Gehun ka atta, rice, Parle lozenges, Chiclets chewing gum, leaky gum tubes, spices, pulses, washing powder, churan, cooking oils, hair oils, brown paper, cellophane paper, soaps, brooms, lollipops, Bengalipi khatas, mouse traps and sundry other monthly ration items and household utilities! All of these and more was available under one roof at ‘A’, one of the oldest and biggest mudir dokans in my Palm Avenue-Broad Street neighbourhood in the late 1970s and most of the 1980s, my wonder years so to say. ‘A’, of course, is the name of a well-known food and nourishment deity, but let’s just leave out the names.
This shop still exists and has reinvented itself over time. Time was when I could just about peer over the counter and barely manage to get the attention of any one of the half a dozen staff members over the din of other shoppers. Today, though the floor space is congested, there are conveniently placed racks, shelves and refrigerators to pick your desired items from. Back then, it was survival of the fittest through and through. To top it all was the ‘couldn’t care less’ attitude of the shop owners and staff. You had to know what you wanted before you stepped in. Any dithering or too many questions, and you’d be dismissed with disdain. I think this attitude stemmed from the shop being a near monopoly in the area. Rumour had it that they’d even bullied other corner shops and prevented them from growing. Over time, I just found them more and more unbearable.
My parents continued to depend on the shop for many years, and my mother has an abiding soft corner for ‘A’. Till about a few years ago when she still used to step out to shop, ‘A’ would always be on her itinerary for at least a few monthly provisions. For it’s true that corner shops sometimes have items (in customizable numbers and weights) and even brands that the bigger shops and malls don’t stock. Today, I follow in my mother’s footsteps and sometimes shop at ‘A’. The credit also goes to a boy friend who insisted on buying a certain transparent shampoo which was then available only at ‘A’ (both the BF and that shampoo are gone now). But this was not before I’d boycotted ‘A’ for more than two decades.
The work culture at ‘A’ just didn’t match my ideas of equality that developed through my high school and college years and later as I entered the worlds of work and activism. They were almost like the ‘R’ business house that is so much in the news these days (no, don’t ask me what ‘R’ stands for). And why shouldn’t I have moved on to other shops where the mudis knew better PR, if not better democracy? But then life just isn’t black and white. It was sometime in the mid or late 2000s. I was on my way back home from that year’s ‘Kolkata Rainbow Pride Walk’ that had received considerable media coverage. I bumped into one of the younger owners of ‘A’, who said he’d seen me on TV and was all praise for the pride walk. ‘Good work done’ is the gist of what he said and moved on.
I was kind of floored, though it wasn’t as if ‘A’ had won me back. Shopping for home wasn’t among my prime responsibilities in those days and by then there were many other alternatives to ‘A’. Also, to draw a contemporary pride analogy, one doesn’t forget what a government has said and done to the minorities of the country just because the judiciary of the day issues a progressive verdict on human rights.
In some years to come, after my father passed away and my mother’s and domestic worker’s mobility became increasingly restricted because of age, ration management became part of my routine. This is when the convenience of the ‘S’ chain of shopping malls beckoned. Owning a car and the glitter, piped music and faux therapeutic value of these malls were also pull factors. One real plus was that I could have a friendly chat or two with the youth working in the malls, which was out of the question at ‘A’ or most other shops. Moreover, shopping for vegetables and fruits off pavements seemed like a nightmare. Purchasing squash and suchlike veggies is one thing, getting squashed by a speeding vehicle quite another. And the less said about the poorly lit and unhygienic corporation market in my neighbourhood the better.
The bubble burst when I realized that convenience was burning a hole in my pocket and actually taking up a lot of time. Waiting in the queues at the payment counters seemed as bad as not being heard in ‘A’, and how much can you browse on the mobile phone as you keep comparing the goodies in your trolley with those in the other trolleys around you? Eventually, having to pay Rs.30 and upwards for parking in the shopping mall car park became the turning point!
In some time, the car was sold off as Uber and Ola taxis became my part-time lovers. But when even these became difficult-to-attract and expensive like lovers who’ve been around a few years, I tried my hand at the online kkkkk . . . kirana shop. Yes, I mean the ‘BB’ brand promoted by SRK, and also the ‘S’ chain’s online store. For a while, I enjoyed a game of toss-up between ‘S’ and ‘BB’, like keeping two jealous lovers on the tenterhooks. It also felt kingly to shoot off scathing complaints over email to the customer care department whenever the home-delivered goods turned out to be bad.
Yet one more time there was heartburn in store. The online websites would be slow and full of glitches. Deliveries would often be late and incomplete. Refunds for goods not delivered would take days to be credited back into the bank account. Strangely, online shopping seemed more exhausting than onsite shopping!
This is when a small retail outlet designed like a big mall opened near my home on Broad Street. For a year or two, ration shopping became easy as a cheerful day. Slightly lesser mark-ups, seemingly great discounts and completely unnecessary free gifts, short distance, home delivery – what was there not to love about it?
Enter COVID-19. For the first couple of weeks after the lockdown was announced and utensils were beaten mercilessly on balconies with zero impact on the virus, going out to shop became an experience in foraging, innovating and introspecting on how much I’d been buying that needn’t have been bought. This is also when the mudir dokans rose to the occasion and corner shops became central to the idea of survival. Some of the corner shops also became net savvy during the lockdown and could be accessed through popular food apps. They were the only ones that were functioning well and still are compared to all other options. What a misnomer this term ‘corner shop’ is!
Post-lockdown, the neighbourhood retailer promising easy as a cheerful day shopping is about to be taken over by that very ‘R’ corporate giant I mentioned earlier. I’m waiting to see what happens. Whatever be the outcome, I now have a more eclectic set of retail therapy counsellors. I’m buying more and more from pavement outfits that don’t have direct oncoming traffic, from mudis who ask how my mother’s health is, from shops managed by women, and from sellers who never fail to greet me with a bright good morning or a good evening.
‘A’ is also part of this therapy, and even they’ve learnt to be less brusque. I wish I could say the same thing about the powers-that-be of the country.
About the main photo: A corner shop in the author’s neighbourhood in the Palm Avenue area of Kolkata (not the one called ‘A’). Photo credit: Pawan Dhall