01 A Shopaholic Goes to Calcutta
Remember the Chatterjee and Matheson account? They’re ready to list …”
“That’s great news, honey.” As I listen to my fiancé Sir Gavin prattle on about his work, my thoughts drift to the shops along Oxford St. I can picture each one distinctly in my mind, like a thumbnail slideshow of my friends pictures on Facebook. Stores like Harrods, Armani Exchange, Tiffany’s, the Body Shop and that most exclusive Shop of all, the 60s-themed store Bouffe. The name sticks to my brain like glitter mascara.
It had the cutest outfit on display in its window today: a tiny white mini-skirt, a short suit jacket with big, powder blue buttons, and a pillbox hat with a veil. The display artist who wore it had a bouffant wig (of course), sexy go-go boots and a butterfly tattooed onto her exposed lower back. The look – slutty Jackie O’ – is one that I love. In fact, I am beginning to think that it should become my signature style …
“… so you don’t mind that it’s in Calcutta?”
I am about to say yes, when I realize that I don’t know what Gavin is talking about. That is nothing new, I am a dreamer and he can be so dreadfully dull. Fortunately, my fiancé is a very expressive speaker so I don’t ever have to listen to what he’s saying. I can fake my way through conversations with him simply by paying attention to changes in the tone of his voice. Which is why I hesitate now. Gavin is speaking as if I am choking on a hatpin. If I am going to answer his question I’d better first determine what the “it” is that is happening in Calcutta. It only takes a moment of reflection to realize that it has to be a meeting – all Gavin ever does is work – so I hazard a question, “Sweetheart, on what day is that meeting?”
Gavin looks quizzical and his voice sounds incredulous as he answers “May 14”.
Then I understand. “You’re suggesting that we spend our anniversary in India? In one of the poorest, filthiest, least glamorous cities in the world …”
As I speak my voice rises in intensity and shrillness. Gavin interrupts me before I explode. “Bexx, we won’t be sleeping with limbless beggars. We’ll be staying with my client Ravi Chatterjee. I understand that he has a very nice house, and that the best parts of Calcutta are quite charming.”
Gavin’s tone is apologetic and even though I am cross-eyed with anger, I desperately want to placate him. It would be so much easier if I could find out what retail is like in Calcutta. I have to be circuitous, however, because my fiancé sometimes takes issue with my pathological interest in shopping. “Gavin, what kinds of things are in Calcutta? Is there a type of pottery or fashion that the city is famous for?”, I ask coyly.
“It was the capital of the British Raj for a while. And it’s very famous for jute.”
My face must be apoplectically quizzical, for Gavin answers the question that’s on my mind immediately, rather than evading or fawning, which would be his normal response to our current situation. “Jute is a type of coarse cloth. It’s used for rugged things like sandbags and potato sacks.”
“Crap!” I think angrily. “I’m going to this vast slum and the only shopping I’ll be able to do is for potato sack dresses. How the hell do you accessorize a sack?”
Gavin has anticipated this, “Bexx, we’ll be flying through Milan and Dubai so you will have plenty of opportunity to shop en route. In fact, you only need to stay in Calcutta for few days. Or you could stay at home and we could celebrate afterwards … ”
I can’t believe he’s suggesting that we celebrate the anniversary of our first data apart. “I’m going. I’m only staying for the weekend. But I’ll go.”
Gavin sighs with relief and holds me tightly in his muscular arms. “This trip won’t be so bad”, I think. “I’ll pick up something by Armani in Milan, a case of perfume in Dubai, we’ll have a beautiful dinner together in a palace and then maybe I’ll drop by Paris on the way home.”
At the best of times I need only the thinnest excuse to go shopping, so this turn of events is more than justification for an excursion to my favorite store.
Though the address of Bouffe is on that highest of high streets, Oxford, its entrance is actually situated on an alleyway as if its proprietors want to discourage traffic, which I guess they do given that the entrance to the boutique is guarded by a bouncer and a velvet rope. When I arrive, the bouncer is surrounded by a gaggle of teenage girls who insist that their friend has put them “on the list”. As I haughtily glide through these tarts like a hot silver spoon through butter, I remove my foundation applicator and delicately smash it, extract my splurge credit card from the wreckage, and proffer it to the bouncer with both hands, Japanese style. He bows slightly as he accepts it, and in one movement scans it and returns it to me. A silvery chime indicates that my credit limit has been established, and is acceptably large. The bouncer unclasps the velvet rope and gestures for me to enter.
Inside, there are three sales-models languidly posing around the store’s displays: a bottle blond near the perfumes, a brunette at the jewelry case, and a very young, freckled girl with a copper coloured wig in the clothing section. Though the store is barely twenty paces across, these Charlie’s Angels of ennui each sport adorable, brightly colored microphone headsets and earpieces – just what you’d expect if Coco Chanel designed for MI5.
Considering the impact this tiny boutique has on the London fashion scene it is, in many ways like the sales-models themselves, a wisp of very fashionable nothing. This nothingness is enhanced by the bright, white paint that cover its walls and removes all sense of depth. The Jackie O’ display dominates the street side of the store. An Andy Warhol print covers most of the back wall. The floor is dotted with small, well designed spaces that showcase the remainder of the store’s product – some large, brassy jewelry, a couple of bags, one pair of go-go boots, and a belt that has shrunken skulls on it with tufts of coarse, dark human hair. The elder models display a professional level of attitude that presents a formidable barrier to communication. The young, copper-haired model is fastidiously arranging the skull-belt so that it looks like a smiley face. She seems approachable so I speak to her first.
“I’d like the wig that the display model has … “
“Hello” she replies enthusiastically. “Can I help you?”
Her interruption puts me off so I stutter my question a second time, “I’d like the bouffant wig that the display artist is wearing.” The artist, who is standing perfectly still in the store’s tiny window, still dressed as Jackie ‘O, gives me a wink.
“Oh, I’m sorry, but that’s not for sale.”
“What!” I think. “How can a wig in a clothing store not be for sale?” Then a thought strikes me. Perhaps this is a repeat of the dark days of the summer of 1995 when everything that I wanted to buy was reserved for Sarah Ferguson or Princess Di. I say, “Oh, has someone famous already bought the wig? Sting maybe? Or Prince Charles?”
The sales-model nervously adjusts her size 1 dress as she repeats, “No. It’s just not for sale.”
I catch a side-long look of myself in the mirror. “Maybe I’m not dressed up enough to buy it?” I think with trepidation.
The sales-model notices and replies anxiously to my unspoken question. “It’s not that you’re dressed in last season’s style. You look beautiful. It’s just that the wig is not for sale. It is part of the store’s permanent collection.”
I can count on the fingers of one hand the number of things that I’ve really wanted that I didn’t ultimately get. Though right now I am one wedding vow away from being rich, I haven’t always been. I don’t need money. I get what I want because I am persistent. I will suggest, cajole, push, wheedle and on rare occasions even beg to achieve my consumption goals. Despite these formidable skills, I am overwhelmed by despair. The only words that I can utter are “but … signature style.”
These are powerful words to the shopping cognoscenti. The sales-model grasps my hand tightly and looks me directly in the eye. I look up and see a thin tear running down her freckled cheek. I watch as it splashes onto her bony shoulder. “We could sell you something else. Another wig perhaps?” This thought excites her. “Would you consider something a little more mod?” She turns me so that my back faces the store display, and then lightly pushes me towards a corner of the store that I hadn’t noticed before. There, sitting on a plaster pedestal illuminated by ambient light, is a beautiful beehive wig.
“What do you think? It’s made from the same hair as the bouffant wig.”
One of my most important mottoes as a shopper is never to compromise. As soon as you let trivialities like money and convenience guide your purchases you are doomed to mediocrity. I know in my heart of hearts that the bouffant and not the beehive wig is really me; the beehive is too much, but the bouffant is … perfect.
I glance towards the store display.
“I’m sorry, but the bouffant really isn’t for sale.”
I look back at the beehive. It is fun and sexy.
“Would you like to try it on?” the gamin asks.
“Not every outfit can be a signature.”
Though I am heartbroken not to be able to buy the bouffant wig, the girl’s wise words clinch the sale. As I pay for the wig – and the skirt, jacket and go-go boots that go with it – the blond sales-model who had watched my entire shopping spree with listless scorn, activates her headset and speaks one sentence into it in Italian, ”Abbiamo venduto la parrucca, ora puoi comprare la villa a Parma”1
The trip to Calcutta takes the better part of a week. First, we take a private jet to Milan. While I stay for a few days to shop, Gavin goes on ahead. On the flight from Milan to Dubai, to my amazement, I get bumped to economy but make the last leg of my journey in first-class. I arrive at Calcutta airport – or Kolkata as it is now called – tired, cranky and burdened with duty-free goods.
Immediately upon exiting customs I am met by the love of my life, Sir Dudley Gavin Dudley, who is stylishly decked out in a collarless silk shirt and perfectly tailored, tapered black pants. His shoes are hand made. The outfit is entirely new, which cheers me up considerably. “He must have bought these clothes here”, I conclude hopefully. Behind Gavin stand two men in light cotton outfits and mustaches. They both vaguely look like Omar Sharif. Gavin introduces them as Mr. Chatterjee’s men.
As we proceed to our car, a beautiful hunter green jaguar, I look back and see the words DUM DUM AIRPORT broadcast themselves to the world, and smile. Gavin notices and pulls me into his muscular arms. “It’s nice to see you happy, dear heart.”
“I was just laughing at the sign. Was the airport named after Sir Dum Dum the youngest son of the Earl of Stupid, perhaps?”
“Don’t mock my relatives”, Gavin replies sternly.
For a moment I’m taken aback. “Have I offended my fiancé?”, I think. “It certainly is common for aristocrats to have silly names, after all. And Gavin does have a number of nitwit cousins.” Gavin notices my consternation and bursts out laughing. “Actually, a dum-dum is a particularly vicious – and now illegal – type of bullet. This district used to be the British arsenal where the bullets were made.”
“What a way to go, torn apart by a dum-dum bullet.” The thought doesn’t make me laugh as I look out my window and see prematurely aged men pulling rickshaws against the faded backdrop of what once must have been glorious townhouses. The interior of the car seems even more plush when set against this foil of poverty and decay.
After a splendid dinner held in the courtyard of Mr. Chatterjee’s home, which is actually one half of a palace that has been partially converted into an exclusive hotel, tables are cleared and the courtyard is transformed into a market. Along one wall artisans carefully lay out their wares on colourful rugs. In the centre,a group of Rajastani puppeteers and musicians put on a performance.
Though the puppet show is charming, my mind, gaze and eventually body wanders over to the artisans’ stalls to browse and inevitably buy. It takes me but a moment to decide to purchase most of the earrings and silver bangles from the first two artisans. It is not until I reach the third artisan’s table, which contains pieces that are more like fine art than jewelry, that I settle into the shopping groove. One piece in particular catches my eye, a silver bracelet embossed with an array of semi-precious stones.
“How much is this?” I ask.
“For you, 400 rupees” he replies.
“It costs a few pence more than 4 quid”, I think with amazement. This doesn’t seem possible: the bracelet is made of two different rare metals and garnished with 6 expertly cut tiny emeralds. All for the amount of money that I make in five minutes hosting my television show.
I overpay the jeweler, secretly hoping that he will use the money to replace his tattered clothing, and place the brooch around my neck. As I do so, Mr. Chatterjee sidles up beside me. He is accompanied by a handsome young man who looks exactly like Omar Sharif.
”Rebecca, I would like to introduce you to my son, Rajit”
Giving how dashing he is, I expect Rajit to kiss me, but instead he modestly shakes my hand. “That is a beautiful brooch you are wearing. Did you just buy it?” he asks.
He then notices the bags that are lying in a heap at my feet and the empty tables behind me. “I see that you bought more than just the brooch.”
I flash him a guilty smile as I reply, “It is all so beautiful, and so cheap … I mean inexpensive.”
Mr. Chatterjee notices my awkwardness and smoothly interjects, “Rebecca, I have an idea. Tomorrow, while Sir Gavin and I iron out the details of my IPO, why doesn’t Rajit take you shopping?”
I look towards Rajit to see what he thinks of this excellent idea. “I would love to” he replies, “provided Rebecca doesn’t mind.”
“Of course not!”
To my astonishment Mr. Chatterjee then hands his son a wallet that is thick with money. To his son he somberly says, “Take care of her tomorrow. Buy her whatever she wants.” Ravi takes the wallet and places it in his pocket. The transaction is conducted as if the wallet did not even exist: both Chatterjee and his son are both looking at me.
I am beaming, of course.
The next morning I strike quite a figure walking down Lenin Sarani in my Jackie O’ digs. Even without heels I am tall. In go-go boots and a beehive I tower over the locals.
I have to confess that I am initially disappointed by the shopping: the retail stores are a pale imitation of my favorite London shops and the branded goods are more expensive than at home. Though the shopping doesn’t improve, the stores certainly become more interesting when we turn off of the main thoroughfare and enter the New Market.
My favorite stores are magical places where the wares of the world are conveniently gathered and prettily displayed for my consideration and purchase. There is nothing pretty or convenient about the New Market. The streets are crowded with hustling retailers engaged in the rawest forms of commerce. I see chickens tied by their necks to bicycles racks, asphyxiating fish flopping in filthy buckets of water, blacksmiths smelting metal in tiny furnaces, and children creating silver leaf with tiny hammers. You would think that I would feel out of place in my white miniskirt and powder blue boots. But I don’t. The realization gives me a thrill. “This really could be my signature look”, I think, but my sunshiny thought is quickly covered by clouds. “Provided I can find a bouffant wig.”
After 30 minutes of uneventful browsing through silk scarves and jute bags I notice an old woman sitting on the stairs in front of a building. Her tattered clothes are stiff with dirt. She is not wearing shoes. Her thickly calloused feet suggest that she has never worn shoes. I want to help her. I quickly search through my purse. I only have credit cards, a cheque book and odd bits of makeup and accessories. I have left my money behind because this excursion is Mr. Chatterjee’s treat. I consider asking Rajit for some change but hesitate because it may be rude to spend Mr. Chatterjee’s money on a poor, homeless woman. And besides, charity should be personal. If I choose to give I should do so with my own possessions.
An idea pops into my head. I’ll write this woman a cheque. Ten quid seems about right. I pin the cheque to her lapel using a beautiful hat pin from Harrods that is in fact more valuable than the money I’m giving her. As I turn away from her I feel that something isn’t right. A cheque seems such an incomplete present in such an intimate situation. I sift through my purse looking for something else to give her and to my delight I find the perfect gift. Though I cannot be certain what exactly her colours are given how filthy and unkempt she is, my intuition tells me that maroon lipstick will look perfect on her. I place the applicator in one of the folds of her skirt. As I do so, her hand tightly clasps it but she doesn’t wake up.
The encounter leaves me inexplicably fatigued. Rajit senses this and signals for our car. Our next stop is the Barabazar market. We take the Strand along the Hugli River, towards the Howrah Bridge. The roads are appallingly congested, apparently because of a cricket match between Dhaka and Calcutta that is about to begin. In the shadow of the bridge, across from the Armenian Ghat, a flash of tinsel catches my eye. My gaze drifts towards the bridge … I can’t believe what I see. I shout “Rajit, stop the car!” It’s an impossible request: though the traffic is crawling it nevertheless has an inexorable momentum. Fortunately, we’re only moving at 2 kilometres an hour so I don’t injure myself as I leap out of the car door and race towards a tiny wig shop that is nestled in the shadow of the bridge. I really can’t believe it. There in the window is the same beehive wig that I am wearing.
The beehive wig is not why I am here. Synchronicity with loud accessories is not a good thing. For starters, the best accessories are always expensive because you can’t skimp on gaudiness, and, as I have learned from my work as a financial reporter, one of the components of a high price is scarcity. To see an expensive accessory that you thought was unique and outrageous in a tumbledown store can be devastating…
Seeing my wig here suggests that perhaps …
Rajit catches up to me at the entrance to the store and manages to hold the door open for me as I enter. The store owner at first says nothing to me but merely looks at my beehive wig and then at the wig in the window. She has an expression of disbelief on her face, mixed with – I’m not certain what. After a moment of silence Rajit impatiently says something to her in Bangla. To my surprise she then addresses me in English.
“What is your name?”, she asks. She has an Oxford English accent.
“Rebecca” I hesitantly reply. “Call me Becky.”
“My name is Rachana” she replies. As the shop-keeper addresses me Rajit fades out of the front door in order to assist our driver, who is having an animated discussion with a police officer.
“I bought mine in London.” I point to my wig and then at the one in the window and laugh. I fear that this may not be the best conversation starter but the wig in the window is the reason why I am here.
“Do you like it? It was made with my daughter’s hair.” After she says this Rachana pokes her head through the beaded curtain behind where she is sitting at the cash register, and speaks quietly in Bangla to someone in the back room. A wisp of a girl responds to her call. The child’s colourful sari is clean, if somewhat ragged. Her alert, dark eyes and thin gamin look remind me of the sales model at Bouffe who sold me my outfit.
Now I have as dirty a mind as any Essex girl. But it is a nice dirty that fantasizes about alternative uses for silk scarves, for example, or what kind of lingerie should start where my thigh-high boots end. Looking at this girl whose jet black hair I am wearing on my head seems raw, even vaguely obscene to me. Perhaps that is why I take off my wig as I kneel down beside her, so that my eyes are level with hers. Though she shyly plays with her dark tresses as I kneel she does not flinch. She is a very beautiful girl. I hope that Gavin and I have a daughter that is this pretty.
Then a most unsettling thought races through my head. “I don’t just want this girl’s hair, I want her.” I wonder, “Can you adopt someone who has parents? Can it be done in person or does it require a broker? How much does it cost?” I restrain my enthusiasm. “Hold on! I mustn’t be hasty”, I think. “If I am considering adopting her then I should find out if we get along.” While still looking into her beautiful brown eyes I ask her mother, “Does she speak English?” Her mother nods. The child says nothing, but continues to look at me. “What is your name?” I ask.
The child continues to play with her hair for another moment and then to my delight, replies, “Rosa. After Rosa Luxembourg. Do you know who Rosa Luxembourg is?”
I recognize the name from a college history class, so nod vaguely yes as I present the child with my beehive wig. “Rosa, this wig is made from your hair. I bought it in London.” The child responds to my words with a very expressive look, though I have difficulty determining exactly what it is she is expressing.
I continue to speak, “Everyone thinks the wig is really cool.”
The child bursts into a smile but steps away from me and closer to her mother, who puts her hand affectionately onto her child’s head. I know in that beautiful, sad moment that I will never possess this child. Rosa’s place is here, with her own mother.
My reflective mood is dispelled by the shopkeeper, who asks “Miss Becky, are you looking for another wig?” As she say this she hands me the same bouffant wig that I could not buy for love or money in London!
I gingerly inspect it. I don’t know exactly what I am looking for – cobras, perhaps – then quickly put it on and pose in front of the mirror. Though there is such a subtle difference between a bouffant and a beehive, the bouffant is the look for me. I look so good that I squeal with delight. In fact I look exactly like the display model at Bouffe.
As I think this I freeze in terror.
A good shopper is never derivative. To look like a store display is to say to the world, I have no creativity; I do not deserve to call myself a shopper. I am simply someone who picks and choses, or worse I am no more than a compulsive spender of money. This harsh realization breaks my heart, and judging from the look on the shopkeeper’s face, her heart as well. My hands actually shake as I remove the wig and return it to her. I wistfully say, “It is very beautiful, but no thank you.”
I’m feeling guilty and unsettled by my sudden change of heart so I look for something to buy. Ten scarves, 3 saris and 5 coarse but durable jute bags later I return to our car.
As we slowly pull away from the wig store towards Mohandas Gandhi boulevard, a poor looking woman with a finely wrought necklace made of beer can tabs, bangs on the window of our car. She speaks – or more accurately moans – at me and then thrusts her naked child against the glass of the car window directly opposite my face. Our driver shouts at her to leave us in peace while I reflect on my shopping experiences.
“What would you like to buy next?” Rajit asks, once we’ve pulled away from the beggar and her child.
“How about jewelry?” I suggest.
“That is a very good choice. I have an excellent suggestion for you.” He pulls out his mobile phone and makes an appointment.
We turn off of Mohandas Gandhi Boulevard onto a winding street called Biplabi Trailakya Sarani that leads directly into the Barabazar Market. As we approach our destination the dress of the men changes dramatically. The area under the bridge had been dominated by mustached men in dhoti, while the men in this neighbourhood wear pants, and most have beards. At one point a tall, thin man who is entirely naked walks by, whisking the ground in front of him with a swatch of twigs. From his actions I assume he’s a nutter, however the crowd parts reverentially to let him pass.
Our car stops in front of a textile store. I am deep in conversation with the owner before Rajit has had time to tell me that the jeweler who we are visiting lives upstairs. The jeweler, Samir, is a small, round man with a well-kept beard that is several shades greyer than his hair. He wears a tiny pillbox hat, a brightly braided vest, and printed pajama pants. The combination of this outfit and his obsequious manner makes me think of him as a chauffeur for a magic carpet service.
Perhaps I am being harsh, for despite appearances, Samir has tremendous skill as a jeweler. I am impressed – almost overwhelmed – by the samples that he shows me. His materials are the best and his subjects are varied. I could wear his pieces dressed as Jackie O’, as a punk rocker or for evensong. Once again I am paralyzed by choice. I wonder if it would be excessive to buy everything.
As I sit pondering my next move Rajit breaks the silence. “Samir, this is not your best work.”
Samir replies calmly, ignoring Rajit’s patrician tone. “Sir, this is my best work. However, you are correct in implying that it is not the best jewelry I have to sell. My best piece was made by an unknown craftsman. Behold.”
I have always thought about what it must be like to be a princess and to be able to wear accessories that are national treasures. But the pragmatic side of me until now has prevailed: “That diamond and emerald encrusted crown is beautiful” I would think during my visits to the Tower of London, “but I certainly can’t wear it with a slight, sexy, black dress. Helen Gurly Brown would surely rise from the dead to take me to hell if I did that … And for sure that ermine collar is going to get spray-painted by animal rights activists!”
That is how I would joke about treasures before I saw the Raj Mahal Tiara.
Samir speaks as he unlocks a tiny silver box, “This piece comes from the Raj Mahal Hills, which is a remote area in northwestern Bengal on the border with Bihar.” As he tells me this story, he opens the box and removes a crimson pillow on which rests a gorgeous band of wrought platinum inset with deep blue star sapphires. “The Hills are in a region that was ignored by the world until the Mughals arrived from Afghanistan. Then the Hills’ position overlooking a narrow point on the Ganges River became very strategic. First the Bengalis built a fortress. Then the Mughals stormed it and took the area for their own. Later, under the British, when the border between Bengal and Bihar ceased to matter, the fortress was still used, though to suppress local dissent. The peasants who lived there were reduced to poverty by the wars and eventually the Zemandars, who ruled the area, enslaved them.” He pauses dramatically and then says, “It was those slaves who mined these sapphires”
I am transfixed by the star sapphires. “It looks like there are little angels dancing on the stones”, I say haltingly.
“Some say those are the souls of those who died mining the stones.”
“Can I have it?”
Both Samir and I look to Rajit for an answer.
I stop breathing while I wait for a response. “Rajit has to say yes.” I think. “He has an entire purse full of money, after all. How much can this piece cost?” I answer that question myself. “A lot. Maybe a room full of money.”
Rajit says something quietly and quickly to Samir in Bangla and then nods assent.
I exhale a little bit too loudly as I thank Rajit, a thanks I cut short because I cannot keep myself away from the treasure on the crimson pillow. “The tiara will go perfectly with my Jackie Onassis outfit and wig”, I think.”…the bouffant wig I didn’t buy.”
I’m suddenly alarmed.
“Rajit, can we buy the tiara and leave?”
“Certainly.” As Rajit pays Samir he asks, “Who won the test match?”
“You don’t know?” Samir sounds surprised, “The game never ended.”
“What do you mean?”
“An umpire made a very unfavourable call against Kolkata. You’d better be careful driving home. There are groups of hooligans causing trouble throughout the city. There is even a rumour that Sourav Ganguly himself has been called to restore order.2 The rioting is particularly bad near the Howrah Bridge…”
Where my wig is.
As we exit, I hesitantly ask Rajit if it will be OK for us to quickly pick up my wig before returning to Ravi’s place. He insists that we will have to return for it tomorrow because of the riot.
My flight home is tomorrow.
Our car exits from the bazaar exactly where we entered, just below the Armenian Ghat, on the edge of the River. Through a thick, restless crowd, I can see the wig shop. I imagine that I can even see the anxious look on Rachana’s face as she struggles to bar the entrance to her shop. Though she is so very close, she might as well be on a different planet; the crowd is impassable and looks dangerous.
Some people think that shopaholism is about compulsive materialism. That’s like saying that anorexia is about the denial of food. It is a true but shallow statement. Shopping for me is about defining who I am in an ungrounded world full of choices. I remember when I first realized I was a shopaholic. I was a little child. I wasn’t buying anything. I didn’t even fully understand what buying was. I had just dressed up in one of my sister’s outfits and some of my grandmother’s costume jewelry. When I looked at myself in the mirror I thought, “I love how I look. This is so cool.” It was a complete feeling.
I normally reserve such stories for my therapist, but I tell you this one to explain what I do next.
As our driver leans his elbow onto our car’s horn and begins a slow turn right, away from the store I have the profound realization that my signature style is nobody’s priority but my own. If I do not get that wig now I will never get it. And I have to get it myself. Before Rajit realizes what I am doing, I step out of our idling Maruti, slam the door shut behind me, and am immediately sucked into the centre of the riot.
I briefly glance back towards the car. Rajit is struggling to exit but the Maruti has now been completely enveloped by the crowd and he can’t open the car door. One exuberant fellow is actually standing on its hood shouting and waving a cricket bat wildly around his head.
“I must keep focused”, I think as I continue to push forward. “I must get to the wig shop before Rachana finishes barricading the entrance.”
Though I am in the middle of a cricket riot I am somehow not a part of it and my presence – aside from the odd astonished look – goes … if not unnoticed, at least unobstructed. Without too much effort I tack across the flow of the crowd and break free several metres from my destination. Thankfully Rachana is still struggling with the metal gate that she uses to protect her shop. It seems rusty and rarely used. “The wig! The wig!” I shout above the noise of the riot but she doesn’t appear to understand me. Instead she wordlessly marshals me into her shop and then gestures for me to hold a bent metal bar in place while she padlocks the metal gate. which she had finally succeeded in pulling down to the ground. I am so relieved to have made it into the store before it is closed that it takes me a moment to realize that we are now sealed in. I reach into my bag for my cell phone to call Rajit, but it is not there.
The bouffant wig is where I left it. I pick it up and walk towards the cash register to pay. To my surprise Rachana turns off the lights and pushes me and her daughter into the back room. There’s a bearded man there already. He politely introduces himself as Mohsin. I look closely at how he is dressed. Suddenly things begin to make sense. Though Rachana is Hindu, at least culturally, her husband is Moslem. That might be a problem right now.
I haven’t even completed this thought when a crowd of people start banging on the metal gate and shouting. As they bang I wonder what the rioters are wearing. Are they men wearing dhoti’s who look like so many angry Omar Sharifs, or are they bearded and dressed in pajama pants and pillbox hats. Are there women with them? What about teenagers and children?
We remain silent while, for one tense moment, the rioters try to break through the metal gate. After a long moment, they give up and drift away to other easier targets.
“What did they want?” I ask Rachana.
She doesn’t answer my question. After a brief, uncomfortable pause her daughter Rosa does. “The men want to kill my father because he is a low caste Moslem and a communist.”
I don’t have a response to this so I bring the conversation back to the topic that is foremost on my mind. “I’d like to buy this wig. Which credit cards do you take?” I lay my best cards down like a royal flush. To my surprise there is a long pause before Rachana answers, “We don’t take credit cards.”
… and I have no cash.
This is one of those moments that separate the pros from the amateurs. “Rachana, I have an idea. Why don’t we trade?” She looks at me skeptically so I hastily add “… I’ll give you my wig, which must be worth the same as my wig, and as an extra I’ll give you this broach”, which I hope to god is as real as the money I paid for it. The merchant carefully inspects the gold and emerald brooch for a moment and then to my relief she nods assent.
I have a feeling of profound trepidation as I replace my beehive wig with the bouffant. I look into a large mirror beside the cash register and see reflections of myself in the mirrors that are scattered around the store walls and woven into its wears. I reach into my purse, remove the Raj Mahal Tiara and put it on. I can confirm from thousands of reflections that I have completed my look.
At that very moment someone starts banging on the door of the shop. It turns out it’s Rajit’s man. He’s come back for me! It takes only a few moments to unbolt the door. As I exit, Rajit sees me and immediately beings talking on his cell phone. I see to my relief that the rioters have moved on. A moment later a hunter green Jaguar pulls up in front of the store and out bursts my dear fiancé Gavin who rushes over to me and gives me a huge hug. A long moment later we separate and he checks me out, “Bexx, I expected to find your mutilated corpse, but … but … not this … you look perfect.”
The next morning is my last. The plan is for one of Ravi’s men to drive me to the airport. We leave in the late morning after a leisurely breakfast. The streets are empty compared with yesterday, so our journey is uneventful. As I sit in the rear of the car I find myself in a pensive mood. Having found my signature style I feel unexpectedly unsettled, like a sailor who has stepped off of a ceaselessly rocking boat onto solid ground. The quest for a signature style, which has been such a defining characteristic of my life, is now over. Undoubtedly a time will come when I will feel compelled to change my look again, but that time is in the distant future. What will my next move be now? Can I be content simply expressing the identity I have chosen for myself?
At the entrance to the airport, at the point where the rickshaw drivers patiently wait at that invisible but all too real barrier between powered and human traffic, I have my driver stop our car and say to him, “Can you please ask one of the rickshaw drivers over there who speaks for them?” I ask. He looks at me quizzically so I rephrase the question. “Please ask to whom they pay baksheesh.” He shrugs then rolls down the window, says something quickly to one of the rickshaw drivers, and then addresses me. “Their manager is not here, Madame.”
Perfect. “Please wait”, I say as I step out of the car and approach the cluster of rickshaws. The drivers are a thin, unkempt lot, wearing rude dhotis. Their shoes are made of some form of recycled rubber, probably old tires. I am impressed with the craftsmanship, but saddened. You can only do so much with such material.
“Do any of you speak English?” I ask. Most nod mutely no, but one man speaks up. “I do Madame. Can I help you? Would you like a ride to the airport?”
“No.” As I reply, I remove what remains of my money from my pocket and divide the bills into ten groups, one pile for each rickshaw driver plus one pile for my driver. When I am done distributing the money, the English speaker asks again, “We are all most grateful for your gift, Madame. Please, can we help you?”
“There is no need. Chatterjee’s man is taking care of me.” I nod to my driver.
The rickshaw driver rolls his head in agreement but nevertheless asks again. “Are you certain that there is no help that we can give you?”
I look into the back seat of the car, which is crammed full of packages. On top of the pile I see my carry-on suitcase, which I know contains my bouffant wig and tiara. “No thank you. I have more than enough.”
1. Bouffe is a reference to Opera Bouffe, typically a light, comic Italian or French opera.
2. The Italian phrase ”Abbiamo venduto la parrucca, ora puoi comprare la villa a Parma” means “Now you can buy your villa in Parma”, which is an indirect way of suggesting that the outfit Bexx has just purchased is expensive.
3. Sourav Ganguly was am extremely famous cricket star in the Oughts. This reference is added for the benefit of readers who are familiar with Kolkata to underscore the seriousness of the cricket riot.
4. Rosa Luxembourg was a famous German communist revolutionary who was murdered in January 1919. The child is named after her to emphasize that the wig manufacturing family is aware of the class ramifications of Bexx’s materialism. This is not such a stretch. There is a very strong tradition of communism in Kolkata. That’s why one of its main streets is called Lenin Sarani.
This story was originally written for a media and the law course. I hope that I have succeeded in parodying Kinsella’s series as much as is allowed by our first amendment rights – but no more. This is a friendly parody. I also hope that my work gently prods shopaholics everywhere to consider how it is that their relentless pursuit of style is harming themselves and our planet.
Because I am writing a parody of an English book, I have chosen to use English spellings. I have chosen to use Calcutta instead of Kolkata in the title to underscore the class divide between Bexx, Gavin, and the people of Kolkata.
If you see any grammar or writing errors, I would kindly appreciate your input. I find my paragraphs can get overloaded with moods, tenses and aspects!
I can’t believe you got this far, thank you for reading!