Every now and then, I am seized by the desire to have a small shop on Mall Road.
Mall Road’s eastern flank has about seven shops: the paanwaala, Gullu Dhobi, the atta chakki (flour mill), the omelette-paratha place, a couple of tailors, and so on. Presiding over the middle is the glass-fronted eating room of Hotel Meghdoot, where all Mall Road’s fringe-tailed dogs take care to position themselves. Finally, there is Raju Taxi and Tour Service, which operates from an Alto. And then the market ends.
What will my shop sell? I am not sure. But in my head it is a warm, happy place where glass jars with freshly baked biscuits sit on shelves of sweet-smelling pinewood. In the corner is a bubbling coffee pot. Maybe my friends who actually have things to sell, such as hand-knitted sweaters and brinjal pickle, will use my shop. There will be books and dogs. Probably not for sale.
My desire for this shop has grown ever more intense after the emptiness that follows on the completion of any large piece of writing.
At the end of the two or three years I spend writing a book, it is as if someone plunged an ice-cream scoop into me and took everything out. All that is left is a shell. This shell floats in a soothing sea of fantastical dreams.
There is time to both sleep and dream after a novel is done. When I am writing, I don’t sleep much. I keep waking up, feverish with a thought I can’t let go of and don’t want to lose, and have to reach for a notebook to scribble things I can’t decipher in the morning. I go for walks with people who are as yet real only to me. It is an odd and exhausting way to live, and many in the same job describe writing as agonizing pain. I have never found it to be anything but exhilarating, even if in a fractious, defeated way sometimes. I would not do it if it were otherwise.
But at the end of three years or so of all this staying awake and talking to people in my head come the deserts of vast eternity when I don’t know if I will ever write a book again. It’s the very last thing I want to do right now—and yet if I allow myself to dwell on it for a minute, the prospect of trekking through an arid, writing-bleached life brings about instant despair.
This is when it beckons: the never-never land of perpetual infancy rooted in a memory of my cousins and me selling boiled sweets to each other from borrowed pickle jars. I want a little shop from which I can observe a succession of sunsets and dooryards and sprinkled streets. Idleness acquires meaning this way. A shopkeeper isn’t just sitting there chatting; she can justifiably claim she is at work. What are literary festivals or book fairs but glorified shops where gossip is exchanged, wine drunk? Maybe some work happens too—nothing that would not get done without going to fairs and festivals.
Just around the time I finished my new novel last year, one of the two tailors on Mall Road—the junior one—threw in the towel. He gave up his shed and left. He had lost his battle with the older tailor known as Mamaji.
Mamaji is a dour man with steel-scrubber hair and black-framed spectacles. He has never been known to smile. He sits on the floor in a cascading mountain of half-cut fabric before an ancient Singer sewing machine and mainly does what is called oltrasun (alteration) whereby baggy old jeans are changed to trendy drainpipes. Mamaji’s secret, I am certain, is his ability to be absent from his shop more or less constantly because he prefers gambling at cards under a tree down the slope, where fortunes are made and lost every day. His tailoring skills have become mythical from being demonstrated so rarely. His unsmiling visage pre-empts questions about pending shirts and trousers. He is the artist who, like Johannes Vermeer, makes only 34 paintings in a lifetime of work. He is the author who writes one novel, then packs away his typewriter for the next 10 years.
My husband, who grew up a bookseller’s son, has no illusions about shops and warns me that the three conditions of a shopkeeper’s life that make it insupportable are that you have to be in the shop all day long; that you have no control over who walks in; and that you may not murder those who enter. You have to see people every single day and smile even at those you want to stick a harpoon into. You (and your wares) have to be available. This is my reclusive partner’s darkest nightmare.
But after several years of wilful misanthropy in the cause of listening to people I conjured up in my head, I think it’ll be a novelty to talk to some actual human beings. Which is why a shop sounds just the thing, and Mamaji’s way of keeping shop just the model to follow. I’ll be at work. I’ll be able to say I am busy. But I’ll open my shop when I want to and leave it to lounge on the western parapet across the road when the sunshine there looks tempting. My shop will let in every passing dog, but not every passing human. I might make an exception for Mamaji, provided he alters my trousers in return for a warm biscuit.
First Published in Live Mint: Fri, Jan 19 2018. 04 26 PM IST