Bombay Bazaar


Bombay Bazar, they spelled it. Without the second “a” that turned the word into a Thousand-and–One-Nights exotic. But an old store nevertheless. My brother called it Bombay Bizarre the sort of joint where you get the feeling you’ll never get out alive, snickered our friend Chee-bee. Where they played what Chee-bee’s brother Tito called “that curvaceous music”; blaring out into the hot noonday asphalt smell of Alfonso XIII Street, its plangent diatonic swoops sinuous as the S-curves of the carved deities on Khajuraho, the music sounded harsh.

It was rumored they sold “pawned goods’ at the Bombay Bazar. Chee-bee’s brother had once hocked their sister’s hair dryer there, to plug a craving for speed and marijuana, but we never found out if they got it back or not. The proprietor of the Bombay Bazar interjected a spurious “eh wot?’ into his conversations and sounded like a dubious proposition on all counts. It was the “Bombay,” meant to sound exotic, that placed a kind of generic stamp on the place and doomed it, I thought; no one would ever wander in there looking for bargains.

Filipinos pronounce it “boom-bye.” That’s how Filipinos designate all South Indians, whether they’re actually from Bombay or really from Delhi or Calcutta or Poona or Kashmir. A resonance redolent of the bulging sacks of traders’ goods, hefted by hairy forearms; mixed in with muddled racist images of “curly shoes” and ankle-length bloomers, and the turbans one later learned to associate more correctly with the Sikhs; boom-bye: red onions, dark streets, and drums.

The Bombay Bazaar was the newest in the trio of Indians stores that triangulated Locsin Street, a tacitly competitive corner of local merchandising, teeth gleaming hostilely at one another like concealed daggers from across the street. One assumed their respective owners to be scarcely cordial with one another—but who knows: that aspect of their relationship remains enigmatic. At least they were not in sinister consortium the way the Chinese monopoly worked, with their secretive Chinese Chamber of Commerce weekly meetings, carving up the local economy, from town to town, according to the expansionist fiefdoms of Hunan and Formosa imperialistically transplanted.

There was a sort of mercantile hierarchy among the three Bombay stores. The Bombay Bazar, although the most recent, already reeked of decrepitude. It was an old time bazaar in the most authentic sense, and probably might have been transported, whole, from one of souks along “the street called Straight, in Damascus,” judging from the haphazard variety of somewhat cheap merchandise piled into its one small showroom.

The owners apparently never figured out their demographic targets or their marketing focus—what it was that customers were supposed to go to their store to buy—since they sold a hodgepodge of goods: aluminum kettles dangled weirdly, strung on hemp ropes from the low ceiling; tinny gilt photograph frames shared counter space with plastic barrettes; and one might even spy the dirty-white fringe from a bit of rolled-up carpeting among the bales of thin garish clothing goods. It was all rather unattractively placed, but in actuality, the store arrangements were probably more authentically “Bombay” than the other two stores, when one came down to it, if it were atmosphere one was looking for. I’d would have only been in there once or twice and wandered out again, vaguely relieved, as Chee-bee would have said, to have merely come out again alive, to have escaped the silent speculative glance of the store owner and returned to the hot open-sewer stink of Santa Catalina Street, pursued only by the shrieking sitars.

The owner of the “new” Ramanujam’s Shop-O-Rams, farther uptown, inherited the shop from his father. I have vague recollection of the “old” Ramanujam’s store, fronting the wet market, with old Ramaujam himself rotundly presiding over the cash register, and the startling glare of Coleman lamps sizzling alongside the 200-watt fluorescent bulbs: an efflorescence of illumination, as though to discourage would-be shoplifters, in the-not-unlikely event that the town’s unreliable electric power “browned out” unexpectedly. I think the old store burned down. Perhaps one of the redundant Colemans exploded one night.

 “New” Shop-O-Rama was always New, even twenty years later, when it had turned itself into “the shopping capital” of Negros Oriental. Thin salesgirls guarded the glass cabinets containing Charlie cologne and the shelves stacked high with Levi’s dungarees. Watched coldly by the owner’s rather dour wife, the clerks rustled adeptly around the store, gift-wrapping packages and creating pouf bows with skillful twist of the wrist.

The natty owner, “young” Satish, a judicious sprinkling of gray at his temples, rested his neat plump elbow on the glass counters, benignly offering discounts—as much as twenty percent off the net—for favored customers, his twinkling eyes, underneath their outrageously curly eyelashes, resting perhaps a shade too long on the shapely backsides of the coeds as they emerged from his store, their buttocks smartly outlined by the studs on the Levi’s bought from his store.

It seemed to me that Satish had been Ramanujam’s Shop-O-Rama all of its life, even as the store stayed forever “new.” There was a childishness about him that probably derived from the store’s avowal of its unchanging regeneration. But for the name of the store one would have forgotten there had once been an Old Ramanujam. But for that—and for the small alcove set into the wall beside the curtained changing-room on the ground floor—one’s eye might almost miss seeing the small brass jar of joss sticks, and sitting beside it on the alcove shelf, the black-and-white photograph of old Ramanujam himself, now thin-cheeked, his eyes already sinking back into the shadows that no cheerful glare of Coleman lamps could hold away.

Hand-lettered underneath the photograph, the reverential but matter-of-fact care with which the words were formed was almost like a cry of grief: “Father expired on 31 December 1967.” Expired, like a battery, or a license to sell merchandise, on the last day of the year.

Yet it’s not quiet right to say Satish never changed, though the turn-over on his merchandise was a veritable model of successful retailing-as-perpetual motion. He was inordinately proud of his store’s participation in the university social life, such as it was: he’d cultivated a town-and-gown relationship, literal and exemplary—as haberdasher to the studentry. More specifically, he gloried in his role as the beaming supplier of jeans that the flashier nursing students strutted and swiveled in during the Founder’s Day “Miss Silliman University” beauty contest and fashion show.

He recounted to me one day his excitement at the visit paid by a movie star who’d dropped into town for a couple of hours’ filming by the famous Dumaguete seaside. She was a pretty, pouty girl with dewy eyes, on the second or third tier in the current Philippine hierarchy, and Satish’s cheeks gleamed moistly as he told about how she’d dropped by and tried on a couple of pairs of jeans right there in the store. (Behind the picture of Expired Father, I thought somewhat cynically.)

He leaned forward over the glass counter, propelled by the naïve pleasure of the moment, and asked: “Your husband, he makes movies right? I have a good idea. I been thinking about it some time. Maybe he makes a movie, you know, just a simple movie. I get sponsors from, maybe, the Mount Kaladias Lions Club, you know? I provide the costumes, like, you know, a real movie. Simple story. About young life. About the campus.”

I was too startled—and unaccountably touched—to think of a reply, and took refuge in mere dissembling; hoping I did not sound increasingly bright or patronizing, I said a shade too fervently, “Oh, that would be nice. I’ll tell him about it right away.” At that point the some total of my husband’s movie making was a couple of documentaries for the University, and several short films he’d successfully placed in the national short-film festival. He was deep into his Herzog hero-worship phase—having just emerged blinking into Aguirre’s Amazon sunlight from the Nordic darkness of a short-lasting Bergman influence—so he gave a scoffing, brief chuckle when I repeated Satish’s moist suggestion, and the whole thing was forgotten.

Satish did not mentioned the movies again during the next couple of years, even on those occasions when I’d buy the Chaps cologne and the tall Levi’s that were obviously meant for my husband. Perhaps it was the long-term residence in the town of another movie outfit that resurrected Satish’s “simple idea.” This time my husband was a unit manager of the film, and we and some of our friends and neighbors actually appeared briefly in it. After our very short moment in the sun as Christopher de Leon’s family (trailing along after him down various forest path and dry riverbeds, dressed in authentic pre-Hispanic garb), we attained to an uncomfortable fifteen seconds of local celebrity. Satish approached me again, over the counter, while his wife rang up my purchases behind him, a serious little pucker furrowing the friendly brow.

 “I’m thinking about that movie,” he said, while my heart quailed cravenly at the prospect of fielding yet another movie proposition for my indifferent spouse. Now I’d have to accept Satish’s over-generous thirty percent net discount while pretending I’d forgotten all about that earlier business three years ago. “I think,” he said earnestly, his consciousness having apparently evolved, in the intervening years, into a weltanschauung far beyond the simple pleasures of garbing coeds in Levi’s for a movie about young life, “I think we make a movie about, you know, serious. World hunger. About Eenjah.”

Each year, three times a year, my Dad gives my mother a bottle of perfume: at Christmas, on her birthday in April, and the following month for their wedding anniversary.

He goes to the store of a particular Indian merchant for these gifts—usually on the day before the event, an hour before closing time.

Unlike the Bombay Bazaar with its mournful violence of plangent sitars, and the upbeat rock music that Shop-O-Rama’s favored to set the mood for the buying of jeans, Ranjit’s Department Store considered it déclassé to play music. Ranjit’s was the Macy’s of Dumaguete City. Stodgy and reliable, it was there that one went to buy wedding presents for people, a store one’s parents turned to for anniversary gift. In our town we had no department-store bridal registries (among my wedding gifts were three identical cake-server sets), but whenever a big wedding was coming up, someone at Ranjit’s could be counted on to whisper discreetly into one’s ears if a particular item had already been purchased, thus steering the giver away from redundancies.

The owner, a soft-voiced genial man who was in Rotary with Dad, had numerous daughters, and his fortunes—and the prices in his store—fluctuated according to the stages of negotiation leading to the ever-proliferating family nuptials. Dowries were the store’s raison d’etre. They had two sons, on whom his wife was pinning their fiscal deliverance, though Jayanta Misra was too seemly, or maybe already just too Filipinized, to make much of their marketable potential.

Their younger son, Harresh, had a thin face and wary measuring eyes—not tragic mellifluent liquidity floating over an excess of whiteness that were the eyes of his favored older brother, after whom the store was named.

Ranjit, more outgoing and seemingly less bright, was easy to be around with, but had a tendency to burble that made me vaguely uneasy. I had Harresh (he signed himself “Harry” then) in one of my Introduction to Literature classes when he was a sophomore or junior in college, and I was fresh out of school myself. His work had brilliant brevity, and his papers were submitted in tiny, scrupulous handwriting, with exclamation point judiciously placed.

I thought it was his being younger son that had probably given him the twist at the corner of his mouth, a mark of incipient bitterness that deepened upward into mirth when once or twice I’d tried a joke that sailed over the heads of the rest of the class. He had narrow fastidious nostrils that quivered in the sardonic stillness of his face, appreciating the knowledge that there were nuances he alone could catch, not bothering to nudge his seatmate on the elbow, or even to chuckle: just the twist of his mouth and the faint wing to the nostril.

There was something of the same reserve in his father’s eyes, a sharp absence that was like a judgment withheld, underneath the smooth mercantile jocundity. Sometimes I imagined it was almost the loneliness of an intellect gone undeveloped, that should have gone into theology and not retailing. Perhaps that was why he liked Dad so much—they could trade jokes, no matter how superficially, and that beyond the ritualized exchange of buying and selling, there was the novelist-professor on one side of the counter and, on the other, the heir to the Rig-Vedas and the Bhagavad-Gita. It was always tacit, a coinage never exchanged—an appreciation for the other—held in mutual reserve, as it were: a fiduciary note of intellectual respect.

Or perhaps I was just imaging it all. He was certainly the quintessence of the smarmy trader (his manner had an excessiveness that seemed almost ironic) whenever he’d spot Dad and me standing at the entrance to his shop three-quarters of an hour before closing time on Christmas Eve. In our town, the storefront entrances run the whole length of the shop, stopping at the pair of plate-glass displays that flank each establishment. These entrances open directly onto the street or sidewalk, and are laboriously closed each night with stout wooden panels and a metal grille that is pulled across the paneling and latched. Except in shopping malls, stores in the America do not exude this kind of daytime, wide-open informality, and recalling them now—and their dichotomous shuttling between trust and mistrust—is like stepping back into the third world again, with all its knife-edged vividness.

Jayanta strides amiably towards us from the back of the store, beaming with warmth that is meant to convey more than a merely professional pleasure. He has an unfortunate tendency to rub his hands together as he approaches favored customers, and observing this mannerism, time and again, gives my mother and me a kind of cynical enjoyment.

Hair crisply anointed with Brylcreme and his Countess Mara polo shirt reeking of Aramis, he stops smartly before us, rocking a little on the balls of his feet, his hand clasped together and the smile fixed relentlessly in place. “Ed, Ed, good to see you. And something for Edith today?” he says. His ebullience never varies, despite the prices of merchandise that go up wildly after each calamitous dowry-giving.

After all these years he knows that it’s perfume that we’re after, but is too mannerly to make that assumption in front of us. Or maybe it’s simply that he and Dad relish every station in his ritual, so he waits until Dad has explained our errand before turning to the business of selecting the merchandise.

 “Maria,” he says, turning to one of the dozen or so slowly aging counter clerks, all but snapping his finger at her to have her unlock the glass case where the perfume is kept.

For some reason all the clerks seem to be named Maria. Or maybe he just calls them all Maria. They all speak excellent English, and in their dealing customers or the owners, they emanate the soft-spoken familiarity of household help who have been with the family for many years.

Examining the selection in the glass cases is usually just a formality, because the choice selections are all kept in the back room. When he’s had time to size up the occasion and the seriousness of Dad’s spending, Jayanta gives order to the Maria currently in attendance to bring out some of the stock from the back room.

There are no sample bottles of scent in third-world merchandising. The gilt or pastel boxes containing Anaïs Anaïs and Nina Ricci, of Ysatis and Madame Rochas and Givenchy III, are painstakingly opened, and a cautious nostril is reverently applied to the atomizer head. “It is the spray you want, not the plain?” Jayanta ask. “Of course, it’s to be the spray; these women, Ed, these women.”

When we have made the selection between us—Dad opting for the deeper woodsier scent, and I holding out for the flowery-citrus—we enter the delicate phase of transacting the price. Polite skirmishing ensues between Dad and Jayanta (the attendant privileges and obligations of their Rotarianship hovering in the background of their negotiation like the gaudy muses of merchandise retailing).

Sometimes the transaction is interrupted by another of the Marias, who approaches Jayanta tentatively, bearing a message from his wife who is working the cash register. Mrs. M., too, waves a heavily ringed hand in greeting whenever we enter the store, but prefers to keep her position of power behind the register. I have sometimes uncharitably suspected the message to contain a certain cautionary element that goes into effect when she senses, from afar, that Jayanta is about to cave in and give up a soft sale to us. At any rate, the Maria might say, “Mister, Mrs. says that the key to the stockroom, we cannot find.”

And Jayanta, interrupted at this delicate stage of the negotiations, throws up his hand in exasperation and says, “Oh, heavenly day!” and moves fussily toward his wife where they hold a brief consultation in Hindi.

Dad politely averts his eyes and pretend to examine the merchandise in the glass counter in front of us, but I’m less inhibited by the imperative for good manners and pass this brief interregnum wondering how Mrs. M keeps the sari from unwrapping and speculating on whether she ever gets gas pains from not covering up her tummy, and watching the pocket of exposed, hanging-over midriff heaving emphatically once or twice as she expostulates with her husband.

He returns grinning grimly and he and Dad move into Phase Two of the haggling. Both of them are trying not to think of those daughters. Or rather, Jayanta is thinking, Now Ed’s thinking about how many daughters I still have to marry off, and he is determined that Dad should not feel sorry for him.

 “Now, Ed, Ed, this is for a special occasion, right? This is for Edith, right? And for the wife, why, one must give only the best.” And Dad makes some joshing remark about Jayanta’s obvious prosperity, and the town’s reliance on his store, stocked as it is with his discriminating good taste, and they move with mutual accord into the third phase, settling the price.

For his part, Dad, having transacted a price satisfactory to them both (and in order, too, to give some grace to the awkwardness implicit in all this), finally brings out the same jolly assurance he always gives Jayanta at the end of the haggling session: “I have a marriageable son, a good-looking boy; he can pass for an Indian, you know.”

Jayanta bares his teeth in a pained smile and sedately completes the charade: ”Well, well. Let’s talk about it sometime, shall we, Ed.”

I was witness to many of these transactions and at first they mortified me, until (out of a sense self-preservation, perhaps) I began to recognize a certain underlying esthetic.

I’d only seen Jayanta slip out from his well-Brylcremed punctilio once, and that was when Dad had made some casual remark referring to his being Indian, not Filipino. A glaze of hurt came over the bright, measuring eyes; and he said plaintively, “I am a Filipino, Ed. My father died, like yours, fighting the Japanese during the war, here.”

Years later, after our family had moved to the States, we learned that his son Ranjit—the young eminently marriageable doctor who never wed, and for whom the store was named—had died and died a hero. He went with a critically ill patient who was being airlifted to the next island, flying the child over to the Cebu General Hospital in a light aircraft owned by the son of one of the sugar plantation owners. They ran into a storm on the way back, crossing the Tañon Strait that separates Negros from Cebu. It is said that on a clear day, standing at dawn on the beaches of Dumaguete, facing Cebu, one can hear the cocks crowing across the strip of sea, in Santander. The wreckage of the plane was found but the bodies were never recovered. Jayanta, who used to sit in a back pew at the Silliman Church on Sunday mornings, the light from the windows picking up the silver streaks in his shiny hair, was a broken man, and within a year store was closed. At some time over the years, unobtrusively and not wanting to make a big deal out of it—still ruled by habitual courtesy, as it were—he’d turned Christian, it seemed, as his son Ranjit had, earlier; and perhaps, who knows, that finicking silence behind the merchant’s spiel did not, in the end, play him false—and he found the store was no longer enough to fulfill that unspoken esthetic, recovered from the wreckage.

Maybe it was that same ancient ontology (made durable and comfortable by the ritual of buy-and-sell), a sense of otherness persisting beyond the souks and the Khajuraho music transplanted to the far shore, that caused Satish to lean over the counter, to make his shy and clumsy offer of subsidizing a movie, as he thought, that might appeal to this customer’s discriminating taste—and to fill some hunger of his own: “About Eenjah,” he said, “something about Eenjah.”

Rowena Tiempo Torrevillas was born in Dumaguete City in 1951, the daughter of writers Edilberto Tiempo and Edith Tiempo. She received a BA in 1971, and an MA 1978, both in creative writing, from Silliman University, and went on to earn her Ph.D. in English Literature, also from Silliman. She worked for the International Writing Program at the University of Iowa as associate program coordinator, and for the university's English department as adjunct faculty. member. She has won several Palanca Awards for her fiction and poetry, and was the recipient of the Distinguished Author Award from the Writers Union of the Philippines, as well as the National Book Award. Her books include Upon the Willows and Other Stories [1980], The World Comes to Iowa: Iowa International Anthology [1987, co-edited with Paul Engle and Hualing Nieh Engle], Mountain Sacraments [1991], Flying Over Kansas: Personal Views [1999], and The Sea Gypsies Stay [1999]. She was former director-in-residence of the Silliman University National Writer's Workshop.


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