Okay, this is awkward.
I’m actually a little nervous. Imagine spending a lifetime serving humans – from one aisle to the next, day in and day out – as their trusty shopping cart without making a single sound. Sans the little squeak of my one wobbly tyre, of course. Imagine being a quiet, submissive, passive object all your life without a chance to talk back.
But I’ve had enough of suffering in silence. I need to express myself, and it’s best I do it with you. You’re an adman, right? One of those creative types? Good. That means that even if you decide to reveal to the world that an inanimate shopping trolley started speaking to you, they won’t believe you. They’ll probably chalk it up as yet another of your pseudo-creative expressions. Maybe they’ll think it’s a stunt, or something artsy fartsy. I don’t think anybody takes you seriously anyway.
Let me first introduce myself. I don’t really have a name other than Trolley. You humans can’t tell us apart, anyway. We’re just woh wali trolley, or yeh wali trolley. I was manufactured in a rather humble factory in Lahore about six years ago and I’ve been deployed at a number of retail outlets since.
My longest stint so far has been where we are right now – the flagship Carrefour here in Dolmen Mall Clifton, Karachi. You know, it’s been fascinating seeing the impact of the last few years on this place and its regulars.
The beauty of this large departmental store, or IMT as it’s known in your line of work, is that you can buy not just groceries, but other household items as well. The place is laid out in a way that you’ll see the big screen TVs and the phones right as you come in. This was a very predictable pattern for mid-career millennials earlier. They’d get lured into the section and then unwittingly convince themselves that those extra inches do matter. The 65-inch UHD Smart TV by Sony used to be a best-seller. Now, the Japanese (but made in Taiwan, or China, or who cares – it’s got Sony badging) is no longer in the line of sight. The prominently displayed pricing stickers are no longer a lure, they are a liability. So instead, the store put in TCL and Changhong Ruba in sight. The latter still didn’t fly as the name was too Chinese to work, but TCL sounds more respectable and it is a better bang for the buck for most people anyway. Sure, we’ll settle for a 40-inch for now.
The guy phones his young wife: “Can I get a TV to put in my study room? They’ve got a good offer here.” I couldn’t hear what she said to him, but he sheepishly moved out of the section right after. Didn’t even bother looking at the phone section, because the Samsung flagships were out of reach anyway even though they are now manufactured locally. ‘‘Besides,’’ he reasoned with himself, “unemployment has led to greater crime in the city, and I can’t afford to lose another 200k phone this year.”
I am often picked up by this younger girl, the one who works upstairs in the building’s swanky offices. Engro, I believe, or something. Anyway, I thought her demand for haircare products was largely inelastic. She’d always have perfect hair, and it looks like she spent on it accordingly. But she’s no longer picking up TRESemmé for the last couple of months, and has since downgraded to Sunsilk. ‘‘They are both Unilever brands, right?’’ she thinks out loud. She buys a lot of beauty products, so those extra Rs 200 saved might help buoy some other purchase down the beauty aisle. Unilever marketers would be scratching their heads as to why an LSM 11+ is going to be acting like an LSM 6-8. But this economy doesn’t care much for Unilever’s internal targetting methodology. Rs 200 is Rs 200. What if her employer goes the way of Airlift and so many others? She has to make her salary stretch.
Some things, however, see an uptick in this recession. I notice a lot of dads filling me up with K&Ns – and depending on how they want to stretch their budget – Menu and Mon Salwa ready-to-cook fried stuff.
He’s made mental notes and navigates the aisle according to the age of his kids in ascending order. He picks up nuggets for the toddler. Even if they fried six of them, it’s still a fraction of the cost of the bi-weekly McDonald’s Happy Meal, now up by Rs 220. His youngest son will have to live without the red packaging and the toy for the next couple of months, he reckons. Hotshots for the middle daughter and tikka chunks for when the missus can be convinced to make a home-cooked pizza instead of ordering in. He’ll make it himself if he needs to, he thinks to himself. He’s a modern man, and he has no qualms about cooking. But wait, that means I’ll have to pick up Syma’s pizza crust and cheese. Nopes, not getting the fancy kind anymore. Adam’s will have to do. Plus, it’s made locally, so it’s gotta be more organic, right? Oops, the trolley is filled already.
Take, for example, the cat lady who used to buy imported Friskies and Whiskas cans for her precious fur babies. Thanks to the acrobatic performance of the dollar against the rupee in the last year or so, she no longer buys with the same impunity as she did earlier. Her 12 rescued strays cannot exclusively be fed on the crème de la crème of packaged pet food. Now, she begrudgingly picks up Purr, the local variant that she knows her fussy cats will not eat properly. She’s still not convinced of its quality and the Khayaban-e-Seher address printed on the can definitely sounds shady to her. She supplements it with chicken drumsticks and broth – which she feels totally icky about preparing but has to cope with these days.
The beauty of being a nondescript shopping cart is that you pick up on the little things. You notice when an auntie stops at a particular shelf, looks at those nice new cushions, flips them over to see the price tag, and then decides against them. Discretionary luxury items, she thinks. She doesn’t absolutely need them. Though they do look oh so lovely. But no, she doesn’t need them. The hesitation is telltale in the way she moves me, the hiccup-like stop and go of her trusty trolley as pragmatism finally conquers her consumerist desires and she leaves the cushion abandoned on the shelf, the price tag visible for all and sundry. Make no mistake; she hates herself for it. But you gotta do what you gotta do.
If you’re becoming overwhelmed by the doom and gloom in my observations, don’t be. I might be overanalysing things. I’m kind of more perceptive than my peers. My friends think I was destined to be a car, but the powers-that-be decided last minute that I be manufactured as a shopping cart instead. A cruel joke to see if someone of my inquisitive spirit could weather the abuse. I think that’s hogwash. I don’t believe in sentient creators deciding on whether a thing exists or not. Besides, I’m happy with who I am. Although if I were a car in Pakistan, I’d appreciate in value over time. Now there’s a business that doesn’t get particularly hard hit by the recession.
Things could be worse, I suppose. I could’ve been a trolley bag instead. Now that would really suck. As a cart, at least I get used every day. Suitcases and travel bags have gone belly up. Revenge tourism be damned, the ticket prices are way too high for people to be travelling as often as they used to. I hear the return flight to Bangkok was Rs 60k in April, and pushing Rs 120k now. Yikes. Bye-bye vacations! But along with the recession comes the counterintuitive concept of The Great Resignation, too. Despite the lack of job security, more and more people are switching careers. Maybe I should do that too. Maybe I don’t want to be a cart anymore. It’s too depressing.
I think I can be a content writer instead. I’ll make a living writing words and conjuring up ideas. Now, can you help me set up an Upwork account? Dollar mein kamaoon ga!
Confessions allegedly whispered to Umair Kazi, Partner, Ishtehari. email@example.com.