The shop around the corner
It started with a rat. Albeit it was a small, grey, possibly-cute-in-a-parallel-universe kind of rat.
Yet, when this creature jumped out of a shelf full of wilted spinach, I couldn't help thinking that this signaled my entrance into the circles of retail hell.
This story actually begins about a decade ago in the leafy neigbourhoods of a shiny-as-a- new-nickel India where our home-grown retailers opened the first supermarkets selling everything from Kissan jam to Bata shoes.
The first customers gingerly stepped in lured by the promise of convenience and super deals ('Buy five kgs atta get one kg besan FREE) and the rest as they say was retail history.
When I entered this story, things had already started to go a little bad. The recession had hit the retail world. Potato/onion/tomato prices had sky rocketed and global warming had led to strange rainfall patterns which had affected everything on my plate. Supermarkets were mushrooming in a desperate bid to succeed through numbers.
I was an old fashioned sort. I liked handpicking my veggies. However, as a grown up, working/married woman who had recently moved back to Delhi and was getting used to the searing heat and dusty auto rides, these shopping rituals were not a luxury I could afford.
For the first few weeks I had to make do with my neighbourhood vegetable shop. This was a mere cart which had lost its wheels and had now become a semi-permanent fixture around these parts.
On one particularly cruel summer evening, the idea of some cool respite at the neighbourhood supermarket was tempting, specially as I stood haggling over the ridiculous price of onions with the grouchy sabzi wala.
With a steely resolve, I decided it was time to embrace the era of neatly pre-wrapped and pre-weighed veggies.
I walked in ignoring the warning signs. It was empty and there were far too many shop assistants.
I tried to ignore the smell of overripe tomatoes. I tried to ignore the dust. I tried to ignore the fact that at least five bottles of the exotic marinating sauces had passed their expiry date. And I moved towards the vegetable section with my hope still afloat.
Alas. Every single vegetable looked like it had travelled the breadth of the country fighting disease and deprivation till it reached this particular metal shelf-its chosen spot for its last breath.
It was a graveyard of vegetables. The potatoes had either turned green or into mutant flowerpots with little leafy stems. A tomato burst into a bloody mess the moment I picked it up to drop into my empty cart. And then just as I moved a few wilted bunches of spinach looking for a bunch that would survive the night, the rat jumped out.
Ignorance is bliss only with respect to abstract concepts. A rat darting around my peep-toed sandals is far too real for the (ignorance=bliss) model to work. I turned on my heel and fled.
I returned to my sabziwallah with my woebegone face. He smirked at me and imperiously tossed fresh, plump and firm tomatoes into my nylon bag.
Needless to say, this poor, suffering, rat-infested and overstaffed shop shut down soon after. Since then, I have visited many a supermarket, in the hope that it might just be that everything-under-one-roof paradise.
However, it has been in vain. The only things I have ever found in the vegetable section of the most gourmet supermarket are curry leaves, packets and packets of them that I have bought with grand hopes of cooking everything 'Kerala style' from rice to my meat.
However, I have always been informed by my astute cook that it is a most useless purchase because curry leaves are best fresh and they are also available in plenty all around our neighbourhood.
Other useless exotica I have purchased have been ridiculously expensive shitake mushrooms, overpriced skinny Thai bird chillies and not-so-fresh-looking dill, each of which have either wound up in the selfsame astute cook's experimental mixed vegetable concoctions (indeed a Shitake mushroom and mattar (pea) curry which I chomped my way through in utter shock) or simply lain in my fridge till they quietly dried up.
Still, there had to be an alternative to my bespectacled, mustachioed grouch of a sabziwallah who always sneered at my ignorance about the seasonal vegetables.
And frankly I didn't give a hoot about these seasonal wonders which all looked like they belonged to the same bland watery gourd family of the tinda-tori-lauki dynasty.
I convinced the husband to drive me to another market which was famed for its regional (read Bengali) produce. Wading through an hour long traffic jam on a ridiculous concept of road, I finally reached the small bustling market lined bordered by a small temple on one side and a strong smelling fish market right next to it.
On the other side there was a small concrete clearing with the national flag flying high. This was usually buzzing with elderly gentlemen in their whites and young arty college boys in their fab india kurtas celebrating the martyrdom of communist heroes. For a moment there I was nearly convinced that this was my home away from home.
As I picked up slinky drumsticks, caressed the beautiful florets of the purple banana flowers and tossed a few pokey baby gourds into my basket, I nearly squealed in joy.
The sweet and helpful guy behind this pile of organic manna, even drawled out a recipe or two in Bengali, clearly enjoying my obvious enthusiasm. However, it didn't last. The benevolent shop keeper soon turned into a snarling-cheating monster and sold us everything at thrice the price.
I have to hand it to him though. He had the gift of the gab. One standout sale he made that day was a lau (bottle gourd). He told us it was fresh as a newly unfurled leaf and had that very day arrived from Calcutta on the Rajdhani Express.
"Think of the train fare, and see how little I am asking. In AC too so that it stays sooper fresh. And you are getting it for only 80 rupees madam," he said with a toothy grin.
I was dazed at the logic. I was not sure if he was entirely serious. He was.
I dug into my wallet to pull out the money, ashamed at my stupidity. Just five minutes ago, I had exclaimed at the beauty of the vegetable and quickly packed it away in my bag without asking its price! I had also quickly bought the equally expensive shrimps as accompaniments for this jet setting lau. I had planned the lovely lau chingri (a shrimp and bottle gourd dish) dinner that we would eat. And I could hardly turn back now.
He conned us with a smile. And sold us a fifteen rupee vegetable for more than five times its worth.
The next evening I was back to my regular sabziwallah with his vegetables on his non- cart. The familiar face behind the pile of pearly white cauliflowers growled at me. "Why have you not bought any vegetables for a week?" Ashamed, I rattled off a long list.
Struggling with the packets, I dropped a few potatoes. "You go on ahead. I'll send my boy to your place with your vegetables," said the former grouch with...wait...it was a hint of a smile.
So there it was. I found my perfect vegetable shop a few yards from my own house.
Somewhere over time, it acquired a phone, delivery boys and started stocking exotic leaves and mushrooms. This little cart and its grouchy owner saved us from starvation on rainy days and on broke days at the end of the month and on days when a culinary crisis would have brewed minus that one particular vegetable that I desperately needed and had forgotten to buy for the latest exotic recipe.
And he always sold me the plumpest, reddest and freshest tomatoes.