Painful purchasing in Primark versus sublime spending in splendiferous Sarojini Nagar

This Festive Season (notice how politically correct I’m being!) sees two thirds of the Cheesecake trio temporarily back in their British homelands. I had an uneventful journey from Delhi to Heathrow, during which I realised with some embarrassment that I’d already seen ALL of the Hindi films offered as in-flight entertainment, and then took a sleeper train up to Edinburgh. Yes, a sleeper. A British train with beds. But no, there were sadly no samosas and tragically nobody was screeching ‘chaaaaaaaaaaaiiiiiiiiii!’ at all hours of the night.

I’m now home safe and sound and there have been no major developments in my fair Scottish city. Oh, except one – we now have a Primark. Slap-bang in the city centre, Edinburgh residents now have access to four floors of morally questionable – but super cheap! – clothes, shoes and accessories. Hurrah. The thing is, though, I haven’t been able to inspect much of this because the shop’s so busy it makes me want to die.

‘But wait!’ you cry. ‘Aren’t you used to shopping in Delhi? To squeezing through the Old City’s bazaars like vacuum-packed sardines, with all those beggars and angry aunties and men with groping hands?’ The answer is yes, of course. But the truth is, shopping in Scotland annoys me much more than shopping in India.

Why? Well, there’s the incessant queuing, for a start. Nothing is more frustrating than standing in a line for hours – often while being simultaneously aurally assualted by pre-recorded blastings of ‘cashier number six please!’ – when all you’re buying is a pair of socks. Then there’s the customers with children. Either they run around demolishing everything, or they sit screaming in gigantic pushchairs (or ‘travel systems’ as I believe they are now amusingly called) which take up entire aisles. Staff are trained to be sickeningly friendly, even though the falseness is almost always obvious, and shops are now getting so big that you’re not just confused anymore; you’re actually lost.

Shopping in Delhi’s markets is less mechanical and much more human. One of my absolute favourite places in the city is Sarojini Nagar market, where factory rejects (of well-known Western brands; even Primark, actually) end up in great, crumpled heaps, waiting to be discovered – and ironed – by bargain-loving, but fashion-conscious, Delhiwallahs like yours truly. Sure, it’s busy, and yes, there are plenty of screaming children and a few lurking gropers, but the atmosphere is fun and the stallholders are enthusiastic and – mostly – genuinely friendly; powered by paan and regular refils of garma garam chai.

‘Woh wala dikhaana’ – ‘show me that one,’ is the line to use. The stallholder will then take a comically long metal pole to lift the garment at which you’re pointing (on its coathanger) and hand it to you for inspection. He will use encouraging English phrases like ‘size good, madam’ and ‘very nice quality’ and then inform you that the price is 250 rupees. You will scoff in mock disgust and, with a pained expression, tell that stallholder that you’ll offer him a hunded bucks, and not a rupee more. Then, after a minute of two of dramatised arguing, you’ll most probably receive a hefty discount and be handed your purchase in a small  polythene bag. Then you’ll move on to the next stall and repeat the script.

Of course, for some people, this kind of shopping will sound terribly time- and energy-consuming, but I suppose it depends on what you’re used to. I admit that Delhi markets not only terrified me in the beginning, but they completely boggled my mind – there was so much language and acting required for each transaction that shopping was quite an ordeal.  But now the impromptu conversations are a fun part of the experience, and as well as the bags of bargains, you come home with a satisfying sense of achievement too.

So I’m glad I did my Christmas shopping in Delhi because there’s no way I’ll be braving the high street in this city! And by the time the January sales are underway I’ll be safely back on Indian soil. Yay.

PS Merry Christmas, lovely readers!

(Photo borrowed from Toastwife, via Flickr)


‘Udder’ madness at the Mother Dairy

Life’s really great when you’ve got a fridge. It’s something I used to take it for granted before; it was always there, quietly humming in the kitchen, keeping the vegetables and dairy products happily chilled. I lived in Delhi for a full year without a fridge, and it was difficult, especially in the scorching months of May and June when I had to get used to drinking warm water and only buying things I was going to use right away. So one of the main items on my list when I was flathunting back in July was, well, you can guess. I decided I needed a little luxury.

Now, because I can, I’ve got into the habit of buying milk every day on my way home from Hindi class, so that I can have an evening cup of chai, and another one when I wake up the next morning. But there is one problem with this new lifestyle of mine: the Saket Mother Dairy, or rather, the man who works there.

‘Uncle ji,’ I said, in what I thought was a friendly-yet-assertive tone. I was the only customer. Uncle ji was perched on a box in the far corner of the shop, smoking a bidi. He ignored me.

‘Uncle ji?’ I raised my voice a bit. Maybe he hadn’t heard me; he was quite old after all. But he continued to stare into space, concentrating hard on smoking.

Another customer appeared. In contrast to my meek, foreigner approach to getting the man’s attention, she leaned over the counter and shouted, ‘Uncle ji! Half litre toned!’ But, alas, it seemed the bidi was more important than us.

In the next minute or so, several more customers arrived, and before long the crowd at the counter started to look more like the frantic front row of a stadium concert. ‘UNCLE JI!’ a middle-aged lady boomed, slamming her handbag down in emphasis. Other people were waving twenty rupee notes from extended arms, shouting requests. But instead of serving us, Uncle ji coughed, spat, and lit up another bidi.

The next evening, I reached the shop to see my grey-haired friend reading a newspaper. This time I mimicked the Indian customers, and shouted out that I wanted half a litre of milk and some butter. I waved some money at the same time. But of course, Uncle ji again feigned deafness and lifted the newspaper up to block me from view. It wasn’t until a sizeable, angry crowd had gathered that I received my purchases.

This kind of treatment I can generally deal with, but then when I arrived at the Mother Dairy last night I was faced with something much more dramatic. It appeared that Uncle ji was going mad.

To my amazement, he was standing up at the counter, but as I got closer I saw that he was angry. In an attempt to lighten the mood, I smiled. ‘Unc-‘

Before I could get the words out, Uncle ji started screaming, his white moustache bristling with rage. At first I was convinced he was shouting at me, but then I saw what had happened. One of Uncle ji’s young workers had knocked over a large steel container full of milk, which was slowly making its way across the shop floor. The boy, clearly terrified of Uncle ji, grabbed a cloth and started mopping up the milk, but in return, all he got was torrents of frenzied Hindi abuse.

Finally, the old man calmed down, and looked back at me.

I smiled. ‘Half litr-‘

‘[incoherent shrieking]’ The boy wasn’t mopping fast enough, maybe.

I gave up and watched the spectacle for a few minutes. Uncle ji was rubbing his grey hair in exasperation. I wondered if the expression ‘there’s no use crying over spilt milk’ was translatable into Hindi, but decided not to say anything out of fear of another outburst.

There’s actually another Mother Dairy less than ten minutes up the road, and I’ve been considering trying that one. But the truth is, I’m too lazy. No, that’s not what I meant – the truth is, I have become quite fond of dear old Uncle ji. And now I look forward to my regular evening ordeal of milk purchasing, because it’s far more entertaining than buying milk in Scotland.

It really is the little, maddening, funny, odd chunks of daily life here that make India so, erm, incredible. Which is partly why I’ve stayed here for so long. I sometimes wonder, though, if any of the strange behaviour I observe will rub off on me. I’d better be careful.