The inheritors: When Shonkor Mudi had his dreams ‘mall-ed’

A Bengali film on a neighbourhood grocer’s fight to survive in a ‘progressive’ world revives debate over development and existence

It was a time when the middle class would not travel in air-conditioned coaches in a train. The economy had not opened up. Brand was not the buzzword yet. Clothes were stitched rather than bought. Very few cities had television.

Windows to the world outside were limited. It was the train, with square windows draped in iron rods in its second class compartments, which provided some view.

It was this window that fascinated me every time I took the Steel Express from my hometown Jamshedpur to Kolkata, where I studied. It was a very different world that whizzed past, at times meandered, halted at times in the four-hour journey.

It was a window to a different world – a swathe of green splattered with mud houses with thatched roofs, cattle, ponds. And, the ramshackle shops with people huddled around them all day.

This shop was right on the edge of the river when my eyes first touched on it. Mithu Stores, a tiny, mud-walled shop perched on the bend of the river Rupnarayan at Kolaghat, a place the Bengalis get their staple “ilish” (hilsa) from.

For those walking up to Mithu Stores, the train was yet another bundle of sound-and-steel speeding past their dour daily life. For me, it was a peek into their world, untouched by a fast-changing life. In those few fleeting moments, I could see more people sitting on oft-repaired wooden benches pouring over the day’s newspaper, immersed in animated discussion, than people buying stuff.

Mithu Stores did not change for years. People came and went, buying rice and hair oil, talking of Jyoti Basu.

Mithu Stores is not being acquired by Amazon. This blog is not a great-Indian-retail-dream-come-true story either.

I do not know if Mithu Stores exists anymore. It may have been swept away by the Rupnarayan. It may have been devoured by development, a mall or a supermarket may now be standing in its place.

But, the story of Mithu Stores still plays out. In big cities, in mofussil towns, in villages. If those were the 80s and early 90s, Mithu Stores still remains embedded in the idea of India. And, in us – in our lives, in our art. It lives in our protests, in our meek acceptance. In our minds, in our conscience.

What remained tucked in a corner of my mind, was all of a sudden afloat after decades, with a Bengali movie – ‘Shonkor Mudi’ (Shonkor, The Grocer) — released on OTT platform recently. 

What was a speck in a long train journey then, returned with a story of its own. It wanted to avenge my forgetting, wanted to tell me it lives. It was back to tell a story, almost three decades after we opened our window to the world, and ushered in globalization.

Shonkor Mudi, who would sell soap and spices with a pleasant smile and also rush to the hospital to donate blood to save a neighbour on deathbed, could hardly pronounce “globalization.”

During a “mutton-and-daaru” feast one night at Garagachha, a mofussil area on the edge of Kolkata, he asks his motley group of friends – an auto-rickshaw stand operator, a barber, a tailor and a tea-stall owner – “goblaition maane ki re” (What does goblaition mean)?

Not many knew. The auto-rickshaw stand operator had an explanation: “I stop buying grocery from your shop and get it from a mall. Then another does the same. And, another … what happens to you? You die.”

For unlettered Shonkor, a stocky man in his mid-fifties, it was something he could not comprehend. “Why wouldn’t you buy from me?” he asked, with a bewildered look.

It was not long till he got his answer. When a neigbourhood girl wanted her favourite brand of soap and Shonkor’s shop did not have it, she refused to accept any other. That evening, when he finally walked up to the glitzy mall that had come up in the area, he spotted her in the queue with bars of soap in her shopping trolley.

That was when Shonkor Mudi met globalization.

He put up a brave fight. From visiting the mall over and over again to observe the new world of retail selling to stocking his one-room grocery store with rice, dal, spices in plastic packets that his wife packed and sealed at home and buying a mobile phone to begin home delivery service, he did it all.

But, his customers kept slipping away. So did the ground beneath his feet. He dressed as Santa Claus on Christmas but the unsold plum cakes rotted.  He bought a pedestal fan for buyers to feel comfortable. But they still did not turn up.

Except for the “anti-development” retired professor who cited John Henry – the African-American folk hero who was tasked with hammering a steel drill into rock to make holes for explosives to blast the rock in constructing a railroad tunnel in the 1920s, seen as a fight between his prowess as a steel-driver measured in a race against a steam-powered rock drilling machine. A race that he won only to die in victory with hammer in hand as his heart gave out from stress.

Shonkor could make nothing of what the professor said. But his hopes were alive even as the world was crumbling around him. Decay had set in. People shut their eyes when the young girl running a tailoring shop to pull her family through the difficult times begins to spend time with the local corporator, suddenly donning expensive clothes, dabbing lipstick and smoking foreign brands.

The auto-rickshaw stand operator saw the vehicles shift closer to the mall, no one wanted to get shirts stitched by the tailor as they bought readymade brands, the hair-cutting saloon – with a decades-old photo of Amitabh Bachchan stuck on the walls – was about to shut down. The young wanted a “Ranbir Kapoor-look” and flocked to the mall.

The dementia-hit old man next door was the only one who could sense the decay. “There is a stench hanging thick. Aren’t you getting it?” he would ask.

But Shonkor had not lost hope. As Holi neared, he pulled out the last of his savings – a handsome Rs 2,500 – from a jar and got colours and fancy caps for his shop. But, it was the mall, where shops were offering a “bonanza” along with colours, which people flocked to. He walked up to the mall to find people thronging it for free Holi caps.

He decided to try it out but was struck by something his not-so-rich but happy neighbourhood hadn’t probably faced in its lifetime – betrayal.

As he turned around to return, he found the professor with his grandson, Holi colours in hand, a free cap on the kid’s head.

Garagachha’s John Henry had lost the battle. He walked up to his shop, shut the door, put on a fancy cap, smeared his face with colours as the neighbourhood celebrated Holi outside.

And, consumed rat poison.

That night, his neighbor bled again. His distraught daughter opened the windows again to yell for help. Her voice echoed in the dark, lonely alleys. Shonkor Mudi was long dead.

“Shonkor Mudi” pulled out from the deep recesses of my mind the images of Mithu Stores. And, a secret wish I never knew I had – to be onboard the Steel Express again, sit by the window and have one last look at the shop by the Rupnarayan, and the unspoilt world around it. I wished it was still there.

But then, I realized I had not taken a train to Kolkata for years. The view outside the window of an aircraft was pristine blue, a look below unfolded a beautiful city with the Ganga meandering along it. 

But, the city landscape had changed. A grand mall in southern Kolkata, right next to where I stayed for years during my university and first-job days, made me uncomfortable. 

As I grew up in the 70s, I heard stories of young boys and girls out to change the world and bring in socialism, dying in police encounters. They were branded Naxals. Elders said it was probably this place where the spirit of “biplob” (revolution) that these youth symbolized died a bloody death.

The world did change. But, the debate is on – did it change for good or for bad? 

“The new people are like a wolf and honey, rotten honey and the river,” wrote Nobel laureate William Golding in ‘The Inheritors’, his 1955 novel, as he argued that in the fight between the Neanderthals and Homo Sapiens (the modern man), who came later and co-existed for a while, the old wasn’t all bad and the new wasn’t all good.

Shonkor Mudi is dead. Long live Shonkor Mudi.

DISCLAIMER : Views expressed above are the author’s own.