In Calcutta, there is a powerful local stereotype about Bengali shopkeepers. Going against the very grain of their trade, most Bengali shopkeepers are believed to be possessive of their wares, and deeply antagonistic towards customers. When they’re not overtly aggressive towards people trying to do business with them, they’re lazy and/or condescending, which, in the long run, yields the same results: an empty shop. Such a shop is the Bengali shopkeeper’s paradise, for he can then drink his tea and read his newspaper and discuss politics in peace, without being tainted with such lowly things as money and trade.
Day before, I encountered a rather fine specimens of the kind. Here’s the story.
So yesterday, my buddy and I are walking down College Street (M. G. Road, to the lamentably uninitiated) discussing the paucity of coloured handmade paper in that heartland of stationary, when I spot a stack of bright orange on a shelf. I skip to the shop, and ask very nicely if they might have coloured handmade or art paper. Two of the five shopkeepers look up, but busy with tea, look away with marked irritation. A third shopkeeper was absorbed in catering to a customer (while another waited), and two remaining chatted amongst themselves at the cash-box. I waited for a few seconds. ‘Dada, shunchhen,’, I said again slightly louder, beaming friendly smile pasted on my face. ‘Apnader kachhe ki coloured handmade paper paoa jaaye?’ This time, three of the shopkeeps looked up, looked at each other, then looked away.
This is not, you’ll admit, conducive to an even temper, especially on a humid, sweltering, dazzling summer afternoon.
I cleared my throat. ‘Apnara ki kala, na oshobhyo?’ (Are you deaf, or merely uncivilised?) I enquired sweetly. This time, magically, all five shopkeepers found their voice? ‘What?’ said the one closest to us, advancing a step. ‘WHAT?’ growled the gossip from the cash-box, swivelling his head towards us. ‘What was that?’ ‘What did she say?’ twittered the rest of the lot. I repeated my question politely, adding that I had been led to this conclusion by the ungracious and unnecessarily boorish response my earlier questions had elicited. After a moment of silent consideration, the best-dressed ‘keeper at the cash nodded to the one closest to us and said, ‘Ber kore de’ (‘Throw them out’). At this point, we were standing on the public footpath, so I was astounded to hear that a simple shopkeeper on College Street had the power to evict a tax-paying citizen from unrestricted public property.
I expressed this amazement.
And all hell broke loose. For the next two minutes, a shouting match to match shouting matches at slum tubewells erupted, and much to my surprise, I’m not at all sorry to report I matched the shopkeepers decibel for decibel and doubtful phrase for doubtful phrase. My buddy, who possesses a deeper tenor than I do, contributed – at intervals – what in old Aryan battlefields would gloriously have been termed a ‘shingonaad’ (the roar of a battling lion). Three minutes later, exhausted and deeply satisfied, we left a cowering shopkeeper bristling with futile rage at the step of his shop, and sauntered off, zen smiles on our faces.