She runs a store at a crowded cross-section in the heart of the city. It is one in a long, dingy row of shops spilling onto the sidewalk; most are balancing precariously under their own gigantic signboards. Her board, though, is one-fourth its original size. She has rented out the remaining space to the oily travel agent next door – Fly Away Travels (For All Your Travel Purposes), the giant lettering squeezes out her much smaller ‘Shanti General Stores’. Outside the day is teeming with traffic, hawkers and strays. Ten years ago this clutter would have frustrated her. Today it comforts her, working as a camouflage against unwanted customers.
The shop itself is old fashioned: full of wooden shelves with fat, transparent jars stocked behind glass counters. Fingerprints are plastered across the glass pane; the same prints over and over again like a psychedelic work of art. There was a time when every store was an imprint of this one, but they all fell like domino tiles –thak-thak-thak-thak-thak– when the malls sprang up.
A musty second hand bookstore used to occupy the space next door – Gemini Books. Starving students and impoverished intellectuals crowded its small unstructured aisles, finding their few moments of happiness there. At times, especially on rainy days, she used to visit the shop (with an extra cup of hot chai to share with the bookstore’s crumpling owner) and to take in the delicious smell of ink and paper. It reminded her of her grandfather; a man who lost his voice before she found hers and spent the reminder of his life with his beloved yellowing books. But like all the others, Gemini Books too collected cobwebs. The store battled valiantly for two long years, breaking bit by bit, and then to the horror of its helpless patrons, it shut down.
She has a fixed routine. She pulls up the shutter at nine in the morning and stays behind the counter for the next ten hours. It has given her chronic back pain and her feet are dark and hard with a network of ugly cracks running south to north. Like the cracks on her once delicate feet, her shop too is in a state of decay. Business is slow, just a trickle. The regulars, old fading matriarchs, drop by two, three times a week to badmouth their ungrateful children (and their monstrous brood). Sometimes they also buy a packet of Parle G or incense sticks or some home-ground spices. None of the purchases ever exceed fifty rupees. At other times loud youngsters come in for a bottle of water or a pack of cigarettes, which she doesn’t stock. They laugh in that imperious way kids these days do, and tell her that on cigarette sales alone she can renovate the store. She doesn’t answer. Truth be told, she isn’t much of a businesswoman. Over the years the shop has become a habit. For this lonely old woman, it is a necessity.