‘Hello, baby, cold drink or chocolate?’ My early childhood often saw us in Kolkata, in the magnificent beehives of New Market or Gariahat, where crowds flocked for a pleasant day of bargaining. The shopping was incidental, the bargaining the real therapy. My mother was no exception, though we lived a four-hour train journey away.
The womenfolk settled down among a dazzle of chiffons and silks, each rolled out with due pomp by the salesman sitting cross-legged on the shop floor lined with white linen. Having run through my books, I’d be bored, surly and cranky after a while, and he would try buying my favour with ‘‘Hello, baby, cold drink or chocolate?’
The phases of your life are sized up by the salesman, the cabbie, the security guard and other customer-friendly souls whose assessments are unflinching, inflexible and inescapable. By the time you’re out of high school, the ‘baby’ has melted away. A shifty-eyed vendor shouts, ‘Ei, don’t like this bag? Ei, come back. I have lots more.’ You are now at the Ei or Oi stage of life.
Older hawkers take a different approach. ‘Didi, only for you — cheap price. Come back.’ You don’t return, of course, affronted that someone with only three strands of white hair stretched across his shiny bald pate should have designated older-sister status to a teenage you.
Little do you know what’s round the corner. You’re still in your twenties when you’re hit with ‘Arre, madam, this kurta is better. That one is only for the yeng things.’ From which angle are you not yeng anymore? You suck in your tummy and stare at your mirror for a good half hour that evening. Maybe a haircut is due? Surely that hair tied back is too madam-ish?
Hair now in a sleek blunt, you hail an auto. Only to find you have crossed another timeline. ‘Madamji, your address is too far. ₹20 extra on meter.’ You now have a Ji slapped on to your forehead like a glowing neon sign. No yeng hairstyle will help.
The final shock is the first ‘Aunty’. I was jaywalking across a field, on a high with my first job, when a football flew at me, almost snuffing my yeng life out. The kids playing hollered, ‘Aunty, pass the ball please.’ Aunty? I looked around. Only me. Let’s just say that the knock from the football would have been kinder.
I’ve hovered at the aunty stage for a while now; hoping to keep at bay the first ‘dadiji’ from someone who looks twice my age. That is the point, I realise, that tips most over into Botox, lotions and potions, self-actualisation courses and snake oil.
Where Jane De Suza, the author of Happily Never After, talks about the week’s quirks, quacks and hacks.