Arun Krishnan is having a hard time trying to explain why his son should not buy the bright blue-and-yellow jersey he wants. "Because, beta, it's the wrong," he reasons, trying hard to sway the child's opinion waving a scarlet Ferrari cap tantalisingly close. He asks me for help, and I spend a while pointing little Rajesh towards different Scuderia merchandise.
Eventually the young 'un makes up his mind and picks a 1/4th scale Michael Schumacher helmet. It's way beyond his dad's initial budget, and Mr Krishnan is momentarily confused as he looks helplessly at me. As the girl behind the counter runs his American Express card merrily through, he groans, but smiles as he hands the helmet to the kid. "A small price to keep him from turning to the Dark Side, eh?" he grins.
It's surreal to have run into a stranger and having this conversation in Shanghai, purely because the odds of it happening in India are unbelievably low. Sure, F1 as a sport is picking up desi fans by the bucket load, and awareness is definitely on the up-rise at least among youth from the metros. Especially ever since Narain Karthikeyan broke through and made it to the 20 Fastest Men in the World list last year.
What is missing, among the average Indian racecar fan, is passion: the average race-watcher picks a side (usually Ferrari or McLaren -- it's shocking to see how little the success of Renault seems to have impacted their popularity here) and watches most races. Unlike Europe that literally cried, how many here actually shed a tear when Schumi said goodbye?
Apparently -- and this is heartening news indeed -- not as few as you'd think. Indians have crammed flights to Shanghai for the race weekend, pushing themselves to go see Michael Schumacher before he calls it quits. Run into the Singapore airport (where most of us boarded connecting flights to Shanghai) and the profusion of Ferrari peak-caps sported by the junta signals their destination, proud and clear.
What's even greater to see is the cross-section of Indians on board. Middle-aged fans bringing their entire family along; packs of young executives who've thrown off neckties and are prepared to guzzle beer by the gallon; friends planning longtime holidays; romancing couples for whom V8 engine sounds are presumably a turn-on; fathers eager to dumbfound offspring with a champion's legacy while they are still impressionable everyone's heading to Shanghai.
Deepti Sinha and Gayatri Mishra are in their late twenties. They work in Mumbai, have known each other 'for over a dozen years,' and have been 'forever' planning a trip together. Lists have been made, and crossed out. "We've finalised everything from Capetown to Colombo," Deepti laughs, "but nothing ever really happened. Our constant planning had become a joke among friends." "But then," Gayatri reveals, "things changed after Michael's announcement. We just had to see him once, and so we called everyone."
From travel agents to HR-heads at the office, tickets were booked and leave taken. Now the two girls are alone in a big city where English doesn't cut as much muster.
"Hey, that's cool," says Deepti, "It's one big adventure. At least the urgency finally made us take the plunge."
Apparently, shoe-shopping in Shanghai is as big a priority as Schumacher? "Almost," they giggle.
Ashok doesn't mention his last name -- "just Ashok, yaar" -- as he tells me about the "awesome fun" he and his posse of seven buddies plans to have. Eight guys -- I catch a couple of names like Vineet and Abhishek, but the rest are admittedly creative risque nicknames -- in Shanghai with the objective of having a blast.
"We're all working, but we're friends from school. So we decided to relive the old days," enlightens Ashok, chugging down another Bud. They're single and wanted to have a party, "and what better way than while saying goodbye to Schumi?"
"Oh, Alonso'll whip him bad," laughs Vineet, before being silenced by an empty beer-can. They've taken three rooms in a tiny hotel, and have the cheapest seats in the stadium -- but I'm told this is the plan. "All the more saved for Shanghai by night."
George Pinto met wife Geetika over a race in Delhi. Well, a Delhi bar, anyway, one of those big-screen things with fans packing the house and happy hour on right through the race. As they treat me to a cappuccino and several in-jokes, Geetika explains that his passion for the sport attracted her from the very beginning.
"It was just so cool to have a guy going on and on about this very technical sounding sport," she laughs, "I guess I thought he's smart. F1's quite deceptive that way."
"I taught her everything she knows," George boasts, before the lady gives me an impressive, albeit sudden, lecture on downforce. They got married three weeks ago, but saved their honeymoon for Shanghai. "Now," Geetika smiles, "it's up to Michael to give us the present."
From hard-core race fans to holidaymakers catalysed by Schumacher's mega-announcement, travel agents have had their hands full with Indians suddenly wanting to come to Shanghai. Schumacher leaving the sport is an announcement of tremendous scale that affects even those who know nothing about him.
Take Akhilesh's family, for example. Akhilesh Ranjan, 36, is on top of the world. Instead of going off to the Andamans or Mauritius, he's convinced the family to make their annual vacation here this year.
"I'd planned it months before Michael said anything," he declares. "None in the family even suspected that I planned this around the race weekend."
Now his wife, 12-year old son Bibek and mother are all facing the prospect of three days of engine sounds.
"Now it's too late," Akhilesh grins. "But I think they'll be fine. Ma's gone to buy binoculars."