Autumn 2008
Dark Haunts 
by Abha Iyengar
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The shop smelt of dead rats. I bought some Mysore sandal soap from the fat boy behind the counter and peered at the label for the price. The stench was getting to me.

"How much is it?" I finally asked, giving up on my attempts to read anything without my spectacles in the small, smelly, ill-lit shop. I tried not wrinkle up my nose in disgust or scurry out like a half-dead rodent. "Your shop smells of something awful."

"Thirty-five rupees… "the fat boy said. "Chotu," he told the small dark thin-legged assistant  in a vest and shorts, "pack Madam's things." 

What things? I was just buying a bar of soap. The other items on my list would be bought from another shop.

The fat boy wiped sweat from his brow. "We have termites, Madam. We are wiping the place with phenyl to get rid of them, that's why the smell." 

I looked at the biscuits, chocolates and other foodstuffs the shop was brimming with. I would definitely buy the other items on my list from another shop. Grabbing the shiny blue polythene bag containing my soap, I hurried out. "Why did I even buy the soap?" I wondered, feeling sick in the stomach. I should have walked out at once.

The bright sunshine hit me hard on the face, but I welcomed it like a sunflower after the dark confines of the shop. 

The next shop I entered was darker and narrower than the first, but it did not smell. There was so much of everything on display it seemed as if the shop- keeper had forgotten a customer needed some space to move around.
I waited while he ferreted out the items on my list. But I soon started to feel clautrophobic, and when I started gagging I rushed out of the shop, leaving the shopkeeper staring in wonder.

Outside on the hot pavement I put my head between my shoulders. I had still not learnt my lesson not to get caught in dark cramped places.... 

I must have been just  twelve when I discovered the bookstore, hidden away in a corner of the neighborhood not visible to all and sundry who tramped up and down the main market place. It was ill-lit and very small but had stacks on stacks of old books, newspapers, magazines and comics to buy cheap or rent even cheaper. I still do not know what attracted me to the place. 

I loved reading books, but there were other bookstores, like Tekson's in South Extension or Galgotia's at Connaught Place, which were bigger, brighter, and cleaner where you could pick up a book by the latest author, its cover new and colorful, inviting you to caress the dark print and smooth pages. 

There I was, though, forsaking the bright lights and other modern amenities of those shops for the pleasure of riffling through volumes of old, long-forgotten authors and comics that were yellow and dog-eared. I found black-and-white magazines on rough paper that told women 'How to Cook the Choicest Dishes to Please Your Man,' or How to 'Remove Ink-stains from Your Child's School Shirt' or 'Home Remedies for Tooth-ache'. There was nothing about 'How to Manage Your Separate Bank Account', or 'How to Keep Him Happy in Bed', as in today's glossies. 

This was a strange land that held the secret attractions that new pleasures do--trying something different. It was innocent enough, because I was not doing anything my mother wouldn't approve of. I sat on a cane seat with dozens of magazines and read them as if my life depended on it. They transported me into an alien world, my own make-believe world, a world very different from the one I knew. I was like a fly drowning in sweet sherbet, and loving every moment.

The old man who tended the bookstore seemed to like having me there. No one else frequented his shop. Over time, we struck up a quiet friendship. He would point out the books that I might like, and I would look at them and pick out the ones I thought suited my fancy.

"Doesn't your mother worry where you are?" he asked one day.

"No, she doesn't," I said , too engrossed in the goings on in the particular novel I was to pay much attention, sitting in one corner of the shop while he sat opposite cross-legged, his dhoti tucked under his spindly brown legs. He was a thin, bespectacled man with very careful, deliberate movements. It was a slowness perhaps brought about by age, but I was too young to think about that. Though I did not realized it at the time, his presence gave me a sense of security, of someone caring. 

When lunch time came I ignored the rumbles in my stomach. There was no one at home waiting for me with a hot meal, so I continued leafing through the magazines and wondered whether I should go to a nearby kachori wala to buy something. 

"Kuch khaogi, beti?" "Will you eat something, daughter?" the shopkeeper asked in his soft, quavering voice. It was almost a whisper. It suited him. His thin body seemed too dried out and airless to manage anything more. I almost said no, then decided I was too hungry to ignore his offer. So I shared his tiffin of roti, dal, and sabji, cooked lightly in some oil with hardly any spices. In all the years since I have not tasted anything as satisfying. I did not even feel guilty that he would eat less that day, maybe go hungry till he reached home. He would probably tell his wife about me, how, though I came from a family quite well-off, I seemed to lack nourishment. 

The next day he brought extra food in a larger tiffin, and though I died of shame I did eat, at his insistence. I was still a young girl and had never tasted this kind of food before, cooked for me by someone with patience and care. My mom often rushed about in the morning, yelling instructions to the maid to attend to 'baby' and then slipped a couple of hundreds into my hand. My dad, still tying his tie, followed her, giving me a quick peck on the cheek on his way out. He refrained from giving me anything himself, not wanting to spoil his one and only progeny. He knew, of course, that mom, guilty about loving her work more than her child, tried to compensate with gifts and money. 

I was an accident, she told people. "You know," she would say  in a con- fidential tone, "I never wanted children. But Ravi...." And then she would look coyly at my dad, a look that did not sit well on her usually serious face, and she would giggle sheepishly (how I hated it). "...Ravi made it happen." It was almost as if she had not been part of the scenario on conception. Her husband had made it happen, not her. 

Yet, I did not feel unwanted. They did love me, as all parents love their children. But I don't think either ever thought of me as an individual human being requiring individual attention. I was something that had occurred on the periphery of their lives. They accepted it and moved on. I was their only child, but that fact did not make me a particularly wanted one. 

So, the food I ate in that small dusty shop tied a subtle knot of friendship between an old shopkeeper and a young girl dying of neglect. 

But summer holidays were almost over.  Soon I would be returning to my routine of classes, homework and then tuitions. There would be little time for loitering and visiting 'Babaji's Bookstore', as I had learnt my favourite haunt was called. A strange kind of sadness began to settle on me. I wanted to continue going there. There were so many books I had still not read, though I had gotten through Daphne du Maurier, Guy de Maupassant, Pearl S. Buck as well as Premchand and Mulk Raj. I had developed what I later learned to call an eclectic taste. 

 Moreover, I had learnt to gorge on that homemade food without guilt pangs. In fact, Babuji's tiffin always contained everything in extra helpings. This was to maintain appearances so that it did not seem there was separate tiffin being sent for me. Often there would be a sweet dish like sooji-ka-halwa or Chawal-ki-kheer to top it off. I never met Babuji's wife, or Ammaji, as I called her now. But I imagined her face full of sweetness, however creased and tired the years of toil may have rendered it. It was not that my own mother worked less. She labored hard to provide me with the comforts of life. When I grew older I realized how important it was for women of her gen- eration to work outside the home--she was making a statement--but at that time I was too young to appreciate it. 

It was the last day I would be spending in Babuji's bookstore. As I flipped through the magazine pages, a lump formed in my throat. I did not know how to tell Babuji how I felt. I was too young to make any kind of statement  without appearing stupidly emotional in my own eyes. Ammaji had packed my favourite food that day. 

We said our goodbyes in the usual manner. He knew that school was re- opening, that the hot summer holidays were over. I hung my head as I said goodbye. I did not wish to see the sadness in his own eyes.

Such were the thoughts that crossed my mind as I sat on that pavement many years later, hyperventilating. What I had just experienced was nothing like  what had taken place in that small book shop many years earlier. But it was my penchant for getting stuck in dark corners and claustrophobic haunts that had triggered the memory of those pleasanter times in Babuji's shop. And the memory made me forget today's ordeal and recall instead the warm pleasures of those more innocent days.

(Abha Iyengar is an internationally published writer and poet. She has recently produced a poem film. She believes that the pursuit of our selves is not selfish. We must grasp our freedoms. Website: www.abhaiyengar.com)