Three Months Later
'Eight thousand three, four and five hundred,' I said as I emptied the cashier's box. 'This is our profit for the first three months after paying rent. Not bad, not bad at all.'
I was super-pleased. Our shop had opened at an opportune< time. The summer vacations had started and India had won the one-day series with South Africa. Kids with lots of time and patriotism flocked to Team India Cricket Shop the day they received their pocket money.
Some came even without money, if only to meet Ish and ge tips on cricket. I didn't mind as it helped us pass the time. The dull aspect of opening a shop is boredom. We opened from nine to seven, and even with twenty customers a day it meant only around two customers an hour.
'So we get our share now?' Omi said excitedly.
I divided the money into four stacks. The first three stacks were fifteen hundred rupees each - the money each of us could take home. The remaining four thousand was to be retained in the business.
'What do you mean retained? What do we need to retain it for?' Ish questioned even as Omi happily counted his notes.
'Ish, we need to keep a war chest in case we want to renovate the store. Don't you want a better glass countertop? Or nice lighting?'
Ish shook his head.
'Sure we do. And ... I have expansion plans,' I said. 'What?'
'There is a new shopping mall under construction at Navrangpura char rasta. If you book early, you can get a discount on renting a shop.'
'Renting? But we already have a shop,' Ish said, puzzled and irritated at the same time.
I knew why Ish grumbled. He wanted to buy a TV for the shop, listening to matches on radio during shop hours was no fun.
'No Ish, a proper shop. Young people like to shop in swanky malls. That is the future. Our shop has been doing good business, hut we can't grow unless we move to a new city location.'
'I like it here,' Omi said. 'This is our neighbourhood. What we sell is being used by kids in Nana Park.'
'I don't want this short-sighted mentality. I will open a store in a mall, and by next year have one more store. If you don't grow in business, you stagnate.'
'Another shop? What? We will not be working together?' Omi said.
'It is Govind's bullshit. We have only started and he already aspires to be Ambani. Can't we just buy a TV?' Ish said, 'Shah Electronics will give us on instalment if we pay a down-payment of four thousand.'
'No way. We keep the four thousand for business.'
'Well, the TV belongs to the business, no?' Ish said.
'Yes, but it is a dead asset. It doesn't earn. We have a long way to go. Three thousand a month is nothing. And Ish doesn't let me keep notebooks and pencils...'
'I said this is a sports store. I don't want kids to think about studies when they come here.'
Ish and I had argued about this before. I saw an easy opportunity, but Ish protested every time.
'Ok, here is a deal,' Ish said, 'I agree to the notebooks, not textbooks mind you, only notebooks. But we buy a TV. I have to watch matches. I don't care, here take my fifteen hundred.'
He threw his share of cash at me.
Omi tossed in his money as well. As usual, I had to surrender to fools.
'Ok, but we need to increase the revenue. Target for next quarter is twenty thousand bucks.'
They ignored me as they discussed TV brands. I shook my head and outlined my strategy for increasing revenues.
'Will you do coaching classes?' I asked Ish.
'Kids love your cricket tips. Why not do cricket coaching for a fee?'
'Me? I am not that good man. And where? In the temple?' 'No, we will do it in the abandoned SBI compound.' 'Why? Aren't we making enough?' Omi said. 'We can never make enough. I want to get to fifty thousand a quarter. Omi, you can give fitness training to the students.' 'So more work for us. What about you?' Ish said. 'I am going to start offering maths tuitions again.' 'Here?'
'Yes, a couple here, or in the SBI compound itself while you guys give cricket coaching.'
Omi and Ish looked at me like I was the hungriest shark in the world.
'C'mon guys. I am making sure we have a solid healthy business.'
'It is ok. Just the shop is so boring, Ish,' Omi said. He was excited about making kids do push-ups.
'Yeah, at least I will get to hit the pitch,' Ish said.
I tossed in my fifteen hundred, too, and we bought a TV the same day. We set it permanently at the sports channel. Omi brought mats and cushions and spread them in front of the TV. On match days, we would all sit there until a customer arrived. I had to admit, it made the day go by much quicker.
I changed the board on the shop. Under the 'Team India Cricket Shop', it also said 'Stationery, Cricket Coaching and Maths Tuitions available'. I may not have diversified geographically, but I had diversified my product offering.
Apart from cricket, badminton was the other popular game in Belrampur. In fact, the girls only played badminton. It was an excellent turnover business.
Shuttle cocks needed to be replaced, rackets needed rewiring and badminton rackets didn't last as long as cricket bats.
School stationery became the other hit item in the following weeks. Only some kids played sports, but every kid needed notebooks, pens and pencils, and parents never said no to that. Many times, someone buying a ball would buy a notebook, or the other way round. We offered a total solution. Soon, suppliers came to us themselves. They kept stuff on credit and returnable basis - chart paper, gum bottles, maps of India, water bottles and tiffin boxes. It is only after you open a shop that you realise the length and breadth of the Indian student industry.
We kept the cricket coaching and tuitions at the same price -250 rupees a month. Customers for maths tuitions were easier to get, given the higher demand and my track record. I taught at the SBI compound building in the mornings. Ish used the compound grounds for the two students who signed up for cricket tuitions.
They were the best players in the Belrampur Municipal School and had fought with their parents to let them try coaching for three months.
Of course, we still spent most of our time in the shop.
'Should we do greeting cards?' I wondered as I opened a sample packet left by a supplier. At five-rupee retail price and two-rupee cost price, cards had solid margins. However, people in Belrampur did not give each other greeting cards.
'This is in-swinger, and this is off-swinger. By the way, this is the third ball in two weeks. What's up Tapan?' Ish asked a regular customer. Thirteen-year-old Tapan was one of the best bowlers of his age in the Belrampur Municipal School.
Ish gripped the cricket ball and showed him the wrist movement.
'It is that nightmare Ali. Ball keeps getting lost with his shots. Why did he move to our school?' Tapan grumbled as he rubbed the ball on his shorts.
'Ali? New student? Haven't seen him here,' Ish said. All good players visited our store and Ish knew them personally.
'Yes, batsman. Just joined our school. You should come see him. He wouldn't come here, right?' Tapan said.
Ish nodded. We had few Muslim customers. Most of them used other Hindu boys to make their purchases.
'You want to sign up for cricket tuitions. Ish will teach you, he played at the district level,' I could not help pitching our other service.
'Mummy will not allow. She said I can only take tuitions for studies. No sports coaching,' Tapan said.
'It is ok, have a good game,' Ish said, ruffling the boy's hair.
'You see this. That is why India doesn't win every match,' Ish said after Tapan left.
Yes, Ish has this ridiculous theory that India should win every match. 'Well, we don't have to. It won't be much of a game otherwise,' I said and closed the cash box.
'Our country has a billion people. We should always win,' Ish insisted.
'Why? Australia has twenty million people. Yet they win almost every match.
We have fifty times the people, so fifty times the talent. Plus, cricket is India's only game while Australia has rugby and football and whatever. So there is no way we should be defeated by them. Statistically, my friend, Australia should be a rounding error.'
'Then why?' I said.
'Well, you saw that kid. Parents will spend thousands teaching kids useless trigonometry and calculus they will never use in real life. But if it is sports coaching, it is considered a waste of money.'
'Don't worry, we have them covered. Our shop now offers both.'
'It is not about the business Govind. Really, is this just about money for you?'
'Money is nice...'
'These kids, Govind. Look at them, thirteen-year-olds holding their bats with pride. Or the way they want to learn to bowl better. They have a fire in their eyes before every little match at Nana Park. When India wins, they dance. They are they only people Ij see with passion. I like being with them.'
'Whatever,' I shrugged.
'Of course, in two years time they will reach Class X. Their bats will be replaced with physics books. And then the spark will begin to die. Soon, they will turn into depressed adults.'
'That is not true, Ish. Everyone needs a passion. I have mine.'
'Then why are most grown-ups so grumpy? Why can't they smile more often and be excited like those kids at Nana Park?' 'Can you stop being grumpy now and help me clean the
'Ok, ok, we will do a booze party,' I laughed. Omi and Ish had gripped me tight from both sides until I relented.
'Where is my son Omi?' Bittoo Mama entered our shop at (losing time and proceeded to hug his nephew. He held a box of sweets in a red velvet cloth.
'Where were you, Mama?' Omi said. Since the shop opened, he had never visited us.
'I toured all over Gujarat, with Parekh-ji. What an experience! Here, have some besan ladoos. Fresh from Baroda,' Bittoo Mama said. I ordered a Frooti. Ish pulled out stools and we sat outside. I picked a ladoo.
'What is this, Omi? Wearing shoes?' Bittoo Mama's eyes were lined with kohl.
He had a red tikka in the middle of his forehead.
'Mama?' Omi squeaked. I looked at my feet. I wore fake Reebok slippers. Ish wore his old sneakers.
'Your shop is in a temple, and you are wearing shoes? A Brahmin priest's boy?'
'Mama, c'mon this is outside the temple. None of the other shopkeepers wear...'
'Other shopkeepers are useless baniyas so you will also become like them? Do you do puja every morning before you open?'
'Yes, Mama,' Omi lied point-blank.
'You also,' Mama said, referring to Ish and me. 'You are Hindu hoys. You have your shop in such a pure place. At least remove your shoes, light a lamp.'
'We come here to work, not to perform rituals,' I said. I now paid full rent every month to be in this shop. Nobody told me how to run my business.
Mama looked surprised. 'What is your name?'
'1 am agnostic,' I said, irritated as I wanted to shut the shop and go home.
'He is not sure if there is God or not,' Ish explained.
'Doesn't believe in God? What kind of friends do you have Omi?' Mama was aghast.
'No, that is an atheist,' I clarified. 'Agnostic means maybe God exists, maybe he doesn't. I don't know.'
'You young kids,' Bittoo said, 'such a shame. I had come to invite you and look at you.'
Omi looked at me. I turned my gaze away.
'Don't worry about Govind, Mama. He is confused.' I hate it when people take my religious status for confusion. Why did I have to or not have to believe in something?
Ish offered the Frooti to Bittoo Mama. It softened him a little.
'What about you?' Mama asked Ish.
'Hindu, Mama. I pray and everything.' Ish said. Yeah right only when six balls were left in a match.
Mama took a large sip and shifted his gaze to Omi and Ish As far as he was concerned I did not exist.
What did you want to invite us for Mama?' Omi said.
He lifted the red velvet cloth and unwrapped a three-foot-long brass trishul. Its sharp blades glinted under the shop's tubelight.
'It's beautiful. Where did you get it from?' Omi queried.
'It is a gift from Parekh-ji. He said in me he sees the party's future. I worked day and night. We visited every district in Gujarat. He said, "if we have more people like Bittoo, people will be proud to be Hindu again." He made me the recruitment in-charge for young people in Ahmedabad.'
Ish and I looked at Omi for footnotes.
'Parekh-ji is a senior Hindu party leader. And he heads the biggest temple trust in Baroda,' Omi said. 'What, he knows the CM or something, Mama?'
'Parekh-ji not only knows the CM, but also talks to him twice a day,' Bittoo Mama said. 'And I told Parekh-ji about you, Omi. I see in you the potential to teach Hindu pride to young people.'
'But Mama, I'm working full time...'
'I am not telling you to leave everything. But get in touch with the greater responsibilities we have. We are not just priests who speak memorised lines at ceremonies. We have to make sure India's future generation understands Hindutva properly. I want to invite you to a grand feast to Parekh-ji's house. You should come too, Ish. Next Monday in Gandhinagar.'
Of course, blasphemous me got no invitation.
'Thanks, Mama. It sounds great, but I don't know if we can,' Ish said. How come some people are so good at being polite.
'Why? Don't worry, it is not just priests. Many young, working people will also come.'
'I don't like politics,' Ish said.
'Huh? This isn't politics, son. This is a way of life.'
'I will come,' Omi said.
'But you should come too, Ish. We need young blood.'
Ish stayed hesitant.
'Oh, you think Parekh-ji is some old, traditional man who will force you to read scriptures. Do you know where Parekh-ji went to college? Cambridge, and then Harvard. He had a big hotel business in America, which he sold and came back.
He talks your language. Oh, and he used to play cricket too, for the Cambridge college team.'
'I will come if Govind comes,' said Ish the idiot.
Mama looked at me. In his eyes, I was the reason why Hindu culture had deteriorated lately.
'Well, I came to invite the three of you in the first place. He only said he doesn't believe in God.'
'I didn't say that,' I said. Oh, forget it, I thought.
'Then come.' Mama stood up. 'All three of you. I'll give Omi the address. It is the grandest house in Gandhinagar.'
People called me Mr Accounts; greedy, miser, anything. But the fact is, I did organise an all-expense-paid booze party to motivate my partners at the shop. It is bloody hard to get alcohol in Ahmedabad, let alone bulky bottles of beer. One of my contacts - Romy Bhai - agreed to supply a crate of extra strong beer for a thousand bucks.
At 7 p.m. on the day of the party, Romi Bhai left the beer -wrapped in rags - at the SBI compound entrance. I came to the gate and gave Romi Bhai the day's newspaper. On the third page of the newspaper, I had stapled ten hundred-rupee notes. He nodded and left.
I dragged the cloth package inside and placed the bottles in the three ice-filled buckets I had kept in the kitchen. I took out the bottle opener from the kitchen shelf, where we kept everything from Maggi noodles to boxes of crackers to burst when India won a match.
Another person may see the abandoned SBI branch as an eerie party venue.
This used to be an old man's haveli. The owner could not repay and the bank foreclosed the property. Thereafter, the bank opened a branch in the haveli. The owner's family filed a lawsuit after he died. The dispute still unresolved, the family obtained a court injunction that the bank could not use the property for profit. Meanwhile, SBI realised that a tiny by lane in Belrampur was a terrible branch location. They vacated the premises and gave the keys to the court. The court official kept a key with Omi's dad, a trustworthy man in the area. This was done in case officials needed to view it and the court was closed. Of course, no one ever came and Omi had access to the keys.
The property was a six-hundred square yard plot, huge by Belrampur standards. The front entrance directly opened into the living room, now an abandoned bank customer service area. The three bedrooms on the first floor were the branch manager's office, the data room and the locker room. The branch manager's office had a giant six-feet vault. We kept our cricket kit in the otherwise empty safe.
We hung out most in the haveli's backyard. In its prime, it was the lawn of a rich family. As part of the bank branch, it was an under-utilised parking lot and now, our practice pitch.
I rotated the beer bottles in the ice bucket to make them equally cold.
Ish walked into the bank.
'So late,' I said. 'It is 8.30.'
'Sorry, watching cricket highlights. Wow, strong beer,' Ish said as he picked up a bottle. We had parked ourselves on the sofas in the old customer waiting area downstairs. I reclined on the sofa. Ish went to the kitchen to get some bhujia.
'Omi here?' Ish said as he opened the packet.
'No, I am the only fool. I take delivery, clean up the place and wait for my lords to arrive.'
'Partners, man, partners,' Ish corrected. 'Should we open a bottle?'
Omi arrived in ten minutes. He made apologies about his dad holding him back to clean the temple. Omi then prayed for forgiveness before drinking alcohol.
'Cheers!' all of us said as we took a big sip. It was bitter, and tasted only slightly better than phenyl.
"What is this? Is this genuine stuff?' Ish asked.
We paused for a moment. Spurious alcohol is a real issue in Ahmedabad.
'Nah, nobody makes fake beer. It is just strong,' I said.
If you filled your mouth with bhujia, the beer did not taste half as bad. In fact, the taste improved considerably after half a bottle. As did everyone's mood.
'I want to see this Ali kid. Three customers have mentioned him,' Ish said.
'The Muslim boy?' Omi said.
'Stop talking like your Mama?' Ish scolded. 'Is that relevant? They say he has excellent timing.'
'Where does he play?' I enquired through a mouthful of bhujia.
'In our school. Kids say his most common shot is a six.' 'Let's go check him out. Looks like the school has your worthy successor,' 1 said.
Ish turned silent. It was a sensitive topic and if it was not for the beer, I would not have said it.
'Succeeding Ish is hard,' Omi said. 'Remember the hundred against Mahip Municipal School, in sixty-three balls? No one forgets that innings.' Omi stood up and patted Ish's back again, as if the ten-year-old match had ended minutes ago.
'No one forgets the two ducks in the state selection trials either,' Ish said and paused again.
'Screw that, you were out of form, man,' Omi said.
'But those are the matches that fucking mattered, right? Now can we flip the topic?'
Omi backed off and I gladly changed the subject. 'I think we should thank our sponsors for tonight - The Team India Cricket Shop. In seven months of operation, our profit is 42,600 rupees. Of which, we have distributed 18,000 to the partners and 22,000 is for the Navrangpura shop deposit. And the remaining 2,600 is for entertainment like tonight. So, thank you, dear shareholders and partners, and let's say cheers to the second bottle.'
I took out the second bottle for each of us from the ice bucket.
'Stud-boy,' Ish slurred, standing up, 'This business and its profit is all owed to Stud-boy, Mr Govind Patel. Thank you, buddy. Because of you this dropout military cadet has a future. And so does this fool who'd be otherwise jingling bells in the temple all his life. Give me a hug, Stud-boy.'
He came forward to give me a hug. It was drunk affection, but genuine enough.
'Will you do me one more favour buddy?' Ish said.
'There is someone who wants maths tuitions,' Ish said.
'No, I am full, Ish. Seven students already...,' I said as Ish interrupted me. 'It is Vidya.' 'Your sister?'
'She finished Class XII. She is dropping a year now to prepare for the medical entrance.'
'You don't need maths to become a doctor.'
'No, but the entrance exams do. And she is awful at it. You are the best man, who else can I trust?'
'If it is your sister, then I mean...,' I took a breath. 'Wow, Vidya to join medical college? Is she that old now?'
'Almost eighteen, dude.'
'I teach younger kids though, class five to eight. Her course is more advanced. I am not in touch.'
'But you got a fucking century in that subject, dude. Just try she needs any help she can get.'
I said nothing for a while, trying to remember what I knew of Vidya, which was little.
'What are you thinking. Oh, I know, Mr Accounts. Don't worry we will pay you,'
Ish said and took a big sip.
'Shut up, man. It is for your sister. Ok, I'll do it. When do we start?'
'Can you start Monday ... no Monday is Parekh-ji's feast. Damn, Omi what the fuck are we going to do there?'
'The things we do to keep your Mama happy.' I couldn't wait to move to Navrangpura.
'Parekh ji is supposed to be a great man,' Omi said. 'And I always listen to you guys. Come for me this time.'
'Anyway, Tuesday then,' I said to Ish. 'So is she going to come to the bank?'
'Dad will never send her out alone. You come home.'
'What?' I said. Maybe I should have accepted a fee. 'Ok, I'll move some classes.
Say seven in the evening?'
'Sure, now can you answer one maths question, Mr Accounts,' Ish said.
'You ordered a crate with ten bottles. We drank three each. Where is the tenth one?' Ish stood up swaying.
I stood as well. 'The question is not where the tenth one is, but who does it belong to.' I lunged for the ice bucket. Ish dived in as well. Cold water splashed on the floor as we tugged at the bottle. After a ten-second tiff, he released it.
'Take it, dude. What would I do without you?'
We reached Parekh-ji's residence at around eight in the evening. Two armed guards manning the front gate let us in after checking our names. The entrance of the house had an elaborate rangoli, dozens of lamps and fresh flowers.
'See, what a gathering,' Bittoo Mama met us at the door. 'Have dinner before the talk begins.' From an aarti plate, he put big red tikkas on our foreheads. He told us Parekh-ji would make a speech after dinner.
We moved to the massive food counter. A Gujarati feast consisted of every vegetarian snack known to man. There was no alcohol, but there was juice of every fruit imaginable. At parties like this, you regret you have only one stomach.
I took a jain pizza and looked around the massive living room. There were fifty guests dressed in either white or saffron. Parekh-ji wore a saffron dhoti and white shirt, sort of a perfect crowd blend. Ish looked oddly out of place with his skull and crossbones, black Metallica T-shirt. Apart from us, everyone had either grey hair or no hair It looked like a marriage party where only the priests were invited Most of them carried some form of accessory like a trishul or a rudraksha or a holy book.
Ish and 1 exchanged a what-are-we-doing-here glance.
Omi went to meet a group of two bald-whites, one grey-saffron and one bald-saffron. He touched their feet and everyone blessed him. Considering Omi met these kind of people often, he had one Of the highest per-capita-blessings ratio in India.
'The food is excellent, no?' Omi returned. Food in Gujarat was always good. But still people keep saying it. Ish passed his Jain-dimsum to Omi.
'Who are these people?' I asked idly.
'It is quite simple,' Omi said. 'The people in saffron are priests or other holy men from around the city. The people in white are the political party people. Why aren't you eating any dimsums?'
'I don't like Chinese,' Ish said. 'And who is Parekh-ji?'
'Well, he is a guide,' Omi said. 'Or that is what he says to be humble. But actually, he is the chairperson of the main temple 1 rust. He knows the politicians really well, too.'
'So he is a hybrid, a poli-priest,' I deduced.
'Can you be more respectful? And what is this T-shirt, Ish?'
Everyone shushed as Parekh-ji came to the centre of the living room. He carried a red velvet cushion with him, which looked quite comfortable. He signalled everyone to sit down on the carpet. Like a shoal of fishes, the saffrons separated from the whites and sat down in two neat sections.
'Where the hell do we sit?' Ish said as he turned to me. I had worn a blue T-shirt and couldn't find my colour zone. Bittoo Mama tugged at Omi's elbow and asked us to join the saffron set. We sat there, looking like the protagonists of those ugly duckling stories in our mismatched clothes. Bittoo Mama came with three saffron scarves and handed them to us.
'What? I am not...,' I protested to Omi.
'Shh ... just wear it,' Omi said and showed us how to wrap it around our neck.
Parekh-ji sat on his wonderful magic cushion. There was pin-drop silence. Ish cracked his knuckle once. Omi gave him a dirty look. Everyone closed their eyes, apart from me. I looked around while everyone chanted in Sanskrit. They ended their chants after a minute and Parekh-ji began his speech.
'Welcome devotees, welcome to my humble home. I want to especially welcome the team on the right from the Sindhipur temple. They have returned from kar seva in Ayodhya for over a month. Let us bow to them and seek blessings.'
Everyone bowed to a group of six saffrons holding trishuls.
Parekh-ji continued, 'We also have some young people today. We need them badly. Thanks to Bittoo Mama, who brought them. Bittoo is working hard for the party. He will support our candidate Hasmukh-ji for the election next year.'
Everyone looked at us and gave smiling nods. We nodded back.
'Devotees, the Hindu religion teaches us to bear a lot. And we