Originally published in First City magazine, Delhi, August 2011
‘Maggi hai?’ I asked the young shopkeeper.
I said it again, carefully enunciating the name of the 2-minute snack so adored by everyone in this country (myself included).
‘Kyaa?’ The young shopkeeper looked utterly perplexed.
And then it hit me. Back home, ‘Maggie’ is a traditional Scottish name (short for Margaret), and I was pronouncing it as such, with a sharp ‘a’ sound: the fat cat sat on the mat. I suddenly realised I’d never heard this sound in Hindi, so I tried something else.
It truly was a lightbulb moment. ‘Accha! Accha-cha-cha-cha!’, the shopkeeper shouted, jolting into life and grabbing handfuls of the small yellow packets, piling them on the counter.
This is exactly the kind of thing I face every day. You locals have no idea how lucky you are to be able to go to a shop, buy what you want, and get on with your lives. But then, one of the reasons I love living in Delhi is because, to me, even those menial tasks – like buying noodles – are interesting. Have I been maddened to the point of implosion? Of course. Have I been bored? Never.
One of the great things about life here is that the shops come to you. I openly admit that I can quite happily spend the morning leaning over the balcony, watching the world go by. (And so, apparently, can most of my neighbours. In fact, this balcony-gazing seems to be a hugely popular ‘timepass’ here in India.) First comes the banana seller – a scrawny old man with a shockingly loud voice, who manages to drown out even the most piercing of cries from the kabari wallahs. Then comes a man selling scissors and knives, followed by another man selling ten rupee bamboo flutes.
After that, it’s quiet for a while. A lone cow wanders along the narrow street, looking for some tasty vegetable peelings. She stops to investigate a small mound of chapati flour lying beside an empty polythene bag. After giving the flour careful inspection, she eats the polythene bag and saunters off contentedly. Then the vegetable cart arrives and everyone rushes downstairs.
But while it can be fun doing business with the street vendors, I do have a guilty pleasure – the supermarket. The blissful freedom of picking up a plastic basket and leisurley going up and down the aisles, reading labels and comparing prices, lets me pretend I’m not in India for a little while (I adore this country but I do need the occasional break). I don’t have to attempt to be understood in Hindi, and I often don’t even get noticed – the customers are much too busy squeezing mangoes and controlling their excitable children.
That is until I get to the check-out. I place my basket on the shelf beside the cash register and wait until the customer in front pays for her groceries. A short, round, middle-aged lady is behind me in the queue. Frowning, she presses up beside me and peers into my basket, before reaching in and grabbing a packet of Dream Cream biscuits. Pushing her glasses down her nose, she scrutinises the biscuits, mutters incoherently, and tosses them back into my basket.
The boy at the check-out looks like he has been trying desperately to grow a moustache, but with little success. He stares at me while absent-mindedly stroking the fuzz on his upper lip. ‘Aap Indian ho?’ he asks with an expression of genuine bewilderment. I want to reply, ‘do I look Indian?’ but just mumble my usual few lines about being a student at DU. Seemingly satisfied with my response, he takes a 500 rupee note from me and pings open the till. It’s full of chocolate eclairs. Each of the little compartments that normally hold change is stuffed with the gold-wrapped sweets. ‘Toffee OK?’ the boy asks. At this stage I can’t face an argument, so I collect my bag of groceries, along with nine (NINE!) chocolate eclairs, and go home.
Shopping isn’t always an ordeal though. A few months ago I discovered a certain vegetable seller in my neighbourhood’s main market. Thanks to my Hindi teacher, Dr Verma, I now know the words for most fruits and vegetables, so making out that I’m fluent in Hindi isn’t difficult, as long as I stay in the context of the market. I confidently rattle off my shopping list: a kilo of aloo, one gobhi, half a kilo of tomater, and a small bunch of dhaniya – and the veg seller quickly weighs and packs the items. Do I need anything else? Yes, a few hari mirch, I remember. How much will everything cost?
It’s as if the transaction has come straight out of ‘Teach Yourself Hindi, Unit One – the bazaar’. He is quick, efficient and professional. And he doesn’t even overcharge me. Why can’t everyone be like that?
It’s nice seeing the same faces when I do my shopping. Yes, I know I indulge in a bit of supermarket aisle-wandering now and again, but it’s definitely the little family-run shops that make daily life in India what it is. The confusion, the language barrier and the expressions on the shopkeepers’ faces when I blunder through my shopping list can be embarrassing, of course, but this way I feel like part of the community. Part of Delhi. And as a foreigner here, that’s pretty important.
Recently, I entered a local shop and attempted to buy some loose-leaf green tea from a tiny old lady with no teeth. My request received the usual response: ‘Kyaa?’ But as I explained, in my grammatically questionable Hindi (and with a bit of pointing), I watched the old lady’s expression change from a toothless gape to a warm smile. Not only did she give me my green tea, but she introduced me to her husband, her children, and even her children’s children.
At home, shops like this are a dying breed. Everyone goes the supermaket; pushing trolleys, packing bags and paying up like robots, rarely communicating with each other. They’re even replacing the staff with self-service check-outs, allowing you to shop without the chore of making human contact. It seems crazy that in my home city – with its population of half a million – daily life is so impersonal, while in this huge metropolis I know all the faces (and a few names) of my local shopkeepers. Sure, this can be a hassle – like when all I want is a litre of milk and to get it I need to give the shopkeeper’s aunt a detailed history of My Country – but where else but India would that happen? To live here as a foreigner, I’ve realised, you have to make a choice; either to embrace the madness, or to let the frustration drive you insane. I know which I’d pick.