Whose roach is it anyway?

His eyes intent on the gently swinging needle of the balance, the shopkeeper relaxed his fist now and then, releasing a little dal into the paper bag every time. At Rs.78/- a kilo he couldn’t be too careful.

Just as the needle was creeping to the kilo mark, a parcel landed with a thud on the balance, scattering the dal on the floor. The weight too would have fallen had not the shopkeeper grabbed it in time to save a crushed toe.

“What the hell are you selling?” the newcomer screamed.

Too surprised to reply, the shopkeeper reached for the bag and opened it hurriedly. It was jaggery … and something more. Perched on the yellow lumps was a cockroach. After an exploratory swish of its feelers, the creature placed a tentative leg on the edge of the paper. Another serrated leg took the shopkeeper’s finger by surprise and he dropped the packet with an involuntary “chhee”.

“Don’t drop it. Hold it to your bosom. This is the stuff you sell.”  The customer was gathering more venom.

“Hold your tongue! I sell good jaggery, all right—”

“With one cockroach free for every kilo, I suppose,” the customer butted in.

“Don’t you dare! There are no cockroaches in my shop. It must have crawled in at your house,” the shopkeeper was working up steam, too.

“I don’t have filthy insects in my house.”

“As if I keep insects in my shop.”

Spectators were gathering and murmuring their observations. “Nowadays you have adulteration everywhere …”

“The other day I bought …”

“But the cockroach must have got in at some point. If not at the shop or at the house, then where?”

By this time the adversaries were tired of addressing each other. So they turned to the wider audience. “This fellow just wants to defame me and damage my business so that his new shop can grow,” the shopkeeper revealed. Before that could sink in came the rejoinder: “Nonsense! Listen, I had sent my son, this little fellow here. He is just eight. This rogue thought he could fool this child and get away with it.”

This was too much for the shopkeeper. Being short on both words and temper he sought to settle the dispute by picking up the weight and aiming it at the customer. Before he could throw it, a brave spectator stepped between the two. The weight landed on the offending packet lying on the floor.

The mediator offered a solution. If it was all right with the shopkeeper, some of them could inspect the shop for cockroaches. In the absence of a cockroach of matching description, they could go to the customer’s house and check there.

The shopkeeper protested. All this commotion during business time was costing him money. He could not let the entire crowd rummage through the shop. On the other hand, his reputation was at stake. After a brief debate with himself and a couple of bystanders, the shopkeeper relented. Moreover, if he could prove the customer wrong, he stood to bag some compensation.

A five-member roach-finding team went through the interiors inch by inch. They spared no tin, no bag. Some even resorted to tasting some goodies, apparently to uncover clues. Their findings: lizards—three, tail of a mouse—one, ants—plenty, cockroaches (of a smaller and paler order than Exhibit A)—five.

They were almost finished and the shopkeeper was beginning to smile when someone upset a stack of old cans in a dark corner. Within seconds, fat cockroaches were swarming over every surface. The team hastily beat a retreat even as the shopkeeper made half-hearted attempts at shooing the evidence away.

The customer let out a triumphant guffaw as the leader of the team gravely announced, “I think we should now settle the matter of compensation.” Everybody agreed except the shopkeeper. But nobody asked his opinion.

As they returned to the shop entrance to announce their verdict, they found the customer’s son clutching the packet of jaggery.

“Papa,” he sobbed. “He killed it.”

“Killed what?”

“What I caught for you yesterday. See…” The gathering suddenly fell silent. The boy was pointing to the crushed remnants of the original cockroach.

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