The Small Trader and Me
I have a difficult relationship with the traditional trader. Being, unfortunately, part of the consuming classes in a large city, I am both anonymous (hence get no benefit of familiarity, or special service, whatsoever) and entirely dependent upon the small trader, to acquire all the stuff I need, to maintain myself.
Take my recent visit to the neighborhood 'general store' to buy a bar of soap. I present myself at the plywood counter, with an ingratiating (a survival/defensive mechanism, developed over years of abusive buying experiences), eager-to-give-you-business smile on my face, accompanied with an unnecessarily polite, but clear, request for a bar of a certain brand of soap. The counter top is populated by a wobbly, weighing scale (of deeply suspicious, revenue magnifying, qualities), stray plastic and paper packaging, some scratch paper stuffed into an aluminum paper clip (the billing system), grains of rice, tur dal, red chilly flakes, and other items of food, that did not make the leap from scoop to plastic bag on the weighing pan, large glass bottles containing various 'loose', albeit enticing, items, such as boiled sweets, chikki, coconut burfi, mixture and so on. There is a somewhat asphyxiated insect, hobbling around, over the sticky pieces in the chikki bottle, that has lived in there since last Tuesday, at the least. Next to the chikki-insecta, is a separate, glass-topped case, with more legitimately packaged products such as bars of chocolate (these days, some fancy brand names included). I take in this familiar scene, including the rest of the deeply unremarkable store, with a confused mix of misplaced gratitude to small shop-keepers (for making available to me all the stuff that I need, in one place, and so close to home), discomfort at consumerist creep via the glossily packaged, and over-advertised, brand-name products, edging out somehow ethically superior, 'loose' items, and ambiguity, about the inadvertent chikki-insecta I have been regularly consuming.
As it turns out, I am standing with my chin right above a hinged segment of the mica-topped, plywood counter that opens upwards, to let shop keeper and side-kicks get in and out of the shop. A man, for some reason hiding under the counter, stands up suddenly, and swings the flap open, right into my chin. I flail around and lose balance. As I struggle to gather myself off the steps leading up to the counter, the back of the man's rapidly receding, and flapping, rubber chappal grazes my ear lobe. He is, of course, a man in a hurry (as opposed to me, a loitering customer) and rushes out of the store on urgent business. Business that leaves him little time to notice collateral damage, such as a potential (if still smiling) customer, draped on his uneven steps. Smarting from a gashed elbow, I retake my place at the counter. I also manage to paste back a slightly rumpled smile.
Several other potential customers have now crowded in, on either side of me. Many "ITC-small", "wax candle", "quarter-kilo-tur-dal", and other orders later, I utter my second set of noises about wanting the particular bar of soap. Nothing happens, in response to my repeated squeaks, for many minutes. Not even eye contact. My other competitors appear to get serviced before me. I have some desultory thoughts about whether it is my less than impressive appearance, or whether it is my chronic self-doubt, that has somehow communicated itself. There are only about six customers, plus me, jostling on this side of the famous counter, and four people behind it (not a bad attendant-to-customer ratio, by any measure). I notice that three of the four shop wallahs are stumbling around, tripping over sacks, into each other, and over piles of various merchandise, thrown about, inexplicably, on the floor, trying to service the ITC-small, wax candle and tur-dal orders. Two of them end up packing tur-dal for the same customer. He then begins to remonstrate with them that he only asked for one bag of tur dal. The ITC-small order has been processed accurately - but change negotiations are taking an interesting turn. The wax candle request has been carried into the dark recesses of the, not-at-all-large, store. The cigarette smoker (wretched fellow) is now asking for a packet of biscuits, as well, and there is some confusion about what he is pointing to. Several more customers have joined us, with varying requests, by now. Meanwhile shop attendant number four, has a far-away look in his eyes and a forefinger gently stroking around inside his left nostril, (yes, the nostril has flared open to accommodate it) while lounging against a precarious store shelf.
I lean over the counter and wave my un-bruised arm in an attempt to get his very unlikely attention. I notice he is flapping his rubber chappal, to some tune going on in his head. Needless to say, I make no impression upon him, and he blankly looks right through me, and right beyond. Finally, shop attendant number two, having completed his momentous one-ITC-small, plus, one-parle-fifty-fifty transaction, responds to my loudest, "one-bar-of-certain-soap" plea, yet, with a stern, almost threatening, "what is it that you want". I repeat, for the eleventh time, "one bar of xyz soap ... please". Bar of soap appears on counter, in front of me, in a few seconds (not bad at all). But I notice the package is open on one-side. And I can see rat-incisions on the bar. I tell him so. But he has been replaced, before my eyes, by nose digger, standing right there, not far from my own. I grab my nostrils, instinctively, and tell him what my problem is with the bar of soap. I am evidently not intelligible through a clenched nose. So he inserts his fore finger back into his own, and raises his eyebrows, speechlessly, and almost mockingly. I gather my composure, and repeat my complaint. He is incredulous. He picks up the bar of soap, shaking his head, and examines it carefully, popping out the bar from the open end of the package and rotating and massaging it with his fingers that had just been somewhere else, less sanitary. He claims that that is how all soap bars come, these days. When I hold my ground, he takes it to the shop keeper (concealed, for some reason, behind a wall of packaged bread loaves) whom I had missed completely in my earlier count of people in the store. So there are actually five of them, overworked fellas, in there.
Meanwhile, more things are being shouted out for, and I notice that an entire parallel rank of jostling customers has blocked out the street behind me. Outstretched, demanding arms, flank both my ear lobes. A feeling of privilege creeps over me, now, for being at the frontlines of this battle. A desultory, overfed rat nibbles at a sack on the floor, before two of the five shop staffers collide, in front of it, causing rat to scamper away. It has found a bar of soap lying on the floor- and its my brand - to nibble at. I feel vindicated. If I carried a cell phone, with a camera, I would take a picture to make my case with the shop keeper. But the last time I went to a shop to buy a new cell phone, no one looked at me for twenty minutes, so I left. The salesman in the second shop I went to, was a complete ignoramus about cell phone specifications, but insisted and behaved like he knew everything (everything in the world, that is). Since I know a thing or two about cell phones, and their specs, myself, I was miffed enough, and gave up on the idea of getting a new one.
A full half-hour later, I leave the store with a completely different bar of soap, albeit in its full sheath of packaging. Once home, I examine the small print and discover that I have been charged a whole two rupees above the printed, maximum retail price. I am also feeling distinctly weak-kneed, and very reluctant about the prospect of another battle, over my two rupees. "Next visit, I'll take it up with him, on principle", I promise my fast receding self-esteem, as I reach for the phone to make an appointment with my counselor and coach.
Two afternoons later, as I walk back from my bus stop, I pass a relatively large, new, department store. I plunge in, and shop for my essentials, at my own pace, in its extra brightly lit, well labeled environs. I examine each package for price, date of manufacture, expiration date, ingredients and, when I choose to, even gingerly place them back on the shelf, without any censure, threat, or abuse. No jostling, no wrestling match. Just a longish line, at the check-out counter, and it seems worth getting a printed bill, in case there has been an error.
Back at my desk, the same evening, I am plagued all over again, by self-doubt, as I read a scholarly and scathing article about the ongoing invasion, by "big retail", that forewarns of the destruction of the whole way of life of the traditional Indian shopkeeper, and predicts the end of 'real' choice for the customer.