Shopping then, and now
Every once in a while the Man from Madras Musings has to go shopping, much against his wishes. These far from pleasurable outings are usually at the behest of his good lady who feels that MMM ought not to forever be writing articles and columns, generally leading an impractical life. And so MMM reluctantly sets forth. As he approaches the nearest shopping mall, MMM can’t help reflecting on how simple shopping was in the past. During the days when MMM was a young ‘un (and let him add, a singularly charming one at that) he would frequently run shopping errands for his grandmother and these usually meant walking down to the closest provision store, which no matter who ran it, was always referred to as the Nadar Kadai.
These shops would always be full of customers who would stand at the counter and bellow their requirements to the various employees inside. The interiors of these shops would generally be dingy with all kinds of goods stored in a higgledy-piggledy fashion and only the store assistants would know where various products would be kept. Some more goods would be stored at a mezzanine level and a small child (generally known as the podiyan, and yes, the evil of child labour was widespread then) would usually be crouching there, ready to throw down whatever was asked for. MMM is reasonably sure that cockroaches and rats existed aplenty in the cavernous shop but that did not deter a steady throng of customers. Weighing was done using a pair of giant scales suspended from the roof and as for the packaging, it was all newspaper, which would be neatly tied into place by means of a jute rope, which would be wound on a bobbin suspended from the ceiling. Most of the store employees knew the regular shoppers and so would put together the standard purchases even before the list was read out. This would be accompanied by animated conversations on everything from world politics to sports to personal health and family affairs. These shops believed in a quick turnover of customers and so the billing was perhaps the fastest part of the entire shopping exercise. The store-keeper and his assistants right down to the podiyans could teach Ramanujan a thing or two in mathematics. All figures were added mentally and without error. Payments were in cash and out you came, in a jiffy which was all to the good as the temperature in these shops was always at inferno levels. That also meant that the store-personnel were perpetually in various stages of undress.
Coming to the malls of today, there are clean, with the products neatly packed, laid out and classified. The interiors are air-conditioned, thereby encouraging you to linger over your purchases. The store-assistants are smartly turned out. Having said that, the new stores in terms of human efficiency operate at perhaps one hundredth of what the old Nadar Kadais did. MMM notices that most of the shop assistants have no clue as to what product or brand is stored in which section and if approached with a query of that nature simply let their mouths hang open. There is usually a senior staffer who by virtue of having been in the store a little longer than others, becomes a kind of mother-superior, to whom all queries are finally referred to. And if this super-counter-jumper is away, then all is lost. The most inefficient part of the shopping is the check-out. You would expect that this being a completely electronic process, it ought to be super-fast but that is rarely the case. MMM notices that those manning the billing are so poor in maths and so completely machine dependent that they cannot add the simplest of figures. The computers at these counters appear to have a mind of their own and frequently resort to a go-slow. When this happens, there is nothing to be done but to wait patiently. The technical term for this MMM understands is that the “system has hanged”, whatever that means. There are times when those at the tellers get personal calls on their cell-phones and that slows things further. More often than not, there are one or two products whose prices are not entered in the computer and when these are brought by shoppers to the counter, all chaos breaks loose. Things have to wait till a system administrator enters the details and the computers update themselves. That is if they are not hanging. And what of those in the queue? They can also go hang appears to be the general attitude of those doing the billing.
Tried in a toilet
The Man from Madras Musings warns that this section is not meant for those with sensitive stomachs. Children are advised to read this only with adult supervision or parental guidance. For it has to with the subject of public toilets, in particular one toilet that is at an educational institution that is one of the oldest in this country. The other day the Man from Madras Musings had to call at this venerable home of education and the meeting having gone on for long, MMM had to go to powder his nose, as he believes the expression is. There were no signboards to indicate where the toilets were in that vast edifice but after a couple of false starts, MMM had to only follow his nose to discover where there were located. There was also the sound of running water, thereby indicating that this toilet belonged to the first of the two categories of public toilets – the kind where the taps are never closed and perpetually pour forth water. The other variety is where there is no water supply at all, the pipes having gone dry during the great drought of 1974.
The door to this toilet was held in place by means of a string. This if untied caused the door to swing open and the only way to shut it behind you, once you were inside, was to hold it in place with your hand. This you will realise, is quite tough if you also had to get about your..er..business. The interior of the toilet had no natural ventilation of any sort and had to be perpetually illuminated by a light bulb that probably had a negative wattage. By looking up at the ceiling you just about make out a light and that was that.
To come back to MMM’s story, MMM having finished whatever he had set out to do, accidentally turned off the light switch. The entire toilet was plunged in darkness with nothing to keep MMM company but the sound of the water gushing from the generous tap. Fortunately, in his panic, MMM let go off his hold on the door which swung open, letting in a flood of light. After he came out, MMM try as he might, could not loop the string back on the door to close it. MMM is not too sure of it, but he is reasonably confident that now everyone goes about their business at this particular loo with the door open. The fixing of it is no doubt caught up in some administrative tangle involving filling up forms in triplicate and the floating of tenders.
Making money, mall style
It is an open secret that malls in Chennai don’t make enough money to maintain them in the style to which they are accustomed. But the Man from Madras Musings notices that at least one of them has hit upon an innovative scheme to keep the coffers full. Those who drive up to drop or pick up visitors to the mall are perforce asked to drive through the parking lot before reaching the exit. And once in the parking lot, these vehicles are let out only if the drivers cough up Rs 20, even if they are not intending to stay but merely passing through!