Chapter 4: Shopping at Last

The next morning I strike quite a figure walking down Lenin Sarani in my Jackie O’ digs. Even without heels I am tall. In go-go boots and a beehive I tower over the locals.

Initially I am disappointed by the shopping: the retail stores are a pale imitation of my favorite London shops and the branded goods are more expensive than at home. Though the shopping doesn’t improve, the stores certainly become more interesting when we turn off of the main thoroughfare and enter the New Market.

My favorite stores are magical places where the wares of the world are conveniently gathered and prettily displayed for my consideration and purchase. There is nothing pretty or convenient about the New Market. The streets are crowded with hustling retailers engaged in the rawest forms of commerce. I see chickens tied by their necks to bicycles racks, asphyxiating fish flopping in filthy buckets of water, blacksmiths smelting metal in tiny furnaces, and children creating silver leaf with tiny hammers. You would think that I would feel out of place in my cream-coloured mini-skirt and powder-blue go-go boots. But I don’t. The realization gives me a thrill. “This really could be my signature look”, I think. My sunshiny thought is quickly covered by clouds. “Provided I can find a bouffant wig.”

After 30 minutes of uneventful browsing through silk scarves and jute bags I notice an old woman sitting on the stairs in front of a building. Her tattered clothes are stiff with dirt. She is not wearing shoes. Her thickly calloused feet suggest that she has never worn shoes. I want to help her. I quickly search through my purse. I only have credit cards, a cheque book and odd bits of makeup and accessories. I have left my money behind because this excursion is Mr. Chatterjee’s treat. I consider asking Rajit for some change but hesitate because it may be rude to spend Mr. Chatterjee’s money on a poor, homeless woman. And besides, charity should be personal. If I choose to give I should do so with my own possessions.

An idea pops into my head. I’ll write this woman a cheque. Ten quid seems about right. I pin the cheque to her lapel using a beautiful hat pin from Harrods that is in fact more valuable than the money I’m giving her. As I turn away from her I feel that something isn’t right. A cheque seems such an incomplete present in such an intimate situation. I sift through my purse looking for something else to give her and to my delight I find the perfect gift. Though I cannot be certain what exactly her colours are given how filthy and unkempt she is, my intuition tells me that maroon lipstick will look perfect on her. I place the applicator in one of the folds of her skirt. As I do so, her hand tightly clasps it but she doesn’t wake up.

Going to Kalighat to die

The encounter leaves me inexplicably fatigued. Rajit senses this and signals for our car. Our next stop is the Barabazar market. We take the Strand along the Hugli River, towards the Howrah Bridge. The roads are appallingly congested, apparently because of a cricket match between Dhaka and Calcutta that is about to begin. In the shadow of the bridge, across from the Armenian Ghat, a flash of tinsel catches my eye. My gaze drifts towards the bridge … I can’t believe what I see. I shout “Rajit, stop the car!” It’s an impossible request: though the traffic is crawling it nevertheless has an inexorable momentum. Fortunately, we’re only moving at 2 kilometres an hour so I don’t injure myself as I leap out of the car door and race towards a tiny wig shop nestled in the shadow of the bridge. I really can’t believe it. There in the window is the same beehive wig I am wearing.

The wig is not why I am here. Synchronicity with loud accessories is not a good thing. For starters, the best accessories are always expensive because you can’t skimp on gaudiness, and, as I have learned from my work as a financial reporter, one contributor to a high price is scarcity. To see an expensive accessory that you thought was unique in a tumbledown store can be devastating…

That isn’t what motivates me. Seeing my wig here suggests that perhaps my bouffant …

Rajit catches up to me at the entrance to the store and manages to hold the door open for me as I enter. The store owner at first says nothing to me but merely looks at my beehive wig and then at the wig in the window. She has an expression of disbelief on her face, mixed with – I’m not certain what. After a moment of silence Rajit impatiently says something to her in Bangla. To my surprise she then addresses me in English.

“What is your name?”, she asks. She has an Oxford English accent.

“Rebecca” I hesitantly reply. “Call me Bexx.”

“My name is Rachana” she replies. As the shop-keeper addresses me Rajit slips out the front door, probably to assist our driver, who is having an animated discussion with a traffic cop.

“I bought mine in London.” I point to my wig and then at the one in the window and laugh. I fear that this may not be the best conversation starter but the wigs in the window and on my head are the elephants in this room.

Rachana asks, “Do you like it? It was made with my daughter’s hair.” After she says this Rachana pokes her head through the beaded curtain behind where she is sitting at the cash register, and speaks quietly in Bangla to someone in the back room. A wisp of a girl responds to her call. The child’s colourful sari is clean, if somewhat ragged. Her alert, dark eyes remind me of the sales-gamin at Bouffe.

Now I have as dirty a mind as any Essex girl. But it is a nice dirty that fantasizes about alternative uses for silk scarves and what kind of lingerie should start where my thigh-high boots end. Looking at this girl – whose jet black hair I am wearing on my head – seems raw, even vaguely obscene to me. Perhaps that is why I take off my wig as I kneel down beside her, so that my eyes are level with hers. Though she shyly plays with her dark tresses as I kneel she does not flinch. She is a very beautiful girl. I hope that Gavin and I have a daughter who is this pretty.

Then a most unsettling thought races through my head. “I don’t just want this girl’s hair, I want her.” I wonder, “Can you adopt someone who has parents? Can it be done in person or does it require a broker? How much does it cost?” I restrain my enthusiasm. “Hold on! I mustn’t be hasty”, I think. “If I am considering adopting her then I should find out if we get along.” While still looking into her beautiful brown eyes I ask her mother, “Does she speak English?” Rachana nods. The child says nothing, but continues to look at me. “What is your name?” I ask.

The child continues to play with her hair for another moment and then to my delight, replies, “Rosa. After Rosa Luxembourg. Do you know who Rosa Luxembourg is?”

I recognize the name from a college history class, so nod vaguely yes as I present the child with my beehive wig. “Rosa, this wig is made from your hair. I bought it in London.” The child responds to my words with a very expressive look, though I have difficulty determining exactly what it is she is expressing.

I continue to speak, “Everyone thinks the wig is really cool.”

The child bursts into a smile but steps away from me and closer to her mother, who puts her hand affectionately onto her child’s head. I know in that beautiful, sad moment that I will never possess this child. Rosa’s place is here, with her own mother.

My reflective mood is dispelled by Rachana, who asks “Miss Bexx, are you looking for another wig?” As she say this she hands me the same bouffant wig that I could not buy for love or money in London!

I gingerly inspect it. I don’t know exactly what I am looking for – cobras, perhaps – then quickly put it on and pose in front of the mirror. Though there is such a subtle difference between a bouffant and a beehive, the bouffant is the look for me. I look so good that I squeal with delight. In fact I look exactly like the display model at Bouffe.

As I think this I freeze in terror.

A good shopper is never derivative. To look like a store display is to say to the world, I have no creativity; I do not deserve to call myself a shopper. I am simply someone who picks and choses, or worse I am no more than a compulsive spender of money. This harsh realization breaks my heart, and judging from the look on the shopkeeper’s face, her heart as well. My hands actually shake as I remove the wig and return it to her. I wistfully say, “It is very beautiful, but no thank you.”

I’m feeling guilty and unsettled by my sudden change of heart so I look for something to buy. Ten scarves, 3 saris and 5 coarse but durable jute bags later I return to our car.

As we slowly pull away from the wig store towards Mohandas Gandhi boulevard, a poor looking woman with a finely wrought necklace made of beer can tabs, bangs on the window of our car. She speaks – or more accurately moans – at me and then thrusts her naked child against the glass of the car window directly opposite my face. Our driver shouts at her to leave us in peace while I reflect on my shopping experiences.

“What would you like to buy next?” Rajit asks, once we’ve pulled away from the beggar and her child.

“How about jewelry?” I suggest.

“That is a very good choice. I have an excellent suggestion for you.” He pulls out his mobile phone and makes an appointment.

We turn off of Mohandas Gandhi Boulevard onto a winding street called Biplabi Trailakya Sarani that leads directly into the Barabazar Market. As we approach our destination the dress of the men changes dramatically. The area under the bridge had been dominated by mustached men in dhoti, while the men in this neighbourhood wear pants, and most have beards. At one point a tall, thin man who is entirely naked walks by, whisking the ground in front of him with a swatch of twigs. From his actions I assume he’s a nutter, however the crowd parts reverentially to let him pass.

Our car stops in front of a textile store. I am deep in conversation with the owner before Rajit has had time to tell me that the jeweler who we are visiting lives upstairs. The jeweler, Samir, is a small, round man with a well-kept beard several shades greyer than his hair. He wears a tiny pillbox hat, a brightly braided vest, and printed pajama pants. The combination of this outfit and his obsequious manner makes me think of him as a chauffeur for a magic carpet service.

Pardon my stereotypes. Despite my comic-book prejudgements, Samir has tremendous skill as a jeweler. I am impressed – almost overwhelmed – by his work. His materials are the best and his subjects are varied. I could wear his pieces dressed as Jackie O’, as a punk rocker or to evensong. Once again I am paralyzed by choice. I wonder if it would be excessive to buy everything.

I pause to reflect on why I would want to buy everything and realize I have been looking at the problem of shopping all wrong. I have always told myself that I purchase so many accessories because I want to keep my options open; I cast acquisitiveness as freedom. Each item is a possible look, and the possibilities increase the more you buy, because things go with each other. But I have all the freedom I want – why do I need more choice? What am I really looking for here? I look at my reflection in one of the dozens of mirrors in the shop and see a face adorned with a pillbox hat and beehive and answer my question. I am looking for my signature style. I am looking for my identity.

Just as my mind flits to thoughts of bouffant wigs Rajit speaks, “Samir, this is not your best work.”

Samir replies calmly, ignoring Rajit’s sharp, patrician tone. “Sir, this is my best work. However, you are correct in implying that it is not the best jewelry I have to sell. My best piece was made by an unknown craftsman. Behold.”

I have always thought about what it must be like to be a princess and to be able to wear accessories that are national treasures. But the pragmatic side of me until now has prevailed: “That jewel-encrusted crown is beautiful” I would think during my visits to the Tower of London, “but I certainly can’t wear it with a slight, sexy, black dress.”

That is how I would joke about treasures before I saw the Raj Mahal Tiara.

Samir speaks as he unlocks a tiny silver box, “This piece comes from the Raj Mahal Hills, which is a remote area in northwestern Bengal on the border with Bihar.” As he tells me this story, he opens the box and removes a crimson pillow on which rests a gorgeous band of wrought platinum inset with deep blue star sapphires. “The Hills are in a region which was ignored by the world until the Mughals arrived from Afghanistan. Then the Hills’ position overlooking a narrow point on the Ganges River became very strategic. First the Bengalis built a fortress. Then the Mughals stormed it and took the area for their own. Later, under the British, when the border between Bengal and Bihar ceased to matter, the fortress was still used, though to suppress local dissent. The peasants who lived there were reduced to poverty by the wars and eventually the Zemandars, who ruled the area, enslaved them.” He pauses dramatically and then says, “It was those slaves who mined these sapphires”

I am transfixed by the star sapphires. “It looks like there are little angels dancing on the stones”, I say haltingly.

“Some say those are the souls of those who died mining the stones.”

“Can I have it?”

Both Samir and I look to Rajit for an answer.

I stop breathing while I wait for a response. “Rajit has to say yes.” I think. “He has an entire purse full of money, after all. How much can this piece cost?” I answer that question myself. “A lot. Maybe a room full of rupees.”

Rajit says something quietly and quickly to Samir in Bangla and then nods assent.

I exhale a little bit too loudly as I thank Rajit, a thanks I cut short because I cannot keep myself away from the treasure on the crimson pillow. “The tiara will go perfectly with my Jackie Onassis outfit and wig”, I think.”…the bouffant wig I didn’t buy.”

I’m suddenly alarmed.

“Rajit, can we pay for the tiara and leave? Now. I loved meeting you Samir, but we’ve got to go. Now.”

“Yes. Yes. Certainly.” As Rajit pays Samir he asks him, “Who won the test match?”

“You don’t know?” Samir sounds surprised, “The game never ended.”

“What do you mean?”

“An umpire made a very unfavourable call against Kolkata. You’d best be careful when driving home. There are groups of hooligans causing trouble throughout the city. There is a rumour that Sourav Ganguly himself has been called to restore order. The rioting is particularly bad near the Howrah Bridge…”

Where my wig is.

As we exit, I hesitantly ask Rajit if it will be OK for us to quickly pick up my wig before returning to Ravi’s place. He insists that we will have to return for it tomorrow because of the riot.

My flight home is tomorrow.

Our car exits from the bazaar exactly where we entered, just below the Armenian Ghat, on the edge of the River, scant metres from my goal. Through a thick, restless crowd, I can see the wig shop. I imagine that I can even see the anxious look on Rachana’s face as she struggles to bar the entrance to her shop. Though she is so very close, she might as well be on a different planet; the crowd is impassable and looks dangerous.

Some people think that shopaholism is about compulsive materialism. That’s like saying that anorexia is about the denial of food. It is a true but shallow statement. Shopping for me is about defining who I am in an ungrounded world full of choices. I remember when I first realized I was a shopaholic. I was a little child. I wasn’t buying anything. I didn’t even fully understand what buying was. I had just dressed up in one of my sister’s outfits and some of my grandmother’s costume jewelry. When I looked at myself in the mirror I thought, “I love how I look. This is so cool.” It was a complete feeling, though from the first time so transient. I wanted a different look scant moments after achieving my first. Is my disease dissatisfaction or hunger? Perhaps if I could settle upon one look my identity would settle down and my symptoms abate.

I normally reserve such reflections for my therapist, but I tell you this one to explain what I do next.

As our driver leans his elbow onto our car’s horn and begins a slow turn right, away from the store I have the profound realization that my signature style is nobody’s priority but my own. If I do not get that wig now I will never get it. And I have to get it myself. Before Rajit realizes what I am doing, I step out of our idling Maruti, slam the door shut behind me, and am immediately sucked into the centre of the riot.

I briefly glance back towards the car. Rajit is struggling to exit but the Maruti has now been completely enveloped by the crowd and he can’t open the car door. One exuberant fellow is actually standing on its hood shouting and waving a cricket bat wildly around his head.

“I must keep focused”, I think as I continue to push forward. “I must get to the wig shop before Rachana finishes barricading the entrance.”

Though I am in the middle of a cricket riot I am somehow not a part of it and my presence – aside from the odd astonished look – goes … if not unnoticed, at least unopposed. Without too much effort I tack across the flow of the crowd and break free several metres from my destination. Thankfully Rachana is still struggling with the metal gate she uses to protect her shop. It seems rusty and rarely used. “The wig! The wig!” I shout above the noise of the riot but she doesn’t appear to understand me. Instead she wordlessly marshals me into her shop and then gestures for me to hold a bent metal bar in place while she padlocks the metal gate. which she had finally succeeded in pulling down to the ground. I am so relieved to have made it into the store before it is closed that it takes me a moment to realize that we are now sealed in. I reach into my bag for my cell phone to call Rajit, but it is not there.

The bouffant wig is where I left it. I pick it up and walk towards the cash register to pay. To my surprise Rachana turns off the lights and pushes me and her daughter into the back room. There’s a bearded man there already. He politely introduces himself as Mohsin. I look closely at how he is dressed. Suddenly things begin to make sense. Though Rachana is Hindu, at least culturally, her husband is Moslem. That appears to be a problem.

I haven’t even completed this thought when a crowd of people start banging on the metal gate and shouting. As they bang I wonder what the rioters are wearing. Are they men wearing dhoti’s who look like so many angry Omar Sharifs, or are they bearded and dressed in pajama pants and pillbox hats. Are there women with them? What about teenagers and children?

We remain silent while, for one tense moment, the rioters try to break through the metal gate. After a long moment, they give up and drift away to other easier targets.

“What did they want?” I ask Rachana.

She doesn’t answer my question. After a brief, uncomfortable pause her daughter Rosa does. “The men want to kill my father because he is a Moslem and a communist and married to my mother who is a high-caste Hindu.”

I don’t have a response to this so I bring the conversation back to the topic that is foremost on my mind. “I’d like to buy this wig. Which credit cards do you take?” I lay my best cards down like a royal flush. To my surprise there is a long pause before Rachana answers, “We don’t take credit cards.”

… and I have no cash.

This is one of those moments that separate the pros from the amateurs. “Rachana, I have an idea. Why don’t we trade?” She looks at me skeptically so I hastily add “… I’ll give you my wig, which must be worth the same as that bouffant, and I’ll throw in this broach”, which I pray is as real as the money I paid for it. The merchant carefully inspects the gold and emerald brooch for a moment and then to my relief she nods assent.

I have a feeling of profound trepidation as I replace my beehive wig with the bouffant. I look into a large mirror beside the cash register and see reflections of myself in the mirrors that are scattered around the store walls. I reach into my purse, remove the Raj Mahal Tiara and put it on. I can confirm from thousands of reflections that I have completed my look.

At that very moment someone starts banging on the door of the shop. It turns out it’s Rajit’s man. He’s come back for me! It takes only a few moments to unbolt the door. As I exit, Rajit sees me and immediately makes a call on his mobile phone. I see to my relief that the rioters have moved on. A moment later a hunter green Jaguar pulls up in front of the store and out bursts my dear fiancé Gavin who rushes over to me and gives me a huge hug. A long moment later we separate and he checks me out, “Bexx, I expected to find your mutilated corpse, but … but … not this … you look perfect.”