Shalini gasped as she entered the mall, by far the biggest in this part of the country.
This happened whenever she came here though she had lived all her life in Bangalore. It was as good as any she had seen abroad which was a compliment as she had been to several countries. With innumerable boutiques, shops, food courts, gaming booths, theaters, kids’ play areas, and parking facilities spread over many levels, this mall had something for everybody.
She enjoyed spending a lot of time, if not money, here. She observed that most people seemed to window shop. Some actually bought things, but almost everyone went away having eaten something.
Shalini’s secret passion was to observe people around her. She was hesitant to talk about this even with her close friends. They knew she was artistic by nature and far more observant than they were. They did not know it had become an obsession with her. She loved painting though she wasn’t particularly good at it. She loved writing even more. It was here that she excelled though her writing was largely mood driven. Sometimes writing was so easy. The words simply gushed out of her. At other times, she felt her mind would explode with so many observations trapped in it, but the words did not flow.
They had such fun in college having formed a foursome the first day they met, when all the freshers had nervously sized up each other. Their friendship endured and grew. Rashmi was the tallest amongst them. Preethi was the prettiest and got the most attention. Sarah was the brightest. Her wit and intelligence made her a rock star in debates. Shalini was, well Shalini! She wasn’t tall but not short, she wasn’t fat but not thin, she wasn’t brilliant but she wasn’t a dope. She wasn’t beautiful but was not ugly either. In short, she was difficult to describe.
A teacher once said in an end of term counselling session, “I must say you are rather, “ordinary” though I don’t mean it in any derogatory sense. The fact is there is nothing exceptional about you. You can do much better if you try!!” Maybe he was right. If there were ten girls in the room, the chances were that you would notice nine, but not her. She missed everyone’s attention which led to an interesting consequence. Since people seldom noticed her, she noticed everyone else. What started as a pastime became a deep passion within her.
She was astonished that her friends didn’t notice many things that were startlingly clear to her. She told Preethi, for example, “This dude has a huge crush on you.” “No, he has a girlfriend in his class. Why would he be interested in me?” was the reply. But Shalini could tell. She could tell from the furtive looks he gave Preethi especially when she was looking elsewhere. She sensed his hesitation. Often he made to say something but someone else butted in with a smart ass comment or a joke and the moment was gone. Girls were supposed to be pretty good at making out when someone of the opposite sex paid more attention to them. Again she asked, “Hey, don’t you know he has eyes only for you?” Preethi replied, “Like every guy I know, his eyes stray elsewhere.”
Shalini had dreamt of becoming a novelist but her parents forced her to study engineering. All through the day she heard, “There is so much scope for engineers these days. Look at Raman’s daughter, now in the US. Look at Sridhar’s son who works in Germany. They are all abroad, getting fat salaries. You too can do all this if you become an engineer.”
Her college wasn’t one of the top-notch ones but luckily at that time companies needed literally thousands of engineers. She was hired by a multinational IT company and had hung on there for the last five years. She wasn’t passionate about her work but it had broadened her experience through her visits abroad.
She often wished she had picked up enough courage to tell her parents, “You may want me to make good money by becoming an engineer in an IT company and go abroad. My interests lie elsewhere. I want to write books in a cottage up in the hills. Ooty may be, or Kodaikanal. I would walk in the meadows watching the clouds kiss the mountain peaks. I would key in thousands of words with a warm fire to keep me snug in the winters.”
Only yesterday her mother had said, “It will soon be Christmas! Have you collected those dresses you gave for stitching at that fancy mall months ago?” “ I am going there tomorrow.”
“ Right, but go to that shop. If you delay any more, you will see some other girls wearing them. ” Her mother then ended with her usual complaint, “You dream too much!”
Shalini smiled at these memories. You know what it is like in Bangalore’s malls. Most of the shoppers are young and trendy. They hang out with their friends and indulge in gossip and window shopping, if nothing else. There were the college groups, then there were the young professionals, these stood out as they bought more than the others, spending more lavishly at the shops and at the food courts. They earned well and lived well. Their motto seemed to be, “Live well when you can. Make hay when the sun shines.”
The older people were usually parents, uncles, aunts and assorted relatives brought to celebrate some occasion or merely to see the sights. The out- of -towners were the easiest to spot from the way they gawked at everything and everyone. Some squealed with delight as they boarded the escalator. Two girls hung on to each other giggling nervously as the steps moved instead of their having to climb up. This was one experience they would definitely brag about when they returned home. Shalini could easily identify the regulars and those who were new to the mall. She wondered who she might meet today.