Thursday, January 2, 2014

Alladins of Our Times

(Old Shop Keeper. Image for illustration purpose only. Photo courtesy: PA)

Mall culture kills the neighborhood shops. Old kirana dookans lose out to the varieties of goods offered by the shopping malls. Period. Social scientists and planners have discussed the cultural and economic implications of this transition in taste and consumer behaviors in several volumes. I cherish local stores as well as malls. Today one cannot be a fundamentalist taste; one cannot impose personal agendas to others. If people are comfortable in shopping in malls, let them do so. Perhaps, malls are the new age interactive spaces, where hygiene and impersonal contacts rule. Malls are the preferred hang outs of families and young people. However, you cannot expect the same people hanging out at the same time in the same mall as it used to be the case with the local shops, village squares, tailoring shops and saloons. Even if you see some of them quite regularly as you are a regular there, as impersonal contact is the norm none cares to connect through exchanging of smiles, niceties or the general display of familiarity. In the temperature conditions interiors of mall foyers, multiplex theatres, restaurants and shop interiors, you are a planet of your own that moves in the cosmos of strangeness. In this new environment, strangeness is a sort of insularity; a safe recluse.

Though this is the situation today, one cannot say that the old world charm has died out completely. There are some places or shops where you still feel a sense of familiarity without the usual threats on your privacy. These are the shops from where you get anything and everything under the sun. They are not necessarily the shops in malls, regimented and sanitized with exclusivity as their guiding principles. They could be located in an upmarket area, or even they could be some non-descript shop in a crowded street, but you could get anything that you want from there. Such shops are still in the neighborhood, if you have an eye to see them and a purpose to experience them. If your kids are still in the school, I am sure the local stationary shop in your neighborhood is a place of all wonders. School teachers send notes in your kids’ diaries asking for things that you do not regularly use at home. ‘Three plastic spoons, one prism, a bundle of jute threads and a packet of sequins’ to be sent tomorrow itself’. But you need not worry, these things are available under one roof; your local stationary shop. The person who runs the shop disappears into the innards of the small shop and comes up with all what you have asked for, as if he were a genie. Yes, he is a genie. Forget the market forces and demands that control the demand and supply chain. You may wonder at the ability of this man to stock all kinds of weird demands made by the school teachers on your kids.

Nobel laureate Turkish writer, Orhan Pamuk, in his novel, ‘The Black Book’ writes about a shop at the Nisantasi Square, a neighborhood where he lives. Pamuk calls it Alladin’s shop. The person who runs the shop is Alladin. His name could be something else. But he is like Alladin in the Arabian Nights who could perform wonders with the help of a genie and wonder carpet. You get anything and everything from Alladin’s shop. You ask for a particular issue of a superman comic that you had read in your childhood. He will disappear into the darkness of the shop and come out with the number. He knows your demands; but the interesting thing is that he even knows the demands of the future. He intuits that a child would cry for a particular kind of candy one day. And he stocks it for that one child. He remembers people, their demands, needs, desires, their vagaries, their eccentricities and their aspirations. Alladin is a man who is made of dreams. There is an Alladin shop in everywhere, whether you wish it away or not, it remains there, for you always. You may have stopped going there ages before. But one day you would go back to that shop for a packet of naphtha balls, a needle, a particular kind of button and what not. My friend and ace photography artist, Deepak John Mathew takes me to a small shop one day in Ahmedabad and he asks for something very peculiar and the shop owner gets it for him, again from the darkness of that shop. Deepak, without knowing my familiarity with Alladin’s shops tells me that this is an Alladin’s shop.

I have a reason to write about Alladin’s shop. In Delhi there is a book store, Midlands, at the Aurobindo Market. I am a regular visitor there. Three generations of people run there, a father, son and grandson. The shop displays the pictures of famous writers who have visited or visit there with the owner. Newspapers have written about this book shop and the people run it. It is not a huge book stall like Landmark or Crosswords. It has a reception area which is less than ten feet long and eight feet wide and at the billing counter one person could hardly stand. Crossing this area there is a bigger room stacked with books and there is an attic space where also book are displayed. That makes the Midland book store. I am told that it has another branch in Delhi but I have never visited this. I have visited most of the book stores in Delhi but this one became a regular haunt for me because if I ask for any book, without consulting the computer or anything they tell me whether it is available or not. If it is available, out of the thousands of books stacked up there (mostly without much of labeling like history, biography, new arrivals, sports, self help etc etc) they pick it up and hand over it to me. It is really magical. It is not just about the titles and authors that they know by heart, as seasoned book sellers, they know even the contents of the books. I have seen so many scholars from reputed universities and journalists thronging there and asking for advice about certain new arrivals. It is not coming out of practice or real home work; it comes from the passion with which they handle their profession. They love it and they feel it.

A sense of nostalgia and longing became so intense for this book stall when I recently visited one of the famous book store chains in a mall in Mumbai. I was looking for a particular book. As I could not see it in its designated section I went to the counter and asked for it. There were at least ten uniformed boys and girls to help the book lovers to select and find their books. As the corporate norms tell them, they went to check the name of the book in the computer and found that there were two copies available in the stock. Then they came out with me to check it in the shelves. Almost for one hour they checked the whole book stall to find out the book. But unfortunately they could not locate one. They did not have even any clue about the author or the book. Then I asked for another book and a girl in charge told me that it should be in one particular section. I told her that I had already checked there and could not find, she came with me to only to offer me another book written by another author, almost sounding like the one that I demanded. ‘Will it do?’ she asked me.  I gave her a very good smile and walked out of the book stall.  While walking out, I was just remembering the Alladins in Delhi and their art of selling books.   

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