Pauper

July 26, 2010


It was some festival. Preparations like cleaning the walls with bamboo broom and then washing the floor tiles of the house were in progress. In between, I was being pestered by Lila Aunty to go to the grocer and bring the long list of objects dictated yesterday to me by Grandma- Tai. I was postponing this; because I knew that the list would keep on growing until I actually left the house, or even after I brought everything. Better to postpone than to make two rounds.

I could not avoid it the next day. As usual, I made certain from Tai if she had dictated everything, nothing more was required. This added about ten additional items. Then I opened all brass and tin and china containers in the kitchen and store one by one and started asking her if she required this or that. That added fourteen or fifteen further items to the list. Satisfied, I stuffed the empty oil can and a few jute bags in another jute bag and left. No sooner than I reached the gate; Tai called me over and added the vegetables to the list.

That done, I first went to the Rickshaw stand, told Babu, our Rickshaw wallah that I would need him in about an hour’s time at the Grocer’s. He was okay with this.

The shop was in three parts. The owner had a mattress podium at the left, on which he would be reclining most of the time like Lord Vishnu. Sometimes his brother accompanied him in heady town gossip. Both would be playing with their black telephone instruments and taking calls on wholesale scene. There was a saying in the town that if the trade was good, they would smile. Otherwise they would go to ablutions. Usually their trade must have been good on the days I visited, because they always smiled at me. But not today.

The shop had timber doors. The door-stop was polished smooth by continuous use. This is where the customers would sit. At the right were the vegetable oil drums and cans. Just in front of them would be seated on a blue carpet, the grocer’s nephew, who was also my uncle’s classmate some time ago.

At the grocer’s, I took out the long list from my pocket. The method was simple. You would dictate your list to Grocer’s nephew, then go to the back yard store, check – or pretend to check – each individual item for quality i.e. that they did not contain stones, rodent droppings, mold or pests or flying insects. That done, you would check the weight of the grains and sugar and similar such items while the helper tried to steal whatever possible for his owner.

I completed all these steps. The Grocer’s nephew now started writing prices against the items. Here you had to show that you were smart by arguing and haggling about the price for each item. I started doing that. He looked up from the list. I was alarmed, because his stare was not uncle’s-classmate-like.

“Do you know how much all of this will cost?” He calculated, and then said, “Close to fifty Rupees.”

“How does that matter? I never pay you. My Grandpa pays. I was only making sure you don’t cheat.”

“Cheat?” The Grocer interrupted from his podium. “We never cheat. We are the best value Grocers in the town.”

“This sugar is all wet. You always add sand to rice. And the jaggery is fermented, and the grams are all half eaten by rodents.” I braved.

“In rainy season, the grocery is always like that.”

“This is no rainy season.”

“Son, pass his bill here.” He instructed his nephew. He did that. The grocer looked at the total, and then brought out a red book from behind his back. Reading through it he said,

“The last two month’s dues are not yet paid.”

‘’And how much is that?”

“Ninety One Rupees.”

“So what? We will pay.”

“Pay? Pay when?”

‘’Today.” I checked my pockets. I had few anna change.

“So leave your bags here, go home and bring the money.”

“But there is this festival. We need the grocery now, before the guests arrive.”

I cannot forget the feel of the polished timber I was sitting on, the smell of fermented jaggery, groundnut oil, turmeric and my own anger filling up my nostrils.

“Not my problem, pauper.” He said closing his red book, and told the helper to take everything packed for me indoors.

I was fuming red and started walking home. This was the first taste of insult I was facing in my life because I did not have any money. I never noticed that Babu’s Rickshaw was following me all the way to home and that he called me several times.

I dumped the vegetables in front of Tai, and went out. Lila Aunty hurriedly followed me and inquired where the grocery was. I did not answer, but Babu, who had also come after me, did explain in detail. Lila Aunty came to me and inquired if what Babu was telling was correct. When I said yes, she told me not to worry and if I would accompany her to the Grocer’s. I said yes.

In a short time, I was marching to the Grocer’s store again with Lila Aunty. It was not common for womenfolk, particularly unmarried, to go to this type of shops. People on the street were watching us. We reached. The grocer appeared surprised to see us. Lila aunty made the grocer repeat what had happened, if he had called me pauper and whether I had indeed promised that we will pay the dues today. He confirmed and then told me to beg pardon. I said I would not. But Lila Aunty insisted that he is my elder and if the grocer wanted an apology for his wrongdoing, I must ask for. I eventually did, controlling my sobs. She then told the Grocer that he would get his dues today as promised and we would not be dealing with him in future. He got up and tried to make up, and said we could take home the grocery; he would wait until Grandpa arrived. But she was firm, and said Grandpa would need his apology in return for how he behaved. We came back.

Lila Aunty and Tai went to the market in the evening and came back with half the grocery we required. I was informed that the Grocer’s dues have been paid off and I should be holding my head high when I went past Grocer’s shop. No need either to go to his shop from now on, since Aunty had found a cheaper store.

Grandpa and the guests arrived the next day. A particularly inquisitive relative inquired why Tai was not wearing her usual gold bangles lately. Tai said in plain voice that sometimes it is necessary to sell the possessions, if honor is at stake. The woman did not inquire further.

I did not enjoy the festival, the guests departed and I saw them off. While returning, I stopped and looked at our house. It had changed in last few days.

The Grocer finally came and apologized for his behavior towards us. Grandpa looked after his law suits anyway. The gifts he had brought were promptly returned by Tai, then and there.

However, Grandpa noticed the missing bangles only after a year or so.

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6 Responses to “Pauper”


  1. Nice anecdote, that’s some invaluable education. One word comes to mind – ‘family’.

    Also nice description about the ways grocers used to hand over stuff from their shops in the olden days (before the shopping-mall culture became prevalent); I’ve heard a few stories of that from mom-dad and my grandparents.

  2. PeACEMAKER Says:

    Thanks Nikhil.
    Rajeev

  3. Ranjeet Elkunchwar Says:

    The anecdote is a testament to the strength of the women in our house ! I could totally see Leela aatya-aaji marching out to the grocer 🙂 Awesome!

  4. Vidya Murali Says:

    It gave a lump in my throat .
    Steel Magnolias , thats what those ladies are . Pranams .


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