It is not that I nurse a disdain for big brands, huge standalone stores or foreign direct investment. I am all for heralding the arrival of Ikea, Walmart, Carrefour and the like to our shores and giving us a taste, at last, of the choicest of fresh foodstuffs, a variety of world famous labels and an abundance of top notch and select merchandise.
But I discovered the other day, the appeal and charm of my neighbourhood grocery store. Located under an ancient, massive banyan tree a few blocks away from my house, I chanced upon it again after quite some time. As I ventured up the small steps under a pair of faded awnings, I saw a row of familiar, large glass jars full of orange sweets we used to savour in our school days.
Alongside were placed little packets of sugarcoated, multicolored fennel seeds and churan balls, all reminiscent of childhood. With the expensive, glitzy, attractively packaged chocolates and sweetmeats available these days I had completely forgotten these old childhood favourites.
Once inside, I was pleasantly surprised at the well-lit and air-cooled interior. Along the walls were shelves lined with neatly packed pulses and an array of the latest and most popular toiletries. There was displayed an astonishing variety of foreign cereals, biscuits and confectionaries.
The little store was well stocked and could easily give the big multinationals a run for their money. Behind the counters were two neatly dressed young girls, handing out and packing goods.
A deep freezer hummed in a corner. It was crammed with different types of imported cheese, chocolates and cans of exotic juices.
The portly, beaming owner, hurried towards me. All smiles and anxious to help, he piled my shopping in a cardboard box and offered to have it delivered home, all the while asking after my family and children.
Without requiring the help of a fancy calculating machine, he prepared my bill in no time, showcasing the famed Indian acumen for mental mathematics and then rounded off the total in my favour!
In contrast, the big, best price stores, with their aggressive marketing and visibility suddenly seemed sterile and remote. Usually located a good distance from the city, their approach requires planning and a good deal of effort. Their massive, identical aisles are daunting and ideal spots to lose your way, and your bearings. Negotiating a trolley through the maze of giant, lofty columns laden with a mind boggling variety of merchandise is no mean task.
Also invariably one tends to overspend and end up lugging home, scores of toothbrushes, dozens of tissue boxes and vast quantities of potato chip packets, all quite unnecessary! The interminably long queues at the cash counter and endless checking and rechecking of purchased goods is exasperating to say the least.
The efforts our local shopkeepers are making to keep up with foreign competition is laudable to say the least and I am confident that these massive conglomerates may come and go but our shops around the corner are definitely going to survive and will continue to flourish.