Aurora Magazine

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Shopping – Then and now

Published in Jan-Feb 2012

Despite the unlimited choices, space and the convenience, shopping today comes off as frenzied, cold and impersonal.
Flashback: Shopping used to be an exhausting, intimate, exhilarating and bewildering exercise.
Flashback: Shopping used to be an exhausting, intimate, exhilarating and bewildering exercise.

I remember going grocery shopping with my formidable Gran as a child. You know the age: everything is so completely novel and exciting, even the mundane act of picking a brand of bread from a shelf. Sigh, nostalgia!

Anyway, going shopping then was as simple as walking down the street. There would be a cluster of tiny shops in a row, all sporting misspelled names like ‘Fine Storee’ and such (testimonies to the colonial hangover permeates all levels of society here). There would be cramped little counters facing the road, and generally one made do with just crouching over and communicating with the shop runner because actually braving the interior was a feat best left alone. (Unless you enjoyed being suffocated by a variety of ripe body odours.)

Memories! So I would go hand in hand with Gran, a long list clutched within. We would stop at the first shop, strain to peer inside, and refer to our list. There would be pleasantries exchanged, ranging from the weather to political events to familial matters. Finally satisfied, my Gran would present the list with a flourish and the shopkeeper would then fish out his glasses and peruse it as thoroughly as one would a state document. Meanwhile, I would be standing on my toes, desperately eyeing the grimy freezer that might as well have proclaimed, ‘here, there be ice-cream’.

Items would then be found and placed on the already cramped counter with Gran examining each in minute detail, going so far as to unwrap/unpack those that gave off a dubious air. She would make her selection with care and the man-at-the-counter would eventually shrug, point to the missing items and shake his head gravely. (Translation: “I don’t have these things so you had best try your luck down the road.”) Gran would sniff reprovingly before consenting, and then she would ask him to draw up the bill and I would then have an extra math class to contend with. The shopkeeper would painstakingly write down each individual price on a torn pad and add – using his fingers, and at this juncture Gran would push me forward, announcing that I was top of my year at math and could I perhaps lend some assistance to our hapless friend? I would be torn between pride, nerves, annoyance and full-on greed. The funniest bit was the fact that we did this dance every single time: the man graciously gave Gran a chance to show-off, and me a free ice-cream (the reward for ‘solving’ his difficult conundrum). He was such a sweet man. I added up the figures, he beamed at me, Gran squeezed my shoulder and I received a free ice-lolly for my efforts.

Leisurely, we would then stroll to the next shop and repeat the process. There would inevitably be a moment when Gran would angrily insist that the prices were far too high, and that this scoundrel of a shopkeeper could benefit enormously from following the honest practices of our friend, Mr Fine Storee. After about two solid hours, we would trudge back home laden with groceries.

Of course, other essentials would be bought during separate shopping trips: to the butcher’s, the fishmonger and so on. Shopping was an exhausting, intimate, exhilarating and bewildering exercise back then.

Flash forward to now and my own shopping habits.

First off, the mere prospect of walking down the street to shop is ludicrous. It isn’t safe. It isn’t convenient. You need to get to the store fast, you need the car boot to lug all your stuff to and you need to get out of there and back home equally fast. Second, we don’t go to cosy little corner shops these days; we go to massive, sterile, boxy looking places where there are rows upon infinite rows of merchandise, designed to titillate and confuse and terrify the hapless customer. Third, we don’t need to go to a variety of shops to satisfy our needs; we have one destination and it has everything you could possibly imagine, from detergents to hosiery to meat.

So, this is my routine now.

The list is in my phone, because who needs a piece of paper that could fly away, be stolen or something equally scary? The venue has no substitutes. If you are an Agha’s girl that is the only place you will venture to; if you are a Naheed Store wench like me, then that is where you will be found. It isn’t because we are on best mate terms with the shop guy either (hope you are still alive, Mr Fine Storee). It is because we know the layout: meat below, cosmetics above, that sort of thing. And when you have taken out a measly hour to fulfil the needs of your home, you best use it optimally.

I drive there, park and enter the ‘war zone’, armed with my phone and a giant trolley. Then, I put my ‘no mercy’ persona on. Believe me, when you have aisles upon aisles flooded with large ladies and their exuberant (read destructive) offspring, you can’t afford to be nice. Nice wastes time. I sigh, I tap my foot, I gently nudge and as a last resort, I outright shove while mumbling about ignorant idiots who treat shopping as though it were fun (blasphemy!). Yes, I get glares in reply but do I look like I care, people?

The entire project can take as little as half an hour, depending on levels of efficiency. Now, I know some people like meandering about, staring at shelves and brands and graphics and sometimes making wholly unneeded purchases, only to be castigated at home. This, to me, is the chief danger of today’s hyperstores. It requires a person with steel inside to resist the myriad offers and special deals and exciting bargains. Luckily, I am that person. I have my list and I stick to it.

Even checking out is an experience, alternately frazzling and mystifying. The guy at the counter is like some sort of hi-tech genius, the way he snatches up, beeps at and tosses things one after the other, while the numbers on his screen climb ever higher. Don’t bother trying to decode all this, either. You can’t. Simultaneously there is a guy bagging your stuff (you are supposed to tip him in response). Thus, the entire process is finished inside an hour and you are zipping away merrily, breathing a sigh of relief at having done your dreaded duty for another month.

So there it is; a stark contrast between the romantic shopping of yore and the frenzied trips of today. Yes, back then it took ages; there was haggling; there were five things to choose from instead of 50; there was tedium because you had to drag yourself all over the place.

But even so, I preferred it. Maybe it was just the magic of childhood, or the free ices, or the sentimentality of Gran memories that makes it seem so much better. Maybe it’s just that despite the unlimited choices and the space and the convenience, shopping today comes off cold and impersonal.

Or maybe it’s as simple as this: what cost you x amount then, costs you xxxxxxx today. And when you have to manage a budget, the past suddenly seems infinitely attractive.