Kanji’s shop is easy to spot, the name board is big and backlit, and it stands out amongst shabby establishments with dull yellow-red lighting. I shoulder my way through the late evening bazaar crowd to reach the store.
It’s getting dark and I don’t like the look of this neighborhood. Yet I set out to see ‘my uncle’ thanks to my innate sense of duty.
Inside the shop, the air is stale and heavy, and the helper is dusting the shelves. He calls out to his sethji to inform him about the visitor.
A thin mustachioed man in a vest appears from the narrow opening at the end that leads to the godown. He squints at me through the glasses and scratches his ear. There’s a bit of flour scattered over his head.
“Yes?” he enquires.
I’m from Kutch, I blurt out like an idiot.
“So! Does my shop look like a sanctuary for the Kutchis? What is it that you want?”
“I went to Chimanbhai’s place to give him an invite. He told me you are an uncle of mine and you’d like it if I dropped by.”
“He’s too kind,” Kanji says and scans me for a moment as if trying to place me on an impossibly large map of memories. Then he lowers his glasses and looks over them.
“Hiren, Praveenbhai’s son, from Charkhavara village,” I offer.
Of course, Kanji says, adjusting his glasses over his nose. He turns, walks to the other side of the counter, and asks me to be seated. “I grew up in Charkhavara. Praveen and I were in the same class at school. Your father did well for himself, didn’t he?”
“You can say that I guess,” I say to him, and look around for a spot to sit. The helper folds the open top of a sack of lentils next to me. I take it that I’m to sit on it.
“Tell me this, do men still sit at the chowk and play cards for hours?” Kanji asks, ostensibly looking at the accounts book.
Yes, I say, smiling, and keep my tote bag over the counter.
He looks over at the tote bag. I realize I don’t know if I should give him an invite or not, but now that he is looking right at it, I have no choice. I make it seem that I had placed the tote bag on the counter just so I could give an invite to him.
He looks at me and then at the names on the invite for a very brief moment. He runs his fingers over the raised pattern along the borders and smells it. Then he extends his hand to return it.
“Your father wouldn’t want me to have it,” he says, “Your elder brother, isn’t he, the groom? Saral. I remember him.”
At the end of the counter, there’s a prospectus about the community hall that was recently built in our village.
Behind him, there’s a large photo frame of our village along with our gurus, smiling.
To his right, a stack of yearly calendars – issued in our village – is pinned, the current one on the front.
Which village is the bride from? he asks.
Our own, I answer.
He raises his eyebrows.
Love marriage, I say.
“Your brother will be eaten alive,” he says.
I’m confused for a second and then I say to him that it’s not like before. People have changed, and they are more accepting of such things.
“Good for them,” he says and chuckles sardonically.
“Chimanbhai said you’re my uncle.”
“I’m your father’s first cousin.”
“But I’ve never heard of you.”
“Let’s say your brother is lucky to have been born in a different time.”
“But there have been love marriages before. The couples returned later and they were sort of accepted.”
“How about a love marriage with a woman from the other side of the village?” he says and arches his right eyebrow.
I understand what he means and can see how that would be a big issue. However, could it be so big that he hasn’t even visited in decades and his existence has been wiped off from our collective memory? I feel it’s a bit of a stretch.
And then an image comes to my mind. An image of a group of men with covered faces carrying a body wrapped in white cloth past our lane post-midnight. A friend later told me that it was an open secret that it was of a woman who had married someone on the other side.
“Is it true that Charkhavara is so developed now that it’s almost like a city?” he asks, looking straight at me now.
“There’s even talk of a mall coming up in the market!”
“Great, make it Mumbai and no one would ever regret leaving!” he says dusting flour over his shoulder.
I ask him where he stays. Right here, in the godown, he answers.
“And the wife?”
“Killed herself the year after we married.”
The fool that I am, I cackle. I’m reminded of the Hindi quote – Not only did he not drink, he broke the glass also. Kanji, probably aware of the fault in his star, lets it go.
I get up to leave, having embarrassed myself.
“You say people have changed. Do you think I will be allowed to return to the village?” he says.
I notice the tone and I tell him what he wants to hear; There has been much progress and people are more liberal.
There has been progress enough for your brother, not for me, he says, and swirls the paperweight on the desk. I see his Adam’s apple move. The sight of those men at night passes through my mind again. I bid him goodbye. He loses his sternness for the first time and asks softly:
“Can you at least let me have the invite?”