What the Shopkeeper Said
Our driver maneuvered the crowded streets of New Delhi while my future American son-in-law shifted uncomfortably next to me in the back seat. When we stopped, stuck for a moment in a typical Indian traffic nightmare, John sat up. He gazed, wide-eyed, at the surrounding chaos. A man peddling a cart carrying watermelons and squash pulled up next to us. He stopped briefly then surged ahead, cutting off our driver. In a moment he maneuvered his cart again making his way through another small break in traffic.
“I’ve never seen anything like this; nowhere in New York, not even in rush hour,” said John. “Not only are there a million cars, trucks and buses on the road, but people, carts, scooters, bikes are everywhere. How are there not huge numbers of traffic deaths everyday?”
“Well, there are some,” I said. “But, I agree, not as many as one would think.”
We were on our way to the village of my birth, in the foothills of the Himalayas, to celebrate the marriage of my oldest daughter to John, the young American sitting beside me. My wife and children will arrive in a few days. I have come early to make arrangements for the celebration. John has come with me so he can hike in the mountains for a few days before his wedding, the wedding that will introduce my daughter and John to our family and to the people of the village where I was raised.
In a few days, everyone in the village will come to Mom’s home to celebrate. Colleagues from work and some American friends are also planning to attend the celebration. I was surprised at how many of my American friends accepted this invitation. Several told me that they saw it as a unique chance to visit India while also attending an authentic Hindu wedding ceremony.
“Look,” John pointed to the side of the road. “There are what, a dozen propane tanks on that donkey’s back. If there was an accident and they exploded. And there,” pointing ahead, “those small white delivery trucks, all angling for a better spot in the traffic.” I shrugged. I had seen it all before.
“Welcome to India,” I said. “There is no way to prepare you Americans for this. No matter what I say, you are always shocked.”
“The motor scooters are deafening,” said John, holding his ears. “And do you see, in front of us, stopping all the traffic. Is that a cow? It is; it’s a steer, a long-horned steer,” he said, rising up in his seat to get a better look.
“Get used to it, my boy,” I said abruptly, I was tiring of his wide-eyed observations of what was ordinary to me. We sat without speaking for a moment. “Our family owns quite a bit of property in the village,” I said, breaking the silence. “We used to employ many of the towns-people. Nowadays, things are changed.” Our driver inched ahead. “My family traces our lineage back 700 years, Brahmins originally from Kashmir,” I said.
“Seven hundred years,” John said, surprised. “I don’t think we could trace my family more than 100 years. We were poor Irish. I don’t think anyone kept records of my ancestors.” I smiled, self-satisfied.
I left home almost fifty years ago, first to earn an undergraduate degree in England and then to pursue my doctorate in the States. While at Harvard I met and later married my American wife, raising our children in a suburb of New Haven. For the past thirty years, I have returned home every fall accompanied by one or more of my children to see their grandparents and let them wander the streets of the village where I played as a youngster. But now, Dad is gone and my children are grown, so lately, I either travel alone or only with my wife.
A young woman carrying a child with a badly deformed arm approached our car, palm extended. John turned to me.
“Don’t give her anything,” I said sternly, rolling up the window. “It will bring a hundred others. Anyway, she probably broke the child’s arm so she could be more sympathetic to gullible Westerners like you.
“I told you before we left New York, John. This is India; modern in so many ways and primitive in so many more.” A taxi driver to our right turned abruptly, barely missing a man on a scooter, forcing him into the curb. The man, who had been thrown to the pavement, got up slowly, righting his scooter. He brushed himself off and checked his extremities, then called out in Hindi to the taxi driver. The driver waved back smiling. Both men paused momentarily, then moved on.
“And look at that. All this and no road-rage,” said John. “If we were in Manhattan, those two would have torn each other’s heads off.”
I hadn’t thought about it before, but he was right. With all the congestion, lack of traffic signs and a density of vehicles and people at least five times what you find in New York City, there was no road rage.
“Could you hear? What did the man say to the taxi driver?” asked John.
“He said, ‘what’s wrong with you, my brother, are you trying to kill me?”
“Maybe that’s it. Maybe the ‘my brother’ part neutralizes everything. Distills the anger away,” said my son-in-law to be.
“You may be correct. Who knows,” I said. Astute, this young man my daughter is marrying, I thought.
Our driver continued to weave through the traffic and an hour later we were on what passes for a highway in India, heading north toward my ancestral home.
Two hours later, I dropped John at my uncle’s house where his family and some of the other guests were staying. Then, I asked the driver to take me to the edge of town so I could walk the main street of my village, something I wanted to do alone before going home to see Mom.
Unlike Delhi and the other large cities of India, the main street of my village has changed little since my youth. Shops crowded together on both sides, a small temple towards the far end of the town, and people, always so many people. Several merchants were gathered in doorways talking, others drank tea at a café with outdoor tables located strategically in the middle of town.
As I went from one shop to the next, I found myself unconsciously comparing these stores with those back in the states. In the US, most stores were in malls, of course, away from the places where their customers lived. Here, malls were absent; villagers shopped within walking distance of their homes. My American friends will find this quaint, I thought; a throw back to America of more than fifty years ago.
I walked into a small grocery store and was confronted with a reality of India that my friends would not find quaint. In America, whether shops were in malls or lined Main Street as they did here, Americans kept their stores in order and immaculately clean. Daily scrubbing, sweeping, dusting and disinfecting combined with constant organizing, to make sure the shelves were stacked correctly were the rules of small business in America. Here, there were no such rules. I left the grocery embarrassed, wondering what John’s family and my American friends would think of this lack of cleanliness.
The other shops along the street displayed the same level of disorder and disregard for hygiene. When I entered the bakery, the sweet smells overwhelmed me and brought back soothing memories of my childhood. But, here too the floor was dirty, and the pastry shelves were unkempt and looked unclean. At the end of the street I entered a shoe repair shop my father used to take me to as a child. Finally, not able to contain my disgust any longer, I confronted the owner.
“Hey, you,” I called. “You know my daughter’s wedding is in two days. You and all the other shop owners have been invited to my home to celebrate.” I gestured around the store. “This place is a mess. My American friends will be coming and your store is filthy. Now pay attention,” I commanded, “and clean this place up. Do you and the others want to embarrass me in front of my friends?”
The owner, an old man who I vaguely remembered from my youth and who probably had never traveled more than five kilometers from the village, approached me. As he came near, I could see the tenseness in his face; his fists were clenched. I remained stoic, imperious, perhaps, glaring, waiting for his response.
“Get out. Get the fuck out of my store,” he said in Punjabi. His body was close to mine. I thought he might strike me. I backed slowly towards the door, trying to decide what else I could say. Before I realized it I was in the street and he had slammed the door behind me. His anger was more than anything I would have anticipated. Where does he get off shouting at me like that? He never would have spoken like that to dad, I thought.
On the day of the wedding, my friends from America gathered for breakfast at Mom’s home. The ceremony was late in the afternoon and we wanted to make sure our guests didn’t go hungry till then.
“We have plenty of time before the wedding. I’d like to see the town,” said John’s mother.
“So would I,” said one of my co-workers. “Can you guide us?”
I made a few feeble excuses but the group wouldn’t hear of it. In all about a dozen of our American guests, including John’s Aunt Flo, came along for the tour. Reluctantly, I agreed to guide them.
We started at the bakery. Flo and several of the other women purchased some sweets that they began eating right in the shop. The owner smiled and insisted on tea for everyone. So we found chairs or crates and all sat around a make-shift table for tea, pastries and light conversation where we all laughed at the Americans trying to understand Punjabi and the shop-owner practicing her few words of English. It was not until we had been seated for a few minutes that I noticed a difference in the store. The floor had been swept spotless and the counters washed. There was not a crumb anywhere and the owner, who wore a drab grey housedress when I was here last, was dressed in a crisp brightly colored sari. “Sent from New Jersey. My son lives there.” she bragged, laughing. Flo laughed with her and complemented her on the store and her sari.
From there we went a few doors down to an automobile repair shop where the owner graciously showed my guests his tools and explained in halting English and with my help, that in India most cars were diesels lasting a long time. When they broke down or needed parts, his was one of thousands of small shops across the country where repairs could be easily performed. His shop was by no means clean. But things were in order and on shelves. As I passed by him on the way out, he leaned into me, “I hope your American friends are impressed,” he whispered without smiling.
The last store on our tour was the shoe repair, the site of my confrontation several days earlier. As we stood on the street in front of the shop, I suggested to Flo that we should go back; that it was getting late and the wedding would be starting soon. Before she could respond, the shopkeeper opened his door.
“Please come in,” he beckoned, bowing slightly. “It would be my honor to show you my place of business.” I hesitated but the others were already entering the shop, introducing themselves as they passed. The shop-owner smiled politely and greeted each with a ceremonial lowering of his head. I was the last to go in and did so carefully, not sure what to expect. He ignored me.
I looked around and was surprised to see that like the other shops, there was a remarkable change to his store. The counters were wiped clean and shoes destined for repair were stacked neatly on a shelf in back. The scraps of fabric and pieces of rubber soles that had littered the floor a few days earlier were collected in a bin near the door. Even the curtains had been washed and pulled back from the windows, which were spotless, letting bright sunlight fall into the room.
“What a charming store,” said Flo. “I just love the smell of a shoe repair store, don’t you?” she purred, turning to me. “I so wish we still had stores like these, back home.” I nodded.
We spent a few more minutes in the shop and then my guests began filing out. I made sure I was last. Before I left I turned to the shopkeeper. He looked back at me, resolute, the gracious smile he had shown my guests was gone.
“What’s wrong with you,” he said. “Don’t you understand? Have you forgotten our way? Don’t you remember, she’s our daughter too, you know.”
I couldn’t hold his gaze. I fought to find a reply, to say I was sorry. I couldn’t. I looked to the side, then, head bent, slowly went towards the door. I reached for the handle and turned back to him, before leaving. He stood proudly in the middle of the floor, arms folded across his chest.
“Thank you, my brother,” I said. He nodded, tilting his head slightly to the side. A hint of a smile passed across his face.
about 2,300 words)