The wind chimes clinked as a tall, brown-haired young man walked in, backpack slung carelessly across his left shoulder. The chimes tinkled and jangled every time the door was opened and shut. The shop was warm, charming and tastefully arranged. And why not, when old Mrs. Lim, a rich Chinese lady who had taken an Indian husband against much opposition, had so much money to spend on delightful things, on things other than ‘necessities’. ‘It wouldn’t be too bad to be rich, would it now,’ Aarti thought, when her tendencies towards a life of simplicity and renunciation took a more worldly turn, as often happened the moment she stepped into this wonderful, curious shop to take her turn at the cash counter. Surrealism. The name suited the shop beautifully. In fact, it seemed quite like sacrilege to call it a shop at all. It had spirit, it embodied many unidentifiable, inseparable emotions and ideas, it warmed and comforted broken hearts; it was a shop only in the sense that it drew metal and paper out of unwary, bulging pockets.
Tucked away in a remote corner of the city, Surrealism never did draw enough attention. It wasn’t meant to be a commercial venture, it was just a means for Mrs. Lim to flaunt her Oriental riches, to attempt intelligent conversations in broken German, French and Italian, and fluent Chinese, with the tourists who trickled in, and to provide a decent income to the three young women who worked for her. Aarti was one of them.
Aarti worked part-time at Surrealism. She came in as soon as her classes ended for the day, a slim, weary-eyed twenty-year-old making her way through the narrow streets from college to this enchanting land of dreams and antiquity. The lecherous glances of some men (she wasn’t pretty; but what girl has to be, to draw lewd glances from those corrupt eyes), the bothersome roommates whose ideas were always poles apart from hers, the sorrows of the heart, big and small, all packed themselves into one huge case which stowed itself away into some distant recess of her mind the moment she entered the shop, to be retrieved only when she came out of her stupor. Each new day, every time she came in, she felt like a first-timer here. No matter how familiar the red and gold decor, the positioning of the furniture, the stacks of beads and rosaries and the statues of the Buddha, there was always something new to be discovered, something wondrous and magical. She couldn’t quite put her finger on this one thing, and had several times decided to stop trying, only to unbend her resolution and go back to attempting to discover just what it was about Surrealism that mystified her so.
The week-long Christmas vacation had finally come around, and Aarti was glad of the chance to put in longer hours at the shop to cover for Natalie (who would on no account be denied her Christmas break, come rain or shine, poverty, even absolute penury). The extra money was definitely welcome, but what attracted her most was the opportunity to revel in the surroundings that suited her best, more than home (or the semblance of it in the two-room flat she shared with three other girls), and the company of Mrs. Lim.
“Three days gone, Aarti,” said Mrs. Lim in her papery, not unkind voice, as Wednesday dawned bright and clear, two days before Christmas. “Three days of Christmas week, and I have hardly had any customers.”
“You don’t mind that much, do you, Mrs. Lim?” asked Aarti, pulling off her black cardigan and stowing it away neatly in a desk under the counter. “Except for the conversation, that is.” She put some coffee on, and turned to Mrs. Lim, looking clean and matronly, wrapped in a bright, colourful shawl, booty from the North East of India, her grey hair brushed neatly back into a bun.
“Yes, I miss the conversation. I definitely do. The money doesn’t really matter, it comes and goes, though I must confess things are getting a little difficult now.” She ran her age-withered fingers affectionately over a stack of leather-bound Chinese volumes, flicked some invisible dust off the glass surface of the table by which she sat, ensconced comfortably in a wicker chair. “Surrealism has been my only solace from the madness of the world. This place works wonders on me, Aarti. Though I know it inside out, every time I come in, I feel like there is some niche waiting to be discovered, some unknown spirit beckoning to me to come and make myself familiar to it. I can hardly understand the feeling.”
Aarti was quiet. So she wasn’t the only one. That made her feel a little strange, an absurd pain piercing through her bosom. She had always liked to believe she was different from the rest of the crowd, that there was something about her that gave her an aura of distance and mystery and a deep understanding, unfathomable to others, of inexplicable phenomena. She almost felt angry with Mrs. Lim for feeling the same way as she did. She silently poured out the coffee into two intricately designed cups, handed one of them to Mrs. Lim and carried the other back to the counter. She settled down with a book on Sufism, to all appearance keeping boredom at bay while she awaited the first customer for the day, though her attention was as far away from this brand of mysticism as possible, thoughts running riot at the back of her mind.
The noise. It was in her head again. The same noise that rang out like heavy cymbals, unceasing waves and the roar and insanity of traffic as she struggled to fall asleep every night, coming to a sudden stop the moment she abandoned the effort, the trance-inducing silence gently taking over and guiding her into a beguiling, satisfying slumber. Another of the innumerable mysteries it was, this incongruous noise, followed by an almost equally deafening silence which brought about tranquility and peace, as pure as the snow-fed, clear water of the brooks flowing on the upper reaches of unpolluted virgin mountains.
The first customers came and went. A tiresome middle-aged Indian couple, who wanted to be shown everything, wanted to touch and feel everything, looked uncomprehendingly at the masterly strokes of the Chinese alphabet in the aforementioned leather volumes, and then decided to buy nothing. “Just not good enough,” Aarti heard the husband whisper surreptitiously to his wife as they walked out, the woman’s hands reluctantly letting go of a jade necklace she had been admiring as he strode out, calling to her to come impatiently.
“Not enough taste,” Aarti felt like calling back, but pressed her lips into a thin line and continued with her book. She noticed that Mrs. Lim hadn’t even looked up all the while the couple were in the shop, not bothering to strike up a conversation with them as she did with more interesting, well-read, discerning customers. Mrs. Lim knew. She knew who the genuine lovers of art and mysticism were, who had it in them to appreciate quality. She had, of course, watched out of the corner of her eye as the husband commented and the wife whined, storing up in her mind for later criticism these specimens of inappropriate behaviour and ill-breeding.
The next customers were worse than this silly couple, a group of giggling girls who laughed endlessly at all that was morbid and dreary, tried to shoplift but gave up the attempt under Mrs. Lim’s piercing glance, finally walking out as the air started to get a little too heavy for uninterested minds.
And now, as Aarti settled back on her perch a third time, walked in the next threat to her peace and quiet, or to aggravate the noise in her head, the young man with brown hair. Aarti glanced up, put down her book, adjusted her glasses on the bridge of her nose, pushed back the invisible loose strand of hair behind her ear. Oblivious as she believed herself to be to the charms of young men, of foreign tourists who breezed in and breezed out, absorbed only in the curious things they came to collect, she couldn’t quite resist these little feminine indiscretions. She fell prey, often unknowingly, to the guiles that had been ingrained in her soul as an inheritance of the ages- hoping to be noticed, while pretending not to seek attention, though doing everything she possibly could to that very end.
Aarti slid off the stool, feeling unaccustomedly self-conscious, feeling the keen green eyes of the stranger bore into hers as he asked her a question in broken, exquisitely accented English. For the first time in her life, she simpered and stumbled as she answered a straightforward question, her usual confidence and poise taking an unnatural beating. Seeing that he had managed to elicit an answer where he saw none forthcoming, the foreigner embarked on another, more difficult question, hoping and praying to be lucky this time as well. Aarti hoped and prayed for confidence as well, wondering at her stupidity, angry with this stranger for having shown her in such bad light. Her anger gave her courage; she was soon drawn into a philosophic discussion on Chinese burial rituals with him, and they were both as sombre and as argumentative as they could get. Mrs. Lim, mistress of wisdom when it came to her beloved China, wisely refrained from pitching in when she saw the discussion go horribly off track, the two novices wading into unknown waters and floundering for support.
The discussion came to an abrupt halt. The business of buying and selling had been completely forgotten; Surrealism was ostentatiously a shop, but something else in heart and soul, a place that fostered conversation and a communion of kindred spirits. Then, the young man whose name was Heinz, said hesitantly, “There is something about this place, you know. I have been coming here since I was a boy, on trips with my parents, and now on my own for the first time; I begin to think I know it well, but then every time I come, I feel like it is a new journey. I have never known this feeling elsewhere. Can you tell me why?”
And he bent his head and looked keenly at the ground, as if expecting to find the keys to this great mystery in the smooth stone floor, to come seeping out and engulf him and protect him from the intense embarrassment he was experiencing, having finally asked a question that had bothered him for as long as he could remember.
Aarti stood rooted to the spot. All these weeks that she had worked here, she had heard this weird idea being voiced only twice. And in just one day. By two people, one of whom she loved and respected, the other…she suddenly realized that the noise in her head had abated, a clear consciousness was taking over.
“I know what you mean, Heinz. I feel the same way, and so does Mrs. Lim.” She spoke breathlessly, for this was the only question of Heinz’s that she didn’t have an answer to, and she didn’t want to admit it. She didn’t want him to think her stupid, or to think himself stupid, as he was evidently doing. She wanted to comfort him and tell him that it was okay to ask strange questions, rhetorical questions, questions that didn’t come with packaged answers.
“It’s okay if some mysteries lie unsolved, Heinz.”
“Is it?” A touch of scepticism came into his voice, and he looked askance at her.
“Yes, it is,” replied Aarti, the conviction in her voice wavering a little, as if mirroring his own doubts, but she continued forcefully, building up on the artifice. “All of us have these questions in our minds, and it’s okay to talk about them, because others have the same doubts as well. It is only natural that we should, human that we are.”
“So, you’ve been feeling the same way?”
“Ever since I’ve been working here.” The familiarity should help drive away the awkwardness, she thought, make him feel more comfortable and at home.
“And Mrs. Lim, too?”
“Yes. In fact, she told me so just this morning.”
“Okay. Then I guess there is nothing unique or different about it. Sorry I took so much of your time.” A look of mingled incredulity and disappointment swept into his eyes, he clutched at the strap of his backpack, turned and shuffled out of the doorway. He had worked his way to the Big Question carefully, prepared a great deal for it, spent agonising hours wondering if he would find anybody here capable enough to give him a sensible solution to his problem. Never had he dreamt it was such a commonplace thing. Not a word of thanks, no goodbye, just a wave of disappointment left in his wake.
The wind chimes tinkled as the door banged shut, disturbing the reverie that wrapped the store and its contents in a perennial dream, temporarily awakening the dormant spirits that awaited discovery. Bringing reality barging in like a marauder come to rip the romantics of their right to imagination and dreams. And with such success!