Velacheri was a calm, quiet place. It had all the hallmarks of a quaint village; lush paddy fields irrigated by the waters of a rather vast lake that looked endless during monsoons. St. Thomas Mount and the Pallavaram hills framing the north-western and western horizons were visible. The air was so clear that I could count the stars at night; they were like shimmering lights against the inky black sky, which was not lit up by the city glow as there were no large colonies nearby, and electricity hadnʼt reached all houses, including ours.
The bus stand was at the intersection of Brahmin Street and Velacheri High Road. The bus stand was an arrangement of cement benches with red oxide slabs, and it was a kind of meeting point for most residents. There was a certain lazy, languid air about the place until the bus arrived. After that, it became a beehive of activity, and everybody jostled with each other to get on to the bus first, to claim a vacant seat. Invariably, there would be a village do-gooder who would yell out to the milling, jostling mass.
The know-all at the bus stop
“Make way for the ladies, especially the ones with children. Everyone will be able to get in. Donʼt hurry,” he would shout out, with the authority of one who has seen several hundred arrivals and departures. Then there was another group; the dashing young men dressed in their finest. They would remain a distance away from the bus with studied nonchalance, and once the bus began to move, they would run alongside the bus for a while and jump on the alighting steps. These ʻfootboardʼ travelers, as they were called, would hang in sometimes on just a toehold, and this would get admiring looks from the girls on the bus. To them, this meant everything. To some, this was a way of getting a free ride!
When the bus departed, the mix of people changed, so new topics were invariably started or old ones repeated to a new audience. So there were always varied points of view every time.
The village park
Behind the bus stand was the village park that came to life in the evening. A community radio blasted out programs from a station called Vividbharati. The park had one lone gardener, who rarely smiled but was always digging a hole or pruning a croton bush and was the employee of the village panchayat. He wore khaki half-pants and a khaki shirt. Under his half-pants were bright-colored boxers that were bigger than his khakis, giving the impression that beneath that drab exterior was a bright side to his personality. He also wore a huge watch with a stainless steel bracelet that contrasted brilliantly against his sunburned, brown skin.
A few shops were next to the bus stand; to the right was a shop selling cigarettes, beedis, and brightly colored candy. The different varieties of candy were all stored in identical jars. The shop also sold lemonade which was made fresh every time. The shopkeeper would use soda instead of water for an extra ten paise. The soda bottle was fully recyclable. It had a marble inside the bottle, and it rested in the upper quarter of the bottle. During manufacturing, the gas inside the bottle would force the marble up the opening and push it to shut onto a rubber ring washer near the bottle’s opening. To open the bottle, a wooden peg was used to push down the marble, and depending on when the soda was prepared; it would either be a mini-explosion or a soft swoosh.
On the opposite side, some distance away was the main grocery store called Mani Stores. The term grocery store was more for convenience as it was a mishmash of fancy merchandise. The proprietor, whose name was Mani, was a pioneer of sorts. While most other shops were small cubby shacks selling peanuts, colored candy, and essentials like lentils and rice, Mani stocked luxurious items like fancy soaps, talcum powder, lotions, and perfumes.
Mani resembled a famous Tamil film actor, or at least that was the opinion of many residents of Velacheri. He knew it and played it to the hilt by mimicking certain signature mannerisms of the star. Teenage girls in their half-sarees would giggle when they passed by his shop. Somehow, I could see only a vague resemblance; I not being much of a moviegoer those days. My parents believed that movies caused moral turpitude and were the cause of all evils in society. So, my comparison was limited to posters and paintings of the film star plastered all over the walls of the nearby transformer factory.
Every evening, Mani would get his assistant to sweep the entrance to his shop and sprinkle water to cool down the bit of earth heated by the post-afternoon heat of the sun. This gave rise to a warm, earthy smell, not unlike what you would encounter after a summer rain. Mani would then switch on his prized transistor radio. It was a Bush Baron, a Cadillac among transistor sets, and it would belt out music at such loud volumes that you could hear it until you reached the park. From there, the radio in the park took over. So, it was a kind of relay race. Thankfully, they were all tuned to the same station, so it did not sound like so many popular remixes of today.
Mani had one failing. He hated to admit his ignorance. So, when somebody asked for something that he hadnʼt a clue about, he would pretend to look for it. His search was bound to bring no results since he did not know what he was looking for. So, he would say he had run out of stock after a point. Later, he trained a sidekick, a small boy with a leaky nose.
At times, he hadnʼt a clue what I wanted.
“Give me a pack of Marie biscuits,” I would ask.
“Boy, give sir Hari biscuits,” Mani would yell to the boy inside. His trained sidekick would yell out that they were out of stock. He nor his sidekick had a clue what Marie biscuits were. I would begin to do an about-turn and start walking out of the shop when Mani would call out to me in an apologetic tone.
“Stock just over, sir. I will get it surely next week” I knew he was bluffing. Mani would never exhibit his ignorance. After all, his was ʻtheʼ grocery store in the village!
This used to go on. I then decided to teach him a lesson and would ask if he had a stock of various brands of ice cream and things of that nature, knowing he did not have a deep freezer. Nobody had one because an uninterrupted electricity supply was unheard of in the state of Madras.
Later, it became a game, and I became more adventurous. Those days, it was lonely in Velacheri, and this was one way of keeping my mind busy! Once I remember I asked him for a Ford Mustang. Another time, it was for a Soyuz spacecraft. Some months later, he saw through my game. Some bystander must have told him, behind my back, that I was pulling his leg.
Later, whenever he was unfamiliar with an item, he would ask me with a half-smile. “ Sir, I hope you are not trying to fool me,” asked Mani.
He was a sport, and he enjoyed the exchanges with me.
The over run
Mani survived for about five years as being the only ʻsupermarketʼ in town. When the village became an overgrown municipality, many traders set up businesses on both sides of the now Velacheri High Road. Maniʼs shop lost all the luster and exclusivity it once had. His transistor set, which could be heard until the beginning of the park fence, was lost in the din due to a combination of the overall increase in ambient noise levels and the arrival of cassette recorders in every one of the new shops. Also, his Bush Baron was no longer at its prime and started fading out with Maniʼs importance of being the only supermarket in town.
It was about this time that I finished my schooling, and I moved to Bombay for my future education with stars in my eye. This plan did not work for several reasons, so after about a year, I was back at Velacheri, more affluent in the experience of living, traveling, and working in a vast metropolis, with valuable lessons on how folks behave when you start living with them.
For the old time’s sake, I visited Mani. He had a pair of thick bifocals, and his curly hair, which once was shiny black and draped his forehead like a mini unicorn horn, was thin and lay limp. All the charisma had gone. I wondered how all this happened in just one year. His store, which generally used to burst at its seams with stock, had almost nothing.
“ Mr. Mani, I want a bottle of Horlicks,” I asked for old-time’s sake. His face broke into a glow of recognition, and he gave me a wide smile. Two of his front teeth were missing.
Instead of yelling out, he ambled into the dark recess of his small store! He no more had an assistant.
“ No stock, sir. Not like before, sir. I have very few customers, so I donʼt get enough sales to buy new merchandise. Good times are behind us, sir, “ said Mani with a strange smile. Mr. Mani might have changed in appearance, but his attitude was still the same.
That was the last time I saw him. His store was demolished to give way for a multilayered textile showroom.
Good writeup ! Power on………