Down Convenience Street
“I am putting on the tea,” Father says, walking past my bedroom door. It must be 7 a.m. I am out of bed, dressed and out of the door, sleepwalking to Ali Beedi’s, just around the corner. “One bread, six eggs, two packets of Parle G,” I order the usual.
Then I wake up. I’m not eight years old. It is 2009. The shop has many new brands on display, a new public phone and even Hindi music CDs—which are “not pirated,” as a sign proclaims. I step back to check the name of the shop. A backlit sign reads Ali’s Shop. It’s not the hand-painted Ali Beedi sign from my childhood. I wonder if he still sells beedis though—those tiny Indian cigarettes—a bit of tobacco hand-rolled in a leaf and tied with string.
I look at the man behind the loaves of traditional pao and the modern Dr. Anjali Mukherjee’s Whole Wheat High Fiber Bread. It’s not Ali. I find out it’s his nephew, but the shop is the same wooden six feet wide by eight feet tall box crammed neatly with merchandise and with just enough space for a man to stand in. Inside, there is everything I might need for tea, breakfast or a bath, and anything I might want on the way to school or work—candy, cigarettes, pencils or a drink (yes, there’s a tiny refrigerator in there). The bread arrives fresh at 6:30 a.m. and the stack of eight egg trays is significant. The other neighborhood shops are owned by shopkeepers of the Gujarati community, who are vegetarian, and do not sell eggs.
This is my “convenience store” back home in Mumbai, India. I know—a large wooden box with doors that lock might not be called a store by many people in the U.S., but it is nothing if not convenient. Ali’s has everything people ask for. Nothing extra. There is no space for it. Across the street from Ali’s is the banana seller who parks his cart there every morning so when I, like so many others, buy bread and eggs, the bananas are right there and our breakfast shopping is complete.
A Way of Life
These little “stores,” or kirana as we call them, make our busy lives very convenient. They are on every other corner and form a well-established and significant part of the fifth largest retail industry in the world. In this densely populated metro area, the largest in India, the ground floor of almost every building on main roads is occupied by shops. Every neighborhood also has a marketplace consisting of many blocks, right around railway stations and packed with tiny shops full of specific merchandise, big general stores, services and hundreds of street vendors selling everything from bedspreads to freshly cut seasonal fruit.
After breakfast I take my children and walk down to Elite Photo Studio. I know their story: The father died leaving the big house to his four sons. They each opened Elite Photo Studio, Elite Dry Cleaners, Elite Pharmacy and Elite Men’s Tailors.
“Hello Sushmita! Your son is so tall now!” This is Hemant Bhai, who, when I was 14 years old, had the only color photo studio for miles. Today his shop is Kodak all over and has marble floors. I want a roll of film for my old Pentax. My son wants to know what’s inside his single-use camera. I tell Hemant Bhai. “Come, I’ll show you,” he says to my son, as my daughter hides behind my legs. “This is a roll of film. See these holes?” He opens the roll, opens the back of my camera and shows my son how the film sits in the pegs.
Next door, at the dry cleaners, I give my clothes, rumpled and checked by the Transportation Security Administration at Dulles Airport, in Virginia, for ironing. The shop is air-conditioned now and the cash register, computerized. The atmosphere is fragrant with incense from the little wall-mounted shrine to Laxmi, the Hindu goddess of prosperity. When I go back to collect my clothes, the shop owner has ordered them folded and sealed in plastic bags, ready for travel to the United States. Next, at Elite Pharmacy, I hand over our malaria pills prescription. “I don’t have it now but I’ll get it for you,” the pharmacist’s assistant promises.
“When should I come back?” I ask.
“We’ll bring it home. Flat #7, Aarti Building?”
“Yes,” I say, sheepishly. The last time I was here was two years ago.
“You’ll have it by this evening. Anything else?”
“Do you sell bottled water?” I look around for a display.
“No. But how many bottles do you need?”
“I’ll send it. Anything else?”
“That’s it. Thanks.”
We walk past our family grocer’s. The elderly man recognizes me, and smiles. My mother called in her monthly grocery list over the phone earlier—everything except produce. By afternoon, the delivery boy will be unloading his thick canvas bags, one hanging from each handle of his bicycle, at our doorstep.
Attention to Detail
Traditional, family-owned businesses in India were the way it was until eight or 10 years ago when some retail chains started to appear. At the new American-style supermarket chain, Food Bazaar, located in a mall in my neighborhood market, our receipt gets us a free local snack, daal baati—flour dumplings dipped in thick, soup-like lentil curry. Two ladies put the ingredients together with a smile. We finish and a young man in the store uniform carries our bags up the escalator and finds us a taxi.
At a Bharat Petroleum petrol pump, as gas stations are called here, I enter a convenience store called In & Out, a well-lit and neatly organized place. I am surprised to see the young cashier ask an old lady if she would like the bottles she had just bought un-sealed. She does, and he goes through her basket, opening bottles of jam, pickles, antacids and ketchup, and putting the lids back on again, gently. The rest of us wait gladly in the comfort of air-conditioning and out of the 90-degree heat. I grab some traditional, un-branded but “made fresh daily” idlis—steamed lentil and rice cakes with coconut chutney—and dhoklas, steamed chickpea batter topped with green chilies and cilantro. My son finds his favorite mango drink, my daughter finds refrigerated yogurt.
We get home and are drinking tea, when the doorbell rings. It is the pharmacist’s assistant with a generic drug replacement for Larium, our malaria pills. It’s much cheaper, he explains. And he has the bottled water. I thank him.
“How long are you staying?” he asks.
“Two weeks,” I answer, suspiciously.
“The dose ends in three. Take it once after you get home too,” he suggests.
“Ok. How much?” I dig in my pockets.
“Uncle—your father—pays at the end of the month. Goodnight.”
My son has seen an ad on TV for a bubble gum that’s filled with blue goo. “Can I have some Bubbaloo, Mamma?” he asks. “We’ll see if Ali has any,” I promise. He asks the next time we are at Ali’s but he doesn’t have it.
Having worked in Mumbai’s advertising industry for ten years, I have always been amazed at how the consumer goods companies supply the millions of kirana stores nationwide. It is probably these very stores that made Lever’s Lifebuoy the best selling soap in the world.
On our last morning in India, my father comes back from Ali’s with goodies for us to take back home. He says the man must have bought his sons houses with the money he has made from us, thanks to the amount of Parle G biscuits my brother and I, and now my kids, have eaten all these years. My father hands a blue-striped cardboard box to my son. “Ali had this for you.”
“Bubbaloo!” The box top unfolds, revealing a bratty kid with a blue bubble coming from his mouth and neat rows of gum.
My mother says Ali’s has been doing great since the 1970s because he’s on the northeast corner of the intersection—very auspicious for business as per Vaastu Sashtra, the Indian Feng Shui. While newer big-box retailers struggle with inappropriate location, the traditional stores know something, she says. I remember how McDonald’s struggled to find affordable retail space in Mumbai’s business district where I used to work.
But it is thanks to Ali’s, not McDonald’s, that I had my favorite breakfast everyday, right on time, for 35 years and counting—and when I get back to the United States, I am definitely moving my computer to the northeast corner of my office.
[A version of this article first appeared in the Global Trends Section of the NACS Magazine in July 2010. Sushmita Mazumdar is a book artist, writer and educator based in Arlington, Va.]
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