One of my best friends in Kerala seemed to know people everywhere he went. At our usual lunch eatery, after having unnu, he'd make us all wait as he talked away in Malayalam to the cashier. “I have been coming here and seeing him for so many years,” he said. Outside as we got into his car, a passing motorcyclist would stop and they would talk for a minute. “I went to school with that chap. He's a mechanic actually, he fixes my car.” At the petrol pump, attendants would serve him first: “Every time I am giving few extra rupees so they come fast.”
My friend just seemed so cool, swaggering into random shops and swanning about like he owned the place. He'd flash exaggerated hand gestures, a broad grin and his immaculately kept moustache as high-class supplements to his gift of the gab. I wondered how I could be like that, especially in a place that gave me daily reminders of my 'outsider' status.
Somehow, I managed it with most of the shop staff at Puthooram Margin Free Bazaar, my local supermarket in Varkala. Through a combination of perseverance and daring, I'd become friendly with the guys at the vegetable stand and the gaggle of young ladies milling about the store. Our conversations were almost always superficially meaningless, about transitory topics such as the weather or the ongoing roadworks outside, but the fact that we were having them at all after the initial trials was incredibly meaningful – to me, at least. The only nut left to crack was also the toughest: the ageing, bald-headed, supremely indifferent proprietor, whom I never saw leave his station behind the cash till.
The difference between the manager and the other staff is that I never saw him perk up for anybody, let alone this amusingly lanky saip. Not even the neighbourhood aunties, with their piercing stares and iron will, received anything other than monosyllables. Sometimes he could be seen holding a conversation, but it was always more of a monologue – a stream of verbiage directed by him at some hapless bystander – that actively discouraged anything other than plain nods from the object of his obvious wisdom.
These monologues – issued with insistence and a raised voice, but without apparent anger – were sometimes inflicted upon an unsuspecting shopgirl but, strangely, never incited them to actually do something. This is something I could never understand. I could see countless ways of improving the Puthooram retail environment. Reposition the metal wire shelves of Lay's chips, for example, so that they are adjacent to the cashier and a more powerful invitation for noisy children to pester their parents. Hell, just stack the cans of Axe upright on the shelf instead of leaving them rolling awkwardly into each other. This is what I would have been telling my staff to do, but not him. The shopgirl would always return to the exact same task with which she had been occupying herself. Two purposeless roles cancelling each other out: on one side, the manager's immovable, unrelenting mini-tirades; on the other, the shopgirl's dimly receptive resistance, soaking up his mini-tirades as he wound down his overwhelming need to speak.
These monologues often occurred in the midst of a transaction, and while he would look the recipient in the eye from his comfortable perch behind the till, I - the hapless customer - was lucky if he even looked at my face. He would scrutinise my items and take far longer than seemed necessary to locate the Maximum Retail Price and enter it into his calculator. The calculator, of course, was not only a device for adding up the contents of my basket but also a communicative tool: instead of speaking the words “Total 97 rupees” he could instead thrust the calculator absentmindedly under my nose.
I tried to engage him a few times before I realised the futility of it. Joking around wasn't going to get me 'in' with this guy. He had no need of being friendly with random strangers. This was his town, and more importantly, this was his shop. He was a made man – because in a small town, the small business owner is king.
The manager demanded a different strategy, one which was likely to yield no results other than to limit my feelings of embarrassment. I made no attempt to crack a silly joke and make him smile, or position myself as an assertive customer who would dictate the terms of the transaction. Instead, I adopted a policy of plain deference. Through straightforward politeness and always being prepared with as close to the right change as possible, I made myself significant only in the way I looked up to him (on his throne, two feet below my eye level).
Something interesting and wonderful happened: over time, he actually warmed to me as he did to apparently nobody else. He noticed that I was coming back again and again, over a period of months (unlike the usual fly-in-fly-out tourists), and seemed to feel the growing chatter from the other staff whenever I entered the shop. His usual terseness softened a little. He started telling me the total cost with words rather than with the calculator's bland figures. And finally, one day, he fixed me with that magnetic stare and asked me a question.
“You are staying here, isn't it?”
“Yes,” I replied with a smile. “I live just five minutes that way.”
“You have come here many times!” he exclaimed.
I shrugged. “It's a good supermarket.”
At this, he smiled. “Thank you,” he said, handing me my change.
“Thank you!” I said back – and left, not wanting to trouble him further (or risk beginning our friendship with one of his trademark monologues).
With this exchange, he allowed just a little bit of his personality to creep out - removing a brick or two from the wall, as it were. It was on his terms and initiated entirely by him. This is how it is done with your rural Kerala elders. Our conversations grew longer and more in-depth to the point where we even started discussing the favourite Malayali topic – politics – and offering our theories on corruption in India. He showed genuine interest in my endeavours, and I in his. Of all the staff, I was ultimately on closest terms with him.
So, exhale. It had taken literally months of effort but I was finally friendly with everyone in the shop. The evolution of customer service was complete. I know this because shortly before my departure from India, I took my much-loved friend to Puthooram Margin Free Bazaar, along with a couple of other out-of-town friends, and acted like a beloved and all-loving bigshot. After we finished stocking up on peanuts, chips and snack mixture, I made them wait and watch on as the manager and I talked loudly about something or other.
I didn't realise it at the time, but that moment represented one of the greatest achievements of all my years in Kerala.
Photo credit: Jeremy Sabol