Saturday, February 21, 2009

Life in the slow lane

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.....


  1. In my native place, Bharuch we have a similar Sindhibhai.. Dont know his real name but we call him Sindhibhai since he is sindhi !! and although Big Bazaar and Vmart and what not opening my Mom will only get goods from this Sindhibhai...

    Its not age, even my wife prefers the Sindhibhai to the malls !!

    You just reminded us of those days as kids when we would eat chewing gums at his store and tell him to write in our account !!!! lol...

    You have an eye, an eye to see.... the intricacies, the small pleasures... reading your blogs makes me so much more aware... There are so many things we do not notice... we must !!

    I am really thankful to have found you !!! I think I came here from Ranu's blog !!

  2. Your son inviting the delivery boys for his birthday party such a simple and fun act and rasikbhai letting them attend the party and sending candy bars for the birthday boy ..such a normal and simple act from a business person who truly understood people and business .

  3. I used to run a small country grocery store for several years and all my customers became like part of my family. It warms my heart to hear such as story because I know what a wonderful experience this time was in my life. So many large supermarkets and stores are going out of business here due to the recession. I can't help but wonder if this will give the small business person an opportunity to return. Like you, I will always give my business to someone like Rasikbhai that cares about their customers. I loved this post.

  4. The samll town aura resides around the corner store ! Where as much as it was a place of commerce, it was place of gathering and information nerve center as well !

    And to have these things so well captured on this post is truly amazing !!

  5. heh, its funny. We have plenty of shiny new super markets near my parents place too (I saw a lot of upwardly mobile young people buying their groceries there), but my parents still prefer the handcart driven vegetable vendor who comes every morning.

    This vendor has known me when *I* was 3, and during the last trip he saw my daughter at 3. It hurts me that that sort of interaction and relationship building is going to go out with his generation.


  6. heh, its funny. We have plenty of shiny new super markets near my parents place too (I saw a lot of upwardly mobile young people buying their groceries there), but my parents still prefer the handcart driven vegetable vendor who comes every morning.

    This vendor has known me when *I* was 3, and during the last trip he saw my daughter at 3. It hurts me that that sort of interaction and relationship building is going to go out with his generation.


  7. From a 'commercial point of view' I may visit the departmental stores (lured by bargains, sales and offers), but in customer-service, the cornerstore wins hands down. When I first came to Mumbai four years back, the first person to make me feel at home was Mehulbhai of the neighbouring Mahavir Shop.

  8. What a marvelous story about a man who started with nothing and became successful because he knew human nature and trusted the people. I don't know if it would work that way now, but I remember when I was a child and the corner grocer kept a running tab (bill) on his customers. The selection may not have been as great, but the produce was fresh from local gardens.

    As for the self proclaimed superior types, we both know they were the stupid inferior ones.

  9. So well written. True no malls or fancy shopping centers can take the place of these old time grocery stores run by people like Rasikbhai. I remember even in my parents house we keep a notebook where my dad will write a list of items needed for current month and all the bills will be paid at the end of the month. These store owners and all the boys working there know everyone in our family and even today when I go to Mumbai after years, and happen to stop by at their shop, they ask me when did I return? Will I be staying here now or going back? Even the fruit vendor we used to take fruits from will insist that my mom buys more since I am visiting. And we dont even know each others names, we call them Bhaiyaji and they call me baby , my brother baba my dad sahab and my mom bhabhi.

  10. Oh my! you have such a gift of transporting the reader...

    they truly were a class apart weren't they? i miss my local 'baniya' in Delhi, where he always had a courteous smile to offer, a freebie to give the baby...

    and rasikbhai rocks! for managing that line between progress and tradition.

  11. Hitch writer Thank you for the kind words. You know, when I was your age, I probably never noticed all these chchota chchota things. Now at my age, I just have a different view of so many things that we take for granted in our life...

    Anonymousyes. The great thing was that Rasikbhai had and still has a knack for looking at the bigger picture.....

    Judy Thank you. I didnt realize that big grocery stores were closing down due to the current economic problems. But , yes, maybe its true that smaller local shops may now come up, which is better for the environment and the people anyway..

    Kavi I guess these are "jai Ho" days. Somehow I find that so apt for Rasikbhai, Audabai, Sagunabai and similar hero(in)es...

    Priya Its really all about a slower pace of life, being interested and concerned about people around you, and helping. The bigger you get, the further these things recede.

    What amazes me is how these folks keep track of so many personal details abou their life long customers, remembering children, and so on. A slow plodding honest life's work, while all of us rush through, putting everyone into an addressbook on a laptop, fearing the travails of old age ?

    Sucharita What will we do without our neighborhood Rasikbhais/Mehulbhais ? I guess today both Malls and small shops like these have their own space, but somehow you dont learn as much at malls....:-)

    Darlene Me thinks sometimes we hanker after immediate results in everthing. Folks like Rasikbhai kind of gently poke into the future, a temporary commercial loss here, a great peace of mind there, and somehow it all works out for him.....

    Enchanted What you wrote is so true. I simply seem to wallow here in the baby/baba/bhabhiji/sahab and Bhaiyyaji culture. Very recently when in Pune, I was stopped by a corner ironing stall fellow, who remembered the time my brother and I would dash by his shop each morning to catch our school bus ! he condoled with me about my parents, and actually brought back so many memories of those days, as he took some time off every now and then between ironing and folding outfits....

    Suma You said it. Rasikbhai Rocks. ! I was just thinking how amused he would be to hear that.....

  12. I miss that kind of personal touch which we used to enjoy with the grocery shop owners. When my son was young he used to forget the specific brand of something I had asked him to buy and the shopkeeper would always know my preferred brand.
    And yes our man had the book and monthly account too.
    But the sad part is that even small shops have lost their personal touch these days in a struggle to stay afloat in the competition from the bigger supermarket chains.

  13. I know what you mean!! But I think a lot of people will continue to prefer Rasik bhai, and not even out of kindness, because that won't last for long, but because it is convenient to have grocery home delivered, including families like ours :)

    I love the part where your son invited the delivery boys to his birthday party :) And they came too with candy as gifts !!!

  14. You write so wonderfully. I love your stories. Can relate to so much shared. My parents at one time had a small grocery. Everyone that shopped was like family and many times their purchases were put down in a notebook until payday.

  15. Oh that is another lovely story Ugich. I think everyone would prefer a personalised service and most people cnanot stand supermarkets. I do my shopping online and they deliver it. Then I go to the fruit and vege markets to do fresh food shopping. Personally if Rasikbhani lived near me I would certainly bypass supermarkets. He is such a rich man in many ways. Thanks for sharing him.