"Hello, mamia, shunte pachhen? Can you hear me?"
"Yes, shuvo, tell me. Why didn't you come over with your wife and child this time?"
I was in a supermarket, watching the queue at the counter grow, and I had to decide something very quickly. A call with mamia (our aunt in Delhi) doesn't end quickly as she always has a lot to say. Usually it is about why we are not moving back to Delhi asap. We try to tell her that the weather in Bangalore is way too good for us to move anywhere else, but her love for us is so heartfelt, we can't say no on her face. We end with "one day we will have to move back to Delhi, that's where we are from, after all."
We are not from Delhi. We are from an industrial town called Durgapur, which would remind you of the mining colonies from Lawrence's novels. When we were born, Durgapur was infested with medieval people who were still learning to button their pants. As with all Bengalis, all Durgapuris also had their share of intellectual hangups, which made them try their hand at theater and singing, stuff that upheld your Bengali "culture." There were some "bhodroloks" from Calcutta, Jamshedpur, or Ranchi, bastions of Bengali culture, and there were also those that upgraded from nearby districts of Bankura and Purulia, whom the bhodrolok Bongs looked down upon. People were segregated according to the dialects they spoke, and it was really a rich experience observing the capers. Some Durgapuris could still associate with it and felt they belonged there because of their schools, but I couldn't say the same about myself. Being an average student, I had to change three schools and hence felt no emotional association with Durgapur whatsoever. So, to mamia we would always say "will come back to Delhi." Because that was the first city I bonded with, the first city that acknowledged my presence, and the first city that seemed like the stories I had heard of the US of A, a land of dreams.
This rushed conversation with mamia was not about assuring her of our eventual moving back to Delhi. It was about something else altogether. I just blurted it out.
"Mamia, which Oil of Olay do you buy?"
She was zapped. She probably didn't know the context of my question. My sister, who'd recently been to visit mamia, came back with stories of how her complexion is glowing these days and how all her marks are gone. With cheeks full of acne scars, I happened to latch on to the conversation my sister had with my wife. They mentioned Olay somewhere in their conversation and I remembered that.
"Oil of Olay? I have an oily skin, why would I need to apply oil on top of that?" Mamia had a point there.
"So what is it that you use? Something that takes care of the wrinkles and also the acne spots?"
I suddenly noticed that some lady shoppers around me were curiously listening to my side of the conversation. I was standing in front of the cosmetics section, and seldom do you find men standing there.
"Oh, that's Olay total Effects, shuvo. It is very effective. But why would you want to use that? It is for women?"
"Ahem, umm... you know, am like 39 already? And my wrinkles are not fine lines any more, mamia. They are showing almost everywhere: under my eyes, on my forehead, next to my mouth... umm... so, I was thinking if I could use something?" At about this point in the conversation I noticed one little girl fiddling with my shoelaces! I stamped my feet to scare her and carried on with this long-distance call that wasn't promising to come to a conclusion very soon.
Mamia for a long while tried to convince me that when she last saw me I had impeccable skin and that I still look 25, but I wasn't ready to believe her. The mirror has something very sordid to say, and I better paid heed.
"So which Olay should I buy? I can see Total Effects, a moisturizer, and a whitener."
"Don't buy Olay. That's for women. Why don't you buy a Nivea Natural Whitening moisturizer instead? Your uncle uses that."
Luckily I could find Nivea nearby and started reading the instructions on the pack. Apparently it was for men who spent a lot of time out in the sun. It also whitens your skin and controls oil. That interested me because I have always had this secret desire to be white. All Bengalis want to be white like the Europeans, and the only thing we could do so far in that regard was to learn English as best as we could, but now it seemed there was a solution to the other desire of physically resembling the whites as well. I was always worried what people do neck down (you can't possibly apply fairness creme on your entire body) but resigned to the fact that the face should do for starters.
The Nivea pocketed, I thanked mamia, and started walking toward the counter. But my feet seemed paralyzed for a second and refused to listen to the instruction from my brains to walk. They stayed where they were, as my upper body nonchalantly tried to move on. You're right, before I could realize it, I nosedived to the floor. I actually landed on my nose because somebody had tied my shoelaces while I was on the phone with mamia. As I got up and felt the blood oozing out of nostrils, trying to figure out if my jaw was broken too, the shopgirl who helped me get up asked me "sir, are you all right?"
Some people were smirking, some looked genuinely concerned. Having forgotten about my desire to turn white, I kept my Nivea back where it belonged and picked up a bottle of Dettol instead.