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.
“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.