But let’s stick to what I started out on. The “sacred stores”. The old curiosity shops we used to find everywhere from Park Street to Palm Avenue and Putiari. Places we went, to buy books, bedsheets, buns. Places that are now replaced by aisles with fluorescent lighting and bright green signage that says things like “Home Furnishings”, “Bakery”, “Personal Care”. And I mourn their passing. Now we have malls. And retail chains. Even wannabe malls. Clean, comfortable, air-conditioned, efficient. And with about as much character as a styrofoam cup. Give me an earthen bhNaar any day. Or, as a sign of special favour, a four inch tall glass with ribbed sides. That was Pandit’s acknowledgement of regular customers. Pandit, who ran his little paan-cigarettes-tea-and-occasional-hash kiosk near the corner of Palm Avenue and Ballygunge Park Road, who took two years to grant me Most Favoured Customer status and who vanished some years ago. Now all we have is coffee shops and Chai Junction. Wonderful in their own way, but hey, would they open up the shop and make tea for us at midnight when we’re wandering home in our cups?
These labelled counters, now. All very systematic, but why does the Wife prefer traipsing the hot sweaty aisles of Newmarket, popping into stores that have remained unchanged since before she was in school, wading through multiple layers of samples laid out on the counter, leaving and coming back three times before she makes a purchase? Why not pop into the nearest mall, read the signs, check the price-tags, bag the choice and step into the check-out line? One big reason is that malls don’t let you bargain. It’s something a woman needs. It’s her version of hunting-gathering, blood sport. Tracking, stalking, going for the kill. It’s all there in the bargaining process. (Including the disappointment of the one that got away.) You can’t do that in a mall. Not everybody has as much pizzazz as the protagonist of Anurag Mathur’s “The Inscrutable Americans”, who could haggle over the price of toothpaste in an American supermarket.
And there’s the personal touch. Oh yes, when malls were a novelty we loved rubber-necking at the glitz and the brands. Then it wore thin, and we trickled back to Newmarket and Russell Street and Gariahat. And so loved it when we were welcomed back like family, by store-owners who had seen us grow up, who had seen my wife graduate from buying school uniforms through party wear to saris . And now, school uniforms for our daughter. Even shop assistants who have been in the same place for 30 years, the ones who would offer my wife a soft drink when she dropped by from college (it was such a treat then!) and now have to be dissuaded from spoiling our daughter with caffeine-sugar fixes. Think about it. Do you see the same people manning the aisles at your local mall, two months running? Isn’t it nice to see a familiar face, more so when it’s somebody you’ve haggled and fought with for years on end? Because the same guy, after he has griped about how you’re cutting his throat and starving his family, will offer to keep your purchases behind the counter while you go shop some more. And then send them to your car. Try that at your check-out counter some time.
And then there are the personal icons. I love Kookie Jar, but the real jar comes from realizing they’re now 25 years old and no longer the new kids on the block. But for shortbread and cookies and above all plum cake, can we desert the eternal Nahoum’s? Shop No. F-20, Newmarket, all dark wood and old glass and the sweet sweet smell of baking, still lorded over by the venerable David Nahoum, third generation of his family to sit behind that counter. Or Kalman’s on Free School Street, where I buy my sausages. Not certified and hygienic behind glass, but made fresh in the back room while the ever-smiling Joy asks me whether I want my ham sliced thick as usual. Or even the dark cobwebby raftered thick-walled neighbourhood “homoeopathic dispensary” with a thousand tiny vials behind dirty glass in cupboards of carved mahogany 80 years old. Can they be replaced by gleaming steel-and-glass chemists’ shops?
All summed up in another song from the dim and distant past – these are “places I remember / All my life. Though some have changed /
Some forever, not for better / Some have gone and some remain”. The past is a different country, but sometimes the borders are blessedly blurred.