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For a handful of rice

The entry of Walmart to retails means that the whole shopping experience is going to change in unimaginable ways, writes Shobhit Mahajan.

india Updated: Oct 24, 2006 00:41 IST

‘Mukesh Ambani eyeing retail boom,’ the headlines enlighten me. Retail is all set to be the Next Big Thing. I’m impressed that Walmart, the much maligned behemoth, is supposedly eyeing the grand 300-million strong Indian middle-class. All this means that the whole shopping experience is going to change in unimaginable ways.

In the small town I grew up in, everyone knew everyone else and I knew all the shopkeepers. Thus, I could buy on credit but the camaraderie wasn’t without problems. For instance, on the purchase of alcohol or cigarettes, it was ensured that by the time one got home, news would have already reached the parents. But shopkeepers were helpful, courteous and shopping was a pleasant experience. The shopkeeper inquired about one’s family, shared gossip about the town and treated you with immense respect, at the same time.

This relationship with shopkeepers was not alien to Delhi. Going to big shops in the capital to buy clothes or jewellery was equally pleasant. The shopkeeper would be extremely polite (to the point of being oily) and would immediately order cold drinks for everyone. This was a smart ploy since most people would then be too embarrassed to go out without having bought anything. Nevertheless, his manner would be one of being helpful, attentive without being aggressive.

But, all this has now changed. Where I live shopkeepers are brusque, giving one the impression that they are not particularly keen on your patronage. Instead of being helpful, they are dismissive. The favourite ploy put to use when he is out of any product is to convincingly declare, “it is no longer manufactured by the company”! Never mind that you have just seen a new ad for the product on television. So, I have been rather wary of newgen shopkeepers.

But a recent experience has given me fresh insight. I had to get a ‘teeka’ made for bhai dooj. I went to a shop and bought some vermillion and then innocently asked for 2-3 grains of rice to put into it. Imagine my surprise when the shopkeeper turned around and told me that he cannot give me three grains of rice unless I pay for it! I was amazed, angry and aghast. I took out Rs 10 and asked him to give me three grains of rice.

The other customers at the shop were sympathetic as I mumbled about what the world has come to. One person offered a mythological perspective and told the story of how Draupadi had fed Lord Krishna two grains of rice and managed to satiate him while others talked about how the country had changed. But the best retort came from a smart alec buying a loaf of bread. He said that I had made a mistake by honestly asking for three grains of rice for teeka. I should have asked for a ‘sample’ of the rice being sold and the shopkeeper would have happily given me a handful. Retail revolution, anyone?