounted for in the vast inventory of the Gandhige Angadi. On my trips to nameless shops in Basavanagudi and Hanumanthanagar, I’ve often marveled at the range of intricately made toranas, closely etched copra, and adorable miniatures of kitchen utensils.

The Gandhige Angadi has gone a step ahead of the Fancy Store in understanding its market, and has segmented its clientele sharply: the women who spend a limited (but nonzero) amount of time in the puja room, and the very pious women who attempt to maximize time with their favored deities, even as they balance the demands of bawling kids, work schedules, and household chores.

For the former’s benefit, the Gandhige Angadis offer stickers of predrawn kolams, rolled cotton wicks, readymade sacred threads, pre-mixed orange rice – facilities that let the busy woman get her prayer-fix with minimum effort. These readymade conveniences are exactly what the latter kind of clientele turns its nose upon with a scorn usually reserved for any coffee that wasn’t born of a coffee filter. This latter group of women is also likely to consult the almanac or the Panchanga, naturally exclusively available at the Angadi, to advise you about auspicious days to start at your new job.

The Gandhige Angadi’s goods go well beyond Bangalore, stowed away in NRI suitcases. One of these is the legendary Bangalore Press calendar – a century-old State Press published, elegantly typeset, red bordered calendar that marks all holidays back home, and in a quick column indicates the status of the moon.

Sometimes, when I receive customized postcards from Bangalorean relatives settled abroad, I can spot within the family photograph a green or gold torana, a pair of brass diyas, or a small photo frame with Hanuman carrying a mountain of stories – and I find that the Gandhige Angadi stores much more than things in the name of God. It houses little nuggets of home.