Zombie Kumaramangalam walked into the store and slapped the tin can down on the counter so hard that it bounced.
“I want a refund,” he moaned.
The girl at the counter looked as flustered as it was possible for someone whose facial muscles have lost their mobility to look. “Why, sir?” she groaned at last.
Kumaramangalam pointed angrily at the can. “That’s inedible,” he snapped, but not too hard in case it knocked a tooth loose. “That’s why.”
The girl picked up the can and studied it dubiously with her one functioning eye. “I don’t see what’s troubling you, sir. It looks like any other half-kilo can of Hrawnk Ghrawk Meat Treat. It’s our most popular brand, as you know.” Instinctively, all three of their eyes rose to the huge red poster on the wall, on which jagged white lettering proclaimed the virtues of Hrawnk Ghrawk and all the assorted flavours in which it was sold. A smiling zombie mom was shown spooning meat from a can onto plates while ecstatic zombie children waved their spoons around. “We’ve never had a complaint before.”
“Well,” Kumaramangalam ground out, “you have one now. I want my money back.”
“Maybe you could tell me the problem?” The girl reached unobtrusively for the button below the counter which would ring a buzzer in the manager’s office. It was the first time she’d ever had to use it, and she had to fumble around till she found it. And then it wouldn’t depress, no matter how hard she pushed on it. She smiled desperately, pressing away, and wishing the manager would bother to look at the closed circuit TV screens in his office. “We could work something out.”
“The only thing I’m willing to work out is a full refund,” Kumaramangalam said, banging his fist on the table. His wrists and hands were intact and still strong, so he could do this without fearing permanent damage. “Don’t imagine you’re getting off with anything less.”
The girl gave a final frustrated push on the alarm button. “I, I think I’d better get the manager, sir,” she slobbered. “I’m not authorised to handle this kind of thing.”
Kumaramangalam snorted. “You’re authorised to take my money, though,” he told her. “All right, go and get the manager. I’ll wait.”
Relieved, the girl escaped. Kumaramangalam leaned on the counter, glaring around the store. It was mostly empty, except for a couple of other salesgirls peering curiously at him from behind their counters, and a customer in a black raincoat over by the far side, bending to rummage in a shelf. Outside, lightning flickered, and the sky through the shop’s windows looked as dark as night. There would be rain soon, and Kumaramangalam wished he had a raincoat. Even a zombie, he thought morosely, deserved protection from the rain. Maybe he should buy one, or an umbrella. But not from this store.
“Not from this store,” he mumbled aloud. “No, that wouldn’t do at all.”
“What was that, sir?” The manager had come hurrying from his office. He was a short plump zombie with a scraggly beard and a bad suit. Dandruff from his long, greasy hair sprinkled the suit’s shoulders, demonstrating clearly that he hadn’t changed it since he’d zombiefied. Only living scalp after all, produced dandruff. If he’d been alive he’d have been stinking of old sweat by now. The girl was behind him, her hands still gesturing urgently. “My colleague here says you have a problem.”
“Yeah,” Kumaramangalam confirmed. He fished out the receipt from his pocket. “I bought that can yesterday from you,” he said. “And now I demand a refund.”
The manager took the receipt and peered at it dubiously. “What’s wrong with the product?”
“Everything.” Kumaramangalam glared at the can. “It should never have been sold.”
“Why? Were the contents spoiled?” The manager picked up the can and examined the date stamp. “If so, I can assure you it isn’t our fault. The best before date on this is still seven weeks away.”
“No, it wasn’t spoiled. I wish it were that simple.” Kumaramangalam prodded the can. “Look what it says on it. Gun Nut flavour, right?”
The girl and the manager both glanced at it and at the poster on the wall. “Yes sir,” the latter confirmed. “It’s our second most popular flavour, right after Mall Occupier. We sell thousands of tins of it each year.”
“Yes, you do,” Kumaramangalam began, and at that moment there was a flash of lightning so bright it might have hurt his eyes if he’d still been alive. “And it’s your most expensive flavour, too – Premium, it says right here on this can. Well, I bought this thing after seeing your TV advert. You know the one I mean.”
“Yes, sir. But we aren’t responsible for the ad. Hrawnk Ghrawk makes the advertisements and pays the TV stations to run it. We don’t have anything to do with it.”
“Don’t interrupt. In the ad, the company claims that the meat they pack comes from the finest free-range humans, kept in the top-quality stockades and are certified disease-free by the Zombie Government, doesn’t it?”
The manager tugged his beard, and a fistful of it came off in his hand. He looked at the clump of hair in dismay. “I – yes, I believe so.”
“It damned well is what they say. They also claim that the different flavours are from different farms, where humans are kept under different conditions and fed different diets. This one, for instance...” Kumaramangalam tapped the can. “This one claims to be from authentic gun nuts, raised under conditions where they are surrounded by guns all day, every day, and who do nothing except worship and play with their guns. If you doubt me, the poster there says the same thing.”
The manager regretfully dropped the beard clump into the nearest wastebasket. “I’m sure you’re right, sir. But I don’t see what the problem is.”
“I’ll tell you what the problem is,” Kumaramangalam roared. The salesgirls were all leaning over their counters, staring with fascination at him, and even the other customer glanced his way across the store. Outside, the rain beat on the windows. “I bought this can, and when I opened it, what do I find?” He stared at the manager, unblinkingly, because his dead eyes did not need to blink.
“I’ve no idea,” the manager replied.
“I’ll tell you. When I opened it, I found the meat was the exact same stuff as contained in the Stupid Average Citizen flavour.” Kumaramangalam pointed, agitatedly, at the shelves of canned meat. “If you don’t believe it, open a can of Stupid Average Citizen flavour and check. I’ve eaten Stupid Average Citizen plenty of times before, and the meat is the same in every way.”
“But how can you say that the meat is the same?”
“I’ll show you.” Kumaramangalam held the can up before the manager’s eyes. “Open it and see for yourself. The Gun Nut meat is supposed to be seasoned with buckshot and marinated with gun oil. That’s right, isn’t it?”
“So open this and show me where the buckshot is, and if you find a drop of gun oil I’ll eat this can, label and all. It’s just flabby Stupid Average Citizen, packed in brine. And you dare charge me for Gun Nut! Who do you think you are?”
“Perhaps it was a mix-up in production...” the manager ventured. “After all, we’ve had no other complaints.”
“Maybe your other customers don’t have taste buds any longer, or functioning eyes for that matter.” Kumaramangalam’s voice shook with anger. “But I’m neither tongueless nor an idiot.”
“I’m sure you aren’t, sir. I just meant that maybe the factory made a mistake in packaging.”
“Will you open another can of Gun Nut and check? Do you have the confidence in the product for that?” Kumaramanglalam shook his head with disgust. “Of course you won’t. And it wasn’t as though it only affected me, either. My girlfriend was with me, and she hates Stupid Average Citizen. She nearly threw up.”
“I can assure you, sir...” The manager’s voice trailed off as he tried to think of something to assure Kumaramangalam.
“Doesn’t your store – your store, not Hrawnk Ghrawk – doesn’t your store claim it holds the consumer’s interests above all other considerations? Isn’t that what you say, day in, day out?”
“Yes, but –“
“Suppose I went to the Hrawnk Ghrawk meat farms. Do you really think I’ll find the gun nuts kept as advertised, in free range pens surrounded by guns? Or will I find them like all the rest, in battery conditions, kept in cubicles too small to turn around in, hooked to televisions to keep them immobile? Well?”
“I don’t know, sir. We don’t have anything to do with the production side. We only sell the meat.”
“And you take our money, the consumers’ money,” Kumaramangalam replied seething. “Well, then, I demand my rights as a consumer. I paid for Gun Nut flavour, at a premium rate, and I didn’t get Gun Nut flavour. You sold me the meat, so it’s your responsibility to uphold my rights as a consumer.” He paused triumphantly. “Isn’t that so?”
“But I can’t refund you the money sir. Store policy doesn’t allow cash refunds, not when the merchandise has already been used. And you’ve opened this can.”
“Of course I’ve opened this can. If I hadn’t, how the hell would I know that it wasn’t what I paid for? How would I know that Hrawnk Ghrawk and your store are ripping off poor innocent zombies like me?” snatching back his can and the receipt, Kumaramangalam began to turn away. “Forget it. I’ll go to the Consumer Forum and see what they have to say about this.”
“Wait, sir,” the manager called desperately. “We could work something out. We’d be willing to exchange the can for an equivalent product. Would that be acceptable to you?”
“What equivalent product?” Kumaramangalam asked suspiciously. “I’m not taking any Hrawnk Ghrawk stuff. Never again.”
“We’d be willing to exchange it for...” the manager scanned the shelves. “Brahhk Kraaagh Brain Delight. The kilogram can. Is that all right?”
Kumaramangalam glanced around the shelves. The store was darkening with the storm outside, and he had to peer closely at the stock. The other customer had left, he noticed. The salesgirls were still gawking at him. “Two cans,” he said firmly. “And make it the two kilogram size.”
“Or I’ll go to the Consumer Forum. It’s up to you what I do.”
The manager’s shoulders slumped even further. “Have it your way,” he said, and motioned to the salesgirl who had fetched him. “Give him two two-kilo cans of Brahhk Kraaagh Brain Delight.”
And he turned quickly away, so he didn’t have to see the triumph in Kumaramangalam’s eyes.
Zombie Kumaramangalam hurried down the street, bending over the heavy cans he clutched to his chest, his back to the beating rain. Turning a corner, he stopped, looked around, and whistled.
The figure in the raincoat stepped out from inside a wrecked car on the other side of the street and waved. “At last,” she said when he had crossed over. “I thought you were never coming.”
“I couldn’t just walk out of there,” Kumaramangalam protested. “I had to carry it through, or else they’d have known something was wrong. And,” he added, indicating the cans he carried with his chin, “look what I got in exchange. That manager couldn’t wait to get rid of me.”
“Brahhk Kraaagh Brain Delight? You didn’t. It’s horrible.”
“Oh, we don’t have to eat it. We can always trade it for something.”
“As long as we can find someone willing to take it.” She laughed, happily, pointing to the car’s front seat. “But your cans are nothing to what I picked up while you were keeping them busy. I could barely walk, my raincoat was so full of stuff.”
They kissed, hard, delighting in the rain washing over them as their lips met. “Shall we go?” Kumaramangalam asked afterwards, loading his arms full of purloined groceries. “I’d like to get home before this stuff all gets soaked.”
“Wait,” she said, pointing down a side street. “There’s a little shop there which sells wild human meat. Just two salesgirls and no manager. I didn’t see any security cameras either. You ought to go in there and buy a few sausages. Just make sure it’s a famous brand. And awful, of course.”
“Of course,” Kumaramangalam agreed. “And we’ll be back tomorrow to return them.”
“Naturally,” she said. “We have our rights as consumers to uphold.”
“Absolutely,” Kumaramangalam said. Still grinning, he turned away down the street, where the shop waited.
Consumer protection was such a wonderful thing.
Copyright B Purkayastha 2013