The anthropological doldrums – or why I avoid some airport bookstores

Ages 30 – 35 are the worst for most folks of our generation. You tend to get the short end of the stick in all situations, foreign and domestic, professional and otherwise. You see, it’s a combined effect of the young age and your standing in society that does the trick. You are not young enough to qualify as a newbie anywhere, and you are not yet old enough to effortlessly exhibit gravitas. You are too old to be given the benefit of doubt typically reserved for the youth and yet you are too young to be above suspicion if something goes wrong in your general vicinity. It’s as if the moment you cross the age of 30, you enter a sort of anthropological doldrum where you are  aided by neither the fair winds of youth nor the anchor and gravity of middle age. You sort of coast around. You know that you have gained enough experience and life savvy to take an adult decision about somethings in life, but you are not yet sure what they are.

And it’s not as if your elders and betters help you. Your boss seems to think that you ought to take more responsibilities and start acting as if you own the company (whatever that means) whereas your mom calls you at night to check if you remembered to put the achaar she sent you in a ‘cool dark place, away from sunlight.’ The friendly young woman on TV reminds you that you ought to have started investing at least a good twenty years ago in order to afford a grocery store visit in your old age, whereas your dad thinks he ought to slip you 250 rupees every time you leave home because snacks. Your mother’s sister seems to labour under the belief that you ought to recall the name, age, marital status and vocation of any given member of your extended family at a moment’s notice (“My God, what is this, chechi ? Your daughter does not know that our cousin’s brother in law’s wife’s sister’s son is working in the same company as she is ? Why hasn’t she gone to visit him at his house yet ? What will they think of us ?”) whereas your dad steadfastly refuses to involve you in any discussion regarding a marriage proposal that has come for you ( “She only needs to know when she needs to know.”)

Even far from the marrying crowd, the society at large is not forgiving of this age bracket. I went shopping recently at an airport store. It is my habit, upon finishing check in process, to potter about the airport and wander into any place that sells books. In this case, it was a book cum curio store, one of those establishments that result when the owner is paying through his nose for floorspace at an airport and decides to cram in as many sellable items as he can, in a vain effort to increase revenue per footfall. The inevitable result, more often than not, is a crammed store that has barely any manoeuvring space. Let loose in such hazardous environments, I am more inclined than ever to render my personal impression of the bull in a china shop routine. So I am generally quite cautious and carry myself with much dignity and care in such situations.

In this particular case, I was about to leave the store after some pleasant browsing, when I happened to find myself at cross purposes with an elderly gentleman. Both of us wanted to cross a particularly narrow aisle at the same time, but in opposite directions. After a respectable period of mutual contemplation where we mentally took stock of the situation and tried to decide the best way to approach this mini standoff, we silently agreed that the best way forward for both of us was, in short, just that. So we contorted our bodies into a sort of mini pireutte, presenting the slimmest profile forward, and inched our way slowly through the aisle, careful not to bump into each other. This complex mini manoeuvre soon had the desired effect, leading the elderly gentleman further into the store’s interior, while at the same time safely depositing me near the exit. Or so it seemed.

For no sooner had I put one foot across the threshold when a tinkling, crashing sound reached me from within the store. One of the ornamental glass figurines stocked on that aisle had just crashed to the floor and lay strewn about in, if not a thousand, at least a few dozen pieces. The store clerk rushed over in short order and took stock of the situation. I and the elderly gentleman silently sized each other up over the wreckage. We were both equidistant from the scene of the crime, and as such, perpetuators of equal potential. We both silently threw accusatory glances at each other, each one visually entreating the other to man up and admit to the error. The store clerk, after inspecting the crime scene thoroughly, stood up, smoothed her skirt down, and looked askance at me. I felt offended. Why just me ? Why couldn’t it have been the elderly guy ? (The astute reader will observe that I have, by this point in the narrative, ceased to refer to the guy as a gentleman. For upon further reading, it will become clear that this guy was neither manly, nor gentle) .

The clerk refused to acknowledge what was a patently offended expression on my face and asked, ‘Sir?’ The question mark at the end was not a call for admission of guilt. No, guilt was assumed. The question mark instead meant ‘Cash or card?’. I refused to give in. ‘But, it could have been him as well,’ I blurted out. ‘Why do you assume it’s me?’. Finally, the clerk turned to the elderly guy, who put up a remarkable air of innocence and said ‘ Sorry my dear, I had already reached the end of the aisle when the sound came. And I see this young gentleman has a backpack with many loose straps and knots. Maybe one of them hitched on the curio without him noticing ? These things happen.’ I was indignant by now, especially since I realised that the clerk had started to side with the guy automatically. I was presumed guilty even before I had a chance to explain that I am usually quite careful in such situations and would not, could not, have done the deed. Moreover, the guy had not, as he stated, reached the end of the aisle when the sound came. He had moved there silently while the store clerk was busily inspecting the wreckage. I started protesting. But curiously, the more I started protesting, the more the clerk started believing it was me, and the more smug the guy started looking. It was a losing battle. His age conferred a maturity on him which signalled a certain level of dignity and honesty which was clearly fake. However, that veneer of respectability was good enough to fool the clerk, who looked at me as if I was an arrogant snob who looked rich enough to afford to pay damages, but was instead, black heart enough to refuse to do the right thing. Throughout all this exchange, the guy never had to utter more than 4 sentences.

Finally, the argument was drawn to a premature close by the boarding announcement for my flight. I had no option but to pay the cost of the ugly figurine, and rush for my departure gate. As I was turning to leave, I risked a glance at the guy. He smiled pleasantly at me.

Adulting is hard.

Sometimes, the bull is innocent.