In the two months under Chironjeet`s tutelage I learnt the basics of computers. Now, I can tell between Dell and HP, iPad and Mcbook. I know there are at least five versions of Windows running in the market, but most of the users don’t buy original Windows, preferring the free pirated versions.
I have learnt how to search internet and how to write an email. Chironjeet helped me to create an email id for myself. This knowledge had nothing to do with selling laptops, but it did help me to explore the hitherto unknown world that has endless possibilities, about which I had a sketchy knowledge so far. One can visit so many websites where they teach everything, from ‘how to cook lamb curry’ to ‘how to write correct English’. There are sites which offer free tutorial, give you daily exercises to improve your vocabulary.
All day, when I am not selling the gadgets, I surf the internet on my demo set. Chironjeet warned me not to stray away to the pornographic sites, which he said were blocked anyway. But he cautioned me to avoid visiting Facebook and YouTube; the two sites, which are very addictive, and where half of the younger generation remained logged in for all their waking hours. There were instances, when people got the pink slip for streaming those sites while on duty. Though living in the virtual world for too much of time has its own demerits, he said, neither could one deny their usefulness in modern life. They should be used judiciously for ‘networking’, a new word that I learnt from him, and it seemed to be the buzzword to achieve success in life.
I bought a smart phone with my first salary. It was during a narrow window, a week actually, when the company offered free internet connection valid for three months on purchase of that particular handset. I, being the employee of Cavenders, got 30 per cent rebate on the price. It took me a couple of days to understand its functions. My older phone was one of the cheapest models, which I have been using for years without any apparent problem. But this one, with so many functions, most of them being based on internet, was a revelation. I came to know one can manage everything out of this tiny handset, including bank accounts, paying electricity bills and even buy movie tickets.
I opened a Facebook account also though at present I didn`t have many friends. For my auto driver gang, internet was still a mystery and most of them weren’t very conversant with it. I recognised, this was how I was outgrowing the circle of my former friends, and after sometime, the chasm will become too big to bridge. Probably, they wouldn’t consider me one of them, because, then, I wouldn`t think or talk like them.
At the end of two months, all four of us, the new recruits, received instructions from HRD manager for rotation posting. Having had a good idea where each of us would come back later, Cavenders wanted all of us to have a broad idea about the whole store and how it works. The letters were handed over to us when we entered the store with one instruction that all of us must create an email id so that now onwards all the new directives could be sent by email.
According to the calendar, that came with the letter, I was posted to grocery section from the following morning. The grocery was a huge section comprising of at least ten pairs of display cabinets, choc a bloc with all kinds of food articles. It had grains, nuts, pulses and powders of everything under the sun, displayed in eye catching wrappers. Then there were soaps, bars, detergent powders in heaps. Oils in bottles, tins and polythene packs occupied one full rack. At the farthest corner was the section that dealt with loose grains, rice, nuts and a variety of pulses. Two boys, Raju and Dipak, manned that counter which had an electronic weighing machine with a sideways opening that ejects a piece of paper, bar-coded with the price and weight of the substance bought, on command of a tap. The salesman, almost like a robot, sealed the upper end of the carton by running it though a device and stuck the paper on the wrapper.
Pranab Sarkar had given me two sets of uniforms and a badge with my first name etched on it. So where ever I went, they knew my name. It was an advantage; you didn’t have to introduce yourself.
Next day, when I approached the grain boys, one of them asked, “Are you the new lad?”
“Yes.” I nodded.
“Not much to learn here, man!” He said disappointedly. “Rice, pulses, grains that’s all. Customers generally prefer bags, but for some of them, mainly the fussy ones, you need to weigh the loose stuff. Worry not, it won`t take much time to learn,” he said.
I went around to familiarise myself with the location of the different grains and pulses. Raju, said, “I am going down for a smoke. Will you be able to manage awhile?”
“Yes.” I said, checking out the automated weighing machine, for it was the only new thing to learn.”
“Dipak is around; call him if you need any help.”
Seated on a high stool next to the weighing machine, I was waiting for my first customer, when a middle aged woman stopped in front of me with a trolley.
“Yes Madam, may I help you?” I asked sincerely.
She looked around for a moment, probably for some familiar face, but being not able to find him she looked a bit disappointed.
“Are you new here, in this counter?” She asked.
“Where is the other boy?” She fumbled to recall the name of the boy whom she was looking for. Dipak was discussing with a customer about merits and demerits of loose grains.
“Are you looking for Dipak, Madam?” I asked.
“No.” She said. “The other one with curly hair.”
I understood, she was referring to Raju, who had gone outside for a smoke because I offered the luxury of an extra hand to them.
“You can tell me. Raju has gone somewhere,” I said.
“A ten-kg bag of basmati rice, two kilos of masur daal, a kilo of moong daal and....” She took out a small chit from her bag and put on her reading glass, which was dangling on her chest tied on a string. She squinted hard to read what was written on it, but failed.
“Such bad handwriting!” She cursed the person who made the list and handed me over the paper.
“See, if can you read the rest?” she said petulantly.
I took the chit from her. It was scribbled by somebody in haste. My class teacher would have labelled the handwriting as ‘spider crawling across the page’ or ‘a raven taking bath in her ink’. But I decoded the cryptic words after a little effort: she wrote semolina and beaten rice; the proper English names of the common desi food items, suji and chewra. The person who made the list must have had a rich English vocabulary but she was simply lazy. Recently I have started learning the English names of the various eatables so that when my customers ask for them, I don`t stare at them like a half-wit. I have noted many customers, especially who come nattily dressed and have smooth clear skin, prefer to speak in English. And these were the people who asked for rare spices and food stuffs like Italian cheese, English sauce, American bacon by their alien names, which Kevenders imported.
I took out one bag each of semolina and beaten rice and put them in her trolley on the top of the rest of the items.
“Oh God!” She exclaimed.
“What happened Madam?” I asked.
“Look at the bags you have put. Chewra and suji! Are those written there at the bottom?”
“Yes Madam.” I said. “Those are the items you couldn’t read.”
“Chewra and suji are already there at home! Why did she write them?” She asked.
I was a bit confused because I didn’t know who made the list in first place. So I asked her, “Madam, who made the list?”
“My daughter, Poree. Since last week she has started dieting. She got a funny diet chart downloaded from the internet and is now trying to follow it. The poor girl doesn’t know I have all those stuff at home already.”
“Is she overweight?” I asked.
“No. She is okay, maybe slightly towards fuller side. But you know how the girls are nowadays? They are all crazy about their figure. Size zero and things like that! I hate those skinny anorexic girls!” She said.
I tried to imagine how the daughter actually looked like. The mother was pretty, though with age she had lost her youthfulness and sharp outlines. Her complexion was still flawless and her big brown eyes had a calming effect on the beholder. If she had passed her genes to her daughter, and there was no nullifying effect of her husband, whom I hadn’t seen, I could easily visualize how she would look like. I was curious, why she was called Poree, an unusual name. The image of a fairy that I held in my head since childhood, was a pretty little nymphet with cherubic face and wings. I wondered if it was true minus the wings!
Regarding the diet chart I thought this was just normal. I know girls are never happy with their own figure; whenever I ate lunch with Sanchita and Rehana, I noted them to eat very small portions, what my mother would call ‘bird`s feed’. Because we have become friends now, and small talks are allowed between friends, one day I asked them why they ate so less. They said nothing scared them more than gaining weight. It was the most dreaded nightmare of a girl to suddenly wake up in the morning and find herself overweight. So, given the obsession, so universal among them, I didn`t think her daughter was particularly crazy.
“It`s good to follow diet charts. It shows your daughter is serious about her health.” I said just for the sake of it. It was important to keep on talking with the customers; one of the marketing managers told us during one of the teaching sessions we attend once a month.
She laughed. I knew my small talk horribly missed my target.
“You haven’t met my daughter! She is just the opposite.” The woman said. “She hardly cares about herself. This diet chart is just a whim which, I am sure she was going to drop in a couple of weeks.”
I chuckled and put all the items into her trolley. Raju returned and hailed the woman.
“How are you Mashima? I was wondering why you haven’t come yet? You always come on the first week of the month.” He said.
“I was looking for you! But anyway, the new lad was helpful.” She pointed at me.
“He is Biplab. A new boy.” Raju introduced me. I brought my hands to my chest. “Namaskar mashima,” I said.
“Biplab will help you to take the trolley down.” Raju said, and whispered into my ears, “shove the trolley to the car park and put the goods into the boot. She is the wife of MP, Sukhendu Das Gupta.”
I eyed him in disdain. He reassured me in a whisper, “Go along. You will get a tip too!”
I pushed the trolley to the billing cubicle where Rehana stood behind a desktop with half a dozen customers standing in queue. She looked up in enquiring eyes.
“Get it billed fast. I have to go down to car park with it.” I said it all in a kind of sign language which she understood and obliged.
I reached the boiling basement car park pushing the trolley ahead. Mashima followed me. The driver at the wheel of a white Toyota Corolla blipped its head lights as if to beckon us. The boot lid opened. I stowed the bags inside and lowered the lid which closed with a clank. Mashima climbed into the back seat. For a moment, the fragrant chill of the inside of the car engulfed me. Mashima lowered the glass of her side window and waved me goodbye gently with a cute smile smeared over her graceful face. Then she passed me a hundred rupee note in most unexpected way, with her hand dangling outside, while the car began to roll out. I seized the cash for it was going to fly off. She said something but her words were drowned in the drone of AC plant. I walked back to my work station.
Raju grinned when I returned.
“Got your tip?” He asked.
“She is very generous. They are very rich; her husband Sukhendu Das Gupta is a three-time MP,” he said.
But I hated sucking up to the rich and famous, for I had an inherent spleen about those people. Their lavish lifestyle, close to fairytales, made me jealous and bitter about myself. More so, because I aspired to become one of them one day, when money would cease to be an issue for me, and with my newly acquired status, people would forget my humble origin. But I was still unsure how to achieve it, and this uncertainty vexed me, made me resentful of the rich.
“Don`t send me down next time she comes.” I said, peeved.
“You will regret the decision,” Raju said,
“Why?” I asked spitefully.
“Sometimes her daughter accompanies her.” Raju grinned from ear to ear, “She is very beautiful. She will enslave you in a second!”
For a moment I envisaged a gorgeous young woman, haughty, conceited, seated in the cool comfort of the gleaming sedan, giving me a cursory look, a look reserved for footmen or similar creatures.
“I am here not to fall in love!” I said.
“Wait, you haven’t seen her yet!” He said. “Of course, girls like her won’t give a damn to any random Ram, Shyam, Jadu or Madhu! A doctor, an engineer or an IAS, is only befitting to her – she is unlikely to look below. ”
Raju’s sucking attitude peeved me further.
“Then why the hell you are talking about her?” I said.
“Arre! What’s wrong about appreciating beauty? Haven’t you heard the famous song, ‘is it my fault that I stare at you? You are so pretty!’”
I felt cross, as if making me aware of my humble status was not enough for him, he rubbed salt into my wound reminding me that I was just a salesman. However, Raju dropped the matter, finding me least interested about the ode to the beautiful daughter of Mashima . I brooded for some time and then forgot about it.
But it didn’t take more than a few weeks for me to come face to face with the enigma called Poree. Having completed my grocery section, I was posted now at detergent section. I manned two giant cabinets, facing each other, full of all kinds of soaps, bars and detergent powders.
It was midday. With hardly any customer roaming near my cabinets, I was busy checking my email. I have had subscribed to quite a number of sites that taught English grammar, usage, idioms and phrasal verbs. Every day they sent me new exercises for free. I was trying to fill in the blanks of a work sheet, when suddenly a sweet female voice disrupted my attention.
I turned to her.
A pretty young woman was looking out for me. Dressed in a maroon round neck oversized top and blue denim pants, she looked perturbed.
“Are you Biplab?” She asked me.
“Yes.” I said.
She wore no makeup except a thin line of kohl. Her eyebrows gracefully arched over her large luminous sable eyes fringed with long dreamy eyelashes. I gave her a once-over, and for a brief split second when our eyes met, my heart galloped inexorably in anticipation of something about which I had no idea.
“I have bought some stuff, but somehow my credit card is not working. Maybe, there is some problem with the bank’s server. Could you help me?” She asked.
She had a full mouth, porcelain skin and gorgeous umber curls that framed her delicate face. It took me a few seconds to recover from the sudden sensory mayhem, for I felt all my five senses suddenly gone numb from being so close to the ravishing beauty.
Looking at my flabbergasted face she smiled like a kind angel as though she was accustomed to witness such dizzy spells whenever she met young men.
“I am Poree, Mashima`s daughter. I hope you remember her!” She said.
Instantly I recalled Raju telling me about the pretty daughter of Mashima, who, according to his opinion could bewitch any man.
“Yes, I am so sorry. I couldn’t recognise you!” I said.
“We never met before. In fact today we are meeting for the first time. You need not be sorry about it.” She said.
I was mortified by my own babble, which was completely out of context, coming out involuntarily. Then gathering my thoughts I asked, “What’s the bill like?”
“Three hundred.” She said.
I felt relieved because I was sure I had that much of cash on me. It would be shameful not to have even three hundred rupees in your pocket for a damsel in distress. I took out my purse and gave her three hundred rupee notes. She thanked me and asked for my mobile number. As I told her my number, she keyed it into her phone with quick movement of her both thumbs holding the phone on her palm.
“I am giving you a missed call. Just to be sure! If you want, you can save my number.” She said.
“Okay.” I brought out my cell phone and saved her number.
“I`ll return your money on my next visit.” She said, relieved.
“Don’t worry for that.” I assured her.
“Thanks again!” She said before walking away with a bewitching smile.
I watched a couple of customers looking at us curiously for the unusual exchange of favour, and a few shocked faces – of the gang of enamoured Romeos, green in jealousy, Raju being one of them. I knew, they would press me about the details of the conversation once Poree was out of earshot, especially Raju, because it must be him, who had redirected her to me. I could easily reconstruct the incident: Poree comes alone, buys something and when she hands over her credit card to one of us at the billing counter, to her horror she finds that the card is not working. She could pay in cash if she liked or just leave the stuff there. But she didn’t have enough cash on her and really needed the stuff she had bought. So she called up her mother for help, and she advised to take my help.
During the lunch time, at the dining hall, the boys, who witnessed the drama, caught hold of me. Seating around my chair, the boys, curious about what transpired between me and the woman, they all fancied, prodded me for details of the that brief encounter.
“Nothing much.” I said. “Her credit card wasn’t working, so I lent her some money.”
“How much?” they roared.
“Three hundred only.”
“When is she going to return it?”
“I don’t know. Maybe next time when she visits the mall.” I shrugged.
“She gave you her phone number?”
“Yes, she did.” I said.
The crowd exclaimed in chorus. “Uhh, what luck!”
“What`s so big about it?” I feigned.
“Uh uh! What is so big?” Dipak curled his lip repeating my words.
“It`s the biggest incident of the year. Wait, this isn’t an incident but a coup! The daughter of MP Das Gupta exchanged her mobile number with our Biplab!” Raju declared.
I blushed and felt blood rushing under my skin turning my ears inexorably hot. The boy’s gang was visibly upset, but they tried to take a dig at me by criticising how I lost my money for my foolishness, for all of them were sure that the money, however small it was, would never be repaid. It reminded me the proverb, ‘grapes are sour’. Indeed it was so, because not only she paid me back the money after a few days, but that was how I struck friendship with her, which would later change my life entirely.
Later, back at home, I recollected the moments again.
What was she wearing? I closed my eyes and saw her in her maroon round neck top paired with blue denim. Simple, relaxed but graceful. The shirt was oversized, almost like one that the farmers put on a scarecrow, but she carried it so well that it made her look elegant and fashionable.
But she appeared sad; a thin veil of sadness was hung over her beautiful face. I was sure not many people would be able to pick up this subtle oddness; her beauty was so hypnotizing that ordinary eyes would stop looking beyond her face. I am good at reading people`s mind. In that short encounter, I sensed something about her which was rather secret and dark. You call it clairvoyance; but despite the foresight it offers, if you ask me, this unique ability frightened me because it made me aware of her bleakness, incompleteness, her inability to rejoice even when she was happy. She seemed like an imprisoned princess, despondent, looking out the window of a forlorn castle.
I scrolled back my phone to see her cell number again. Mere inclusion of her mobile number in my phone enthralled me; I felt a kind of proximity, a feeling which is hard to explain. Now that her name had been included in the list of contacts, my phone showed her missed call at 12 noon. I opened up Whatsapp, and pressed upon her number. A photo popped up and filled up the tiny screen of my mobile. A perfect face, flawless, framed by long wavy tresses and a pair of detached eyes. I enlarged the photo with a stroke of my fingers; the face enlarged, but the outline became smudgy. I rolled my fingers on her eyes, lips and the picture quivered. ‘Oh, God!’ I told myself. ‘What is happening to me? I never felt so vulnerable ever. Have I fallen in love with her? A girl whom I have met only once. I knew almost nothing about her. But that is not preventing me.’
TO BE CONTINUED...