And here she was again! How he hated this woman… creating a fuss over a few rupees, yelling and shouting even. Whenever he saw her from the distance, Raju knew a lot of time would be wasted. No matter how low a price he quoted, she would haggle as if he had been planning all his life to deprive her of all her property! He wondered if she had any. She was an ordinary woman. Ordinary in every sense of the word. There was nothing special about her. Not in the way she dressed and definitely not in her choice of footwear. Well, she didn’t look like one having a lot of fortune. But whatever little it was, she made sure she held onto the last penny like a leech. The problem with this part of Haryana is you could never tell how much a person is worth by the way they looked. Raju had been in the city for enough number of years to know that. Someone looking totally unsophisticated could be a millionaire (ahh… the precious land money). And someone looking like they just came out of shopping inside a big mall with all their pretentious clothes etc. could be near-broke. Who could tell?
There was footwear to tell the story. At least a little bit of it. Of course, the richest of the rich would not come to him. Wouldn’t they simply throw away the shoes? Not only when those are damaged, but like every day – just like that? Why would they want to wear the same shoes twice? He wondered. Out of the people who did come to him, some were poor, they had no choice but to squeeze in every single last breath they could manage for their footwear. This was the type he understood. He was one of them. Others were from the middle class – lower, upper and the layer in-between. These people owned multiple pairs and tried their best to keep them all in order – just in case they decide to wear that outfit that goes best only with that pair. He chuckled.
“Bhaiyya, have a look at this one, the heel is broken,” she said.
He pretended to be busy with the shoe he was mending so as to prolong avoiding looking at her as much as possible.
“Arre, have a look!” She was already impatient.
He had to look. He took the pair from her, avoiding eye contact, turned the broken one upside down, studying it. He weighed in his mind how much more he should quote so as to withstand her brutal bargaining. Finally he said,” It is completely damaged. I’ll have to replace it on both shoes to make them even.
It will cost Rs 100.”
“What???” she shrieked.
He had expected the shriek it but the pitch was higher than expected. He wanted to shrug and throw the shoes away but he really needed money. Well, when does he not?
“The other one on the corner charges Rs 60!”
“Well then, give these to them,” he was back to working on the shoe in his hand.
“Hmpf! Bhaiyya, you are getting pricier and pricier every day! Just because you sit outside these big towers you think…” Raju had tuned himself out as he knew she would take a while.
When he thought she was almost finished, he said, “ You know how everything is getting costlier, I cannot do this in less than 90 rupees,” and went back to his work.
“80! And no less than that,” he said.
“What are you talking about? 80 is too much!”
He chose not to reply and kept doing his work.
“Arre, do something less na!” she was persistent.
“Madam, I can’t go beyond this.”
“Okay, last price, meet me halfway. 70?”
He sighed. And smiled inwardly. He was ready to go on a bit more but she had come to the price he had thought of.
“Alright, if you insist,” he said making a sad, long face.
The woman looked triumphant. “Stupid woman!” he thought. He just wanted her to go away now.
“Okay! Take ‘em back tomorrow evening,” he told her.
“No! I need these in the morning!”
“Alright. Come around 12 then,” he said. He didn’t want another round.
To his surprise, she didn’t quibble more on time. Sometimes God is just merciful.
Just when he was about to get up for his loo break after that repulsive woman was gone, he saw that white big car pull up near his make-shift stall. He knew this car very well. He had often wondered what it would be like to be in this car… to own this car… and…
And then she alighted. She always made him wonder. So many things. Like how can one have a porcelain complexion like hers? Doesn’t she ever go out in the sun? Does Gurgaon’s scorching heat have any effect on her whatsoever? And how can somebody speak so softly and sweetly? Does she speak the same way in her real life too? What would be her real life like? How would a day in this petite delicate porcelain doll’s life look like? And why does she need to get her shoes mended?
“Bhaiyaa ji…,” that delicate voice, made even sweeter by that added “ji” broke his spell.
“How are you, bhaiyya ji?” she asked smilingly. Her words were so delicate and wispy that those could get broken if they fell on earth, he felt. No, this cannot be her real voice, he decided. This cannot be anyone’s real way of speaking.
Why would she add that “ji”? And why on earth is she interested in knowing how he was. He wasn’t dumb enough to imagine she actually was interested in his well being. It was just a gesture. A sweet one. Just like everything else pertaining to her.
And he didn’t know how to respond. So he said nothing. He felt stupid but didn’t know what to do about it.
“Here… these soles have come off, can you please fix these?” she handed her the shoes.
He looked at the shoes and nodded his head.
“Thank you. When would these be ready?”
“Tomorrow evening,” he said without eye contact again.
“Alright… and yes, how much?”
He thought about it for a moment and said,” Rs 70”.
She smiled and reached into her expensive looking hand bag. She dug out Rs 100 bill out of another fancy looking wallet that was inside the bag and handed that to him.
He wasn’t surprised as she would normally give him money in advance, without needing to do so. But what really left a deep sting was her, “Keep the change, bhaiyya ji.” He didn’t exactly know why. There was something in her eyes that did it. He could see smile in her eyes… and then pity behind it and then even worse – there was a smugness that said,” I am so much better than you!”
He couldn’t say whether she did that intentionally or even knew about those layers behind the smile but it stung just the same.
The porcelain doll got into her car and left.
He kept standing there for a while, staring in the direction where her car had sped off, Rs 100 bill in his hand. Raju had seen and known both these women for years now but today he could see something clearly. However much he hated that other plain woman, he liked her in a way. That woman had never made him feel inadequate. She had never made him feel like a non-man… as he was feeling now.
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