How differently his mornings had begun in Calcutta––a walk around Victoria Memorial after which Bhaskar used to drive him to the club, that wonderful chilli cheese toast he had for breakfast. Invariably he bumped into a golf buddy, or a colleague, who pulled up a chair. And if no one came, he sat underneath the shamianah on his own, feeding the stray dogs, watching a ball that had just teed off; following its course till he couldn’t find it anymore; till the wind carried it away. In twenty years, Calcutta had been reduced to a fond memory. Usha still considered it her other life.
Mr Munshi wanted to grab the phone and say none of it was true. That it was only a store in Chicago that bought in small quantities. It added up to no more than a few hundred dollars. That the High Commission had called to make some inquiries but nothing had come of it yet. And Mimi? It had ultimately taken her six years to finish college and she temped through an agency and shared a one-bedroom in Woodside––a part of Queens Usha refused to visit as it involved switching the train twice. It made Mr Munshi nervous to overhear his wife’s conversations. He could barely keep track of her lies.
“I know. Can you believe I’ve managed to make him come this time? Normally things are so hectic, we both can’t take off you know,” Usha said on the phone.
“Yes, of course we have someone working for us, but he has to travel so often. What with the clients on the west coast.” She said this in a hushed tone, with her face turned away from her husband, but he had heard.
“No, Mimi can’t make it. She has her exams and she is so busy applying for jobs. There are three universities that want her, can you imagine? But she is still waiting to see if she can find something closer to us.”
But last month Usha had begged her husband to come. “Year after year I go on my own and they’re always asking about you. What do I keep telling them? I’m running out of excuses. Soon I’ll have to say you’re dead.” She had looked at him with a sad face and threatened him with tears and he couldn’t say no. But Mr Munshi knew it wasn’t just a plane fare. These gifts being purchased were for her sister, his brother, nieces, nephews and now the grandchildren that had begun to pop out one by one. There was no stopping these damned babies, he thought, gloomily. And once they went back, every evening their house would be filled with visitors who needed to be fed and entertained. That was another added expense.
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.
“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.