Observing India: Shopping for milk, bread and veggies.

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With the house unoccupied except for when my mother visits Delhi every three months or so to say hello to her grandson, the cupboards were bare. I thought that would be the perfect excuse to go find the nearest ‘supermarket’ or equivalent, an example of the retail boom much touted in the media, and see what it was like.

Well, there aren’t any close by, after all. Apparently the nearest one is over 8 kilometers away near the Badarpur border. For context, my parent’s apartment is in Alaknanda, a stone’s throw from Greater Kailash Parts 1, 2 and 3 and of course Nehru Place, the nearest office complex, where a decade ago giants like HP, Microsoft and Intel had their local offices.

Now they’ve all shifted to the distant suburb of Gurgaon, across the border in the state of Haryana, closer to the International airport and anywhere from an hour to two hours of driving distance depending on the chaos of the Delhi traffic. And that’s where all the big malls, supermarkets, Big Bazaars etc have come up too, as the farmlands get turned into real estate gold.

I ended up buying milk and bread from the same old shopkeeper I’ve always bought from, ever since we moved here in 1986 and he still doesn’t take credit cards – though I did ask him what he thought of a Wizzit like scheme that they have in South Africa, where payment for purchases can be transferred from phone to phone. He gave me a "in your dreams" look that he gives, cynical fellow that he is, and I’ll be going back to have a chat with him about the changes in the retail landscape, the rising price of petrol, the rising rupee and what it’s impact has been on his daily life. In meantime, to my pleasant surprise I could buy a litre of milk in a UHT tetrapak that didn’t need to be refrigerated until opened. Practical when summer temperatures can hit 47 Celsius on a bad day.

Then I walked down to the streetside vendor of vegetables, and I poked and prodded, squeezed and sniffed, putting my choices aside in a basket for him to price – after all with the summer heat the tomatoes were wilting and the potatoes were getting soggy, though all had been covered with jute bags soaked in water to keep them cool. I chatted with him about how he sourced his vegetables – he said he has to go the main subzi mandi [vegetable market] at 1am to get his supplies, they come in from all over India, particularly in the summer heat when  out of season vegetables like cauliflowers come from the cooler foothills of the Himalayas. This was a change, once upon a time, during summer, you could only ever buy seasonal local vegetables like a variety of gourds, cucumbers and bitter greens. He popped in bundle of coriander and green chillies as lagniappe, probably because I didn’t haggle with him over the price of vegetables. What was the point of squeezing him for Rs 5 ? He has to make a living too. I’m becoming more and more CSO in my old age I think, or the oodles of fair trade in the UK has influenced me.

Considering the high density of population in this area and the non inconsiderable price of housing, its funny that one can’t just nip down to the supermarket to buy veggies after all. I did note a Subiksha in GK2 market, I’ll check that out tomorrow morning when I go for an appointment there to get my hair done. Discovering India of 2007 is going to be fun, methinks, seeing as how I haven’t lived here since February of 1998.

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