Looking back on the time we spent in the sleepy town of Trivandrum, most memories come into focus against a select few backdrops – our home, my parents’ workplace, my best friend’s house, and my school, curiously in that order. An unusual suspect on this list is Mohan kada (or Mohan’s shop), our friendly neighborhood grocer.
Mohan’s grocery store was a mere 10-minute walk from our home. The reason this humble place features in most of my stories of yesteryear is because of its location. It was conveniently located at the first intersection of our neighborhood with the main road. This marked the pickup point of my school bus for six years. It was also located midway between my parents’ office and our home and merited a visit nearly everyday on our way back from work.
Mohan had a friendly face. His wife, even friendlier. Together, they catered to their customers and managed their children seamlessly, all in one space. My first memory of Mohan kada is a small, unimpressive shop that you probably wouldn’t glance back at. On closer inspection, though, it was a treasure trove.
Mohan didn’t display very many items on the front of his shop. But make your wish, and Mohan would disappear behind a curtain at the back of his shop and emerge triumphantly soon after. I could never quite catch a glimpse of what was behind that curtain. Sometimes his children came out of there, carrying their toys or their homework, and went about their lives as if the shop were their home, and their home the shop.
Mohan didn’t speak much English. And my parents, not much Malayalam. I, on the other hand, am often told, on arriving at Trivandrum at the tender age of three, took to Malayalam like a moth to a flame. By the end of my first week in the city, I walked around proudly yelling poda patti. My parents’ pride in their daughter’s impressive linguistic abilities was quick to plummet once they learned that my chosen phrase literally translated into “go away, you dog!”
After this minor hiccup, I did pick up the rest of the language pretty quickly, earning myself the title of the designated translator in everyday situations. At Mohan kada, my mother announced each item off her grocery list in English and waited for me to rattle it off in Malayalam. Sometimes, Mohan stopped me with a knowing smile before scampering off to get what my mother had just asked for. It was an exercise in language appreciation as much for Mohan as for my mother. Overtime, the frequency of Mohan’s knowing smiles increased. He also took the liberty from time to time to teach my mother the Malayalam word for the item she asked for. With the success of their linguistic tango, my importance waned, and I increasingly found myself loitering outside the store.
Mohan kada was also the hub of much activity on weekday mornings. Most school buses in the area made a designated stop here. If one walked by Mohan kada between 8 and 9 o’clock in the morning, they’d hear the clamour of children exchanging their first stories of the day. They’d also see Mohan putting his wares on display out front. They’d see some of these wares catching the eye of a curious kid. And they’d probably also see Mohan making his first sale of the day, usually to the unsuspecting parent of the curious kid.
It was here that I made some of my very first friends. It was here that my best friend and I threw a fit on our first day of school. And it was here that a couple of 10-year olds took pity on us and assured our flummoxed dads they’d look after us on the ride to school. It was here that I missed my school bus for the first time and learned a valuable lesson from my dad on punctuality. It was here that I made my first purchase – a ballpoint pen – and learned how trade works. It was here that my grandfather learned his first Malayalam word, that I feverishly revised my lessons with my father before an exam, that I was allowed to ask my father to pick me up once my feet tired, having independently covered half the distance from their workplace.
It is here that the dinghy store still stands, easily dismissible at first glance, yet evoking a flurry of emotions as I peer inwards, trying to catch a last glimpse behind the curtain.