Thursday 1 September 2016

Short Story 2016, Featured Gitanjali Maria

The Water Cooler

The streets outside wore a deserted look. The scorching June heat kept everybody indoors, especially in the hours just after lunch. Sitaram looked outside at the empty street from the glass-paned supermarket that he owned in the busy market area of Sector – 17A in Gurgaon. It was an upscale residential locality, and he did brisk business especially in the evening hours when people dropped by to purchase daily groceries.

He looked up at the T.V. in the store. The news channel was airing pictures of dry rivers, cracked agricultural lands and listless stray dogs with their tongues out. A young lady reporter was very vocally describing the scorching summer conditions and how it was affecting the mute creatures like birds and animals.
“Ramu”, he called out to the sweeper boy. “Check if there is water for the pigeons in the bowl on terrace. Else fill it up.”

He proceeded to put his head down on the cash counter and have a quick siesta. Though he employed several helpers to run the shop, he insisted on being at present at the shop himself all the time. He wanted to be in charge of the shop completely and oversee everything, right from the time the shop opened its shutters at 9:30 in the morning to the time they were closed down at 10:30 pm.
Sitaram had started this shop as a small kirana store almost fifteen years back. He had come to Delhi from his village in Bhagalpur, Bihar in search of a job. For almost a dozen years he had done various odds and ends, served in restaurants, worked as a water supplier boy, worked as sales rep for an insurance company and done many other petty jobs to fill his pockets and stomach. He had saved pence by pence, opened his own shop and was a rich man today; an owner and not just another worker.

He had started with his shop selling soaps, combs, sanitary napkins, toothbrush, paste and other toiletries. He had then expanded to include other items such as packaged snacks, crunchy wafers, potato wafers and biscuits, both from local players as well as big brands such as Parle, Lays and Bingo. When his business started gaining momentum, more vendors contacted him to sell their products through his shop. He had the shop renovated and rebuilt into a bigger one when one of the vendors provided him a refrigerator to help him sell their cold drinks chilled.

He had learned the tricks in the retail industry and understood the pulse of his consumers. Around three years back, he had the idea of converting his business into a swanky supermarket that supplied a host of items including perfumes, stationery, crockery, steel-ware and other electronic items. And today his store was one of the biggest shops in that complex and a one-stop shopping point for the majority who lived that area. His profits had grown steadily and his shop grown to be the largest and most preferred one in the whole locality.

Though he didn’t have an MBA or a swanky degree, over the course of his life as a shopkeeper, he had come to understand the value of the customer. He had learned the nuances of customer experience and customer relationship management, through his practical knowledge and keen observation. He had learned to read customer behavior and take action accordingly. He was also shrewd and knew how to manipulate and tempt customers so that they stay for longer and remain loyal.

He had noticed how customers preferred choosing their own stuff rather than waiting for the person behind the counter to help them. He had seen those days when a one rupee coin could fetch so much to these current days when bills of thousands was not uncommon. He had also witnessed transactions move from cash to card payments.

He had realized that having his shop air conditioned (which he did only a year ago) had made customers prefer his shop over his nearest rival in the market because of the comfort that it provided when people returned after a long tiring day, especially in the hot and sultry weather.
Going one step forward, he also placed a water cooler in front of the shop to quench the thirst of the customers and other potential buyers. He also felt the satisfaction of doing a humanitarian deed for his clients. After all, wasn’t providing someone with water a good deed in Indian culture?

But if there was one thing that he hated and wanted to eliminate at all costs, it was to stop the street urchins, especially the children, from taking advantage of the water facility that he was providing. He hated their dirty hands touching his machine. Their ragged and unclean clothes and finger with dirt under the nails made him queasy.

He had tried to put the water cooler inside the shop. But it didn’t satisfy his pride of showing his good deeds to a lot of other people, especially his rivals. Also, it led to a lot of water spilling on the shop floor, making it dirty and even causing some of the customers to skid and fall.
He occasionally raised his head from his half-sleep and looked out for those scoundrels loitering around his water coolers. It was generally at this time they attacked, taking advantage of the napping shopkeeper and other staff. He had a stick ready to beat them all if they turned up again. Not that he could reach them, but a stick creates more fear than when one just shouts curses.
Bala was one of those boys who tried to cool his dirty dry lips with some of the cold water. The summer heat was getting to him. He had boils all over his back and on his hands and legs. His lips and skin were parched. And if he scratched himself, it would leave a trail of white powered skin against his dark body.

He was almost eleven years old. He didn’t know his date of birth. One of the other children with whom he roamed was ten years old. He wanted to feel bigger and so he mentioned his age as eleven if at all somebody bothered to ask him.
His mother worked as a housemaid in several of the houses in the neighbourhood while his father was a contract labourer at various construction sites spread across the increasingly concretized city. With parents not present to monitor him and his siblings, he roamed around freely, occasionally stealing titbits of left over from wayside eateries and restaurants.

But with the temperatures soaring to over 45 degree Celsius every day, his appetite had shrunk and he felt wasted and tired all day long. The doctor who had organized a free medical camp the other day, near the site he lived, had told them all to drink only clean water during these dry months.
Water was scarce that summer after the country faced consecutive drought years and the little available outside some of the restaurants was dirty. Initially, he had not bothered about the colour of the water but after a very bad bout of jaundice after drinking such water, he had vowed not to touch it. Better to die thirsty rather than die yellow.
With the nearby canal also brimming with more waste than water, Bala’s main sources of water were no longer feasible. Also, the scorching heat had almost dried up the canal, except for some tiny patches here and there. His parents had no means to get him the mineral water bottles, those that the foreigners always sipped on and which the rich kids occasionally bought.

It was a few days after recovering from the severe bout of jaundice that he noticed the new water cooler placed in front of Sitaram Supermarket. Immediately he was attracted towards it. The hope of being able to drink not just clean water, but also water that was cold, excited him. He wanted to try it.
He then noticed another group of boys like him, planning to raid the cooler and take away bottles full of cold water. They were talking amongst themselves and then all of a sudden, they made a dash for the water jar. For a moment Bala watched them try the gimmick and then he too ran with them for a shot at the cold water. Sitaram woke up with a jolt, grabbed the cane and came bolting out to shoo away the monkey gang. He hit hard whomever he could get hold off. Many got bruises and cuts but just the feel of a drop of ice cold water on their tongues was enough to make them try the gimmick again.

his time Bala was also included in their gang. The next day, the monkey gang changed their strategy. Instead of everyone making a dash together, they decided to take turns and give it a shot.
The leader of the gang went first. Hiding behind parked cycle rickshaws whose drivers slept under the shade of the plastic rickshaw roofs, behind huge garbage cans and parked trucks till he reached the water cooler. With his dirty thumb, he pressed the blue button slowly and water trickled out into his wide open mouth under the tap. It was so cool and refreshing. He took a few gulp-fuls and then made way for others also to have a chance at it. They all came one by one and finally it was the chance of Bala.

By the time Bala reached the jar, Mr. Sitaram had noticed something amiss outside his shop. The water level in the jar was reducing and there were bubbles inside it. And as soon as Bala reached down with his cupped hands for the cold water, Sitaram went out stealthily and beat him down hard.
Bala shrieked in terror, in pain and surprise. He looked up to see the bulging belly and spectacled figure of Mr. Sitaram, standing above him with the iron rod and a menacing look. ‘Why were all the kids before me spared and I made to bear the brunt?’, he wondered as cries of pain and tears burst out.

The rod came down again and again. “Thief, You thief. Stealing the water meant only for the good and clean people”, Sitaram kept shouting and beating, as Bala bellowed in pain and shame.
The child’s cries filled the otherwise dumb afternoon. A few people looked at the scene of action from wherever they were.
Suddenly, the sky turned dark and the wind blew hard, bringing up the dust and dried leaves. It was similar to the background effects that Indian opera serials and films give to announce the arrival of the hero. It seemed as if the Maker of the skies and the oceans and the heavens had Himself decided to come to the rescue of the hapless child.
The heavens parted open and large drops of water fell. Thud. Thud. They were cool and refreshing. The first of the long-awaited monsoon rains. Everyone including Mr. Sitaram scrambled to get indoors or under some shade. Only Bala remained out in the rain, the tears from his eyes, mingling with the rain drops and falling into his crying open mouth. 

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