It was the year 1985. I had just then returned from a three month stay in England. It was mandatory visit that took me to a shop. The shopkeeper, Dada, said, “So! You are back!?” I said, “Yes Dada, how are you?” My question was ignored.
The greetings part done, the first question he asked me is indelible in my mind. “ಏನು? ಅಲ್ಲಿ ಎಲ್ಲಾ ಕ್ಲೀನಾಗಿದ್ಯಾ?” (“Is everything clean over there?”) I said “yes, Dada.” An imperious grunt of approval and satisfaction was the reply. I had visited Switzerland too on the way back from England and felt that Dada could teach a thing or two to the Swiss about cleanliness and orderliness!
Dada was always immaculately dressed in a simple way. Trousers and half sleeved shirt, not tucked in. A spotless chin and hair combed such that not a hair was out of place. This completed the picture. Surprisingly, I really do not remember what footwear he wore. I am sure, whatever they were, they matched the rest of the man.
Now the shop: It was called Mysore Curios, Arts and Crafts, selling, well, you know what. The shop matched the man. Every item on sale was placed or hung perfectly. Not a thing was out of place. If a dust particle settled on anything, it perhaps had a half-life of about an hour. The trusted shop assistant, Peer Saheb, (Who I referred to as the peerless Mr. Peer) would dust everything in sight with a short handled duster. Once in a while I would be worried that if I stood still too long in the shop, I would be dusted too!
There was a board in the shop. Fixed Prices. No Bargaining. (I think the latter is a figment of my imagination. The board said only the first. It sounded as if it brooked no argument and in my mind there is the other board as well.)
A customer walks in saunters around in the place, actually, pirouettes around carefully. That is all the space there was. He selects an item. He asks the price. There was no need. Every little thing for sale in the shop has a price tag. Dada either tells him the price by memory or looks at the price tag and reads it out to the customer. He asks for a rebate, discount or asks what the ‘real’ price is. Dada either shows him the “fixed prices” board or just plain ignores him.
I have seen prospective customers leave at this point only to return later in the evening to buy the very item at Dada’s price. Once I asked Dada’s elder son about it. “Don’t you lose customers because of this?” He told me, “You just wait. He will come back”. Come back they did, with astonishing regularity.
I have been a witness to the scene any number of times.
To understand this in its true magnitude you need to know how this business usually works. Many shops do not have a price tag or list at all. When a customer enquires about the price, the price quoted is based on the person’s buying power. Tourists from abroad attracted the highest quotes, rich (looking) Indians a little lower and “ordinary” people the lowest and perhaps “actual” prices. The customers, mostly tourists, would bargain and finally either bought or left. Many times, those who left Dada’s shop, not able to strike a bargain, would come back when they realised that Dada’s strictly fixed price was fairer than bargained prices at other shops.
Dada’s sales technique was unique and simple. He ignored everyone! Or so it appeared. He was aware of what the customer was doing and so on. But he never intruded. I asked Dada’s son, why the customers were ignored. By long experience, they all knew that the customers felt comfortable when no one was trying to sell them anything. They never felt unwelcome.
I was a careless dresser when I was a student. Trousers, a kurta or a shirt, Kolhapuris or tyre soled* Gandhi slippers. That was my usual attire. I shaved once in three days or so. The only thing relatively neat was my (tending towards shoulder length) hair. The reason was my father permitted me to grow my hair long provided it was clean and combed neatly. I suffered the ignominy of that for the sake of the other. If you are wondering why I am suddenly talking of myself, wait!
One day Dada took me to task. “Why are you young people so slovenly. You should dress well. You should look trim. Look at me! Have you ever seen me differently?” No I had not. He went on and lectured me “at length” for all of about three minutes. For such a taciturn man, to go on like that, you can imagine how I must have irritated him!
Dada was a man who lived by some very high standards at the pinnacle of which was cleanliness, orderliness. He expected others to do so too. He was also tolerant and never preached. He just practiced what he did not preach.
Dada was Nagesh Rao Nikam.
The “elder son” is Niri, Niranjan Nikam, my high school classmate and friend.
The younger son, not mentioned in this post is, Giri, Girish Nikam.
If you wonder why I spent so much time in the shop it was because it was our aDDa.
I had been planning a note on Dada a long time. When Giri posted a note on him, on Facebook, I did not want to miss doing this.