Toy shop traveller

In the early 1960s Bapuji decided that it was time for the toy shop to become a retailer of variety. To China he went. He brought back plastic- shiny, lots of it. Everyone seemed to like the dolls with blinking, wide blue eyes and the bright, singing baby walkers. The unusual crockery was a success, the watches and costume jewellery well-received and the metal cars displayed in the glass cases widened the eyes of the customers’ children. The cool and the kitsch fought for space on the toy shop shelves.

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In fact, Bapuji appears to have been a retail pioneer in his corner of Africa. Airplane travel was relatively uncommon 50 years ago, and it certainly took some enterprise to venture into a country with an entirely unknown language and culture without the safety of Google Translate in the suit pocket. He had to find a cheap hotel and source an agent specialising in the purchase of toys and sundries, using pidgin English- his third language- as a medium. The agent would take him to a shop which displayed wholesale wares and Bapuji, pen in hand, weighing up quantities and cost, would note down his choices. Decisions and down payment made, he would place his trust in the agent and return home to await the shipment. Bapuji managed to build a wholesale business, which thrived for a while and supplied toy shops over the breadth of the country and beyond. Each year, until 2004, he travelled for trade- first to China, then to Japan and finally to the gleaming towers of Dubai. Aged 88, he allowed Indira and Sudhir to take over business travel.

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I waded through my own children’s toys this morning. It rained yesterday afternoon- poured- and the children busily emptied all of their toy boxes onto the floor. We didn’t have the energy to clear up the mess last night, and besides, I am still trying to teach them, clearly quite unsuccessfully, to tidy up after themselves. To be fair, the smalls did most of the tidying this morning, but while the toys had been scattered and trampled on they had sustained several minor injuries- dents and tears. “They just have too much stuff. They don’t really appreciate how lucky they are, and so they don’t look after it.” I thought, crotchety from early morning waking. Even though the proximity of the toy shop meant that Nikhil and I spent a few half-hours ‘helping’ Bapuji there every week it just wasn’t practical to leave him in charge of pre-school children while he tried to serve customers, and the apartment was too small to clutter with more than a small number of selected toys. My parents’ generation had a few games- Ludo was a favourite- but mainly they played outside with the neighbourhood children. Ba and Bapuji are bemused when asked about toys and possessions in childhood, so alien is the thought. It appears that each successive generation has more playthings and paraphernalia, and the value of each of them is lost in the mass. I fear for my children, when they too become parents, if this exponential rise in childhood possessions continues, not only because they will be fighting to avoid raising spoiled, disenchanted yoof, but also because they will need a mansion to house it all.

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Digress

As Liverpool hang by a very thin thread in the top four, I thought I would digress a little from my usual theme. I did think, briefly, about elaborating. Liverpool, the city? The top four what? But many will not need the information: the fame of many of our top (and more recently, not so top) football clubs worldwide is astonishing. I remember entering an ancient temple in Thailand with an awe-inspiring statue of Buddha, only to be stopped by one of the guards and being informed that he supported Manchester United; he had heard our accents.

On a trip to see Bapuji, Ba and the family we had wandered into the Old Town, where people of sane mind clearly support the right team…..

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Heroes

We have been pondering heroes. My daughter is keen on the cape/mask/badge variety, with at least some basic flying skills. My son prefers those who come with exciting vehicles, announced by sirens and clad in uniform. Image

I have spent a little time considering the unsung ones, those that give without telling or tights, the ones that save the world just a little, ever so quietly. During a recent conversation with Indira, she mentioned Bapuji’s women. No, not a harem.  Bapuji, front of house in the little toyshop, would gradually get to know the people browsing, and the women that sit on the doorstep, claiming the shade offered by the awning. ‘Where is your husband? What does he do?’ he would ask.   There were nine women whose husbands were alcoholics and drug users, nine women who had no marketable skill and could not support themselves. And so Bapuji, once a month, gave them some money and a shopping list: flour, rice, lentils, sheaves of sweetcorn, papaya and more. He would tell them where to go to buy the items, always to a shop where the owner was an acquaintance, so that he would know, and the women would know, that the money could not buy ingredients for a home brew or a powdered high. They came back month after month for years. I wonder where they are now.

Sudhir surprised us a little, on safari a few years ago. The slide-roofed white van carrying us from one safari camp to another bumped its way along the red, dusty road. Baobab trees lined the horizon. It was hot, and even the zebra were taking shelter under the trees. Suddenly, Sudhir ordered the van to stop. He rummaged in our rucksack of food rations, came up with a couple of bars of chocolate and flung open the door. It was only then that we noticed the little boy in ragged clothes wandering slowly by the side of the road. Sudhir beckoned him over, holding out the chocolate and asked him to climb into the van (readers, I am aware of how wrong this appears, but remember, this post is about charity- keep reading). Sudhir took off his shirt, handed it to the boy and heaped a pile of snacks in his hands, before setting the boy on his way.  We watched the small figure with a too-big shirt, short pockets stuffed with KitKats, disappear round a bend. Without another word, Sudhir motioned to the driver to restart the van, and we continued on our way to the villas on stilts that would be our home for the night.

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When my father died there was an influx of visitors that the family had never met, sharing our grief. All came to pay their respects and to tell us what he had done. Many came to pay their debts, or to tell us that they could not settle theirs yet. My father was terrible with paperwork, but, it turns out, mighty good with patients. A city GP, for many years he offered ‘pay me when you can’ treatment to those whom he knew were struggling with money but needed medicine.  In his ledger he scribbled down the names of some who could settle their debts after pay-day, although most remained unpaid.  He went so far as to contribute to the education of some of his poorest patients’ children. Much later, when Bapuji and my mother went door to door searching for the names in his ledger, people expressed genuine dismay at the news, telling my mother about how much he had done. It offered a little peace.

So, I have my heroes now. None of them perfect, and all just normal people leading normal lives but they all performed heroics  without a cape or mask.

Sunday 29th December

The clock ticks towards another year. Many years ago, time slipped past unnoticed; if ever it was caught in the corner of the eye people would invariably comment on how fast it was sprinting as it disappeared into the distance. People came and went from the apartment all day, there were things to be done, life to be led, mangoes to be eaten.

1983: Bapuji has always been an early riser, beating the sunrise by almost an hour. Ba follows a while later, hauling herself into the waking world by 5.45 every morning. Bharti and Vasant- my parents, Anil and the children are up by 6.30. After getting Nikhil and I ready,  Bharti heads into the small pink-walled kitchen, to find Ba already starting to squeeze fresh lemons for their daily breakfast juice. The two work together to get breakfast ready: hot, sweet chai, bread, ‘sekeli rotli’- freshly baked chapatti- and porridge for bapuji. While the family breakfast, Julius, the trusted servant, arrives, quietly getting on with his daily chores. He starts by washing the car and polishing the men’s shoes before sitting down for his toast and tea. The all-pervading dust hangs in shafts of sunlight and then settles, accumulating within hours of being washed or brushed off. I still remember the sensation of smooth, warm tile on the soles of my bare feet after Julius had swept the floor- noticing the lack of very fine sand underfoot.

A flurry of activity at 7.20: papa and I leave the apartment, headed for drop-off at school, clutching bags and books ready for the first class of the day at 7.45. Bapuji will often leave with us, making his way to the derasar-the Jain temple- his sanctuary for an hour before he walks over to unlock the accordion grille barring the doorway to the toy shop. Ba or Bharti walk over to the covered market to buy vegetables and fruit. It was the antithesis of fast food: fresh from the field and having collected very few miles, the soil-sheathed root vegetables and unpodded peas require hours of preparation before cooking. At home, Julius makes the beds and sweeps the floor. One of the women fills the metal pail and soaks the previous day’s clothes in the bright blue powder of Omo, before starting the meal preparation. Julius will later pummel and wring the clothes, throwing them onto the shower-room floor to dislodge the dust, before hanging them in the hot, dry sun on the roof terrace.

The lunchtime meal is always the largest, as is the norm in many hot countries. Fresh, hot chapattis, red lentil dahl, a curry, fluffy Basmati rice and ‘chhash’- a salty yoghurt drink- had to be ready for service by 11.30, when Anil preferred to have his meal, perched on his low wooden seat by the kitchen door. Before long, I would be collected from school, Nikhil from nursery and Bapuji would wander back from the toy shop, seemingly unbothered by the sweltering heat in his perpetual short-sleeved Nehru suit . Vasant, sometimes, would squeeze in lunch at home. It is an old tradition, a family eating together, but one that I am sure holds families together; the invisible ties that bind snake past the salt shaker and the heap of mismatching spoons, temporarily preventing the constant pull in different directions.

Lunch is hardly a respite. Bharti and Ba would take turns to serve the others, Bharti ensured that I was straightened and smoothed, armed with swimming or PE kit and away by 1.30. Ba and Bapuji manage a short siesta, Ba’s snores possibly audible in many parts of town. After Bapuji escapes back to work, the women have an afternoon of clothes-folding, hole-mending, cupboard-sorting, herb-chopping, toddler-minding activity, often interrupted by visitors or requests from the toy shop and by 4pm I return from school, clamouring for snacks and attention. The snacks are eaten, the attention coming from Anil as the women head back to the kitchen to prepare the evening meal. Before Julius starts his long walk home to the suburb of Changamwe he takes off the now dusty top sheet and releases the draping mosquito nets which hang above each bed, tucking the edges under the heavy mattresses. As twilight approaches, the tiny crepuscular blood-suckers will start to appear, and the much-mended nets are essential for a good night’s sleep. Vasant drives Anil to the lighthouse pier before the evening meal, but the lighthouse evenings deserve a post of their own. By 7.30 the comings and goings finally cease, although the chatter and card games carry on into the evening.

Thirty years on, things have been different. In the words of the famous Scottish band (no, not the Proclaimers), ‘the needle returns to the start of the song and we all sing along like before’. 2014 beckons, and it might just yet be different. We hope, fingers and toes crossed, that we can see more of those that we left behind, and that time flies again for them.

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