By S Vadwlas
Every day as I drove past a shopping complex, I would see the sign outside a shop change randomly. Some days it would say ‘Rana Market’ and on the others it would say ‘Raja Market’. I would joke with my wife that this guy would change the sign of his shop to ‘Raja’ when he felt like a King on the relatively warm days, and would revert to ‘Rana’ on bitterly cold days. This was 20 miles Southwest of Baltimore city, my home away from home.
A few days later, I did dare to venture into this little shop, as I ran out of some Indian spices, without which life is dull even in the United States of America. The sign underneath the main board on the shop read ‘Indian * Pak * Asian Groceries’.
Upon entering, I saw an unembellished middle-aged man with a slight tinge of grey in his beard, unaffected by the over-abundance of food in this well-to-do nation. He also seemed slightly out of place in this highly urbanized part of the US. One look at the religious symbols and the pre-paid calling cards in his background was enough to figure out that he was from Pakistan. My first reaction after guessing his nationality was a mix of surprise and guilt. But since I wanted the spices badly, I decided to make the move. He greeted me with a meek astonishment, probably after seeing a new customer in this newly opened shop, tucked deep in the nowhere of a large shopping complex. He followed me over and tried to indicate the offerings he had in the narrow aisles of this clustered shop that looked like a tiny island off a huge continent, in comparison to the mega grocery chain stores spread across the US.
After this visit, I did not venture into his place for a while, as I was content shopping in the Indian owned grocery stores that were bigger, little cheaper and abundant, spread like mushrooms around the area.
Another fateful evening, when in I was rushing back from work for a planned activity in the evening, we ran out of some urgent condiments and I had to foray back into the King’s (Raja) Market. The sole Pakistani guy behind the counter greeted me with a sense of acquaintance, which is atypical in the western societies, compared to the bonhomie that a small store owner in India would share, being welcomed like a first time son-in-law, every time upon entering.
This was followed by several jaunts every few weeks into this store to obtain several different small snacks and items to add some gusto to the food. During these visits , I had noticed that the fellow in the store had worn the same old faded and spotty sweatshirt every time, and his clothes were would remind you of a small time tailor in some dusty town of the Indian subcontinent. These were barely enough to withstand the freezing arctic blast that hit this part of the continental US around this time. Upon enquiry, I was told that he had left his wife and kids in Pakistan to work for the owner of this small-time store several thousands of miles away. A sense of guilt pervaded through me as I remembered how I ached for ‘only’ branded wear a few years ago, in my early youth when I was at my unwise best. The contrast in the colour of his clothes from mine could at best be summed as life’s contrast and its varying colours in the trivial lives of us humans.
And again, there was an interlude to my sporadic outings to this store to purchase sundry items. This was followed by a huge wave of news in the Indian media about the unprovoked firing at the border with Pakistan, and how their army was bombarding several villages on the Indian side affecting thousands of hapless country folks. This time, the reason for guilt in me did a 360 degree turn, and I stopped purchasing anything from this store, as a matter of principle. To add fuel to this fire of guilt, a senior Indian colleague of mine added, “No desi in US should give any business to a Pakistani store! All of them are the same, in their hatred for India, and you never know if the money ultimately ends up being used against India!”
After several months, during which I became busy with my day-to-day rote procedure, this thought and the accompanying feeling with it, slowly faded in me. The humane sense of thought, accompanied by the guilt of overseeing a fellow person’s affliction based on a narrow stream of logic finally made me fracture my vow. I also debated this with my wife, who tried to appeal to my better sense of compassion and suggested I should offer one of my unused old coats to this person, who worked at the store, and finally break free from this sense of guilt.
And one cold morning lit by a pale sky, I did finally enter the ‘Raja Market’. After I purchased a pack of Marie biscuits to garnish my tea time, I very shyly approached the counter and paid my bill. And, then with a lump in my throat, offered my old coat to this Pakistani guy, speaking at a very fast pace, and quickly ended with a statement to prevent his self-respect from getting offended at this act of purported charity. He politely refused me with a smile on his face and I never dared to venture in this Indo-Pak joint again! And finally, the sign outside his shopping complex did stabilize to ‘Raja’, to every man the king of his own world! –