We girls grow up –– and grow old –– with such pre-conceived mindsets about certain kinds of shopping experiences: one should, for instance, ideally, not buy lingerie alone. “Take your mother/sister/aunt/girlfriend along,” advise the elders. Else the salesmen will think you are, er, asking for trouble.
Then, one should, again ideally, avoid buying sanitary napkins or tampons alone (“Send the maid or call in for them”); and a very strange thing happens if you decide to, or happen to be buying Those Things over the counter, alone: the salesman looks very grim, and, with a clenched jaw line, either wraps the pack with newspaper (the way we wrapped textbooks with brown paper in school) or puts it into a black plastic bag; then he hurriedly shoves it into your hand while you try your best to appear unfazed.
Women should also feel odd while buying razors or hair-removing creams, feel a few others. “It’s the men in the shop,” a colleague’s mother explained to her. “You never know what they could be thinking of — their imagination runs riot.”
Even if you are in the relative safety of a departmental store, where you can get any of the abovementioned offending items without asking for them, the cash counter guys have to be factored in. Many of my girlfriends say they feel the first flush of red on their faces while the man at the counter has his hands full of Those Things in an effort to tabulate prices. It’s the conditioning, they conclude helplessly.
I guess men have their vulnerabilities too. Like when they go to buy condoms (before anyone even begins to wonder “But why…”, hell, yes, Indians do have sex). Most of my male friends say they feel like criminals, which is such a pity because there’s now even a nation-wide public campaign that urges us to be bindaas about (buying) condoms.
But there are also stories of hope and change. Last week, a friend had gone to a pharmacy store in Defence Colony. There, he spotted a rack with ladies’ razors and decided to (classic case of impulse purchase) buy a few for his girlfriend.
“Those, sir, are ladies razors,” whispered the salesperson, looking horrified. “Really?” my friend asked. “Now tell me: why would a lady need a razor?” A couple of young girls in the shop tittered and the salesperson turned a bright shade of crimson.
Another friend — a female one — had recently marched her in-need-of-a-new-wardrobe boyfriend down to Khan Market. “Will you check out some underwear for me?” my friend’s infuriating boyfriend demanded loudly before locking himself in the trial room of a ready-to-wear apparel store, armed with an array of shirts.
“Show me some underwear, will you?” my friend, in turn, demanded. “Men’s stuff, mind you.”
She was handed out a single packet by a stern-looking salesman; she opened it, and discovered a red underwear with “a silver flower spangled across the crotch”. Then, as the salespeople, including a salesgirl, at the shop watched in disbelief, my friend proceeded to study the male version of the panty closely — after spreading it across the counter.
“I don’t like it,” she delivered her verdict in a couple of minutes.
“It’s the latest design madam…
Sir might like it,” the salesgirl offered faintly.
“Doesn’t matter whether he likes it or not,” my friend said matter-of-factly. “I don’t like it — just show me the regular stuff, none of this new-fangled nonsense.”
Ah, well, we’ve come a fair distance from the times when my then-unmarried mother and her single female friends (marriage somehow commanded respectability) got routinely stalked by beady-eyed salesmen in the corridors of Calcutta’s New Market. “Bra and panty madam?” they would hardsell, while the ladies would scurry for cover, eyes firmly downcast.