I loved Hongkong Lane. The tiny seedy little lane in the city of Pune. Lined with rows and rows of match-box sized shops, selling trinkets of all sorts. Jewellery (artificial, of course), beaded necklaces/bracelets, tinkling wind-chimes, beautiful little bells, audio cassettes (yeah, those were the days of a walkman and audio cassette) and pirated version of the latest books and novels.
Every time I went back home on vacation, I would first pay homage at Hongkong Lane and buy bags of useless trinkets for all the family. And expect them to gloat over it like I did, and which they duly did 🙂
On one such shopping expedition, my best friend (let’s call her L) and I had resolved to stick to our budget and snatch a bargain at EVERY shop. We were the ‘Mylapore Maami’s’ as our other Chennai-ite friends called us, and were generally quite timid, so bargaining was really not our forte. But this time, we decided to break the paradigm.
L parked her Scooty by the side of the main road, along with a long line of other bikes. I am always amazed by the uncanny ability of people to identify their vehicles from a crowd. I could never do it! Not that I ever had a vehicle to call my own. Except of course my adorable red tricycle when I was three.
So, we geared up, our backpacks empty and ready to be filled with all the loot. Our first stop: Girlie jewellery. We chose some really cute alphabet beads and got them strung into bracelets for my sis and L’s friends. Just as I opened my mouth to ask ‘Bhaiya, give us a discount’, L nudged me and pointed to a board painted in red: ‘NO BARGAIN. CASH ONLY’. So we sighed and paid (hey, that rhymed!!) Rs.75.
Our next stop: The bookstore. Here’s where we could really strike gold. I picked up some John Grisham for my sister again (see, I really was a nice elder sis), and L chose ‘The Alchemist’ (my favourite of the bygone days) and some Richard Bach (I never could understand what that guy really has to say) for herself. You see, L was a really deep person, unlike frivolous me. And now was the time for the big deal. I opened with a pathetic ‘Why don’t you give us a bargain?’ The bookseller merely started at me for a flit second and kept billing the books. I shrugged and looked at L. Whether it was out of a surge of ‘bargain-o-mania’, or just a wave of sympathy, L took up the challenge of getting us a discount. ‘Bhaiya, we are just students…can’t you give us SOME discount?’ The ‘students’ bit seemed to strike a cord with the grumpy old man. He was really of ‘Dada’ age and not ‘Bhaiya’ but calling him that would have certainly thwarted all chances of a bargain. He gave her a somewhat empathetic look and very briefly, nodded. L and I looked at each other, unable to believe it. ‘I give 2 percent’, he broke the silence. ‘Huh?’ we stared back at him. ‘OK OK 5 percent’. ‘Kya Bhaiya? Only 5 percent? That is just not enough. We are only students. We are buying this out of our pocket money. You have to help us!’ , L said very convincingly (and it was the truth, of course). It was getting late. Lunch time, and the old man was getting impatient. We had already spent an hour there. ‘Give us 50 percent’, L boldly ventured. I was getting prepared to run, just in case the shop seller decided to throw us out. To my horror, the old man said ‘OK’ and billed us Rs.200 instead of Rs.400. He was either eager to shut down the shop for lunch, or was simply humouring our pathetic negotiation skills, or call it ‘begging prowess’.
We paid up and stuffed our bags with the books. Then was the turn of the handbags and silly posters that people would accept with a smile and then chuck it away in a bin. By the time we finished, we were really exhausted. ‘Well done, buddy!’ I patted L on the back. ‘Let’s celebrate, Pallo’, she said excitedly. We trudged back to the main road, and found a nice little restaurant with space to eat out under medium sized green-white umbrellas. We ordered my favourite missal-pav and her favourite cappuccino. We watched the other college students having a great time at their respective tables. There was a young family – parents and two children – a boy and a girl. We looked at each other. Our eyes mirrored the feeling of homesickness that one feels on a lonely Sunday. I patted the backpacks and we smiled, at the thought of getting to see the family in less than a week! Our food arrived and we devoured it in a few minutes of complete silence. Bargain shopping does make one hungry. Rs.30 out of our savings had gone now, but it was worth every bite. Having saved more than Rs.200! We even left a generous tip of Rs.5 for the sullen waiter.
The evening sun was setting, and we needed to get back to our PG accommodation before Mrs. Marathe would start worrying about us. She really was a nice old lady, our landlady, and we were genuinely fond of her. We walked back towards the signal near which we had parked the bike. Strangely, it was empty. Completely. Not a soul in sight. ‘We must have come the wrong way!’, we guessed. We turned back and walked towards the other end of the road. There was nothing there either. Now we were beginning to panic. Where had we left the bike? I was useless at directions and at remembering anything of significance. But L was way better. ‘I am SURE I parked there!’ she pointed to the original spot where we had gone. So we walked back, to find nothing. Not a bike. Not a soul. We looked around, worried. Has somebody stolen it? Gosh! It had cost L’s dad (he had retired from work just that year) at least Rs.25000. Then an old pan-wala motioned to us. ‘What does he want now?!’, I muttered. L, the kind-hearted soul, walked towards him. ‘Saare le gaye!’ (took them all), he said. ‘Kya?’, she asked. ‘Police.. police.. No-parking!’, he repeated through a mouth-ful of red-paan. OK that was an exaggeration. A Paan-seller doesn’t necessarily have to munch paan all the time!
Ow shit! How did we ever park the bike in a No-Parking zone? L would have never done that. But yes, it was the 29th of April. Family budget strings would normally be very stretched during these last few days of the month. Understandably, the impoverished pot-bellied policemen had towed all the vehicles away. We asked around for directions to the police station. It was way too far to walk. Especially in the early evening. It would take us at least half an hour to walk. So we hailed a passing auto rickshaw. ‘Police-station’, I said. The dirty fellow stared at us, and spat ‘Fifty rupees’. ‘What? No no! Twenty-five only’, I said. ‘Chalo, Fourty’. ‘NO! Thirty’, said L almost fiercely. He nodded assent, and we clambered in, making sure our shopping bags were safe with us.
Ten minutes later we were at the police-station. A lanky boy, probably another college student, was walking out, sweating, and holding his motorbike. ‘I hope its here!’ I prayed. We entered the station. It was rather clean. Not that we had been to other stations before. But still, it was a surprise to see an airy white-washed room, instead of the dungeons inhabited by beaten-up prisoners we see in the movies.
‘Our bike has been taken’ I whispered. ‘WHAT?’ the pot-bellied man in uniform thundered. L cleared her throat and said more steadily ‘I parked my bike near Hong Kong lane, but its gone now. They told me it was towed away’. ‘Hmmm… what name?’ ‘Pall..’ I started. ‘SCOOTY.. DARK BLUE’, L said way too loud. I shut up immediately. ‘Search there’, Mr.Pot-belly pointed to a sort of backyard. We walked around nervously, hoping not so much to find the bike, as to return home with our virginity still intact. I know, I know, that’s too filmy. We’d been watching too many crappy Hindi movies lately. ‘There she is!!’ L and I spotted her bike almost simultaneously. Our heart leapt with joy. As L tried to move the Scooty, a thin policeman, probably a lowly-paid constable tapped his wooden stick on the bike, and said ‘Inspector Saab calling’. We walked back in. a flurry of questions and answers, like a succession of ping-pong balls took place.
‘Do you have a driving license?’
It’s at home. Shivaji Nagar.
‘Tamil Nadu number plate??’
‘Yes Sir, I brought my bike from Chennai for my studies’
‘Where is NOC?’
‘What?’, L was a little stumped.
‘N – O – C. Where is it?’
We stared at each other. We didn’t know what it meant. Honesty is the best policy, we decided, telepathically.
‘No License, No NOC. Go home! Cannot take back cycle’.
L was enraged that Mr.Pot-belly had called her Scooty a cycle rather than a bike. But this wasn’t the time or place for that.
‘Please Sir. We didn’t do anything wrong! Let us take the BIKE, and we’ll bring back the DL immediately. Promise!’, I pleaded.
Mr.Pot looked back at the files on his table and motioned us to bugger off. We walked out, our shoulders slumped.
Outside the station, we stood wondering how on earth we could get her Scooty back. Her parents would ground her, and me too. How would we ever repay Rs.25000!! it would be another year before we would even get employed somewhere!
‘Hallo! Hallo!’. Somebody was calling out to us, clapping aloud. We looked around. It was the thin constable. We stopped and waited for him to catch up.
‘Look sister, I can help you. You want Scooty?’
‘YES!’, we nodded in unison.
‘Hmmm.. I talk to Inspector Saab. But we oil engine first’.
‘Its oiled’, L answered.
‘Oh not that, Behenji (sister). Oil.. oil.. palm..’ he said, scratching his head. Seeing that we still didn’t get the drift, he said ‘Rs.400 only’, and sighed.
Our eyes popped out of our head. Did we hear right? ‘Is he crazy? He wants a bribe? Forget it!’ I whispered angrily to L. She didn’t reply. Then I realised her eyes were watering. Here was the chance to retrieve her most precious possession. And I was thinking of the money. I started walking back to the station with the constable. L followed, half relived and half grateful. She squeezed my hand. We walked into the station boldly this time, knowing fully well what the guys were after and that the ball was in our court now.
Mr.Pot was not to be seen. Gone for a wee, perhaps. ‘500’, the constable said. ‘You said 400’, I replied.
‘400? OK fine. 400’
‘We are only students, Bhaiya. We don’t have that much money. 400 is too much’, L piped up from behind, her voice steady and bold. I looked around in surprise. This was the bargaining expedition, after all. I was emboldened too. ‘Yes, you cant take advantage of students like us. We live on pocket money only. No salary!’ I added.
Mr.Pot suddenly emerged, miraculously. ‘300’ he said, with a callous attitude. So he had been listening all along.
‘Sir, we don’t have that much…’ I said, and emptied my wallet in front of him. L and I counted the money out. Rs.132 only. ‘Phew!’, Mr.Pot sniggered. L opened her wallet too, and emptied Rs.120’. The constable swiped the notes off the table, and left the coins in there. Too meagre even for him, we guessed. ‘Rs.250, Saab’, he said to Mr.Pot. Mr.Pot stared at us for a whole minute. Then they looked at each other. And finally, to our great relief, he said the word ‘OK’. We hurried to the backyard and grabbed the bike, walking/running away from the station as fast as we could.
We neared the main road, in dead silence, louder even, than the noise of the evening traffic on the road. As we stopped at the signal where we had originally parked the bike, we burst into laughter. We laughed and laughed, tears streaming down our cheeks.
‘What a bargain!’, we returned home with bags of bargain books and gifts, and empty wallets.