Thursday 15 August 2013

Short Story 2013 Shortlist, Heema Shirwaikar


Shankar lazily twirled the wooden stick in his hand and let out a yawn. It was just another ordinary day at Rustomjee’s Departmental Store, and Shankar the security guard hadn’t found any potential suspicious customer to narrow his eyes at yet. Shankar had worked at the departmental store as the security guard ever since anyone could remember. It had been a routine for him to keep a distrustful eye on the teenagers and glare at the pesky kids into submission. It was what made his otherwise dull job interesting. Nothing made his day better than waving his stick at the noisy unruly kids and occasionally shouting reproaches. He personally took it as a matter of pride when kids referred to him as the ‘Hunterwale Mama’, making up rumours about him in hushed voices which generally ranged from claiming that he took away the naughty kids and locked them up in a secret dungeon under his house to some more bizarre ones like him being a ghost who haunted kids who didn’t listen to their parents. As long as it made children behave though, he did not mind them at all; in fact, he even laughed at the sheer imagination of what children could come up with!

It was a particularly busy afternoon at Rustomjee’s. The day was sunny and hot. The kind where anything and everything adds to irritation. There was hustle and bustle of people at the store. It was mostly frequented by housewives strolled down the utilities and groceries aisles with their noisy infants in tow at this time of the day. Shankar wasn’t fond of kids. He eyed warily as an infant let out a shrill cry and grabbed his mother’s arm. He mentally thanked himself for not having decided to marry or have a family. The kids he had to deal with at the store on a daily basis were bad enough, having ones of his own was out of question.

A tall and smart lady approached him to ask him the whereabouts of the bath utilities. She had short straight hair, the kind which rich businesswomen had. She was wearing an expensive-looking plaid formal skirt and a matching suit to go with, on a hot sunny day like this. She must be someone very important, he thought. He got up from his seat to escort her to the aisle, when there was a small tinkle at the door. A teenager, barely sixteen, entered the store. She was what would pass off as Suspect No.1 on Shankar’s Suspicious Customer List. Shankar took one look at the girl and he knew what she was there for. He quickly escorted the lady to her aisle and darted back to the front of the store to keep an eye on the girl.

He could not make an error of judgment. No, he had much too experience to know her kind just by looking at her. She had curly long hair, painted with every possible colour of the rainbow. Her bright baggy jeans which looked perfect to sneak items in, hung much lower than where it was supposed to be worn. Her skinny tight top revealed more than what it was supposed to cover. Her black boots with strange graffiti on them thumped heavily as she walked. She wore thick silver chains around her neck and on her hands, which looked as though they enslaved her to her weird Goth personality. Yes, he knew it. He could see it. He was sure of it. More sure than he’d ever been. The kid was definitely a thief.

Shankar followed her closely. He surveyed her every move with keen eyes; like an eagle waiting for the right moment to prey. Yes, he would wait for it, the act of felony. And then, he would catch her red-handed, and set her straight. Straight, unlike her unruly curly hair with a thousand colours in them, he thought.

The girl headed straight to the make-up aisle. She picked up a bright blood red lipstick and tried it on, on her already painted lips. Shankar shook his head in disgust. Who were her parents? Where were they? How could they let their kid out like that? Were they even aware of her activities? Once he caught her he’d take her straight to her parents first and give them an earful. He may not have had a family; but he sure knew how to set kids straight. Her thick chains clunked every time she bounced from one shelf to another with a little too much enthusiasm. Shankar looked on disapprovingly. That would be her jewellery, no doubt. At least its annoying chime would make it easier for him to keep track of her whereabouts, he thought. Whether she wore them because she couldn’t afford anything else, or whether it was her weird sense of style, he did not know. But one thing he was sure about – the girl was definitely a thief! Any moment now, and he would catch her in the act.

The girl moved to the shelf of nail polishes and tried on some black nail paint while Shankar impatiently paced back and forth. The lady in formals went past them, brooding over the aisles and Shankar wondered when this kid would be like her – mature, responsible, graceful and classy; an adult. A grown up. It was as if he just wanted her to take a leap to maturity right then and there, before she even left the store. He had started to become impatient now. When was she going to commit the act? What was she waiting for? Did she know that he had been watching her? He retreated to a more secluded spot, away from her eyes. No, he would not leave this chance. He would definitely catch her today.

The girl confidently strolled down the aisles. She seemed to know where she was going and know what she was doing. She proceeded to the back of the store, aimlessly strolling as if she was on a leisurely walk. Or perhaps, her aim was to get away from the security guard’s prying eyes? But he knew better. He had experience on his hand. He would not get fooled by a mere girl like her. He would not lose sight of her. The girl seemed to be suspiciously loitering for much too long. He approached her. “What are you doing here, kid?” he barked in his most gruff and intimidating voice. “Just looking, now, is that a crime?” The girl answered coolly. “Don’t you talk to me like that kid, either buy something or get going!” he threatened. So, the girl was bolder than he had thought. Perhaps she had done this before, and escaped without getting caught. But that would not happen now. Not when it was him she was dealing with. He was experienced, much more experienced than a mere girl of sixteen.

Suddenly, there was a loud ruckus at the front of the store. Shankar reluctantly left to attend to it. But he would not let her escape. He mentally made a note of it. A stubborn little child had overturned his mother’s shopping basket. Shankar vicariously took the pleasure of watching the mother scold the child. Yes, children need to be straightened out, that was his firm belief. Or they grew up to be like the girl at the back of the store. Oh, yes! The girl! He had to hurry back to keep an eye on her. He hastily placed the contents of the shopping basket back into it and handed it to the lady. He then darted to the back of the store to keep an eye on the girl. Only, she wasn’t there anymore. So, she had given him a slip. But she wasn’t clever enough for him! After all, he had a lot more experience than a mere girl of sixteen. She wouldn’t be able to dodge him for long. He started looking for her, trying to listen for the sound of the clinking chains and the thumping boots.

But just as he was about to, everything was suddenly drowned out by the deafening noise of the alarm system. FINALLY! He would have his moment now. Justice would be done and the guilty would be punished. He could almost picture her, caught in the act, her smug face fallen, her confidence broken. He had a smirk of satisfaction on his face. He sauntered forward purposefully to see the face of the culprit.

There she was, head hung low with shame, hiding a perfume bottle clutched in her hands, trying to avoid eye contact, and shirking the accusing stares of the fellow customer. She stood there, her face barely hidden under her short straight tresses, shifting uncomfortably in her plaid skirt and suit. Humiliated, she returned the stolen perfume on the counter, even as the wild Goth teenager stood beside her, paying for her bright blood red lipstick and her black nail polish. Shankar quietly proceeded to apprehend the perpetrator. Never again was he seen narrowing his eyes at possible suspicious customers.

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