Standing amid the odourless and efficient hum of a giant supermarket I looked around to see if there was anyone of my vintage. I suddenly felt like sharing memories of the leisurely grocery-shopping of the early 1960s when I used to accompany my moth er to a store on a steep little road off Commerical Street in Bangalore. Since every other shopper in Foodworld looked at least a hundred years younger than me, I entered the past to bring it into focus today.
Old world grace
Those were the days when groceries were called “provisions”. Chetty and Sons only looked small from the outside; inside, it was rich in scents and old-world grace and probably led off into enormous godowns. Its owner, stout and cheerful, had kindly protruding eyes. His caste-marks were always superbly painted into place on a shining forehead and his always-white shirts made even my freshly laundered school uniform look dull. He seemed very old to me but was probably only in his mid-thirties.
I would climb down from the cycle-rickshaw and onto the wooden stool in Mr Chetty’s shop, and after the customary courtesies of coffee offered and declined, my mother would consult her list and open the chant....
“Two kilos red chilli. Andhra, long.”
“Long- red rande....” would proceed Chetty’s translation in a shout to the back of the shop as he swept his head and neck theatrically in that direction.
“Long- red....rande...” would come the subservient echo from the caverns.
“Five kilos urad...” (mother)
“Firsta? Seconda?”(Chetty) about the quality his customer was willing to pay for, as he nodded expertly, moving his shoulders about confidently, and tapping a tune on the table, in total control of this personalised service.
“Half – half” my mother would say mysteriously and unhelpfully and the ceremony of relaxed shouts and calls back and forth would resume.
From rice to salt, from Blanco to Cinthol talc, from Sunlight soap and Royal gum to Cheetahfight matches would take about an hour. No one seemed to be in any particular hurry and a glance at the rickshaw would find its owner dozing on the seats pushed back and flattened into a sort of makeshift bed.
Meanwhile a handcart would be readied outside the shop with its handler expertly loading packed items on to it. When did I last see “provisions” being weighed, slid expertly into funnel-shaped newspaper containers then wrapped, flicked about, and sealed off with twisted string before being handed over like accomplishments?
I used to sit on that stool throughout the proceedings wondering if I would get a boiled sweet or a toffee. Sometimes Chetty would offer me one which I always politely refused at least once, before accepting it with a show of reluctance and inward rejoicing, while my mother pretended not to notice: a silent and elegant little game with no losers. Finally my mother and I would wake the rickshaw-puller and climb back onto our hastily reconstructed seats and go home, the cart with our provisions following us at a leisurely pace.
Then there were traders in eggs and oil who came to our doorstep. The enna-kaaran arrived dressed in his professional gear. The powerful smell of gingelli oil came off him in waves as he approached the house. What joy it was to watch the golden flow of oil from its tin. “Amma, I’m opening this seal just for you...” he would say as he unsealed a new container.
“Watch while I go indoors to fetch the money...” was my mother’s instruction and the oil-seller would smile at me, suppressing a laugh while he finished his work. He had been supplying oil to our household for years, but there was still a class-mistrust which he endured humorously. When I think about it now, I wish we had been friendlier. I never once offered him a sweet or asked if he had a daughter my age.
Eggs and bread
As for the seller of eggs! His ponderously shaped basket was lowered to the ground as carefully as if there was a baby sleeping in it. Selected eggs were then placed in a deep bowl of water. Both buyer and seller would watch with equal fascination to see which eggs lay flat, signalling that they were still fresh. If they stood up defiantly they were “bad” and were returned. The seller of coconuts was equally tested, fruit by fruit before purchases were settled.
And as for bread... Freshly baked and delivered at the gate in a large, shabby but practical tin box balanced on the carrier of the bread-man’s cycle. You could set your watch by the thump and rattle of his arrival at the hour of tea and milk.
Fifty monsoons have come and gone since that time. And through it all, obeying Time, the Earth has thundered through Space faster than the top speed of a Ferrari, taking with it many things we thought would never change.I often wonder where all those suppliers and grocers went, and how they stitched themselves into the boom of a city which became unrecognisable in the last five years of the century we left behind.