Saturday, May 15, 2021

He was one of a kind

The last time I saw Dharmam would have been about fifty years ago. I don’t think we ever exchanged a single word in conversation. And yet, the memory of who he was, and his professional contribution, have remained fresh in my mind.

In the late 1960s, Dharmam worked on Prospect, one of the four estates of the Estates and Agency Company (E&A, a company with its head office in London). It was one of the most prestigious estates in the Nilgiri District, its tea among the highest priced at the auctions. Thirty years later, when I visited Prospect to show my family the beautiful home I had lived in as a child, it was in a state of utter decline. I felt bemused by the changes, but gratified to learn that people still remembered my father, Bob Savur. Hoping to find one of the old-timers still around, scouring my memory for names, I asked after Dharmam. Sadly, nobody knew where he had moved to.

In 2019, I began working with M Ravindran, a former colleague of my dad’s at Prospect, on a book about the good old days, An Elephant Kissed My Window. Memories began to surface, and prominent among them was Dharmam.

What was the reason for my vivid recall? Why did his name and persona stand out so sharply, unobscured by the many eventful years since then? I soon began to realise that Dharmam’s work was essential not just to production but also to quality of life, since, along with being in charge of maintaining the factory machinery, he was also responsible for the estate vehicles, the civil and electrical upkeep of estate properties, and the estate’s water supply. And, Dharmam was not someone who restricted himself to maintenance. He embraced his work with the joy of inventive genius, and those I interviewed spoke with respect of his creative recycling. He is still remembered for the winch system at High Forest Estate, Mudis, which sent bags of leaf using a wire rope-pulley system to the factory. At Prospect, he created a pond on a hill and laid pipes that conveyed water around the estate. When the estate hired a bulldozer from outside the Nilgiris to construct India’s first green tea factory, Dharmam, always one to optimise the use of resources, persuaded my dad that they could use it convert the meadow near the staff club into a football ground, which they did. Dharmam’s contribution extended far beyond estate functionalities: he had crafted baking trays, piggybanks, even barstools, from scrap. My brother Ravi and I had a car he had assembled from tin sheets and bicycle pedals which we could actually ride in. It had an axle connected to a real steering wheel and a loud honking horn which once belonged to a lorry.

View of the High Forest Factory from his home
photo taken by Dharmam and provided by his son Rajappa

These memories and insights filled me with determination to somehow locate Dharmam’s children and send them copies of The Elephant Kissed My Window. No one at the Prospect office knew where he was, but continuous phone follow-ups resulted in a few leads. When my disgracefully inadequate Tamil became an obstacle, a kind classmate made the calls and eventually came back with the full names of Dharmam’s sons. This gave me hope, as the names are unusual, and it was a moment of delight to find Rajappa Charles on LinkedIn: he was Chief Engineer at St Stephen’s Hospital in Delhi. It took only a few eager phone calls to the hospital to get Rajappa’s number. And to learn from him that he had left Delhi and retired to Nagercoil – and that his father lived with him.

The book was not yet in print, and I was able to check and update some facts from Dharmam who, at 89, was as sharp of mind as ever. In fact, he and Rajappa both had fond memories of the time they bought their first car, a second-hand 1956 Fiat, when Rajappa was a little boy of seven: it was my father who drove them to Coimbatore to inspect it and make sure they were getting a good deal, and drove himself back to the estate while they inaugurated their new acquisition. In the 1960s, tea estate life still followed a somewhat colonial pattern. There was afternoon tea with hot buttered scones and jam, and an apartheid-like social divide. Hearing about this incident told me something about the deep affection and regard my father and Dharmam had for each other. No wonder he was one of the people I still remembered clearly, even half a century later.

Dharmam grew up in Nagercoil, and studied at the Scott Christian High School (a college now). After his matriculation, he did a diploma in mechanical engineering and joined Pioneer Transports, the first company to start a bus service in South India. He was sent to Chennai for diesel engine training and was in the first batch of the prestigious Perkins Diesel Engine institute.

PA Charles (left) with a colleague

After a break when he suffered a debilitating attack of typhoid, Dharmam joined E&A’s High Forest, where his father PA Charles was Tea Maker, as Mechanic. There he completed an electrical supervisory course, and was promoted to Electrical Supervisor. When my father, manager of High Forest at the time, was transferred to Prospect, he made sure that Dharmam was transferred there too. Dharmam’s wife, Helen, was a much-loved teacher on the estate schools. Their last posting was at Seaforth Estate, O Valley, during which Dharmam retired and stayed on for the few years she continued working.

Connecting with Dharmam and his family was one of my greatest joys of An Elephant Kissed My Window. In December 2019, I met his son Bimal and grandson Dharun in Chennai. Bimal, who has a Masters’ in Public Health from London School of Economics, was CEO of Christian Medical Association of India. After 35 years of non-stop travel all over India and many other countries, he retired in 2020.

Sadly, I would never make it to visit Dharmam in Nagercoil, as he passed away just three weeks short of his ninety-second birthday.

RIP Charles Dharma Sundara Raj (30 April 1929 – 9 April 2021)

This tribute was written for Planters' Chronicle April 2021 issue

Wednesday, January 27, 2021

Mandai Nostalgia

Mandai 26 Jan 2021

Yesterday at Mandai was so very different from what it has been for the past five years. 
Since 2016, the first half of Republic Day at Mandai, Pune’s iconic vegetable market, has been a scene of festive crowds enjoying an art event. For the sake of continuity, I took a cautious break from isolation yesterday, and went to attend the flag hoisting.  Hanging out for a bit with Anuradhabai, my neighbour and colleague, felt good too. 

Mandai 26 Jan 2020

The world had changed after the pandemic, and naturally Mandai had too - it was a lonely morning, quite different to the crowded, bustling time we had last year with people pouring in to participate in the very exciting event that Gauri Gandhi, a professor at Flame University, started planning in late 2015. 

I'm grateful to Kunal Ray for suggesting my name to Gauri, and to Gauri for her wonderful idea and all her efforts in establishing it. Her idea of integrating with public spaces and local communities was very attractive. Mandai is a beautiful, historic building, not just a place to buy veggies but an icon of public art where art lovers and art students visit, and the Aggarwal nashta is pretty ok too! 
Each of the five events I took part in were great fun. You can read about some of them here and hereMandai was a wonderful opportunity for me because it took me out of my comfort zone and I suddenly found myself free to use absolutely any material and let it speak for itself. One of the purposes of Mandai was affordable art and I thought it would be good to use a low-cost material, so started off with roadside stones, offering them in the kind of baskets that the vegetable and fruit vendors of Mandai use.
Today's Catch Pune Biennale 2016
Some of what I have made over the years has been with things given to me by friends who did not have the heart to throw them away - like cassette collections and saris, once precious, now too old to be used.  It has been so very gratifying when people visited my stall, thronged around, and purchased. These are some of my favourite photos, surrounded by happy customers, money in my hands and glee on my face!

In 2020, when Gauri announced 'Harvest' as the theme of Art Mandai, I went a bit berserk with ideas, making collages on tiny canvas boards and turning them into magnets. There were harvests of corn and rice, of course; there were also harvests of fish (some lay dead in seas of plastic), eggs, flowers - and lice, snakes and even blessings. Unable to conceive of harvest without some kind of tribute to the Indian farmer, I did a series of 'farmer-suicide' magnets too, little expecting that anyone would buy - and was surprised when most were purchased. You can see some of them in the image below - I was sticking them on my heirloom Godrej cupboards as they got done, and this was taken a few days before the Jan 2020 show.

Mandai 2020 was also special for me in quite a few different ways! For the past four years, my business partner was my husband, Ajay, who always came along, dressed for the part, and took the wonderful transactional photos you saw above!
But in 2020, we had a family wedding in Delhi (I rushed to the airport to join them as soon as the Mandai event ended!) and I had two good friends, Ruve Narang and Dhananjay Kale come and sit with me instead, attending to customers, and keeping the collection safe!

Ruve was a member of Art Mandai in the early years, and she is the one who designed the group's lovely logo.
In 2020, I was also quite gratified to find that the Art Mandai PR team had made me an icon of the event! My photo appeared in all the media clips announcing it, you can see the Times of India clipping at the end of this post. Over the years, I found a lot of validation in seeing that I and my work were regularly featured in newspaper articles that covered Mandai. My basket of stone faces can be seen in the first article about it on this link and here are a few of the other clippings too!  

The Monet's waterlilies you can see in one of the images above are made from the old cassette boxes from my friend Candy's precious music collection, stuffed with pieces of chiffon torn out from a gorgeous sari that my friend Gita gave me as it could no longer be worn. And the inspiration came from Musée de l'Orangerie which I visited while in Paris to present a paper at a conference on Sindh Studies in ECSAS in July 2018. It's not like I knew I was going to do this, but after I saw what was emerging, I knew where it was coming from.
If you'd like one of my magnets - email me on!


Thursday, November 5, 2020

And so it turns out that I am a Panemanglor too

 One day, out of the blue, I was thrilled to find my name on the Panemanglor family tree.

Till that moment I had never really thought of myself as connected with any Panemanglor. It’s not that I didn’t know that my father’s mother was born into a Pangemanglor family. But there was a lack of connection, partly due to limited contact, and partly due to the patriarchal norm of only considering yourself as belonging to the male line – so deeply that even today, after all my work telling Sindhi stories, my byline still brands me as an Aggarwal, and I feel a stronger Savur identity than a Bijlani one.

In complete contrast, the progressive and enlightened Panemanglor family tree, being a family in which the X-chromosome has dominated for some generations, has a large percentage of members whose surnames are not Panemanglor at all.

So besides Aggarwal (me) we have Savur (my grandmother), Bijlani (my mother), Jagtiani (my sister-in-law), Sharma, Trikannad, Dhareshwar … and Kalyanpur, Gangolli, Hemmady, Masurkar, Sood, Rew, Hegde, Karkal Sirur, Datta, Koppikar, Kadle, Jones, Gurung, Raman, Putli, Maskeri, Hoskote, Pandya, Mullarpattan, Matele, Bijur, Ubhaykar, Nayampalli, Desai, Padukone, Balsekar, Bhansali, Choudhary, Booth, Groothuis, Jadgadde, Puttur, Singh, Shedde, Mudbidri, Sannadi, Betrabet, Mehta, Kowshik, Manjeshwar, Kodikal, Aghnashini, Chaugale, Karnad, Hebale, Sujir, Billington, Wagle, Kagal, Bhaskar, Pandit … and a few more I might have missed. 

Some of these are close and beloved cousins. The others, as my dear departed dad would say when trying to explain how we were related to someone we had visited on our annual holiday in Bombay or at a family wedding: 

I have no idea. But I think our grandfathers or maybe great-grandfathers probably walked out to the fields every morning together with their lotas.

I’m so very grateful to Rohit Panemanglor for preparing this family tree, and all his efforts at painstakingly tracking each one of us down! 

Panemanglor family  c1920: daughter Lilly, Sita and Ram Ramarao Panemanglor, daughter Indu, daughter Shanta and her husband Bhavanishankar Savur

It took me back to gazing at this old family photo of my grandparents with my grandmother’s birth family, wondering about each of them and their lives. I felt that pang that you feel when you know that something is lost to you forever; sad that I would never know their stories. But it made me so conscious that I can still feel, tangibly, my grandmother’s love, her gentle fragrance, the parched skin of her arms, her letters and postcards to us at boarding school and prayer chants she tried to teach us, and the stories she told us. 

I know nothing about Amma’s childhood, but have heard that her father was the first Indian manager of Grindlay’s Bank, which means she came from an upwardly-mobile, educated family. Growing up in Bombay, she spoke first-language Marathi, as fluently as her mother tongue Konkani. According to Rohit’s research, the family lived in Raghav Wadi, French Bridge, so perhaps this was the home in which she grew up. You can see a photo of Raghav Wadi on this link, where Cousin Rohit has been busy blogging some very interesting facts about his grandfather, Krishnarao N Panemanglor (KNP), who was a senior courtier at the Baroda court. KNP, a lecturer in Latin at St Xavier’s College, Bombay, was recruited to the Baroda Education Service in 1907.

In this photo you can see KNP’s eldest brother, Rama Rao Panemanglor, standing, with his wife and daughters sitting in front. The couple on the right are my grandparents, Bhavani Shankar Rao and Shanta, probably around the time they got married. The women are barefoot, but the men have their shoes on – does this mean that it was not inside their home in Raghavwadi but perhaps in a photography studio?

Over the last several years, I’ve worked with quite a few people on their family stories and family trees. It’s always been an interesting process, one of the most fascinating aspects of which has been visiting Haridwar to seek traces of visitors from the family to their priests during which many of them wrote down the family details in registers and their handwriting, addresses and signatures can still be seen after a hundred years and more. I knew that I’m never going to do this for my own family, partly because we already have trees. 

The Bijlani family tree originates with Raja Bijaldas Nagdev, who had three sons, one being recorded as having had two sons, and nine generations later, my brother and I and all our cousins came to be. 

Then there is a more elaborate Savur genealogy, in which my grandfather Bhavani Shankar Rao Savur (whom I never knew, as he died when I was one month old; seen sitting on the right in this photo) wrote that the document he had updated “traces the growth of the family from its earliest known ancestor who lived somewhere about 1700 to 1750 AD.” 

It didn’t seem like there was any further research required in either. So – a delightful surprise to find a place in the Panemanglor family tree!

Wednesday, June 10, 2020

The Awful Truth About Pocha-Pani

Lockdown, being unable to leave the house or to have anyone visit, meant that housework had to be done by the inhabitants. Three of us shared the duties and it was a great relief that it proceeded with no bickering and high standards of not just F&B but housekeeping too. In the early days I even wrote an appreciative poem which if you like you can read here.
It reminded me of an earlier phase - more than twenty years ago, and a column I wrote for Times of India, Pune:
As I write this, I can see a broom standing in a corner, gazing reproachfully at me, and I am pitting all my wits towards repulsing it. What nerve – the repulsive creature! Brooms, I grew up with the firm knowledge, had only one sensible function: to be ridden on.
And I’ve ridden a great many in my time, and even now, in my days of peace and plenty, sneak out on occasion at the dead of night, clamber onto my trusty long-handled steed, and take the long flight past the full moon. In metaphor, that is, dear reader – only in metaphor.
But this one here, standing in the corner, continuing to glower and distract me from my elevated mission, has clearly forgotten its humble station in life. The cheek! Under the influence of its sulky stare, I have no recourse but to look around and painfully acknowledge the presence of assorted cobwebs and filthy little grey curlicues in the corners, the curlicues being also known, by my vocabulary-impoverished and totally obnoxious offspring, as “yucky black-black things” with the recommended usage: “Mumm-aa, why there are so many yucky black-black things in our house? In Zara’s house there are no yucky black-black things only.”
Not only did I come back from my holiday in serious need of a rest, not only did I pay for it before I left in extravagant wads of time, energy and units of currency, but I’ve come back to find that I still have to pay more, and further do all the unpacking, cleaning up and sorting out on my own because the housemaids, foolish wenches, have unanimously departed.
Once upon a time, long, long ago, Ma Sadhana came to my house to interview me for an article for the Osho Times on women and creativity. I was up to my knees in pocha-pani then too, having been devoid of the blessed and soothing presence of any Household Help for several months and I held forth at length on what a wonderful opportunity I was having to learn how to clean the toilets, make chappatis and so on. An opportunity I had never had in the past (and, I hoped, but didn’t add, I would never have in the future) and was therefore making the most of. And this, I waxed eloquent before Sadhana, was a situation which had scope for such tremendous creativity! What I really, really enjoyed, I went on, was being creative in private! Creativity, I ended with a flourish, was not something that needed applause to be classified as creativity! (I meant it, I swear I did.) And when the article appeared, alongside a photograph of myself so glamorous that none of my numerous friends, relations or acquaintances could recognize who it was, I gloated, congratulated myself for weeks without end, and sent copies to the entire lot of them. Most, unfortunately, were grossly under-equipped to tackle Sadhana’s exquisite Hindi prose but I can tell you they were, one and all, awed and impressed by the whole affair.
Sensing that I was on to a good thing, I wrote an article about how virtuous I was and how much I loved housework, and how I just couldn’t understand why most women made such a big fuss about it. It was such a brilliant and well-written article, with such a clever and original theme, and I sent it off to a friend who happened to be editor of a popular women’s magazine at the time. I’ve never been able to understand why she indignantly sent it right back, declaring it unfit for publication.
But meanwhile, talking about pocha-pani, here I have yet another large and smelly bucket filled with the stuff and I’m looking around wondering, wondering and wondering, what on earth am I going to do with it?
Do I flush the exotic cocktail down the toilet? Because I’m not much looking forward to cleaning that indispensable commodity (commode-ditty, get it? – hah!) either. Do I throw it in the garden and risk murdering my beloved husband’s beloved plants with the fenyle and other vile ingredients it contains? Or shall I pour the delectable gravy (floating richly with strands of lustrous – luxuriant, even, if modesty will permit me – black, coconut-oil lavished hair) in the sink, and airily leave the choking which is bound to result, to be dealt with on another day?
All the long years I have employed other humans to clean my home on my behalf, what on earth they did with the pocha-pani has remained to me one of the great mysteries of life.
I go through phases of keenly scouring the Handy Hints sections of newspapers and magazine for likely answers, but it is a topic coldly neglected by one and all. I can’t imagine why.

A little history about where and when this first appeared

While crediting Times of India, Pune, for having published the above article on 30 August 1997, I need to clarify that in those days TOI did not have a full-fledged Pune edition. The article was actually published in a supplement called Pune Times, which accompanied the Times of India, Mumbai, in those days. When I moved to Pune in 1993, the good people of Pune were still making doing with the TOI’s Mumbai edition. In fact, TOI was new in Pune and the most popular paper then was Maharashtra Herald, with Indian Express selected by readers who wanted to feel more connected nationally. When my editor at TOI Mumbai, Darryl D’Monte, heard that it was the Express that was being read in my home, he gave me such a reproachful look that we promptly shifted to the TOI. Over the years, a very large population of Pune did so too and of course Darryl, in his editorial capacity was responsible for that too.
But, back in 1993, it was very flattering for me to have the managers of TOI, Pune, T. Ninan and Winston Machado, periodically phone to tell me that they were planning a TOI Pune edition and wanted me on board as editor. 
‘Phone’ reminds me of the six-digit numbers we had back then; we'd migrate from 671261 to 26851261 over the years as the exchange modernized. The number remains even today, but BSNL lines are so bad that it is seldom used.
Anyway: Ninan and Machado and whoever else was making decisions in those days had no idea that I was not the right person for this job. Ascent, which I had launched for the TOI in Bombay in 1990, was a huge success IN SPITE of rather than because of me. They may not have known this, but I certainly did, and politely declined all their seductive offers.
Eventually, Sherna Gandhy moved from Bombay and launched the Pune edition of TOI and ran it for a few years. It began as Pune Times, a supplement to the Mumbai paper. After the main newspaper began in Pune, Pune Times gradually evolved into a paid-news platform for individuals and organization seeking publicity, and I’m afraid I’d rather just say that this pocha-pani saga, one of my favourites ever, was written for Times of India, Pune.

Thursday, January 16, 2020

Village Naya (Pingala)

This is Rukshana, whose family belongs to a tribe of wandering minstrels.
Through the generations, they painted their stories and sang them aloud, showing their lovely scrolls to the audiences that gathered to look and listen as they walked from village to village, stopping to perform every now and again. As time passed, priorities changed. Television must have reduced their audiences significantly. The government of West Bengal settled them in villages, and the one we visited yesterday is Naya (Pingala), a 3-hour drive from Kolkata.
Rukshana showed us her family home, decorated with scrolls of her great-grandfather, paintings made by family members, and books and artefacts collected by her father Bahadur. She explained how they extracted colour from ordinary plants to make their paintings, and the techniques they use. 
You can see Bahadur in the photo on the right, signing an exquisite work of the Sunderbans he had painted some time ago. This seems to be different from his earlier work, many of which are done in the Kalighat style and tell droll stories (in the photo above with Rukshana, the painting in front has a man standing behind a seated woman, helping her with her make-up and fixing a hairpin). These are not particularly connected to the Patachitra tradition which traditionally documents both stories of Hindu mythology as well as striking contemporary events. (A village wall  depicts the recent Pulwama incident, there's a photo later in this post).
This was our second visit to Village Naya. We had come two years ago, visiting visited homes and heard traditional songs. This one is the story of Radha-Krishna and you can see the children - even the baby who is not yet able to stand on her own - joining in the chorus. 
One of the high points of the fascinating day was a delicious meal
prepared by Rukshana’s mother, which we enjoyed very much.
We were tourists - but also sincere students, and had decided to return for another day that combined elements of a visit to a museum of rarities, an art workshop and an anthropology field-trip. 
In 2017, it was Rukshana’s brother Rajesh who had shown us around. I asked Rukshana how come they had names which indicated that they followed different religions, and she explained that their tribe were Muslims. However, they painted Hindu stories and often performed for Hindu families. When those families expressed their discomfort that they were from another religion, they gave themselves Hindu names too. Nowadays, she explained, nobody bothered having two names, as Hindus and Muslims were just the same and she had only ever had the one name, Rukshana.

Sunday, January 5, 2020

The Case of the Aggarwal Cross

One day, the pots fell down.
I was away, in another country, so far from home that if I tried to get any further I would be on the way back. To inform me about the pots, I was sent an evocative photograph of the broken pots in a dustbin and the poetic caption: “Matki phooti”.
‘Matki phooti’ is a philosophical koan derived from a song of the 15th century mystic poet Kabir, which translates roughly to:

It’s such a good thing that my pot broke. 
Now I don’t have to fill water any more.

About the pots: I had painted a range for a charity bazaar many years – a decade or more – previously and these were the ones I’d kept for myself. If I had ever taken Marie Kondo on an inspection around my house, it would have been a long and busy inspection, 
but the pots would have been retained. Now they were gone.
Back at home, I found that the garbage collection team had left quite a few of the shards in a corner of the garden.The idea of making a collage emerged from a lovely artefact I had seen in a corner of the Sacred Heart Cathedral in the old town of Panama City, these days a trendy area with night life and boutiques and all. I never asked about the significance of the pottery shards arranged thus when I saw it, but was so charmed that, looking at my photos of the trip, decided to give it a shot. So on a day when I had the house to myself, I gathered up the broken bits and pasted them onto some tiles, stoically employing a shoe to flatten them so that they would stick nicely.
Once the Aggarwal Cross was ready, I started preparing to proudly display it in a prominent place outside the house. 
However, the precocious author of the ‘matki phooti’ response now had another penetrating observation about these goings on: “It’s a good thing nani isn’t ever going to see this!” 
Everyone turned various shades of pale. My mother, whose family had been displaced from their homeland – summarily exiled from their home province – by the events following the Partition of India in 1947 when she was a child, had always been a proud Hindu very sensitive to the slightest hint of religious conversion. What would she have felt about having such a large cross, no matter how pretty, outside our home?
In the end, my gorgeous cross was relegated to a place where nobody is ever going to see it. I myself hadn’t gone to worship at it for several months and now, looking at its bits and pieces am suffused with a sense of satisfaction. Partly for having turned from regret to creativity; partly for having produced a work of art; partly for the symbolic juxtaposition of broken bits, such as placing a worshipper right in its heart. 

Friday, November 29, 2019

Woody Allen does Mumbai

Apparently today is Woody Allen's birthday. That reminded me of a column I used to write for Sunday Mid-day, pretending to be someone else, and here's what happened when Woody Allen did Mumbai. Since I wrote it really long ago when I was someone else, I suppose it's ok to say that when I read it after all these years I thought it was quite amusing.

Woody stalks Annie in Mumbai

Annie Tharakan limped because her shoes were too tight. “Didn’t you try them on before you bought them,” her mother barked. The truth was that Annie had not felt comfortable in the shoes but she could never bring herself to say no to a salesperson. “I want to be liked,” she admitted to Sushma-madam, the nerdy Maths teacher. “Once I gave all my pocket money away to someone who said she was collecting for the Deaf and Dumb Association. She sprinted away as soon as I put the money in a tin piggy bank which she held out to me, and I’ve never seen her again at the Solar System mall.” Annie and her school-mates did spend a lot of time at the Solar System mall. They liked it because the escalators had shiny handrails and there were large signs that said SALE 50% discount on selected items, conditions apply. But also because it was air-conditioned and the toilets had a warm-air hand dryer which occasionally worked. Sushma-madam was outwardly sympathetic but she would later mock Annie in the teachers’ common room. Annie’s mother, who taught Geography, happened to be there. She told the others about certain tribes in Borneo that do not have a word for “no” in their language and consequently turn down requests by nodding their heads and saying, “I’ll get back to you.” She too appeared warm and understanding and inviting of confidences, but later hit Annie on the head with the blunt handle of her imported rubber spatula all the same. “Why did you buy them if they’re too small?” she asked Annie, unaware that she was articulating a quintessential human paradox. The day Annie bought the shoes, she had actually gone looking for bras. A nice-looking but slim sales girl with a name tag that said Cynthia came up and said “Have a nice day”. Annie was desperate but felt shy to ask for help because there was a man watching her and she naturally didn’t want him to hear what she said when she confessed her bra size to Cynthia. For some reason, Solar System had put this pimple-faced youth in charge of Nighties. Women would approach the counter but turn around quickly once they saw him. Naturally, nobody ever bought any nighties. He was quite a pleasant-looking fellow actually, as he leaned comfortably on his counter, resting his chin on his arm, and watched while Annie crept round trying to pick up bra boxes and check the size and design without him actually seeing what was written on them. Finally she gave up and wandered towards some loud sounds near the entrance. It was the finals of a song and dance competition. Annie watched with envy as Pravina who sat next to her in class swayed and bent to the sounds with simple abandon. Even Rishi, the boy whose father ran the kirana shop just outside Annie’s building was swinging beautifully. No one could imagine that the Rishi who helped at the shop on weekends and made home deliveries on his bicycle outside school hours could have reached the semi-finals of this national show with footfalls as stylish as these! Annie sighed. She felt sad and depressed. Slowly, she walked towards the food and grocery section, and inched to the chocolate counter stealthily checking from the corner of her eyes that no one was watching. Near the dog food counter, a boy and girl called Rinku and Pinky were sailing a ball at each other, skipping around, and singing a very silly song. Annie did not even have a dog. She did not know the meaning of the expression GIMROI. But she did have enough money to buy some chocolates. There was no Zippy-mate raisin-enriched fun-bar, the chocolate that gives you more raisins, more chocolate, more iron content, more energy, more calories, more everything per cubic metre than any other chocolate. Annie did try asking two sales girls where she could find some, but they were very engrossed in whispering secrets to each other and when they detached, they would only look at the other shoppers and tell them admiringly, “Good morning, madam!” and “How can I help you, sir!” with so much charm, sincerity and enthusiasm that Annie just did not feel like getting in the way and she bought Cheepy-mate instead since it was marked down to Rs. 5 from Rs. 13.50 and also 15 for the price of 3. Their lovely green-striped aprons reminded Annie of Cynthia from the Ladies’ Underwear Department and filled with a new resolve, she went back upstairs, determined to get what she had come for. Cynthia was kind and when she understood the problem, asked the pimple-faced youth (Annie saw from his name-tag that his name was Viren) if he’d mind going on his lunch break now. He argued for a while, then before he moved off gave Annie a deeply reproachful look which Annie knew would haunt her forever. Later, she stood in line at the till with the 3 bra boxes concealed safely at the bottom of basket filled with dog food and Zippy-mate and the shoes which were too tight. But when her turn came, she was horrified to discover that there was no barcode sticker on them and the till assistant had to call out loudly to the supervisor, describing the product in great detail so it was heard by not only everyone in the store but also Viren, the pimple-faced youth, who happened to be passing by at that moment and he turned around and gave Annie a triumphant sneer. Annie was sad but it was a lesson she would never forget as long as she lived and a few years later when she became sought after as a witty dinner companion she would hold long discourses on the subject and repeat often “Location,” – and here she would briefly before driving home the punch line – “Location” (she would repeat for effect) “is everything.” 
First appeared in Sunday Mid-day on 26 March 2006