In the white light of the environment-friendly fluorescent lamp, the Cigarettewalla’s nearly bald head gleams invitingly while the silver and maroon colours of his little kingdom allay my fears concerning the much publicised–and little heeded–effects of smoking. Had his wares not been displayed so conspicuously, I would have easily mistaken him for an insurance salesman.
My Cigarettewalla has been in business for so many years now that he cannot remember when he started. He had dropped out of school to provide for his family and things were never the same. People tell me he is pushing 60 though I could swear he looks older. A cheerful person who does not mind teaching me the Kannada numerals, the Cigarettewalla doesn’t hold many grudges in life. He is one of the few people I know who have the knack of sounding educated without being literate. One fine afternoon, I was digging into a less than decent meal at the aforementioned Kolkata U.P. when I was accosted by him.
“Should I buy Plasma TV or LCD TV? 70-inch is big enough, no?” he asked.
I like to have my meals in silence and solitude, partly the reason why I chose to eat at a rundown diner where dal often competes with water for consistency. But when a 70-inch TV is being discussed with such earnestness, one is bound to take notice. So I stopped eating, looked at him politely, and conveyed my ineptitude in the matter through a handful of words.
“Pata nahin (I don’t know) Uncle, I have never seen anything on either of them. I grew up watching Cartoon Network on an old-fashioned TV. You know, the 21-inch kind. Even our new TV is old fashioned,” I smiled a little at my own cleverness. But Uncle was not amused.
“But you are educated and a student. You must know something about these things. You have to help me. I am going out today to buy a new TV and I want no expense spared.”
“If you have the money, Uncle, I am sure the salesman will do his best to get you to buy the costliest one. Don’t get fooled though. Make sure the prices don’t vary across stores. Get the best deal possible, whatever kind you decide to buy. Why would you want to buy a 70-inch TV anyway?”
“I want it for one of the walls in my house. One whole wall for the TV! Wife will like it. Besides, what am I going to do with all this money? I have no kids and it is not going to stay with me after I die. Spend it while you can, I say.”
It was quite obvious that he was very excited and nothing that I could say would dissuade him from splurging on the electronic monstrosity.
“You don’t have kids?”
“No. It’s just me and my wife. I have been thinking about selling the shop, you know, and then living on the money that I have saved. But you must help me. Plasma or LCD? Which one is better?”
Ever since I have started taking my meals in the campus Mess, my visits to the Cigarettewalla have dwindled to a bare minimum–another shack closer to the hostel provided for my needs. I had conveniently concluded that he wouldn’t mind and that all would be forgiven and forgotten. But when Gyaan, the chubby proprietor at Kolkata U.P., told me one day that he had not shown up for work for nearly a month, I thought it wise to enquire about this mysterious absence.
The Cigarettewalla is smoking a Kings and looks a tad upset. His forehead is lined with some new creases. Or maybe I am just imagining things.
I walk up to the counter, smiling, and place my usual order. He smiles briefly at me and then hands me the cigarettes. There is a marked tension in his movements–he falters while making a paan for another customer. His half-smoked and completely forgotten cigarette is scarring the bright shiny counter. The bananas are too ripe and have begun to give off a stench. I fumble around for words.
“I haven’t seen you in a month, Uncle. What’s wrong?”
“It’s the wife. She has been sick again. Her leg has swelled up and doctors can’t seem to figure out what’s wrong. They say it is some sort of bacterial infection.”
“Swollen legs? Is she in a hospital?”
“Obviously. She is being treated at St. John’s. She even had an operation where they removed a chunk of her leg the size of a melon.”
“So she must be better now; an operation usually solves all problems.”
“Nothing like that. The swelling is still there. Those idiots don’t seem to know what they’re doing. All they do is ask me to buy injections everyday. Honestly, I am quite tired of it. The money…well, I don’t care about the money. But she is not getting well either and the expenses are only mounting. One lakh rupees gone. Just like that. Everyday I have to take the bus to Madivala. The shop has been closed for a month now. There is nobody to watch it for me. No kids. You tell me, where am I going to find all this money?”
“I am sure she will be alright soon. These things take time. The people treating her are not fools.”
“I am not so sure anymore. This is the second time this is happening. She had a swelling earlier. They let her go then saying she was fine. And now this. Those injections are killing me. What is a poor uneducated man like me to make of all this? I have to do what they tell me. When I ask them what’s wrong, they just assume I won’t understand. I am not stupid. Only yesterday, there was this young doctor…”
He drones on about a poor man’s woes in a rich man’s world. About bacterial infection and over-priced injections. Perhaps, he just needs a shoulder to cry on. After several minutes of being a Good Samaritan, I begin shuffling my feet and make a move to leave. But he starts talking again and I have to stop. I am feeling a little uncomfortable. I have just come to buy milk, after all, and the tragedy in his story is starting to get to me. I have to watch that movie. It’s getting late. What was its name now?
[i] A preparation of crushed areca nut (also called betel nut), tobacco, catechu, paraffin, slaked lime and sweet or savory flavourings.
[ii] A psychoactive preparation of betel leaf combined with areca nut and/or cured tobacco.