“Madam, You Need a Bag or No?”

Life is what happens when you’re standing in a check-out line at a supermarket. It was Saturday evening and I was third in line at a crowded Big Bazaar doing my second-least favourite activity in the world; waiting. As I took up my position behind a young woman in the line, an elderly couple briefly hovered around me. “Arre yeh ladka bahut time leta hai, uss line me lagte hain,” said the man and the couple shifted to anther line. I uneasily looked at my line, and then at the people waiting in front of other counters.

Why is it that choosing which check-out line to wait in while shopping often feels as risky and life-changing as choosing a career? Firstly, like the uncle correctly did, you judge the person behind the counter. Are they fast enough? Then, you evaluate the number and nature of things people in front of you have bought. Above fifteen usually means danger. Unless of course, the things are just small packets of Maggi, pickles and the like. A trolley full of groceries and clothes definitely means you should look elsewhere. A single man or a woman, looking bored with the world, with their bachelor-style horde of a few vegetables and more Pepsi than in a kids’ birthday party is a good sign. But the universal rule of line-choosing is that whichever line you choose, the other one always seems faster. Whatever career path or life path you find yourself on or choose after careful planning (if you’re like me), someone else’s life always seems more…exciting. Even if you know it’s not your cup of tea. I’m a journalist, not a boring lifestyle by any angle. And yet, one look at my investment banker friend’s photos in Berlin and I’m evaluating my life choices and thinking fondly of my Math scores. (I scored a 95 in class XII or as this current batch of DU kids will say, I was average.)

So, dear reader, I chose to stick to my line, in what I imagined was a grown-up acceptance of life’s choices. A stupid decision, of course. Since right in front of the young woman, was a family with *two* trolleys, filled up to the brim. A slightly worried looking woman with her pesky son and a white-haired grandmother looking judgementally at the new-fangled luxuries of city life as only white-haired grandmothers can do. To make matters worse, the woman insisted on using a discount coupon. As the long process initiated in fits and starts, the load in my arms (I couldn’t find a basket or a trolley) became heavier.

Shopping is my least favourite activity in the entire world. I detest it. Friends and family know me well enough to ensure that any necessary shopping trips are bookended with either good food or a bookstore. (If wedding shopping is involved, both.) On the rare occasion that I do have to shop for myself, simply because there’s no alternative, I try and get it over with as quickly as possible. Like a dentist’s appointment. It also must be convenient. Like an errand that can be fit in a day’s routine. This is why I was alone in a Big Bazaar on a Saturday evening. I absolutely needed some things, this was close to home and on my way back from my Kathak class. I picked what I needed in a whirlwind fifteen minutes, and was now spending more time than that waiting in a line. More often than not, life is a dreary trudge.

Made better by people. So I started talking to the young woman in front of me, and sent some SOS messages to my friends. The young woman looked grateful for the distraction, and we chatted about lines in supermarkets on weekends, how often she shops, how long she’s been waiting etc. I like small talk, actually. It’s like a fascinating glimpse into someone’s life, without the baggage of having to be social.

Once the small talk petered out, my friends, bless them, replied in earnest. Soon, I was planning a Sunday rendevouz with Humayun’s Tomb (right after I send this to you, I’m off!), counselling a friend through a bad date (Hinge ho ya Bumble, sab moh maaya hai) and empathising with another about a toxic friendship. I’ve realised this as I grow older that there’s nothing like having a group of people in your corner to make the wait for a good life better; wishing your imposter syndrome away, giving you tough-love when you need it and always ready to crack jokes to lighten up the world’s burden. The early-twenties restlessness of having a large gang of friends and being the most popular person in a party fades away slowly on this side of twenty-five. I’ve always been forty-five years old, so I was never the life of a party, but it feels good to reclaim the nerd corner of life for your gang and yourself.

When I looked up from my phone, the line still hadn’t moved, dear reader. The mother was now calling her husband to get an elusive OTP which would enable her to encash the food coupon. I was irritated, but also understanding. Who amongst us doesn’t like a discount? Maybe I am too inherently middle-class, but I have never understood the disdain towards discounts. Which child of the erstwhile Nizam are you to be immune to the lure of spending less money and getting the same thing? Huh? So, I waited.

With the interlude of more small talk (me to the cashier “Weekends toh kaafi busy rehta hoga na aapke liye?”), it was finally my chance. I was prepared. My debit card ready to strike, my bag preference already stated (“cloth one, yes I will pay for it, no I am not Nizam’s offspring”) and my hand half-tearing open the Snickers bar I had grabbed to eat in victory after I walked out. “Iss ka bar code nahin hain, kya karoon?” What it is it they say about best-laid plans going to waste in life? I sighed and looked around. An elderly couple (not the earlier ones) were behind me, looking at me like a hawk, while also debating the irrationality of the structure of Big Bazaar membership schemes. Behind them, another young man, soullessly waiting.

All around me, the cacophony of people willing themselves to a time where they didn’t have to wait, but still got what they wanted. A feeling, especially in the past week, my impatient self knew all too well. Career, love, life — the heart wants what it wants, right? Time and logic, be damned. So, I looked at that T-shirt which I couldn’t have, unless I waited. And looked at the Snickers bar in hand, a bite of which I had been patiently saving as a reward for voluntarily putting myself through shopping. “Nahin, rehne do, nahin chahiye.”

As I walked out, dear reader, a bite of chocolate had never tasted better.

For work, apart from this. Usually, I post my work updates on Twitter. (Say hello at @Maanvi2501) but just in case. I wrote about the family behind a triple-murder suicide in Gurugram this week, which got me thinking about loneliness in the city and how you can never really know someone.


  1. As a rule, I read everything Sharda Ugra writes, but I want to frame this piece on being happily single and trampling on cookie cutters

    "What I could not understand was why no distinction was made between aching loneliness – which can swallow people whole even in large family groups – and the freedom of solitary calm. Why was it seen as too dangerous for women to even be offered a glimpse of the solitary (outside celibate nunhood, that is) before hardwiring us through adolescence into being carers and nurturers responsible for the propagation of the family/ clan/ human race?"

  2. Did you see the viral video of a cow playing football? Well, the inimitable Smita Nair, whose work I’ve admired forever, has the backstory.

    “At the Mahalasa Narayani Temple, which also happens to be the family deity of Vijay Mallya, the flower vendors have an affectionate story to share of their new celebrity “thi videotli gai” (that cow from the video). Santosh Naik, who sells flowers at the gate, says she is the “most distinguised cow in the village with a handsome built” and a “stride that wins everyone”. Since morning he says the villagers have been busy making Marathi and Konkani one liners on the video — for every time someone forwards it in any of the groups."

  3. I know it’s not a new discovery, but reading Mr. Mathrubootham always makes my Sunday. And today toh he’s in exquisite form. Sadly, the only letters I get from concerned readers are choicest abuses on Twitter, but one lives in eternal hope, no?

    "I will always say, “Kamalam, whatever perfume you are wearing for me, it is my favourite smell.” And she will say, “Yabba yabba yabba, this is why I am saying thousand times don’t eat last week’s curd rice, maybe it will be turned into alcohol.” Then I will say, “Fine, Pond’s Dreamflower or Cuticura type smell is my favourite. Never again I will say one romantic thing. Later on don’t say why I am not like Madhavan, not like Arvind Swami and all.”

That’s it from me for this week. I wish you a Sunday filled with life-realisations, good food and away from rage-inducing Twitter takes on Kabir Singh.

As always, I would love to read what you have to say — it could be anything, hi, rambling about life etc. All you have to do is hit ‘Reply’. If you liked what you read, ask your friends or family or lovers to subscribe. I would say “share this on social media!” but I don’t want to sound like a social media influencer. That’s a checkout line, I am definitely not interested in.

I will write again soon.