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Hitting a Walmart

It all started when I went to the fish market. The place was unusually silent. Fishwives sold their fish listlessly, speaking in hushed voices. “Has someone died?” I asked. “No,” said my fishmonger, “the goras are after me.” Manas Chakravarty writes.

india Updated: Dec 04, 2011 01:46 IST
Manas Chakravarty

It all started when I went to the fish market. The place was unusually silent. Fishwives sold their fish listlessly, speaking in hushed voices. “Has someone died?” I asked. “No,” said my fishmonger, “the goras are after me.” I pointed out that at her age that should be a compliment. “Not after me,” she said, sighing a little, “they’re after my business.” “Which idiotic foreigner would want to sell fish here?” I asked, flabbergasted. “He who cannot be named,” she said, dropping her voice to a whisper, “Walmart.” “You mean Voldemort?” I asked, mystified. “No, no, Walmart, they’re coming to India.” A professor buying prawns looked up and nodded. “In a few years,” he said sombrely, “the bones of fishwives will be bleaching the markets of India.” “Serves them right for overcharging,” said a heartless pomfret-buyer.

I found out it wasn’t only the fish-sellers who were worried. Grocers, vegetable vendors, street urchins selling newspapers were also scared witless. The panic was everywhere. In Parliament, the left and the right combined to combat the evil foreigners. In Bengal, the peril brought Mamata and the Left together. Mothers frightened their children to sleep with the dreaded words, “Walmart is coming.”

Soon, I too was having nightmares. In one of them, a foreign-looking guy looked down on me from an enormous hoarding, on which was written in big, bold letters “Beware: Carrefour is watching you”. In another, someone whispered insistently in my ear, “Tesco knows what you did last summer.”

Terribly worried, I consulted an economist friend of mine. “Of course they will wipe out Indian shopkeepers. Just look what happened to our beloved Ambassador car when the foreign cars arrived,” he said, wiping a tear before driving off in his Toyota Camry. A tonga-wallah who took tourists on rides on Marine Drive agreed wholeheartedly. “A hundred years ago, there were hundreds of thousands of tonga-wallahs throughout this country. Then the foreigners introduced their devilish inventions — motor cars, bikes, buses. And look where we are today”, he said despondently. “The foreign retailers will import everything from China in bulk and what will happen to us then?” moaned a hawker selling Chinese goods on the pavement.

I decided to attend a meeting of the All-India Middlemen and Hoarders Association to understand things better. In a fine speech, their chairman pointed out that Walmart had 7% of the Chinese retail market in 15 years. “At that rate” he thundered, “your grandchildren will no longer be shopkeepers.” There was a stunned silence. “On the other hand,” he continued, “if only local supermarkets are allowed, it’s only your great-grand-children who won’t be shopkeepers.” The audience responded with relieved shouts of “Long live Biyani’ and “Long live swadeshi supermarkets”.

Outside the meeting, a producer told me he wanted to make a movie out of the heroic resistance. “I’m not sure, though, whether I should make a disaster movie called ‘Walmartocalypse’ or a patriotic one, with a masked, cape-wearing kirana shop owner as a hero.”

A young woman organising a candle-light march told me, “I’ve been writing slogans, like ‘I must, I must/I must increase my bust’. Oh sorry, that’s for my morning workout. The one you want is ‘We must, we must/Grind Walmart in the dust’.” I asked whether she supported Uma Bharti and Mulayam Singh’s plans to burn down Walmarts. “Those people aren’t my role models,” she said, “I would prefer to go by the example of our leading Gandhian, and flog the living daylights out of people who shop at Walmart.”

Manas Chakravarty is Consulting Editor, Mint

The views expressed by the author are personal