Usha went home too often– every year, sometimes twice. She never told anyone in Calcutta they owned a shop on Lexington. She called it, “our business.” She told them stories about the conventions and the Pujas and their clients from California and Texas; how Mimi was receiving top marks and writing beautifully. She was sure to become a poet one day.
At first it used to annoy Mr Munshi but not anymore. Nowadays he looked forward to December. When she was gone his teatime with Mohon extended till ten. Sometimes, the shopkeeper came by to share with Mr Munshi packed lunches he brought from home. His wife made a delicious cauliflower dish.
He put his hand in his breast pocket to feel for his credit card. It was still there––tucked inside a folded post-it note, which contained a list of errands he had to run that morning. Mr Munshi suddenly remembered that he had promised Usha he would buy a present for her niece. She had asked him this almost a week ago, when she had already collected most of the other gifts for the family—soaps, lotions, chocolates, baby clothes. Of course he had forgotten. But his wife would surely remember today. The thing with Usha, he had learned over these years, was that when she found one problem, she suddenly remembered twenty other things to complain about.
He turned back and walked down to the pharmacy, which was thankfully open. He looked up and down the shampoo aisle, the soap aisle and finally lingered by the creams. Mr Munshi stared at the fancy labels and pictures and high price-tags and decided this would please his wife, who insisted that the gifts couldn’t be anything ordinary and a certain amount had to be spent in order to appear generous.
Today, Mr Munshi feared, she was likely to complain to him again. She was sure to say that she didn’t like her breakfast or, that had he gone to the travel agent’s earlier, they could have chosen better seats, an earlier flight, received a better deal. After forty years, he could smell her discontentment like the stale oil that hung from the air and the tattered awnings of the stores around him; that settled between the cracks in the sidewalks and the potholes on the streets and the rusted chairs that were placed outside the dhaba. Perhaps, he thought, he could hang around Mohon’s a little longer. He could tell Usha he was helping him with some accounting. But Mohon just didn’t know when to keep quiet. Twenty years on Lexington and Mr Munshi felt he had nowhere to go.
“Did you know Dada,” Mohon said as he dropped a bag of tea into a cup of water, already heated and kept ready. “They are now saying that eating toast causes cancer?” He pointed to a copy of India Abroad that lay open before him. “What are they going to say next? That drinking tea causes cancer? I tell you, Dada. God knows what those scientists are going to come up with next.”
Mr Munshi wanted to say that everything was carcinogenic. Microwaves, cell-phones, batteries, x-rays. What did it even matter when they were going to die in the end anyway? But he had a feeling if he mentioned cell-phones, Mohon would bring down the old boxes of Nokias, which he horded on his top shelves and begin a rant on how locked phones were a great conspiracy of the American mobile industry. He was in no mood for that. He had received an email the day before from his import-agent in Calcutta, demanding higher compensation. The man said that it simply wasn’t worth his while anymore for the little peanuts he was earning as commission. In the wake of his financial constraints, the thought of buying two round-trip tickets to Calcutta made Mr Munshi fidgety. The jacket felt too snug. Clearly he wasn’t as trim as he used to be.
Dada. Elder brother. Nowhere else did they call him that. In Calcutta he was always Mr Munshi or Babu. Only family and very close friends called him Anil or Anil-da. Usha’s sister still called him Jamai. But here, on these few blocks of Lexington, he was like everyone else––opening his shutters at nine, closing them at eight, seven days a week. He was open on Christmas, on Thanksgiving, on Durga Puja and Diwali. Such was the life of retail.
“Look, there comes Dada,” they would say as they saw him amble closer, from two blocks away. They had seen him here for almost twenty years, so long that he had become a fixture on the avenue, like the ancient signboards and the rundown buildings that were condemned by the city housing department. The very sight of his short, squat body, walking up and down Lexington Avenue, maintained, for them, a sense of order in this random world.
This was Mr Munshi’s favourite time of the day: early morning, before the sun had risen past the tall buildings; before the other store shutters went up; before the buses switched to their rush-hour schedule; before Raju’s footsteps hammered up the stairs to his law office on the second floor; before Munna came, to sweep the sidewalk; before Usha arrived and he had to fetch her breakfast; before the phone calls—Usha’s sister, his brother, asking when he––Mr Munshi––would visit next, it had been so long they couldn’t remember what he looked like; before a customer called or Mohon popped in from his store across the street. This was acapsule of the daywhen he sat alone in his shop with a cup of hot tea and two Digestive biscuits (dark chocolate, because he had heard that it was good for the heart), listening to news on the radio. Budget cuts, Celebrity scandals—such things gave him a head rush, like one’s first cigarette.