All that glitters

Short Story

All that glitters

Kumar sat on the steps of the sweet shop, waiting for the manager to arrive. He watched the morning traffic pick up on the busy road, the main artery of the town’s marketplace.

The popular fast food place across the street had already been open for two hours. People spilled out onto the footpath, balancing plates of idlis floating in sambar, which they devoured in minutes, before going back for hot coffee that they sipped with relish.

Kumar's stomach growled. He had already had breakfast. But since Shyamanna had added too many green chillies to the uppittu, Kumar ended up drinking so much water that he couldn’t eat much. And now he was already hungry.

*****

But who could be upset with Shyamanna? He had been the big brother of their village, the responsible boy to whom all other boys were unfavourably compared. And he was the big brother here, in the city. He rented rooms into which he took in brother, cousin and friend, provided they were from his village. He found employment for them, fed them, counselled them, and he kept both his cool and peace in those overcrowded rooms with equal aplomb.

The day after Kumar failed his tenth standard exams, his mother packed him off to Shyamanna, who was her nephew. Mahesh, who lived in a neighbouring room, told Shyamanna about a vacancy for a cleaner at the sweet shop in which he worked. Kumar got the job.

Kumar initially balked at what he felt was a menial job, but Shyamanna boxed his ears in his mild, endearing way.

“Jobs aren’t easy to get, Kumara,” Shyamanna said. “This is a good beginning. Why, don’t you know, five years back, when I came here, I started out washing dishes? Now I’m a waiter. Decent job, decent salary. Just be good at whatever you do, and you’ll keep getting better work.”

Kumar’s job was mainly to sweep and swab the floor of the shop, and scrub the counters clean. He also wiped clean the high tables on which customers rested their paper plates to eat their sweets.

He removed the paper plates and plastic glasses, and emptied dustbins into huge garbage bags that he threw into the garbage bin at the end of the road. He swept the floors thrice a day, and again once at the end of the day. For this work, he was paid four hundred rupees a month.

“An excellent sum,” said Shyamanna.

“Pity you’ll be needed at the shop all day,” said Mahesh. “Or you could have swept the neighbouring shops too and earned more money...”

*****

At eight, the manager, Mr Srinivas, arrived in his scooter, parked it, took off his helmet and placed it on the seat. He fished out a small blue comb from his back pocket and smoothed his hair down, looking at himself in the rear view mirror on the scooter.

He combed his moustache, and put away the comb. He picked up the helmet, walked to the shop, pulled out a bunch of keys from his pocket, selected a key and opened the lock that secured the shutters. With Kumar’s help, he rolled up the shutters.

Mr Srinivas touched the floor of the shop in reverence as he entered, then took out a string of jasmine flowers from his bag, and hung it around a framed picture of a pink and gold Ganesha that hung behind the cash counter. He lit two agarbattis, waved them in circles in front of the picture, shook them to extinguish the flame, and stuck them in a crevice in the wall. He then sat down, opened the account book and drowned in it.

Meanwhile, Kumar got out his rags, broom, bucket and mop. He scrubbed the counter tops and wiped the glass panes of the display cases with newspaper and cleaning liquid. These were the most difficult to clean, as they were full of stains where customers pressed greasy forefingers pointing to the sweets they wanted. It didn’t help that small children rubbed their noses and foreheads on the pane trying to look at the sweets.

The sweets in their trays lay in the display cases, covered with thin plastic wrap. He knew how they looked when they were on display in all their glory, their desirability heightened by the strategic placement of lights on each rack.

Sweet, syrupy and rich — Kumar felt the sudden pang in his salivary buds just thinking about them. He loved sweets — revelled in them, in fact. Nobody knew how agonizing it was for him to work in a sweet shop, with sweets all around him.

The only way he could get to eat any of those sweets was if he bought them, and it was insane how much they cost. The sweets were made with pure ghee, which was expensive but gave the sweets an edge, which is what made the shop so popular.

It wasn’t as if Kumar never had an opportunity to eat sweets. Though all that his poor, widowed mother could afford to make was watery payasa on his birthdays, he had eaten sweets at weddings. He had attended about 50 weddings in his life, having gate crashed at least half that number. And what was a wedding without sweets?

Kumar had tasted them all. Golden brown gulab jamuns, floating in a sticky sugar syrup, the juicy, coiled jangirs and jalebis — oh, those glorious tangled sweets, golden orange and sticky and simply delicious!

Kumar had a friend whose uncle owned a big sweet shop in the town near their village, and the two of them went to the town frequently to eat the misshapen, overdone sweets that the uncle set aside for them. So that was how Kumar got to taste even the rich Bengali sweets in all their authentic and experimental varieties, the exquisite badam halwa, the various kinds of milk pedas, kaju burfi, badam burfi, Kashi halwa, varieties of ladoos, and of course, his favourite Mysore Pak.

Once, when Kumar was talking to Mahesh after work, he asked, “You handle those sweets all day. Don’t you feel like eating them?”

“Not really,” said Mahesh. “I liked sweets, but being around them and smelling them all day long, you know...” Mahesh grimaced. “Give me a nice hot and spicy bisibelebhath any day.”

Kumar could not understand it at all. How could anyone get tired of sweets? As he swept and swabbed and cleaned and scrubbed, he looked longingly at the sweets on display. He would have loved to eat them all. He did his work with diligence, hoping that the manager would be impressed with him and perhaps give him a sweet some time... but not just any sweet...

Kumar stopped and looked adoringly at one sweet — a sweet that he had never tasted. He had not even seen anything like it before. It was shaped like a lotus — small green sepals at the base and three whorls of pinkish-red petals at the top. The tops of the petals were covered with thin silver varq.

“What sweet is that, Mahesh?” Kumar had asked.

“Oh, that is just kaju burfi coloured and shaped like that,” Mahesh said.

Kumar looked at the ordinary kaju burfi on display. The thin, unassuming beige cashew sweet, cut into diamond shapes — he knew what that tasted like. But this sweet — this Lotus Sweet? It had got to be special. After all, each piece was priced at twenty-five rupees.

Kumar was sure that Mahesh did not know, but was just guessing that it was a kaju burfi variant.

The Lotus Sweet took root in Kumar’s head. He couldn’t bear the fact that he did not know what it tasted like. Kumar worked in the shop for two weeks and all he thought of was the Lotus Sweet. He even dreamt of it, peeling it off, petal by delicious petal, and putting it into his mouth while the taste and flavour exploded in his mouth, and the delicious sensation travelled all over his body and took him to heaven.

Kumar made up his mind — he would buy it. The day he got his salary, he would take twenty-five rupees out of it, and he would buy that sweet and eat it. But payday was two whole weeks away! And twenty-five rupees — that was worth five whole plates of ghee rice at Hanumanthu’s shop round the corner. Five days’ lunch money for one sweet that could fit into his palm?

But he knew he wouldn’t be able to rest until he ate the sweet. It just had to be done.

*****

Mr Srinivas called out. “Kumar, I am going out for five minutes. Watch the shop.”
Watch the shop! Kumar swelled with pride. Mr Srinivas trusted him so much that he had left the entire shop in his charge! Why, if he were a lesser human being, he could have easily carried away anything from the shop — anything, like... well... like...

Kumar's pride fizzed out considerably. The cash register was locked. All the display cases were locked. The plates, spoons, containers, gloves, aprons and everything else were in a cupboard that was locked. He couldn’t even remove chairs or tables from the shop if he wanted to — they were all nailed to the floor.

Kumar laughed at himself, shook his head and continued sweeping. But — he thought. I needn’t look at my Lotus Sweet from the corner of my eye — I can gaze upon it as much as I want to for a while!

Kumar got behind the display case and squatted. He leaned close to the glass pane, careful not to touch it, or breathe on it. The Lotus Sweet stood there in all its magnificence, and it beckoned him.

Kumar looked and looked and as he did, he saw something out of the corner of eye. It was an insignificant call, at first — something annoying that clamoured for his attention when he was concentrating on the splendid sight of the Lotus Sweet. But like a persistent fly, it finally did manage to divert his attention. He looked — and what he saw made him hold his breath and his heart beat wildly. He stared with eyes round like chapatis, at a tiny space between the frame of the display case and the glass. By an unbelievable oversight, this display case had been left open.

Kumar’s head whirled. He glanced at the picture of Ganesha and offered a prayer of thanks. This was his chance. Mr Srinivas was still out, and none of the other employees would come in for at least half an hour more. All he had to do was slide the pane open, put his hand in, take out a sweet and close the pane. He could put the sweet into his pocket and eat it later. The whole thing would take less than five seconds.

But there were only a dozen of these Lotus Sweets. There would surely be an inventory. They would know that a sweet was missing. Kumar had another idea. He would take only one green sepal, from the bottom of one sweet. One green sepal wouldn’t matter. If anybody noticed, they would assume it had fallen off.

Kumar first darted up to the door of the shop and looked up and down the street. Mr Srinivas was nowhere in sight. Kumar rushed back to the display case, pushed open the pane with one hand, put his other hand in, carefully broke off a small sepal, withdrew his hand and closed the pane. He put the piece into his pocket. That was it. It was done.

A glow of triumph and intense joy flooded his being. The small piece of sweet hardly weighed anything but he could feel its sensual touch in his pocket, exerting a slight pressure on his skin through the cloth. Kumar couldn’t think, he couldn’t work. He realised that he just had to eat It now or he wouldn’t get through the day. And this was the only time he had.

He dashed to the door again to see if Mr Srinivas was anywhere in sight. Kumar came back inside, took the piece out of the pocket and held it reverently on his palm. It was the unnatural green of food colour. The top was covered with silver varq. Kumar brought the sweet to his nose and sniffed. It did smell like kaju burfi. He licked the surface of the sweet but couldn’t discern any taste.

He made a receptacle of his lips and picked it up from his hand. He rolled it about between his lips, not wanting to eat it, not wanting to wait. Finally he let his tongue reach his lips and receive the piece. He crushed it with his palette, and then transferred the mush to his teeth. Then he let go. He closed his eyes and chewed, allowing the paste to traverse across all parts of his mouth.

He waited — waited for the burst of taste, the glorious sensation that would take him to heaven. He waited. But the sweet was over. It had melted and slid down his throat. It was over.

Kumar's shoulders slumped. It was an ordinary sweet after all. It was not even as tasty as a kaju burfi. It had a kind of vague sour taste that didn’t even go with kaju burfis. It was a terrible sweet.

Kumar felt tears prick his eyes. He looked once again at the Lotus Sweet on display, and then went back to his work. Suddenly, his life seemed devoid of any meaning.

*****

Kumar did not notice Mr Srinivas come in. “You are slow today, Kumar,” he said.
Kumar looked up with a start and mumbled a reply. Mr Srinivas stiffened, and then leaned back in his chair, interlocked the fingers of his hands, and put them at the back of his head.

“So, which sweet did you eat, Kumar? Did you like it?” he asked.

Kumar jumped out of his skin. He stared at Mr Srinivas. How had he found out?

“You can leave, Kumar. We don’t have any use for thieves in this shop.”

Kumar didn’t protest. He couldn't even find his voice. The display case was closed, the missing sepal couldn’t even be seen from where Mr Srinivas sat. How on earth had he known?

Mr. Srinivas opened the cash register and took out a few notes. “Here, take this. Two weeks’ pay. Now leave, and don’t show your face here again.”

Kumar stepped forward in a daze and took the money.

“You seemed like a decent boy. Don’t do this again. Now, go.”

*****

Kumar stumbled out of the shop and walked back slowly to Shyamanna’s room. He entered, went to a corner of the room, leaned against the wall and slid down to the floor. He sat on the floor, legs drawn towards his body, forehead on his knees.

Shyamanna came in from the next room. “What happened, Kumara? Are you ill?”

Kumar did not answer.

“Kumara, what happened, tell me.”

“Got fired.”

Shyamanna was silent as he digested this information. Kumar lifted his face and darted a look at Shyamanna. Shyamanna’s eyes narrowed immediately, and he threw his hands up in exasperation.

“Why, because you ate sweets on the sly?”

Kumar’s mouth fell open.

“How... how....”

“The silver is stuck all over your lips, you fool.”

Enlightenment dawned on Kumar and he rubbed his fingers on his lips and checked them. Sure enough, the glitter of silver was plainly visible on his fingers. With a kind of a moan, Kumar buried his head in his hands.

“I hope you’re sufficiently ashamed of yourself,” said Shyamanna. “Forget about yourself for a moment — what face will Mahesh show to his manager? He was the one who got you this job, didn’t he? And how will I trust you in future?”

Shyamanna shook his head. “If you wanted sweets, you could have told me. I would have bought you some. What need was there to go steal sweets?”

How can I make him understand about the Lotus Sweet? Kumar thought. He was silent.
Shyamanna put on his trousers and a clean white shirt, and combed his spiky hair down, wetting some stubborn tufts with water and patting them down.

“Make yourself something for lunch if you want. I’ll see you in the evening,” he said.
Kumar did not move. He sat there, dislodging the dirt from his fingernails with the nail of his thumb.

“Don’t look so glum, Kumara. It’s just a job. We’ll find you a new one. Cheer up now. Go, go wash your face.”

Kumar did not think it wise to tell Shyamanna that he wasn’t in the least bothered about the job. How could he make anybody comprehend the distress that is evoked when a sweet is not as tasty as it had seemed to be?

He got up and went to wash his face.

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