This short trip down memory lane was sparked off by an article I read some time ago – by Newton D’Souza in Mangalorean.com (Mangalorean Voices).
When I read Newton’s article about Abbu whose name ‘could have been Abraham, Abubaker or even Abhay’, I remembered that we too had our own Abbu on the street where we lived. He used to run the corner shop, the ‘Kakaungadi’, ‘Kakashop’, or ‘Kakakadai’ as it was variously known to all living in the lane.
Abbu was an elderly Mapla from Kerala who opened this small corner shop in what was mainly a Mangalorean-Anglo Indian locality in Bangalore Cantonment. Each house then was complete with huge windswept drives, a backyard contingent of fowls and some had `grunters too’, as well as outhouses and huge metal vessels called barnds, in which bath water was prepared by burning garden waste.
Abbu opened his shop in a neighbor’s outhouse /garage and it soon became the focal point for giving directions -"When you reach the ‘Kakaungadi’ take the next right from there," or it could be "Ours is the 4 house from the ‘Kakaungadi’" etc. One could set their watches when Abbu opened shop in the morning, even on wintry mornings when Bangalore got quite chill and one’s breath condensed like fog and it was a struggle to get out from under one’s blankets.
Abbu’s day started with selling ‘dairy’ milk’ – a change from the local milkman bringing his cow to be milked in front of the house. In the cow system, the udder was washed in front of the memsaab’s eagle eye. But so skilled was the turning over of the pail and the start of milking the cow, that it was always a heated point of debate between milkman and memsaab about whether some washing water still remained in the pail!
Present day banks could learn a thing or two from Abbu’s easy credit system, in which he issued small pocket books and almost everything could be brought on credit from 5-pisa sweets, to the monthly rations and the account was settled at salary time. No need to have ready cash, just take the book.
Husbands/fathers could drink freely and quite few did so with gusto, confident that the wife lived on Abbu’s credit and the family would not starve. This credit was a big hit with us children too and invariably we used to get a good pasting for misusing the book – "Do you think money grows on trees?" "No ma, only in Abbu’s book."
The elder boys in the lane learnt their smoking here. We, the next in line, used to get just about anything imaginable at Abbu’s. I personally took a fancy to sucking salty Maggie soup cubes of all things. And when Abbu’s sons, who were studying in Kozikode, visited him over the holidays it was a grand time for all of us – free halva and banana chips galore.
Abbu used to keep his shop open till 11.00 p.m., which was really very strange because by 7.30-8.00p.m. the roads were deserted. For the many Catholic families it was their 7.30 before dinner Rosary, for others it was read a book, or sit looking at the stars, or it was "family bonding time" and then off to early bed as TV’s were not yet in vogue.
…I learnt a lesson which has held me in good stead since then – that just a little extra effort was what counted against all odds….
Some odd strains of a record player/radio wafted through the night air and nothing much stirred, but come what may – rain, cold winter night or mosquitoes by the zillion – still Abbu closed shop only at about 11p.m. Some caustic comments were, "He is out there only to make as much profit as he can." or "He likes keeping the bandicoots company, that’s why he is open so late." Or even ruder, "He has no family life so does not know what to do with his time."
As I grew older I too was quite curious to know why Abbu closed so late (especially given that it was a frequent topic of discussion). I knew one of Abbu’s sons, Ibrahim, quite well and he had by now joined his father who was quite old. Through Ibrahim I came to know the reason for this late closing of shop?
Abbu’s story was that every night between 10.30 and 11.00 an elderly Marathi /North Karnataka Brahmin would come to his shop and pick up a single tablet of camphor which he would take to the nearby Banyan tree and burn, do his puja and vanish down the road. Abbu would never see him during the day – but come 10.30p.m. and the elderly Brahmin was there to buy just this one camphor tablet and nothing else. He would ask Abbu how his day was and wish him well for the next day and go – no family stories, no other topic of discussion. The language of conversation was Tamil as Abbu did not know Marathi or Kannada and the Brahmin gentleman did not know Malayalam (talk about finding common ground!). Abbu said that it had became such a habit waiting for this Brahmin gentleman that he just could not imagine closing the ‘Kakaungadi’ before he came and went.
What really struck me at the time was Abbu’s dedication in waiting for just this one customer and then closing. Maybe subconsciously I learnt a lesson which has held me in good stead since then – that just a little extra effort was what counted against all odds.
But now as I look back there is a certain irony in all of this – Consider that it was a Kerala Mapla leaving his family behind to set up shop in a strong Mangalore-Anglo lane in Bangalore and he waited daily beyond the call of duty for a Marathi/Kannada Brahmin and both did not know a word of each others’ languages.
As happens, time moved on and Abbu is now long gone (RIP). His shop was torn down to become part of a swanky apartment complex , his son moved to greener pastures (read the Gulf), the neighborhood corner shops are now Foodworld and Reliance Fresh, where payment is made through a Master or Visa card.
The poorer neighbors sold out and moved away making the human touch a thing of the past. A whole way of life gave way to a different way of life, spurred on by a rapidly changing world.
That slower paced old world that we knew and loved has changed so drastically that today city children really cannot relate to the influences, like Abbu, that moulded his father’s generation.
Try talking to my sons about Abbu, or the 2-channel B/W TV set in the neighbor’s house with programs only 3 hrs a day and other reminisces of my life in a Bangalore lane?.and one son says to another, "Looks like dad grew up in the stone age." They then ask the most silly questions like "Were there colored photos when you were young?"
And it’s far beyond their imaginations to visualize a world in which one did not ‘log on’ or there were no channels to surf!
But memories of that world surface now again and are hauntingly evocative of a gentler lifestyle, of a time when people had time for each other and a humble shopkeeper had lessons about loyalty and the labour of love to teach?
Author: Santosh Ferris Prabhu- India