There was a saying that if you could not find something you wanted in Gandhi market, chances were that you might not find it anywhere in the world. Gandhi market was the commercial hub of our town with lane after lane of brightly lit shops and street stalls selling anything and everything from food and clothing, electronics and car accessories to all and sundry. But since the big mall had opened in the street opposite Gandhi Market, the business had slowed down and there were fewer customers but the number of people religiously visiting the market never stopped. The people liked being there if not for buying anything than to pass their idle time roaming the maze-like lanes of the market that never seemed to end. The shop owners had just recovered from the shock to their businesses when they heard that another mall was to come up at a nearby site of an old flour mill which had been demolished a few years back. The shop owners would see trucks carrying bricks, concrete, steel beams pass by them to the site of construction and their heart would sink. In six months the construction company had completed the foundation and rough framework of the gigantic building and had even put up a large poster in front of the construction site boldly declaring ‘Grand City mall coming up! Stay Tuned!’. They had heard that the new mall would be even more impressive than the first one, having a shopping mall, movie theatre, a food court and a children playground all wrapped in one and the news made their hearts sink a little more.
My friend, Rajat asked me to accompany him to Gandhi market as he wanted to buy a shirt and had been nagging me about it for quite some time. Given summer vacations were going on and for want of a better thing to do, I agreed to accompany him on his cumbersome expedition. Shopping with Rajat was a headache because he was indecisive and uncertain regarding his choices, sometimes intentionally just to annoy me. He would go to the market to buy a pair of trousers and then after looking around for some time he would lose interest in trousers and would begin searching for jeans and t-shirts for two hours and would finally return with a pair of pyjamas or boxers. If I conveyed my frustration to him he would laugh coyly and would reply that he wanted a pair of trousers but he was in ‘desperate’ need of boxer shorts as his previous ones had either been torn up or discolored. So this time I had given him a stern warning before approaching the market that I was not going to stay here for more than thirty minutes.
After touring a few shops and Rajat wriggling his nose in disgust after seeing their inventory of shirts, we entered a large clothes store. The entrance of the shop had a glass cabinet displaying the photos of the owner alongside some of the most eminent personalities of the day with the store in the backdrop. But the photos seemed quite old and it appeared as if fewer customers let alone eminent personalities had visited the store since then.
‘What can I show you sir?’ the shopkeeper said. He was a tall, gaunt man in his fifties with graying hair along the sideburns and moustache. His large globe like eyes appeared like permanent pools of boredom which lit up whenever a customer entered the store.
‘Show me some shirts dada. Preferably in lighter colours’, Rajat said.
‘Yes sir.’ He said and started picking the shirts from the large pile of shirt boxes from the cabinet at his back. The store was well stocked from the top rack to the bottom with shirts, denims, t-shirts and other wearable accessories and it appeared as if the shopkeeper was the only one working in the big cavernous store that should have been tended by four or five people.
‘What do you think of this?’ Rajat asked me after selecting a shirt from the many the owner had spread in front of him.
‘I like this one. Its light coloured and you could wear it during the summer days.’ I said reassuringly.
‘Please try it, sir’ the owner said,’It would look good on you.’
Rajat felt the cloth with his fingers,’Where is the changing room?’
‘Its right there sir.’ The owner pointed to a glass plated door at a corner of the store.
‘And what can I show you sir?’ the owner asked me when Rajat had left.
‘No nothing for me’ I said with a smile and pointed to the glass cabinet containing the photos which had spiked my curiosity ,’All these famous people came into your shop?’
‘Yes’ he said without a change in expression, ’Long ago they all came here to do all their Durga puja or Bihu shopping. My late father knew the Zubeen Garg, the famous singer since he was a boy and I have met him many times over the years.’
‘That must be great feeling’ I said brightly.
‘Almost three generations of my family have been running this shop. My father before me, his father before him. I myself have been working in this shop for twenty—five years.’ he said listlessly and paused before continuing, ‘I have been doing it for a very long time. I don’t like doing it anymore.’
‘Oh’ I said sheepishly and looked up at the framed photos of the owner’s father and grandfather high up on the wall. Sepia colored photos that appeared to be looking down unrelentingly on the poor shopkeeper sitting on an old ancestral chair on which they had sat upon at some point in the past.
‘So how’s business going?’ I said to change the topic.
‘Not good.’ He said curtly and emphatically shook his head.
‘Oh’ I said. In the meantime, Rajat had come out from the changing room fixing the collar of his shirt.
‘This does not feel so comfortable. Show me some more shirts.’ He said scratching his chin ,’Show me some cotton shirts.’
After inspecting a few more shirts, Rajat asked the owner to show him some formal trousers which he could wear to a business meeting. The poor shopkeeper faithfully complied and showed him a wide range of trousers of different colours, materials and prices. The counter was so full of clothes that he started folding them up to make room.
After much deliberation, Rajat decided on a trouser and went back to the changing room to try it on. I was about to walk out of the store to get some air when the owner said suddenly-
‘I am very tired of doing this every day.’
Indifferently, He continued to roll up the clothes that Rajat had discarded. I looked at him and felt a surge of pity.
‘So why don’t you do something else?’ I said softly.
He looked at me squarely and then laughed after a painfully long time,’I have been doing this for twenty-five years. It’s too late anyway.’ He said resolutely. The words seared into my heart.
Rajat came out wriggling his nose in disgust as he had done before.
‘The fitting around the waist is a bit off. Except that it was a fine trouser’ Rajat said and looked at his watch, ’Its very late. Why don’t I come back tomorrow and see some more stuff?’
‘What about this shirt? You selected this one and I daresay this one will look great on you’ the owner said defeatedly, ’the retail price is five hundred bucks but I am willing to give it to you in four hundred.’
‘No I didn’t like the colour very much.’
‘I can show you some more colors sir?’ the shopkeeper said continuing to fold up the clothes into neat piles.
‘Look at some more shirts if you want, man. I am free’ I said with a carefree shrug but in my heart I wanted Rajat to buy at least something. He looked at me with a puzzled expression.
‘No I think I will come back tomorrow’ Rajat said and resolutely walked out the door. I followed behind him turning back only once to look at the owner. He had occupied himself with putting the shirts back into their boxes.
At the time when we were exiting, a woman in her late forties entered the establishment. She gazed at us with an expectant look before engaging in a discreet conversation with the owner.
I looked at Rajat angrily. Of all the days he had wasted shopping with me, none of those had ever disheartened me like today.
‘Brother, forgive me. I thought they’d have what I was looking for but’ he shrugged,’ It seems like there aren’t many good stores in Gandhi Market as there used to be.’
‘Let’s go to the mall. I heard the summer collection has just come in.’ he said cheerfully flashing his deceptive smile. I sighed and glanced back at the shop. Behind the glass cabinet showing the famous people I could see the woman scolding the owner for not being able to close the deal with us. She must have been his wife and under the barrage of her reprimands the owner sat quietly in the ancestral chair impassively waiting for the next customer.
Cover Photo by: Parker Burchfield