For years it had been a landmark on our road. I remember vaguely that when my father constructed our house in 1969, this shop was already in existence. And given that our locality was a relatively new area then, this outlet was a major landmark. Everything was spoken of in relation to the shop, the only general provision stores for almost the whole area. We were always referred to as the people who lived next to the shop.
It was run by a Muslim family. And those that manned the counters were from various collateral branches, often indigent cousins, at times they also had differently-abled relatives. They would be at the shop for a few months, the more trustworthy would even manage the cash box and then they would vanish. I often wondered where they went. As a child I speculated on whether the owner sent them on journeys to Mecca from where they never returned, rather like Akbar did to Bairam Khan. Perhaps they set up shop on their own in some distant part of South India? One cousin opened up another shop on the opposite side of our road and that too flourished.
Having a shop next door could be a nuisance. Customers would often park their cars blocking our gate and getting them to move so that the kids could make it to school on time was a major headache. But the pleasures of having the store as a neighbour were manifold. If we realised at 11.00 pm that the kids needed shoe polish for the next day, a quick dash to the shop just before it closed set matters right. Ditto for anything from milk to safety pins. Some households in the area even had a monthly account with the shop and a small notebook was brought each time a purchase was made and entries were made in it.
As the years rolled by, the houses vanished one by one. It became a commercial area. The store and our house were probably the only two old-timers. Somewhere along the way, a small space between the shop and our house became a pawnbroker’s outlet. He flourished too and soon, expanding in girth and business, began calling himself a jeweller. His business of pawnbroking was the mainstay of several customers of the neighbourhood Tasmac. Chains, rings, nose-rings and bangles would vanish in exchange for cash.
The owners of the store knew everyone in the area. They would keep a watch on our house when we were away and on return we would get a meticulous tally of who came and at what time. The pawnbroker too kept an eye, for different reasons. He wanted to open a showroom!
A few years ago, the vast and supremely ugly Kalyana Mandapam on the opposite side of our road transformed itself. It became many things – rather like a tumour breaking out into unsightly nodules. A working women’s hostel, a smaller Kalyana Mandapam, a bank and most importantly, an outlet of a departmental store chain. Unlike the old store, which was always Friendly, Dingy and Informal here everything was Formal, Distant and Immaculate. The lines were neatly laid out. And there was air-conditioning. Here you had a group of uniformed, uniformly half-witted and uninformed salespersons who when you asked for shoe polish would stare blankly and call for the nearest senior for help. Billing was computerised (at the old shop everyone did it in the head) and if the computer failed, business ground to a halt. There was no question of monthly accounts. You paid as you left – cash or credit card. There was only one thing in common. Everyone, whether customers of the store or that of the retail outlet, parked outside our house and blocked the gates. Reminded me of some pre-Mutiny Delhi courtesan whose street entrance the elephants of visiting grandees blocked. At least she made money.
The old store carried on regardless. But there were problems. The prices at the chain’s outlet were cheaper, no doubt owing to bulk purchases at the vendor level. The old store’s local taxes were always a little too extra someone said. And the range was much more in the retail outlet. The new occupants of posh gated communities in the neighbourhood liked to go to the retail store. Gradually, business dwindled for our neighbour.
Last week, I noticed that the shop was being emptied of all its contents. I went in to ask. As if on cue, the fat Seth from the pawnbrokers waddled across. “I have taken the place on rent, “ he said. “I need your good wishes.” But what about the provision store I asked? “Oh, unki tho chali nahin,” he said. “You see, the owner has only one son. And he is not so keen on the bijinejj. And they have a lot of reel ishtate.” I wished the Seth all the very best and walked off.
“Actually, that shop was my second choice,” he called after me.
“And which was your first”? I was stupid enough to ask.
“Your house,” he said.