Life’s really great when you’ve got a fridge. It’s something I used to take it for granted before; it was always there, quietly humming in the kitchen, keeping the vegetables and dairy products happily chilled. I lived in Delhi for a full year without a fridge, and it was difficult, especially in the scorching months of May and June when I had to get used to drinking warm water and only buying things I was going to use right away. So one of the main items on my list when I was flathunting back in July was, well, you can guess. I decided I needed a little luxury.
Now, because I can, I’ve got into the habit of buying milk every day on my way home from Hindi class, so that I can have an evening cup of chai, and another one when I wake up the next morning. But there is one problem with this new lifestyle of mine: the Saket Mother Dairy, or rather, the man who works there.
‘Uncle ji,’ I said, in what I thought was a friendly-yet-assertive tone. I was the only customer. Uncle ji was perched on a box in the far corner of the shop, smoking a bidi. He ignored me.
‘Uncle ji?’ I raised my voice a bit. Maybe he hadn’t heard me; he was quite old after all. But he continued to stare into space, concentrating hard on smoking.
Another customer appeared. In contrast to my meek, foreigner approach to getting the man’s attention, she leaned over the counter and shouted, ‘Uncle ji! Half litre toned!’ But, alas, it seemed the bidi was more important than us.
In the next minute or so, several more customers arrived, and before long the crowd at the counter started to look more like the frantic front row of a stadium concert. ‘UNCLE JI!’ a middle-aged lady boomed, slamming her handbag down in emphasis. Other people were waving twenty rupee notes from extended arms, shouting requests. But instead of serving us, Uncle ji coughed, spat, and lit up another bidi.
The next evening, I reached the shop to see my grey-haired friend reading a newspaper. This time I mimicked the Indian customers, and shouted out that I wanted half a litre of milk and some butter. I waved some money at the same time. But of course, Uncle ji again feigned deafness and lifted the newspaper up to block me from view. It wasn’t until a sizeable, angry crowd had gathered that I received my purchases.
This kind of treatment I can generally deal with, but then when I arrived at the Mother Dairy last night I was faced with something much more dramatic. It appeared that Uncle ji was going mad.
To my amazement, he was standing up at the counter, but as I got closer I saw that he was angry. In an attempt to lighten the mood, I smiled. ‘Unc-‘
Before I could get the words out, Uncle ji started screaming, his white moustache bristling with rage. At first I was convinced he was shouting at me, but then I saw what had happened. One of Uncle ji’s young workers had knocked over a large steel container full of milk, which was slowly making its way across the shop floor. The boy, clearly terrified of Uncle ji, grabbed a cloth and started mopping up the milk, but in return, all he got was torrents of frenzied Hindi abuse.
Finally, the old man calmed down, and looked back at me.
I smiled. ‘Half litr-‘
‘[incoherent shrieking]’ The boy wasn’t mopping fast enough, maybe.
I gave up and watched the spectacle for a few minutes. Uncle ji was rubbing his grey hair in exasperation. I wondered if the expression ‘there’s no use crying over spilt milk’ was translatable into Hindi, but decided not to say anything out of fear of another outburst.
There’s actually another Mother Dairy less than ten minutes up the road, and I’ve been considering trying that one. But the truth is, I’m too lazy. No, that’s not what I meant – the truth is, I have become quite fond of dear old Uncle ji. And now I look forward to my regular evening ordeal of milk purchasing, because it’s far more entertaining than buying milk in Scotland.
It really is the little, maddening, funny, odd chunks of daily life here that make India so, erm, incredible. Which is partly why I’ve stayed here for so long. I sometimes wonder, though, if any of the strange behaviour I observe will rub off on me. I’d better be careful.