NATION OF SHOP KEEPERS

It is popularly believed that Napoleon Bonaparte described the British as a nation of shopkeepers but in reality he might not have said so. More likely, the early economist Adam Smith, author of The Wealth of Nations, might have coined this phrase. He wrote: “… the sole purpose of raising up a people of customers may at first sight appear a project fit only for a nation of shopkeepers…”

Well, Great Britain still contains many shop keepers, but most of them are hopeless. Few shop keepers or their assistants, who are employed to make sales, put much effort into encouraging customers to buy. In general, they are an unhelpful bunch. Often when one asks for something, one is told by a typical British shop keeper: “If we’ve got it, it will be out on the shelves”, and then the customer is left to hunt for it somewhere in the shop.

Occasionally, you can find a helpful salesperson. Once, I was in London’s Oxford Street looking for a winter coat with certain features. I described in detail what I was seeking to a salesman. He replied cheerfully: “I know exactly what you need, Sir. I know just the job. You need a Danimac.” He paused before continuing: ” there’s only one problem: Danimacs are not made anymore.” And, that was it.

Had I been looking for that coat in India, the salesman would not have stopped at that point. Instead, he would have shown me a range of other types of coat in the hope that I might see the benefits of modifying my requirements and buying something else.

Unlike their British counterparts, Indian shop keepers and their sales people take a professional pride in both satisfying the customer and making sales.

Take clothes shopping for example. You enter a shop without much idea which shirt or skirt you want and are bewildered by the variety on display. You will be welcomed by a sales person, who will begin by showing you a garment that may not be to your taste. Then, you will be shown a series of other items. The salesperson will gradually show you merchandise that really appeals to you because he or she has been watching your reactions to what is being shown to you, and from these, your taste in clothes can be accurately ascertained. When you have selected whatever you were looking for as well as much that you never knew you wanted, alterations that might be needed to ensure a good fit will be carried rapidly out at no extra charge.

Some Indian shopkeepers are brilliant salesmen, especially the Kashmiris who run handicraft shops. You might enter one of these shops without any intention of making a purchase, but so expert are the sales people that I doubt that you will leave empty handed!

I could go on and on about the excellence of sales people in India, but I will not. However, before signing off, let me tell you about a simple vegetable seller in Bandra (Maharashtra). Formerly, he used to lay out a cloth blanket by the roadside. At about 1 pm, a truck would stop next to his cloth and various vegetables would be delivered. From day to day, the vendor had no idea which vegetables would arrive, but whatever arrived was, and still is, of a very high quality. His customers, mostly regulars, would turn up and buy what they needed.

After some years, the veg seller acquired a mobile phone. He collected the phone numbers of his customers. Now, every day the veg seller takes pictures of whatever he has received for sale, and then sends the pictures, the prices of his goods, and a description of them, to his customers via WhatsApp. His customers reply with their orders, which they come and collect from him. Thus, from humble beginnings a street vendor has brought his age old business into the 21st century.

Had Napoleon Bonaparte reached India, he would have had good reason to say, as I do, that Indians are truly a nation of first class shopkeepers.

TAXI DRIVER

Like London, Bombay is heavily dependent on workers who were not born in the city. This is the case for most of Bombay’s multitude of taxi drivers. Many of them came to the city from Bihar and Uttar Pradesh (UP).

During a long journey from Colaba in South Bombay to Bandra, we spoke to our cab driver, ‘P’, from UP. A well educated man, he has been driving his black and yellow taxi in Bombay for well over 20 years. For most of the year, he drives for 14 hours per day, 7 days a week. His wife and children live in his village in UP. Much of the money he earns pays for his children’s education.

P owns his taxi and has a small house in Bombay. Occasionally, his family come to visit him in Bombay. Thrice a year, P visits his village in UP. There, his family have land where they grow a wide range of vegetables such as carrots, cabbage,potatoes, aubergines, rice, wheat, and more. While he is away from Bombay, he hires a driver to work his cab.

P feels that the present Prime Minister, Narendra Modi, is good for India because he seems to be reducing corrupt practices amongst the country’s civil servants. Another good thing that Modi has done, P told us, was to ensure that everyone including humble village people have bank accounts. In the past, state benefit payments were given to the panchayats (local village councils) to be distributed amongst the intended recipients. The panchayats usually deducted an amount from the beneficiaries’ payments and kept it for themselves. Now that everybody has a bank account, the state pays the people without intermediaries and be sure that the recipients receive the whole of the amount intended for them.

In P’s words, the Congress Party leader Rahul Gandhi is “… lacking in talent”

P said that people in UP spend too much time worrying about what their neighbours have achieved and criticising them jealously instead of getting on with life. As he put it: “They don’t care about what they eat in their own homes, but instead what their neighbours are consuming .” People in UP are lazy, P said, they do not want to work; they just want to drag you down. In contrast, he said, people in Bombay are too busy working, trying to make a living, to care about what their neighbours are up to.

Although P has prejudices, which he barely concealed, he is intelligent and knowledgeable. At one point in our journey my wife mentioned two brothers, whom she had once known, and said that they were named after twins in the Hindu myths collected in the Mahabharata. “Madame,” the taxi driver said politely, “They appear in the Ramayana.

Later, when my wife told P her name is Lopa, which is short for ‘Lopamudra’, our driver immediately recounted the mythological origins of that name.

P, like many other drivers of black and yellow taxis in Bombay, is keen on conversing with is passengers. In contrast, most of the drivers of Uber cabs in Bombay, whom we have encountered, tend to be sullen and reluctant to chat.

MOTHER IN LAW

This story was related to me by a good friend. She suggested that I publish it on my blog because it illustrates certain attitudes still prevalent in India. I have changed the details for obvious reasons and will tell it in the first person.

This happened during my days as an undergraduate student in the early 1970s. Those days, we were all hippies, often high on dope. I had a fling with Raj. Nothing came of it.

Later and quite by chance, I found myself enrolled in the same postgraduate course as Raj. We got together again, and I became pregnant. Although we weren’t married, I wanted to keep the child, who was conceived out of love, not as a result of rape.

One day, Raj, without informing me where we were going, took me to his parent’s home. I was not dressed appropriately for such a visit, to meet a boyfriend’s parents. I was in shirt and jeans, wearing non matching socks and tatty sneakers.

When we arrived at his home, not only were Raj’s parents waiting to meet me, but also various of his uncles. Raj’s mother, let’s call her ‘Mom’, made me sit beside her and the men left the room.

“So, where did you do it?” Mom began, “was it in a hotel?”

“No, in my room at the hostel” I replied, wondering why she needed to know.

“Oh, in your room… very liberal,” she commented.

“And how many times did he do it?” Mom enquired.

Irritated, I replied:

“Too many times to remember.”

Then, the men returned to the room where we were sitting.

Raj’s father addressed me formally: “My son has been unjust to you. We will honour you by asking you to marry him.”

Raj and I were duly married. Just before our wedding, Mom took me to be examined by a gynaecologist. I was surprised as I had already consulted one before I was introduced to Raj’s parents.

Years later, it dawned on me why Mom had taken me for the gynaecological examination. She was probably checking that I really was pregnant, and not falsely claiming to be with child in order to entrap her son into matrimony.

To save face, Mom always told people that my child was born three months later than its true birthday.

Read what you wish into my friend’s story, but try not to be surprised by it. After all, deciding ones spouse by means other than by arrangement is still relatively uncommon in India.

No photography

In India, I have become used to seeing rules disobeyed. One only has to watch road traffic to see plenty of transgressions.

However, usually regulations forbidding photography in museums and art galleries are rigidly enforced. While trying to sneak an illicit photograph in the Mysore Palace, my camera was temporarily confiscated. I was able to recover it by giving the official a small financial ‘gift’. A member of my family was asked to delete a couple of photos taken against the rules in the National Gallery of Modern Art (NGMA) in Bangalore.

I was disappointed to find that the NGMA in Bombay also forbids photography unless it is for professional purposes, for which a fee of 1000 rupees (currently about £11) per image is levied.

The NGMA in Bombay is housed within a lovely old building, the Sir Cowasji Jehangir Public Hall. Its contemporary interior, where artworks are displayed, is a lovely example of contemporary design. I was itching to photograph it. We asked one of the security men if I could take a picture of the general layout of the gallery without focussing on works of art. To my great surprise, he said that I could do it.

After viewing the whole gallery, where works of the socially conscious political artist Navjot Altaf were on display, I heard a visitor asking another official whether he could take ‘selfies’ in the gallery. He was told that he could not take selfies, but he could take photos of anything else in the NGMA. Again, I was surprised, not about the selfies, but about photography being permitted in a place full of notices forbidding it.

Well, I was pleased to discover that Indian flexibility about interpreting rules extends to the NGMA in Bombay. Hats off to the people who work there!

A candle on the plate

I first visited India 25 years ago, arriving in January 1994. On the day before we left to return to the UK, my wife took me to Shezan, a restaurant in Bangalore’s Lavelle Road. This pleasant thoroughfare is named after a Mr Lavelle, who made his fortune at the (now disused) Kolar gold fields east of Bangalore.

My wife said to me that brilliant biryani, which I ought to try, was served at Shezan. We arrived at the restaurant, which was then housed in a picturesque colonial era bungalow.

Where this bungalow used to stand, there is now a modern office building called Shezan Lavelle. Since this was built, the restaurant has been situated at various other locations in Lavelle Road. Recently in late 2018, the Lavelle Road branch of this eatery has been discontinued. Shezan continues to operate in Cunningham Road, where there has been a branch for many years.

Back in 1994, I looked at the menu at Shezan and noticed that Chateaubriand beef steaks were being offered for the Rupee equivalent of 2 Pounds Sterling. I told my wife that I would have a steak rather than a biryani. After all, good biryanis were available in London, where a Chateaubriand used to cost eight to ten times the price at Shezan. The steak at Shezan was first class, and it continues to be so 25 years later.

Shezan used to be run by a man, who died in late 2018, and his elderly father. When we began bringing our young daughter to Bangalore in the late 1990s, we took her for meals at Shezan. Whatever was ordered for her arrived with a small candle flickering on her plate. The candle was placed in a hollowed out tomato that served as a shade.

In early January 2019, we visited the Shezan in Cunningham Road with our daughter, by now a young lady. The branch is run superbly by Aftab, a son of the recently deceased former owner.

Our daughter ordered a portion of Sholay Kebab, a slightly spicy chicken dish cooked with curry leaves. It arrived with a small candle flickering under a hollowed out tomato shell. Remarkably, the kindly Aftab had remembered our daughter after not having seen her since she was a small child.

The Old year in flames

The ending of the old year and beginning of the new one is celebrated all over the world in a variety of ways and at different times of the modern calendar. For example, the Chinese, the Gujaratis, the Parsis, the Jewish people, and the Russian Orthodox all celebrate the start of a new year on different dates. People, whatever their personal beliefs, also celebrate the end of the year on the 31st of December.

Cochin, which is a historic port in the southern Indian state of Kerala, was a Portuguese colony for a while in the 16th and 17th centuries. The Papaanji (spelling varies!) is named after a Portuguese word meaning ‘old man’.

Every year, a giant Papaanji is erected in a centrally located open space in historic Fort Cochin. During the afternoon of New Year’s Eve, the Papaanji is stuffed full of dry straw and fireworks. The roads around the open space are closed to motorised traffic. Despite this, a few youths on motor bikes manage to enter illegally.

After sunset and during the evening of the 31st of December, the area around the Papaanji fills with vendors and ever increasing numbers of people. Some of these merrymakers wear masks and others wear glowing red devil’s horns.

During the few minutes before midnight on the 31st, unbelievable numbers of people gather. The strong tide of people resembles a powerful surge of water such as you might expect if a large dam has just been breached. The crowd adds much noise to the cacophony of sound being relayed over various loudspeakers. Several times, I was almost knocked over by this human tsunami.

At midnight, the crowd became even noisier when flames began leaping from the ignited Papaanji. First, I could only see billowing clouds of smoke. Soon, frightening flames became visible. Then, bursts of stars appeared as the fireworks exploded.

Within minutes, the conflagration and fireworks ended. The old year, represented by the Papaanji, had been burnt out to make way for the new one. The crowds began to thin out a little, but despite that, it was quite hazardous trying to leave the area.

For an hour or two after midnight, boisterous revellers created much noise in the streets. The whole affair seemed to be generally good natured.

I am glad that I have seen the Papaanji aflame, but once in a lifetime is enough for me.

Indian way of worship

Over and over again, I am impressed by the “Indian-ness” of worshipping in India. I will illustrate what I mean by this by describing a small Orthodox Christian chapel I visited on Bazaar Road in the Mattancherry district of Cochin (“Kochi”) in Kerala.

Outside the chapel, there stands a carved stone stand with indentations for oil lamps (diyas). It looks just like any diya stand that you could find in a Hindu temple, except that it is surmounted by a Christian cross.

The crucifix that stood above a small high altar within the chapel was draped with flower garlands (malas). Again, these are commonly found draped around effigies of Hindu deities.

I saw a brass diya stand with burning oil lamps directly in front of the crucifix. Like the lamp stand by the entrance, this one was also topped with a Christian cross.

If one were to replace the crucifix with an effigy of a Hindu deity and were to remove the crosses from the diya stands, the chapel would become identical to a Hindu temple.

The use of diyas and also agarbati sticks (incense sticks) is not confined to Hindu temples. I have seen them used in Christian as well as Islamic (especially Sufi) and Jain places of worship.

At a Sufi shrine at Sarkej Rauza on the edge of Ahmedabad in Gujarat, I have seen tulsi leaves being sold. These are commonly associated with Hinduism, but the vendor in the Sufi shrine told me that they were also used by worshippers who came to the shrine.

I have seen threads tied around the trunks of peepal trees by pious Hindu women hoping to have their wishes granted. I have also seen threads tied by women around pillars in Moslem shrines for the same reason.

Hinduism was probably one of the earliest religious belief systems to become evident in the Indian subcontinent. Christianity and Islam were relatively recent arrivals. Many Hindus converted to these two religions, but, I imagine, they were reluctant to abandon their Hindu heritage completely. Hence, the Hindu-ness or Indian-ness of some aspects of other religions in India.

What do you expect?

We have been staying in a medium priced, by no means cheap or low-budget, guest house at a popular place in the southwest of India.

For several mornings, there was no hot water coming from the taps in our bathroom. Usually, the problem was resolved after mentioning the it to the man looking after our guest house. We were paying an amount per night at which it was reasonable to be able to have hot water without first having to ask for it.

One morning, we asked a fellow guest, an Indian, whether there was hot water in his bathroom. He said that there was none. When we said to him that in accommodation of this calibre hot water should be available as a matter of routine, he said: “There must be a problem. These things happen occasionally.” After a few moments, he added: “What do you expect? This is India.”

His bland acceptance of low standards and feeling that these were to be expected of his country do little to move India forward in a positive way.

Coffee with ginger

Cochin is a port on the Malabar coast. It provided a haven and home for people from all over the world, including Arabic traders. Now, it attracts foreign tourists from all over the world. This article is about a legacy of the Arab settlers.

I have occasionally drunk coffee flavoured with cardamom in Arabic restaurants. This drink is identical to Turkish coffee but is subtly tinged with cardamom.

An article, published on 28th December 2018 in the Hindu Metroplus (Cochin edition), alerted us to the existence of Kava Kada, a tiny café next to the Mahalari Masjid (mosque) in the Mattancherry district of Cochin in Kerala (India). The café is literally a hole-in-the-wall in the side of the masjid, a few feet away from the main minaret.

A small, aged glass counter-top display cabinet contains a few fried snacks including batter covered fried bananas. There are a couple of very low benches for customers to sit on. The owner of the café stands behind the counter surrounded by metal pots and a gas stove.

This tiny outlet is famed for its Arabian style ‘kava’. This coffee is served in small thick-walled glasses. I have never tasted coffee like this. At first, I thought I was drinking biryani flavoured sweetened coffee. It was delicious. Quite unlike any other coffee that I have drunk, this kava is flavoured with dry ginger, cloves, sugar, cardamom, black pepper, and other spices.

The café is located close to a bustling intersection of two main roads. Cars, two-wheelers, autorickshaws, and small trucks whizzed passed us a few inches away from where we were sitting. Two goats wandered past, seemingly unconcerned by the traffic.

The coffee shop was set up long ago by the now aged Kochumuhammad, who, as a boy, was taught by Arab migrants how to prepare the special kava. For the past 20 years, the shop has been run by one of his 26 grandchildren, a man called Riyaz.

We spent about 10 minutes sipping our coffee, which is good for the throat, so an autorickshaw driver told us. During our brief stay, there was a steady stream of customers buying kava.

I am very grateful to the intern Amala Rose Boben, who wrote the newspaper article, for alerting us to this fascinating little coffee house.