Thursday, 5 March 2009

Beware! Summer Enemies Cometh


It's March. In Chennai. That says a lot. Sweltering heat, beads of perspiration, odours unbecoming and even tempers flaring. Yes, tempers flaring...let's talk about that.

Considering temperatures reach 40 degrees C, it's not surprising that the auto driver who was so nice to you in winter suddenly sprouts two horns and a tail. He now wants Rs. 65 for a ride that previously cost you Rs.30. "Previously" meaning until yesterday! You realise he isn't going to let you off without a fight. A heated argument ensues with an otherwise (winter-time) friendly chap. You finally hurl the money at the musky-smelling, angry-hand-waving driver, wondering what right the summer confers on auto-drivers, to turn into ruthless monsters! And thence, you've officially made your first summer enemy!

But once the ride is over, you look forward to your vegetable purchase for the week. Chennai offers such a variety that it's almost harder to be a meat eater than a proper vegetarian here.

The vegetable seller who you now see sheilding her head with the mundhaani of her saree, gets annoyed that you have not stopped by her stall on the sidewalk for your usual supply. She used to sell juicy oranges, bright bottle green lady's fingers and plump scarlet tomatoes. But that was in the cool winter air. Now, under the baking rays of the sun, her spinach bundles look limp and the oranges look devoid of life. Compared to the ones you'd find inside the air-conditioned supermarkets, the saree-clad vendor's produce hardly looks inviting. Not to mention you'd much rather push a trolly through cooled aisles than haggle over Rs.10 in the heat, with a loud, unrelenting vege vendor.


After a quick visual scan of her produce on the sidewalk, you walk swiftly by. In a moment's contemplation you know that your choice to pass her by has angered her. She glares with what you can only presume is an an avalanche of muttered curses unto you, as you pass her stall. You have to, to get to the supermarket. Her gaze is fixed on you as her lips and teeth syncopate to produce unsettling whispers. You wish a smile could make you seem less ungrateful, but you know that nothing short of splurging your vege budget at her stall will satisfy her. You know that there has been no explicit agreement that you would patronise her stall, but somewhere in between 3 winter months of sharing moments of satisfactory haggling, Rs.1 rupee oversights and a nicity or two, you feel you owe her. "But God, what I'd give for fresh spinach and juicy oranges!", you think to yourself! So, with a poker face as your only weapon of defense, you dart past her stall. "Maybe she will think I'd forgotten to stop. Simple human error. Forgettable. Forgivable, no?", you rationalise. No usual nicities nor enthusiastic negotiations transpire on the sidewalk today - it seems irregular, off-beat, unsettling.

The moment is officially over, between you and the vendor. You're too far ahead to turn back and stop at her insipid veges. You're not near enough the supermarket to disappear into its temperate air. Suddenly you realise that an uncharacteristic coldness has come to occupy the space between you and the vege seller, as ironic as that seems in the humid Chennai air. You've officially made your second summer enemy.


Of course, by now, the last two experiences have carved a little frown between your brows. And unfortunately, the sun doesn't seem to care - he continues to generously pierce your flesh as you make your way to the supermarket in quick, long strides. As you enter the supermarket anticipating the soothing temperature, all that you can feel is a tiny breeze teasing the back of your head, at the door. Upon entering, the matter is clear - the air-conditioner is out of order, it seems. Musty smells and tight air-pockets assault you. Your anticipation of a comfortable shopping experience is crushed. But really now, it's to late to turn back.

So you choose a trolley and manouver it around to the vege and fruit aisle. Ah, but your scan for spinach and oranges proves disappointing. No spinach. No oranges. Much less that freshness you so deeply desired. But all hope is not lost, you think. Perhaps you can settle for other sprightly produce. Indeed, you come across the carrot, radish, onion, brinjal and french bean. All fresh as anticipated. All succulent. Ah, finally the pot of gold!

As you make your way to them, you plan the wonderful culinary delights that would emerge from these colourful ingredients by the time you're done with them. "Ah, not so bad afterall", you smile. But your smile quickly gives way to knitted brows again as you find yourself behind a long line at the counter, reminding you of a free lemonade counter at the fun fairs in primary school. At least 5 customers in front of you seem to hail from families of 20 people, it seems! Their carts are overflowing with veges and fruits that couldn't possibly be rung-up by the registers in time to get you home for your 4pm class. "Haven't these supermarkets heard of a counter for less than ten items?!" you wonder as you look at your minimal number of items. The wonder rapidly descends to frustration when the counter staff seem insensitive to your suggestion to open the last counter.

A kurthi collar soaked in perspiration ignites a flare in you; Somewhere in between the auto driver, vege vendor and an unventilated supermarket, you feel you're at the end of your tether. You are highly aware of the grime forming beneath the folds of your pattiala pants, which stick to the back of your knees. As you try and coax yourself into believing in the virtue that is patience, you notice the second-hand of the shop's clock, edging to that dreaded 4pm. Your line still looks hopelessly long.


Finally, as you give up hope, the idle counter suddenly opens and the quicker customers hurriedly wheel their carts to this new ray of hope! Being one of them, you find yourself behind exactly 2 customers. You are pleased. Two is better than 15. But then, the guy working the new counter seems disinterested in moving with any haste at all. You're not the only one sensing this - the customer in front of you urges him to speeden up. The staff barks back at the suggestion rendered with politeness. You suppose the humidity outside and lack of ventilation inside the supermarket are the reasons for this staff member's behaviour. What else could it be, you think, drenched in sweat yourself. Well, at least you're not the only one with summer enemies, you reckon. A small verbal face-off ensues between the customer and the counter staff, once again prolonging your journey to the register.

"The 4pm class would have started 10 minutes back", you ponder. You've given up on thinking that you'd ever make it today. You yield to the fact that at this point, it does not matter how long it takes to ring up your 9 vegetables. You relax into your state of waiting but somehow, the air is too still and you find yourself noticing irrelevant details; the band-aid on a child's nose and an mp4 player attached to the ears of a foot tapping shop assistant. The air is still and it reeks.... The air-conditioning remains only a devious trick to lure unsuspecting customers looking in from the outside.


Finally your turn comes. You're ready to do anything to get out of the place. So you enthusiastically lay out the veges from your cart, onto the counter in the hope of helping Disinterested Counter Man get you out of there! He rings up the register and tells you the amount, which is 3 times that of the sidewalk vege vendor's. After the experiences of the hour, you can't help but feel like you think you know what her curses a while back must have been about. In any case, you take your bags and triumphantly walk out of the shop. "Finally!", you think, making your way to the road side. The auto you hail even stops and a pleasant face politely asks where you'd like to go.

Just as you think the world is finally going your way, the auto driver seems to think Rs.30 is insufficient to take you to your residence hardly 3 minutes away! Only Rs. 70 will do! You want so badly to get in rather than having to bake in the sun holding shopping bags and jostling your legs from the annoying sweat-beads running down your thigh. But you restrain yourself. You see on the auto driver's face that he knows of this inconvenience only too well. You ask him to move to the shade but he turns a deaf ear to the plea. Evidently he never stops in the shade because that gives the customer a slight edge in negotiations! In the sun, the driver has the advantage of pre-quoting high rates knowing that a customer desperate for his vehicle's shade will not bother to haggle too much!

You are appalled and shocked at the auto-driver's scheme. Anger swells within you again. Of course, by now you realise that summer enemy Number 3 has arrived!


HH said...

The SARAH Curve! Haha... Brilliant! Loved this one. So funny...and yet, so true. At the end, it all boils down to acceptance. :)

Funny how negative emotions can produce such great work. ;) It's no wonder some of the most brilliant works of literature were a result of great suffering.....

Great work Shobchech! Now u gotta visit mine..... hehe ;)

Shobha Janardanan said...

Hymz ~ummwaaaH~ you know you don't have to urge me to read your fantastic posts! I visit it periodically anyway and will make my next stop there in a jiff.