The shop counter gives the owner the feeling of a low-level bureaucrat, who exercises his power by gleefully and triumphantly telling the customer that he doesn’t have in stock what the customer wants. And if he doesn’t have what you want, he will also tell you that that product was discontinued by manufacturers decades ago. Shaving cream? What are you talking about?
It’s also true that small-town Indians actually like opening kirana stores. And sitting inside them. There is this pride: I don’t work for anyone. The self-respecting grocer blends into the dull landscape of his store and begins to resemble a jar of pickle. Down the street from me, there is a thriving electrical goods store, selling plugs, switches, extension cords and bulbs. The owner’s son, a trained electrician, boldly struck out on his own and opened yet another store. He didn’t like standing on stools, biting pieces of wire with his teeth, fixing lights and fans. The kirana store was a move up.
The mofussil grocer is different from his city counterpart in one significant way. He is least interested in the idea of maximising profit. For instance, the home delivery of essentials doesn’t exist as a business model. During the present lockdown, the administration has shut down grocery stores. The store owner is happy to sit at home. Even before the lockdown, any request for home delivery was shot down brusquely. ‘I don’t do that,’ would be the reply, as if I’d asked the shopkeeper to deliver an assault rifle.
If there was home delivery, one would buy a tray of eggs. If there isn’t, one buys six and walks home. The kirana store guy knows this but just doesn’t care. This is quite refreshing. When you turn your back on profits, you’re saying: ‘I’m content with what I’m earning. I really don’t want more. None of these grocers own a car. They never go on vacations.’
There is not-so-disguised unemployment in the grocer’s family. His cousins lounge outside the shop, earbuds stuck in the ear. One lad is always polishing his mobike. And yet, none of them will help out with home delivery. There is indignity in dropping off groceries on your own scooter, even though the same scooter is deployed when going to the mandi to pick up wholesale goods. The sense of self is precarious and fragile. In many ways, it’s all that he has.
At times, I like to think of the small-town Indian grocer as an American talk show host. For starters, there is the elevated counter in common. The customer is physically two notches lower than the grocer, always looking up to him. In the classic talk show model, the host is perched at a higher level than the celebrity. It gives the host a supreme air.
Talk show hosts, when they interview each other, are always joking about guests they’ve bumped into at parties. In the classic story, the guest always tells the host, ‘I was on your show!’ And the host just doesn’t remember. Both the celebrity and the host need each other. But they’d like to pretend otherwise.
Similarly, the grocer, from his elevated counter, treats the customer with mild contempt, as yet another pesky celebrity. He will make you wait your turn and sometimes mysteriously vanish into a curtained space behind him while you examine the toffee jars.
There is one question that bothers me though. This grocer, in normal times, is the first one to open in the mornings and the last one to shut shop at night. It’s all he does. He doesn’t have any hobbies. When he doesn’t home deliver as a matter of policy and dignity, what does he do with his time?