Monday, August 30, 2010

The Quiet Train

It was the quiet train that I had never experienced until my first time travel outside India. It is not the memory that you expect will remain with you for so many years, but that’s the one that I now think of narrating. The Indian train had been a place of social exchange and camaderie. The American train was a means of travel. Why would a train be anything but that?

I had been very excited about going away from home for a while. As I walked about one of America’s most beautiful university campuses, I was not at all homesick. Everyday, you met fellow students, each from another country and graduate life was a completely fulfilling experience. There was nothing more that I could have asked for.

Some months later, I had to travel to Texas from the East Coast to see a cousin and got myself a Rail pass on the Amtrak. I was hoping to see a bit of the U.S. before I went to visit family. I got onto the train. The first few hours were quiet. The day got on, the journey was still quiet. Not so many people on the train, not so many at the stations.

I looked out of the window as the train pulled into a station and wished people wouldn’t queue up to enter the train, wished there would be more than the five people that I saw. I thought then of the Indian train and all its chaos. I wanted to be home again – just to listen to familiar sounds of “chai, chai” with the vendor stopping by the window to sell a cup of steaming hot tea or a fruit juice.

I was travelling alone. I put the book I was reading down onto my lap. The train had slowed down. The voice on the Public address system said: “Ladies and Gentlemen, may I have your attention please. Our next stop will be Texarkhana. If Texarkhana be your final destination, we ask that you check the area around your seats for personal belongings before you leave the train. Also, Texarkhana will be a refueling stop for Texas Eagle train 21 and we will be here for 10 minutes. Texarkhana is on the border of Texas and Arkansas. As we enter the station, our engines will be in Texas and the rest of our coaches will still be in Arkansas. We now leave behind Arkansas and enter the State of Texas. So, Ladies and Gentlemen, the lone star – Texas”. This announcement fascinated me and I was happy to experience life in America.

As I watched the landscape outside, I remembered a conversation with a friend back in India whom I had visited when she was in Ahmedabad. As I packed my bags to leave, she got busy in the kitchen packing some food for me for the trip. “That’s far too much food for one person” I had complained. “This is not for you” she had said. “How will you make friends on the long journey if you do not have enough snacks with you to share?” she said.

I continued to look out the window at the American countryside.  I couldn’t but help see Indian coolies, loud farewells, vendors moving rapidly from window to window and the exchange of goods across the window even after the train had started with anxiety in the air about whether the vendor would get his cash and would the traveller get his samosa. From far away came the Voice on the Public address system: “Austin, TX in another 5 minutes. Thankyou for travelling Amtrak”.

This blogpost is part of the ‘Lonely Planet Blogsherpa Travel Carnival’ which is posted here at First Time Travel by Claire Algarme on her blog FirstTimeTravel. Do check it out!!

Sunday, August 15, 2010

Fancy Stores

The Fancy stores in India are the places where women buy their glass bangles, their bindis, their kajal, their mehndi and their imitation jewellery amongst many other things. Some of the shops that are more Indian in their goods or their manner of exchange include the Kirana shop, the Paan shop, the Iyengar bakery and the Fancy stores. 

In one afternoon, I go in and out of several of these Fancy stores at Gandhi Bazaar in Bangalore – always buying something at each store. Just so irresistible!! One of the most common items for sale of course are the glass bangles. These are traditionally worn by many Indian women everyday. The glass bangles come in plain colours as well as with shiny gold spots that are so apt to be worn with a silk saree or an embroidered zari salwar kameez. They come in different sizes and the shopkeeper often helps with slipping them through the delicate wrists of his women customers as they try the size or the design.

Firozabad, in Agra district in Uttar Pradesh has the largest number of small scale glass bangle making units in the country. This town is sometimes referred to as Suhag nagri since it provides all the bangles, kadas, kangans and other items of suhagins (married women). It would be interesting to know how these bangles are distributed from this central glass bangle manufacturing town to every Fancy store in India and to all the kiosks in street bazaars.

These days, one can also find in the Fancy stores – the white and red plastic bangles that are worn customarily by Bengali women but became quite fashionable at weddings in cities all over the country as young women moved from adorning themselves with objects of cultural significance to objects of pure aesthetic. This was an aesthetic that was modern and in its abstraction gave colour importance over motifs and symbols.

The shopfront is often a glass showcase completely filled with colourful glass bangles, sometimes a mannequin of a woman adorned with many of the items that the shop offers for sale. This is one kind of an ‘indian shop’ because it has fashion accessories that are so much a part of an Indian woman’s attire and sense of propriety. 

The Kajal or Kohl is a home-made eyeliner which was traditionally prepared using a mixture of castor oil, sandalwood paste and ghee. It was originally used for preventing infection in the eyes. Today, you can buy kajal made in local small-scale manufacturing units or the branded ones such as Lakme or Himalaya.

Mehndi or Henna is a powder made from the leaves of a shrub, used as a conditioner and for colouring the hair. It is also used extensively during weddings to adorn the hands and feet of the bride and all her women friends and family with coloured floral and geometric designs.

The Bindi is worn on the forehead as an auspicious symbol and many varieties of Bindis are available at the Fancy stores. The variety in Bindis begins with the red powder or kumkum to the plain red bindi stick-ons to the fancier bindis with gold and silver designs.

This kind of shop also sells imitation jewellery. There are innumerable gold and silver jewellery shops at the main markets in any city. But, if you need to buy something not so expensive for a smaller function or for your teenage daughter’s cultural evening at school, the Fancy stores is where you go to.

The fancy stores mostly have a standard L-shaped counter or sometimes a C-shaped counter if it is a shop of larger area. This counter has a glass top because beneath the entire counter are displayed earrings and necklaces to make the choosing so much easier and of course, these glass displays do not fail to attract the lady customers to things they had not even intended to buy.

Shopping at the Fancy stores has a good percentage of ‘impulse purchases’. Behind the glass sales counters are the salesmen who help you try out the bangles or simply open and close boxes for you that contain endless varieties of jewellery or bangles. There are shelves that cover the entire wall length with perfumes and other cosmetics. There are mirrors fixed at a few places in the shop that allow you to try out a piece of jewellery to see how it looks on you before you finalise your buy.

My first stop in Gandhi Bazaar was the Mahila Bangle stores. This was the largest Fancy store on D.V.G.Road. The prices were higher compared to the smaller shops. One dozen glass bangles that sold for Rs.12 elsewhere were priced at Rs.15 here. But the variety here was phenomenal. They had three floors of goods categorized into Cosmetics at ‘O’ level. Level One had “All Bangle varieties, Chains/Haras/Malas, Necklace sets, Kumkum/Bindis, Ear tops, Hair pins, Baby clips” and Level Two had “Bridal Jewellery and Jewellery kits” for hire.

After having seen this all encompassing range of bangles and jewellery, I walk into ‘UmaShankar Fancy Bangle stores’. This is one of the smallest fancy stores here. It’s a simple shop, about 8ft.x 12ft in size and seems a bit dark after having been to the glitzy well-lit Mahila stores next door. There are only two salespeople here and seem more than sufficient for a small shop. They are both busy arranging things in their display cases, as I walk in but immediately pay attention as I start to show interest in some bangles. The goods are simply arranged. Necklaces and earrings just hang on simple boards against the wall. The prices are just normal, what one pays at the local fancy store in one’s own neighbourhood. The Saleswoman is also the Cashier and transactions take place quietly.

My next stop is ‘Patel Bangle store and gift articles’. It has some glass bangles on display loosely kept on a stool outside the shop and I’m curious to see how this one will be. There is a little boy whom I first encounter and decide to play my role of “interested buyer”. I ask for this colour and that colour. I am now using the Bangle shop parlance and asking for size 2-6 with some confidence. It gets them interested straightaway, implying that I must be a seasoned bangle buyer to give them the size needed without being asked.

This young boy is a good salesperson and is continuously making conversation to guage what I want. His sales pitch goes “These plain colours are for everyday use, which you would need anyway. Why not try this bangle set for festive occasions? It looks good…” He is talking non-stop in a completely jovial manner, making the looking around so much easier. I finalise the purchases. I then ask if I can take a few pictures. He smiles again. “Well, if you include me in your pictures, you sure can!” I gladly take a picture with Deepak giving me a natural pose.

Deepak's shop is deeper compared to the UmaShankar store. It is a shop that belongs to Marwari shopowners. They sell bangles but also sell Facial Scrubs, Massage gels, Lotions, Oils, Henna, Hair dyes and Products for skin and hair care. Everything that you would need in Cosmetic care is available here.

My final stop for the day is the Shringar Fancy centre. This one is a bit further down on H.B.Samaja road. What you find here which is not in the other stores are dance dresses for hire. In addition to that, it has cosmetics, hair dryers, curling irons and so on at the ground level and a wide range of glass/metal bangles and hair clips on the first level.

Is Bargaining a part of a Fancy store? Not really. Prices are usually fixed. You buy glass bangles at a given rate for a dozen. You usually cannot buy less than a dozen. Prices of mehndi packets and kajal are fixed too. It has a Maximum Retail Price (MRP) printed on it. These are not products made by the shopowner. Every item he sells is sourced from a manufacturer located elsewhere. 

And, where are the Fancy stores usually located? You invariably find one in each neighbourhood or the next main street junction, since these are small shops and meant to service small needs of daily dressing up. However, in the main shopping areas of the city, you often find more than one fancy store along a single street. For instance, in Bangalore, in the Gandhi Bazaar area, along D.V.G. Road, there are several fancy stores in just one street. It increases your chances of getting exactly what you are looking for!

The fancy store in the local neighbourhood is for picking up those items that cannot wait a few weeks. But, Gandhi Bazaar is where you go to when you have at least a whole afternoon to spare so that you can also buy the matching blouse for your new saree or the puja items that you have been meaning to pick up for the ganesh or vinayaka ceremony at your home, with the Ganesha festival drawing closer and closer and decoration of self and the gods simultaneously gaining importance.

I have posted earlier on the Indian shop which can be a collective memory of times past and an interesting part of the daily life in India.

Read about :
Dadar Flower Market, Mumbai
Antique market, Mumbai
Varkala, Kerala
Gandhi Bazaar, Bangalore

Sunday, August 08, 2010

Fashion street in Mumbai

This is a guest post written by Radha from The Musings of a Night Owl. I would like to thank Radha for accepting to share her bazaar experience on this blog. Radha writes about the Fashion Street in Mumbai which was a place much frequented by those of us who grew up in Bombay. Within the informal street bazaars, there are some that grow to be an undeniable part of the urban space of the city.

Hawkers and street vendors are a part of life in India.  And life is unimaginable without them.  Both for  the conveniences they provide or the nuisance and hindrance they create.  Each town and city has its popular roadside markets. The Supreme Court has pointed out that, the use of public streets and pavements is first meant for the use of the general public; they are not laid to facilitate the carrying on of private business (Supreme Court in Bombay Hawkers' Union vs.Bombay Municipal Corporation – AIR 1985 SC 1206). They have also laid down guidelines for hawkers.

Mumbai has been divided into Hawking Zones, Prohibited Zones, and Rest of the City.  Hawking zones need to have demarcated pitches on roads selected as per stated criteria. This would accommodate around 23,000 hawkers, selected by lottery every year. One such hawking zone that is very popular in Mumbai is the Fashion Street. Located on the M G Road between Cross Maidan and Azad Maidan under the shade of  some lovely large old banyan trees, the place is ideal for those looking for trendy clothes and accessories at a bargain.

Branded clothes, that one might imagine being purchased at a boutique store, would probably have been bought for a song at the Fashion Street. Around 200 stores of sheer shoppers delight. Items stocked are export rejects, maybe for a missing button, a cross print, wrong size, but otherwise excellent quality. Prices quoted initially would be in excess of what one might expect at a high end store. The trick is to start at about half the price and gradually arrive at a price agreeable to both. The vendors here may seem uneducated but are good at a smattering of all languages both Indian and foreign. 

I was with a group, that had a respite from wedding festivities. Off for a bit of sight-seeing, without any serious intention of shopping, we landed at this place. My sister-in-law picked up some stylish dresses for her grandchildren. 

At one store, I looked at a pair of sandals, more out of curiosity.  The vendor was attending to someone but when he caught my glance, immediately pulled out a stick to bring down the sighted pair. And quoted a price of Rs. 400/-.  Seeing my disinterest he lowered the price a bit. I walked away, he did not pursue. Probably waiting for a reaction. I had already walked maybe a hundred yards away looking at another stall, when he walked up to me, asked me to return and take the sandals at ¼ th the cost. It was a size too small for me, but at Rs. 100/- it was a steal, and I could always find someone who could fit into them.

After an hour at Fashion Street we walked away with loads of packets in our arms. Purchases at a bargain. It did not really matter if we had use for them or not.