My name is Sheeban Nair. I am thirty two years old and have lived all my life in Kerala – except the one time I made a trip to
I do have another name. Phalgun Nair. I chose it myself when I applied for my first job. I have loved tales of Arjuna ever since I was five years old and Arjuna was my superhero. If you still didn’t get the connection, Phalgun is another name for Arjuna.
I applied for the job of a salesperson at Melody Corner Music Store a week after I finished my studies.
"So you are a graduate looking for a job? I do have an opening. You have to be on your feet from 9AM – 7PM, be helpful to customers and be punctual. I hate it when my sales people turn up late. If you agree to all that, you can join work from Monday. I'll pay you a handsome four thousand rupees a month and bus fare. What's your name?"
"My name is …..Phalgun. Phalgun Nair."
It felt good to christen myself with my superhero's name. It has been twelve years since then and the new name has been lucky for me. I've been promoted twice and am now entrusted with managing the English section. I attend to customers, advise them of the latest releases, make recommendations to my owner about the fast moving items, chat with the teenagers who come in daily to listen to the latest songs but don’t any – that’s my typical day at work.
By now you would have guessed that I talk a lot. It's not really true. I do think a lot, but don't usually talk unless talked to. That is an important lesson I have learnt in my line of work – the lesser said the better. Some customers do not like talking beyond the customary with people like me behind the counter. During my initial days at work, innocent enthusiasm had provoked me to be friendly and talkative to customers. Some unpleasant experiences later I am a changed man now.
We were closing up the shop on that Friday when an old man and his wife entered the shop. They were dressed modestly. They could easily pass for the average middle class couple who could merge with ease with the folks of my town. They had an umbrella and two cloth bags full of vegetables with them. They looked very uncomfortable amidst all the cassettes and the posters. They were sent to the English section by the owner. They quickly walked over to me and the lady pressed a small piece of paper into my hands. The paper was torn off from an old notebook and had the following written on it.
1. Bryan Adams – Waking up the neighbours
2. Jon Bon Jovi – Destination Anywhere
3. Take that – Back for good
4. Meat Loaf – Bat out of hell
Things returned to normal the next day. I was busy with my regular customers and the occasional love-birds who use the store as a meeting place. I also had two new customers today who were amazed at the huge collection of albums we stocked. I do not like to boast, but there was no dispute over the fact that Melody Corner was the biggest music store in Trichur. We had all the popular and not-so-popular music collection that could cater to all the music demand in the town. I am proud of working here. I could be happier if I were paid a little bit more. But that's another story.
Five days later, the old couple came in at the usual time. They came straight to me and handed me the list. The list had more items in it.
1. Alanis Morissette – Jagged little pill
2. Celine Dion – Falling into you
3. Nirvana - Nevermind
4. Ace of Base – Happy Nation
5. Gary Barlow –
That night I had a strange dream. I was walking around in a new locality and it was dark. Suddenly, I found myself outside the old couple's house. I was looking in to their living room through a window. Their music system was blaring out the Metallica song
I tuck you in
Keep you free from sin
'til the sandman he comes
Sleep with one eye open
Gripping your pillow tight
Take my hand
off to never never-land
The old man and the lady were in a trance. They were banging their heads in the air and their eyes closed. I stood there watching them play the same song for over two hours.
I woke up with a bad headache. I couldn't sleep again that night. My mind was working out all the possibilities to solve the mystery behind the old couple with an unusual taste in pop and rock music. Maybe they genuinely liked the songs – they could have easily heard them in MTV of Channel [V}, result of the influence of the hugely popular Cable TV nowadays. Maybe they listened to rock when they were teenagers and are now trying to catch up with the recent releases. Maybe they lived abroad for awhile and moved to Trichur recently and that’s why they are different. Maybe one of them is doing a PhD on music and wants to research on different types of music and their effects on human beings. Maybe. But maybe was not good enough. I wanted to know. My professional boundaries stopped me from questioning them about their seemingly misplaced taste in music.
The old couple became regulars at our shop. They would come in every 3-4 days and always with a list of the famous pop and rock albums. They always came at around 7PM. Never at any other time. They came in, bought the cassettes and left as soon as possible. Except for that day in September. We were out of the Sussana Hoffs album. It was not a very popular item and I hadn’t bothered to restock. But it was in their list that day and the couple were visibly upset that we didn’t have it. They enquired whether they could get it from any other shop. They came in everyday to check the album’s availability until I ordered it for them. They were easily my most persistent and demanding customers. Or maybe they were just huge fans of Susanna Hoffs. Were they really?
I dreamt that night as well.
After a few months, I mustered enough courage to talk to them. I tired to find out a little bit more about them everyday. At the end of six months I knew that the old man was a businessman and dealt in timber and furniture – that explained how he was good with numbers. He could always add the cost of all the cassettes in his head before my owner could punch them in his calculator. The lady was indeed his wife and she was a housewife. They lived near the Devi temple which was a fifteen minutes' walk from the store. I made notes about my discoveries after their each visit. And at night, I tried my best to solve the jigsaw.
Their shopping visits lasted for two years. My guess is that they would have bought at least 350 cassettes from our shop in that period. No wonder the shop owner was always quite happy to see them too. Then all of a sudden their visits stopped as abruptly as they had started. Weeks passed by without any sign of them.
I missed them. I missed the lists they used to bring along. I missed the way they used to talk to each other without words. I consoled myself with a different reason everyday – maybe they have moved town, maybe they don't like music anymore, maybe their research is over, maybe their music system is broken, maybe the business is not doing well anymore and they are bankrupt. Maybe. Another maybe.
Maybe the old man passed away. Maybe he had a heart attack. Maybe the lady was diagnosed with cancer and they were in a hospital this very minute. Maybe they had an accident on the way to the shop. There was news last week about an old couple who were hit by a train while they were trying to cross the rail lines near the Devi temple. Was it them?
I couldn't sleep. I was always thinking about them. I was obsessed about finding out more about them. I went to the library everyday before work to look up old newspapers. I checked the obituary section in all the newspapers, read about any accidents or any unusual occurrences in the town. I didn't find anything.
I didn't even know their names. Even if there was a news-item on them, how would I recognise them? I didn’t bother. I felt that if I kept looking for answers, I would eventually find them. I spent my evenings after work walking near the Devi temple with the hope that I would see them pass by. I kept up this routine for three months. I always kept an eye out for anyone who entered the store in the evening. I made myself believe that if I willed strong enough, they would come back one day and all will be back to normal.
Six months passed by. I was helping out a regular customer when I saw the familiar list being handed over to my colleague. Trying to pacify my commoved heart, I looked up expecting to see the familiar kind faces of the old couple. What I saw was a young girl chatting away merrily with my colleague. I looked around before my mind could start spinning some more stories – and I saw the old lady browsing around at the Bhajan section! She was alive and well! All the silly ‘maybes' I had cooked up flashed in my front of eyes.
Everything fell into place. Why did it not occur to me that the old couple were buying the cassettes for their teenage daughter? I thought of everything else but the obvious.
The old lady looked me at and smiled. I went over to her and talked to her. I told her how glad I was to see her. I asked about the old man. Old lady was all smiles and chatted with me till her daughter pulled her away to pay for the cassettes. I waved goodbye to the lady. At that moment, I felt an unbelievable happiness and a peaceful feeling overpowering me.
That night I slept hugging my five year old daughter. How did I not see the loving parents who lived behind the masks of the old husband and wife?
GWBE: I call the old couple mom and dad.