Thursday, February 27

The Man at the Mall*

It was old-fashioned ‘give and take’ (a phrase of common parlance around here) that had brought me to the mall; as i was looking to buy a birthday gift for my neighbour’s nine years old daughter, to whose party i had been invited but didn’t want to go. Even less did i want to buy the gift and think of the whole thing as an extravagance. But about the ethics of civilized gift exchange (along with my own lack of courage in not doing the right thing) some other time. Right now — about this man i met at the mall. He was a customer there just like me — a dapper looking chap with an unopened soda bottle in one hand and a chip on the shoulder. What had him riled up, apparently, was the fact that there was no bottle opener (the tool. For, i am guessing they did have one of those soda vending machines that come with built-in opener installed in the ‘back’ — a small partitioned-off area inside the shop that served both as an office and a storeroom — as i remember seeing it there once during my previous visits.) The man was adamant: he didn’t want the bottle opened for him, he wanted the bottle opener. Period. In his own words: “How do i know you are not trying to kill me?... Why, if you should open the bottle with the help of scissors? or bite the top off? Who would be responsible if shards of broken glass should fall in the drink?... Such a big establishment and you don’t keep a bottle opener — such a small item, too! — the whole thing is incredible! A scandal!... Unless somebody says something (and he was doing just that), nothing will ever change.... (Finally.) Dare i hope that amends will have been made by the time i visit you next?” The man left shortly afterwards. To see him raise the devil, that, too, over a bottle opener — “such a small item, too!” — it had indeed been strange. Not the least because of the sense of entitlement he had exhibited. It was something quite new (in the context of the small-town middle-class India to which he obviously belonged. Only once have i seen anything like this before, that, too, only recently.) The man obviously felt that he owned the place and was not afraid to speak and to demand things, and to ask for his money’s worth, so to say. When i followed him out a little later (after i had made my own purchase), he was nowhere to be seen, even though i did briefly scan the road for him. Then a strange thing happened. I began to remember the following lines (from a poem by Faiz):

bol ki lab aazaad hai.n tere
bol zabaa.N ab tak terii hai
teraa sutawaa.N jism hai teraa
bol ki jaa.N ab tak terii hai

(Speak, for your lips are yet free;
Speak, for your tongue is still your own;
Your lissom body yours alone;
Speak, your life is still your own.) —Compared with the cool, air-conditioned air inside the mall, outside it felt like a blazing furnace; the mid-day sun was beating down so hard. But i didn’t mind it at all. A group of street children was playing in the dust in the empty plot that abuts our street where it joins the road. A rickshaw was pulled up not far away waiting for fare. It was business as usual.

*It’s really just a supermarket but men call it a mall.

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