The second of the Tales of Thambi, by Shalini Srinivasan. Thambi is one of the characters in Vanamala and the Cephalopod, who Shalini felt needed more stories. So here they are for you to enjoy!
Thambi sat in his shop one mildly sunny winter morning. There was a pleasant golden light, and his fingers and toes were chilly. Thambi was feeling particularly happy with Kanti Stores. His trough still didn’t have any presents, but as he gazed upon his plentiful provisions, he felt warm and content. There was nothing the people of Basavakere might want that he didn’t have.
A stranger walked up to his counter. Thambi knew she was a stranger because her sari wasn’t from his shop, and it had flowers embroidered on it in a shade of violet he’d never seen in a sari, somewhere between amethyst and blue like the snakeweed flowers that bloomed in all the fields during the monsoon.
“Namaskara,” said Thambi, in the formal voice he kept for strangers. He thought it was wonderfully posh, but Lalitha said it made him sound like a hoopoe.
“Hello,” said the stranger in a swishy accent. Thambi didn’t know where it was from – it didn’t sound firang – but the way she elongated the o made it sound somehow far away.
“What would you like?” asked Thambi waving his hands grandly at his shelves, smug in the knowledge that he had everything anyone could want.
“I’d like a duck, please,” said the stranger.
“A duck?” said Thambi, wondering if he was hearing wrong.
“Yes. I was told you have everything. And that if you didn’t, you’d be able to get me one.”
“I don’t deal in livestock,” said Thambi. “You should try one of the farms.”
“Fine general store you are,” said the stranger after a minute. “What’s more general than a duck? Back in my village the general store man would’ve given me a choice of size and colour!”
“And where is your village?” asked Thambi. There didn’t seem to be anything supernatural about her, but one never knew.
She smiled amusedly and shook her head.
“Well, if you have no duck, then I should be going. Kamapura is the next village, yes? I hear their Rupa Stores has everything! I’m sure they’ll give me a duck.”
Thambi’s professional pride couldn’t take it any longer. “Rupa Stores!” he spat. “Everything! Pah! Lies, full lies!”
“No, no, many people have praised Rupa Stores,” the lady said. “I hear their slogan is ‘If it can’t be found here, it can be found nowhere; if it can be found anywhere, it will be found here!”
“That’s the Mahabharata,” objected Thambi. He felt very indignant, and also wished he’d thought of having a slogan for Kanti Stores first. “Rupa Stores indeed. Over-priced, weevil-filled food!” he cried. “Rotting grains! Expired tins! Low-quality mass-produced pens. Last decade’s clothes! If they have a duck it’ll be made of cheap plastic!”
The stranger laughed then, a large happy laugh, so large and so happy that Thambi began to snigger too, sneeh sneeh sneeh.
“If you’ll come back in two hours,” he said grandly, “I’ll sell you a duck.”
The lady laughed softly and went away with a wave.
As he watched her walk away, Thambi’s dizzy cheerfulness faded away, and he groaned. A duck! What sort of person wanted a duck?
Lalitha walked into the shop, well in time to hear Thambi’s groan. “Did you just send a customer away empty-handed?” she asked, worried.
“She’s coming back in two hours to pick up her purchase,” said Thambi.
“What did she buy?” asked Lalitha, “And did you see the lovely embroidery on her sari? You must ask her where she got it from.”
“Duck,” said Thambi.
“Where’s duck?” asked his wife puzzled.
“No. Her purchase. A duck.”
“But we don’t have a duck.”
“I said I’d get one in two hours.”
Lalitha laughed and laughed. Unlike the stranger, her laugh was thin and sarcastic and spiky. (As was the rest of Lalitha – she was all points and angles and edges.) Normally Thambi thought it was the best laugh in the world, but today he felt offended.
“It’s not that funny,” he said.
“Where will you get it from?” grinned Lalitha. Her face was a mass of teeth.
“One of the farms.”
“Who keeps ducks in Basavakere? No one!”
“You could try Aravidu Narasimha,” smirked Lalitha, who hadn’t forgotten about the hay. “Maybe he’ll import you one from the Kaveri in Thanjavur and make you pay 500 rupees for it!” Then she laughed some more and went away.
Thambi slumped his head in his arms when she came back in. “Of course you could just kidnap one from the lake,” she said. “That’ll be quick.” Then she went off laughing her poky evil laugh.
Thambi stayed gloomy for half an hour. But no ducks appeared. So he set off to the lake. The lake looked cool and sharp in the sun. A mild breeze ruffled its surface, breaking it up into thousands of little glints.
The side of the kere that faced the town was a bit grubby, and definitely muddy. All the ducks and other discriminating people preferred to lurk and nest on the farther shore, which was thick with reeds and weeds and other eedy things. But Thambi was not to be daunted. He took off his chappals, rolled up his trousers and walked boldly on the squelchy mud at the edge of the lake. The reeds were tall and dense, so much taller than Thambi, that he had to look through them and guess where the lake shore was. Other weeds matted the water’s surface in strong ropes that clutched at Thambi’s feet. His toes sank in the mud, sloshed in the water and caught in the weeds, but where profits were in question, Thambi was not to be deterred. At the back of his mind he kept calculating: Ten paise for washing trousers, and twelve rupees for the duck means eleven rupees ninety paise profit, means one full 11900% profit, means Rupa Stores will be miserable with envy.
Aha! There was a duck sitting boredly on the water. Its coppery brown feathers gleamed softly. Thambi stepped towards it, but it flew away while he was still disentangling himself from a weed. With a mighty flutter, five others rose off the water and flew into the sky, disappearing from Thambi’s reed-covered view. “Ruddy ducks! Never mind,” he said to himself. “There are more just ahead.”
Thambi stomped and sludged and squilched and sploshed his way around the bank, and before him flew all kinds of ducks, grey and orange, black and white, brown and red. Sweat began dripping off his nose and eyebrows and clouding his face. Not one duck let him come near it. Thambi wished he had a net, but didn’t feel like trudging all the way back around the lake, to his shop and then back. Plus the cost of the net would bring his profit down to only 10500% and Thambi didn’t want to do that. So he squidged on, his footsteps getting slower and heavier with the weight of the mud clinging to it. Lalitha and Kanti Stores felt fuzzy and far away. Thambi felt as if he had been wandering in the weeds for his entire life, as if he would be here for the next fifty years until he dropped dead.
Just when death began to seem a good idea, Thambi found that the ground was growing firmer. Weeds stopped clutching his ankles, the reeds thinned and a light breeze was wafting at him from the lake. And there were lumps of cow dung everywhere. He had come right round the lake and was back near the town. Thambi was so delighted he clambered straight up and hurried home barefoot, trailing mud everywhere. People looked a bit oddly at him, but he didn’t care.
Lakshmiammal’s usual cheery wave was slower and more puzzled than usual; her mouth was half-open. Thambi could tell she wanted to ask him what was wrong with him, but was too nice to make him feel bad about his mud. Instead of feeling grateful for her niceness, Thambi felt mean and angry. Who told her to sit on her porch and look at my feet, he thought.
He looked only at his feet and decided to ignore everyone.
This was easy as he had a lot on his mind.
Lost chappals: minus two rupees.
Shame of wandering filthily through Basavakere: Minus fifty rupees.
Next to this loss the shame of not having a duck to sell was tiny.
Rotten ducks, revolting stranger lady, lousy pond and filthy cows. Thambi hated everyone and everything.
He got home and glared at Lalitha. “I hate ducks!” he said.
“Ok,” said Lalitha. “Why don’t you go have a nice hot bath?”
So Thambi went off to bathe. He bathed and bathed and bathed. He opened a bar of very expensive sandalwood soap, which lathered in soft creamy bubbles. He poured hot water on his head, his feet, his back and down his throat until the air grew thick with steam. He bathed for an hour.
When he came out, Thambi felt well enough to go down to the shop. He sold some kids lollipops and toffees and felt a bit better. He sold a farmer an expensive new digger and felt even better. Then he looked at the clock and realised that he had bathed through the stranger lady!
Thambi didn’t know whether to feel sad or happy: he had escaped having to confess that he couldn’t find a duck; on the other hand what if she told other strangers that he went missing whenever you needed something urgent? Thambi went into his storeroom the way he did when he felt upset. Nothing soothed him like the sight of his quiet storeroom piled with goods waiting for someone to buy them.
Thambi opened the door to a sound of splashing. His biggest trough was full of water and two ducks were splashing in it! Thambi ran out. “Oh no oh no oh no!” he shouted.
“What?” said Lalitha? “Was your bath water not hot enough?”
“Duck!” said Thambi. He couldn’t seem to find any words he wanted.
“Yes, I know,” said Lalitha calmly.
“Yes, but we’re in no hurry are we?” she said.
“Strange lady!” said Thambi, pleased to have remembered the word strange.
“Oh don’t worry about her. I made her pay us twenty-three rupees, and she’s posting me a sari like hers when she gets home.”
Thambi felt as if a wind had blown through his head, clearing all the ducks out, leaving it light and free. All his words came back.
“They kept flying away from me! How did you catch them?”
“I lured them here with biscuits. I brought two extra ducks just in case.”
“Biscuits?” said Thambi. “Really?”
“Ducks love biscuits,” said Lalitha knowledgeably. “Their favourite is ginger, but I used glucose ‘cos it’s cheaper.” Thambi didn’t want to argue against the evidence.
“Twenty-three rupees! And a sari! You’re the best,” he said admiringly. Lalitha grinned her toothy grin.
The next morning the people of Basavakere were dazzled and slightly shocked by a new sign hanging on Thambi’s shop front:
An exclusive one-time offer! Not available in Mysore, not available in Madras, available only in Basavakere! Ducks for sale. Limited stocks. Hurry!