Tourist Season

By Jaina Sanga

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From Tourist Season:

The tourist woman stepped this way and that, scanning the shelves slowly, without purpose or urgency. Whatever had she come to buy? She had glanced in Ramchander’s direction when he turned on the light. He hoped she had not come for Stayfree or Femcare, which he kept in a cardboard box at the back. He had managed to overcome his shyness when the boarding school girls asked for these items——but a grown woman? “Out of stock,” he would say now if she asked.

The tourist woman spotted something on the lowest shelf and he watched as she bent at the knees, keeping her back straight, her movements slow and poised. Her back was to him so he couldn’t see what had caught her attention. Several moments passed before she turned to him, and asked, “How much for this?”

Ramchander stared at the marble model of the Taj Mahal she was holding with both hands. How had she found that? His father had acquired the model when Ramchander was a boy; he didn’t know from whom or where, but he remembered playing with it. It had been years since he’d seen it, and had forgotten it was there, half hidden by odds and ends and a big coil of rope. Just the day before he had cut a yard length of rope, but had paid no attention to the other things. He had knotted the rope on a stick to fashion a whip for the monkeys, and then marched upstairs to the narrow attic door opening onto the roof. There were almost a dozen monkeys, adults and youngsters with reddish-pink faces and rumps of the same colour. He thrashed the whip in the air, managed some sharp cracks, and shouted threats at them till his voice grew hoarse. The monkeys stopped, stared at him for several moments, and then, amazingly, grew quiet; a small band slunk away into the surrounding trees and the ones remaining scampered around on tip-toe, their heads drooping, their tails limp, the mischief gone from their eyes. Now Ramchander glanced at the ceiling. They were at it again—back to their usual rowdiness, whooping and jumping from the trees onto the roof in a mad game. The sloping tiled roof would collapse one of these days – some of the tiles were coming loose already.

The woman seemed oblivious to the commotion overhead. She turned the Taj around in her hands, keeping it flat, and inspected its sides. The monument sat on a square pedestal and the whole structure was etched with a filigree design. One of the four minarets appeared loose and she touched it lightly, trying to worry it back to symmetry. In the fluorescent light of the shop, the dome and the tips of the minarets appeared bluish-white. Holding it at eye level, she peered inside the model, and from where he stood he got the impression that the filigree pattern was imprinted upon her face.

“Taj Mahal?” he said, stupidly.

“This is an unusual piece,” the woman said. “Such intricate carving…but what’s this, a light bulb inside the dome?” She held up the coil of thread-like wire trailing from beneath the dome.

He couldn’t tell whether she was annoyed with the bulb or pleased. All he could do was stare at her fingers, which were thin and long, the fingernails shaped and painted carefully. He was reminded of his late mother, not because her fingers had been anything like this woman’s——his mother’s had been toughened and blunted with work——but because he knew this was the kind of woman his mother would have wished him to marry.

“It’s genuine marble,” he said. “The designs turn red and purple to match the changing angles of the sun, and the dome sparkles when the bulb is on.” He couldn’t believe this forgotten toy had caught the tourist woman’s fancy. Stepping closer, he saw the model was discoloured, and there was an irregular crack starting at the base and running halfway up the dome. “I don’t know if the bulb works.” He glanced toward the glass case at the back, which was empty save for some files he’d tossed in because he couldn’t be bothered with the filing cabinet. If only he’d kept the Taj in the glass case. He could have used the glass case to display other things as well, for he felt sure there must be other such objects scattered around the shop.

“Where did you get this Taj?” she said. “Is it for sale?”

“Sale?” He tried to recall a scene when his father had brought the Taj home and given it to him, but nothing came to mind. “No,” he said. “It’s nothing really. It’s just an old thing…this is a provision store, you see,” he gestured with both hands at the shelves. “That Taj is just … well, what would you like to buy, Madam, talcum powder? Hair combs? I keep good quality items. Do you want sanitary napkins?” He turned his face in embarrassment. He couldn’t believe he’d said that. “Sorry, Madam,” he whispered to the wall. He never spoke to his customers like this—she must think he was a fool, or worse still, that he was trying to get fresh with her.

“No,” he heard her say. “I don’t need talcum powder or anything else.” He thought he detected irritation in her voice.

When he turned, he saw her squinting intently at the model. He watched her bend down, return it to the shelf. Her dupatta slipped off one shoulder, the gossamer fabric cascading to the crook of her elbow, and she pushed it back with her hand in a light easy gesture. When she stood he saw the disappointment in her eyes, which were small and round and reminded him of the sweets he used to eat as a boy. Her shoulder-length hair was held back with two golden clips, and he liked the few streaks of lighter brown which he knew were created with special dye and which must be the latest style. Her face was clear and full, the cheeks dimpled around the mouth. His gaze drifted to her breasts and the tease of her hips. He looked away quickly, angry with himself for taking such liberties.

As she made for the door he caught a whiff of her floral perfume and for a moment he stood still, overcome with the feeling of new possibilities: he could trade his small life, living in the mundane simplicity of the hill station, for something meaningful and exciting and grand.

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