View: The quiet booty of the Mofussil grocer radiates capitalism stripped of its cult of profit
The store counter gives the owner the feeling of a low-level bureaucrat, wielding his power by happily and triumphantly telling the customer that he doesn’t have what the customer wants in stock. And if he doesn’t have what you want, he’ll also tell you that this product was discontinued by manufacturers decades ago. Shaving cream? What are you talking about?
It is also true that Indians in small towns like to open kirana shops. And sitting inside of them. There is this pride: I don’t work for anyone. The self-respecting grocer blends into the drab landscape of his store and begins to look like a jar of pickle. Down the street from my house is a thriving electrical goods store, selling outlets, switches, extension cords and light bulbs. The owner’s son, a qualified electrician, boldly took over and opened another store. He didn’t like to stand on stools, bite off pieces of wire with his teeth, fix lights and fans. The kirana store was an upward movement.
The mofussil grocer is different from its city counterpart in a significant way. He is the least interested in the idea of maximizing profit. For example, home delivery of essentials does not exist as a business model. During the current lockdown, the administration has closed grocery stores. The owner of the store is happy to sit at home. Even before the lockdown, any home delivery request was abruptly rejected. “I’m not doing that” would be the answer, as if I had asked the shopkeeper to deliver an assault rifle.
If there was home delivery, we would buy a tray of eggs. If there isn’t, we buy six and go home. The guy at the Kirana store knows that but doesn’t care. It’s quite refreshing. When you turn your back on profits, you say, “I’m happy with what I earn. I really don’t want it anymore. None of these grocers own a car. They never go on vacation.
There is no such disguised unemployment in the grocer’s family. Her cousins are lounging outside the store, headphones stuck in their ears. A boy is always polishing his mobike. And yet none of them will help with home delivery. There is indignity in dropping groceries on your own scooter, even if the same scooter is deployed when you travel to the mandi to pick up wholesale goods. The sense of self is precarious and fragile. In many ways, that’s all it has.
Sometimes I like to think of the small town Indian grocer as the host of an American talk show. To begin with, there is the raised counter in common. The customer is physically two notches lower than the grocer, still watching him. In the classic talk show model, the host is perched on a higher level than the celebrity. It gives the host a supreme air.
Talk show hosts, when they are wondering, always joke about the guests they have bumped into at parties. In the classic story, the guest always says to the host, “I was on your show! And the host just doesn’t remember. The celebrity and the host need each other. But they would like to pretend otherwise.
Likewise, the grocer, from his raised counter, treats the customer with slight contempt, like another pesky celebrity. He’ll make you wait your turn and sometimes mysteriously disappear into a veiled space behind him as you examine the toffee jars.
There is one question that bothers me though. This grocer, under normal circumstances, is the first to open in the morning and the last to close shop at night. That’s all he does. He has no hobby. When he does not give birth at home for reasons of politics and dignity, what does he do with his time?