Household grocery shopping, once consisted of rushing through , dodging traffic through the dust, carrying a tote bag which was the epitome of toughness and sturdiness. In turn, there were several other cloth bags of various persuasions inside, which could be hung on to your persona when they were filled. Some at the elbow, some draped on your shoulder, and some just lugged by hand, as you tilted to one side to balance several kilograms of stuff.
Uncrowded, cool, swanky superstores, where you walked by the merchandise, pushing a shiny cart, inobtrusive music in the background, instead of standing at a counter with a list, was a vision of the future.
Now that this vision is being translated into occasional supermarkets in several areas, I often hanker after the earlier personalized shops. Typical.
Rasikbhai was the first to start a grain shop outside our campus. He belongs to a community which has a sixth sense as regards business. There was absolutely nothing in the area when he started his shop. You crossed the road and had a captive market at a residential campus. Some small vegetable stalls, stationery shops, repair shops, fruit stalls and the like were beginning to proliferate, given the easy terms from the landlord, and soon Rasikbhai had competition.
He then initiated a system of cycling chaps who came to your house every single day to ascertain your needs, jotted the details , and delivered the stuff the same afternoon. He maintained individual books for every household, where they wrote down their requirements. Bills were totaled at the end of the month. Paid by cheque, which was a novelty then. Slightly late bill payment , did not result in acrimonious conversations, as his delivery boys appraised him about someone's family problems, someone being out of town, and so on. Rasikbhai came from a village in Rajasthan, a state known for its business enterprise sense. He had not studied much , but interned in his uncle's shop, and then another relative called him over to Mumbai, to help.
Being close to a campus has its advantages. There was an excellent school for children, where he sent his children. His wife, from his own village, steeped in the tradition of being seen but not heard, enjoyed the daily trips to leave the children at school, interaction with the teachers, attending annual days, and seeing her daughter enjoying school, something she would have loved, but was unable to enjoy in her childhood.
Intelligent sourcing of his delivery boys, some from his native village and some locally, allowed him to depend on them without worrying about turnover of staff, as he knew many of their parents back home. These delivery chaps soon became a fixture each morning , as we indicated our requirements at the door, as our children, still too young to start school, made all kinds of silly conversation with them, went out to admire their bicycles, and were occasionally given a short ride in the compound.....These young chaps, were traditionally brought up, and would behave very respectfully with visiting grandparents in each house.
And so it wasn't a terrible surprise , when my son, then 4, on one of his birthdays, insisted on inviting 3 of the delivery boys for the party. He went with me to the shop, to give them these little invitation things, with their names spelt out there. Rasikbhai very seriously accepted the stuff, called his chaps. On the evening of the party, he let these 3 chaps go , at a considerable commercial inconvenience, and since they knew almost all the kids attending and their parents, they were a big hit. The BIG candy bar each of them brought for my son, was the preferred gift, over all kinds of dinky cars, coloring books and the like. They stayed on till dinnertime, and left after respectfully touching the feet of the birthday boy's grandparents.
Rasikbhai soon earned so much goodwill in the area, that his clientele increased, and he was able to diversify into cooking utensils, electronic goods and a fabric shop, all run by his relatives, with seed money by him. His grain shop enlarged, but the delivery boys continued. In an age when there were no ATM's, and payment by cheque was treated with suspicion, a person (whom he knew), needing money at night in an emergency could write him a cheque, and get cash , provided he landed up before 10 pm, his closing time.
The birthday boy and his friend, now 6, once ventured near the campus gate, to watch some bulldozers. The friend met someone he knew and left. After sometime spent admiring various varieties of traffic, wandering cows, the policeman and the security at the gate, he suddenly remembered the house, but couldn't remember the way home. Bravado slowly turned to panic, wide eyes, with the various traditional bogeymen like police etc operating near by on the outside road.
Fifteen minutes later, saw one of Rasikbhai's delivery boys, appearing at our house, with the little boy riding on the handlebar; he came to deliver a lost boy, who he saw at the gate and recognized, and asked where he thought he was off to.
By and by Rasikbhai's son finished college, something unheard off back in his village. Going to an excellent school and having friends who planned college, showed him a way, and Rasikbhai was thrilled. The boy got selected in campus interviews.
A few years ago, Rasikbhai came to our house to invite us for his daughter's marriage. She finished school, then did a diploma in catering. He told us his son was off to the US on an assignment for his company, and he wanted to have the first family wedding before his son left. Almost all of his customers attended the wedding reception. There are always some , what I call, self defined superior types, who think it is a blot on their status to attend a wedding in their "shopkeepers" house. But we stupid inferior types thoroughly enjoyed the traditional decorations, the food specialities, and the color , that goes along with every Rajasthani wedding.
These days Raskibhai has a nephew who sits at the counter sometimes. A new generation needs to be trained. Not just in the commerce, but in customer relations. Typical of Rasikbhai, he maintains excellent relations with all official types that visit his shop for checking.
For a man who hailed from a conservative family in a even more conservative village, where family was the ultimate consideration, Rasikbhai has great regard for anyone venturing into a socially beneficial action. Due to historical economic reasons, all of us here have been allotted what are called Ration cards, which basically serve to identify our households. Adding a child's name on a ration card is supposed to be a procedure which is time consuming because of checking of facts with neighbors and so on. A family who had adopted a little girl and wished to have her name added, were overcome with gratitude, when Rasikbhai , on his own, told them that the Rationing Officers visited his shop every week, and if they gave him the papers, he would get this done in his shop itself, as he would identify and vouch for the family. It was his way showing his approval and admiration.
Last year, I didn't see Rasikbhai for several months. When I queried the delivery boys, they said he was travelling. I thought maybe he was visiting his native village. Then I heard his wife too was travelling with him.
I met a worldly wise Rasikbhai sometime later, as I had gone to his shop one morning soon after opening time.
He was busy garlanding the statues of Gods, high up, to the left of where he sat, and burning incense sticks, which he then placed in their holders. He folded his hands, said a short prayer, something he did every morning.
Sat down at the counter. Yelled out some instructions to someone. And smiled at me.
"You know my son is in Ohio. In software", and he smiled, pride suffusing his face. "He has been calling us for a visit. To see the country. And I don't know when I would get so much free time again. My daughter is expecting, and my wife will be very busy with that in six months time. So I took my wife on a combined trip to Europe and America. A conducted tour. So language was never a problem. And we got strict vegetarian food. We saw the English Queen's palace, and the Alps, and so many wonderful cities and places. Then we went and relaxed at our son's house in America. Of course he took us to DisneyWorld in Florida. , as well as Epcot, Washington, the White house ....everything simply fuss-class....." (He wasnt signifying the mode of travel, but his total approval of what he saw)
From a society where women covered their heads at the sight of men in the family, Rasikbhai had graduated to taking his wife on rides in Disneyworld, showing her Europe, and even then, being aware of her traditional duties as a prospective grandmother, returning well in time to help his daughter, with her first delivery, traditionally happening at her parents home....
Rasikbhai had come a long, long way ..... and what a way it was !
Yes, we do have a spanking new supermarket. They have shiny carts, piped music, special sales, wonderful merchandise, employees in uniforms and aprons and stuff wishing you, and hovering about you, , ringing cash registers, monogrammed plastic bags.........
Maybe its age. Maybe its just plain good sense.
But give me Rasikbhai and his delivery boys any day.....