Grocery shopping in New Delhi

This is a guest post from my friend Kris, an American writer living in India. She and her husband are in New Delhi to participate in an educational exchange program. The juxtaposition of cultures has been interesting.

When you think of grocery shopping in New Delhi, please don't imagine your local Safeway or City Market, with aisles wide enough for two pushcarts passing as shoppers stroll, browse, select.

Our grocers — or rather, departmental store — is a packed-to-the roof little cubby that requires deft yogic moves just to enter and exit, let alone exploring a row of goods. When it's time to restock, they open a hatch in the ceiling and toss down from storage the items they need, calling directions back and forth as they go.

Some grocers have no rows at all, but stand at a walk-up counter with all their wares behind them; you request your purchases like ordering at a coffee bar or pharmacy in the U.S. Others display their goods on pushcarts, and still others spread out on the sidewalk.

Some tips for getting what you want at our market:

  1. Buy it when you see it. When you go back tomorrow, it may be gone, or it may be hidden so that you can not find it again.
  2. If it is manufactured and packaged in India, the price will be fixed and printed on the wrapper.
  3. If its label includes a small green dot inside a green-outlined square, it is vegetarian. Eggs are not vegetarian in India, though milk, yogurt, and cheese are.
  4. If its label includes a small red dot inside a red-outlined square, it is non-veg (includes eggs).
  5. Choose the butter and the bread packaged in plastic. Sorry. I know it's not environmentally sound, but if you buy the butter and the bread wrapped in paper, it will taste like the shop's insecticide. And you will be bummed out when you can't have your toast.
  6. Speaking of butter, you can also buy it at government milk kiosks. “Mother Dairy” products are considered safe and hygenic.
  7. For real chocolate flavor, splurge on the Swiss stuff. Cadbury, while perfectly satisfying in both England and Canada, is perfectly bland when made in India. Nestle too.
  8. Mentos, however, taste the same the world over!
  9. If the label highlights “no onions or garlic,” you can serve it to those following the Jain religion.
  10. The young man on your heels is to carry your items to the checkout. In fact, if you speak Hindi, you can send him to select from the shelves for you too.

I recently bought some food in a can, and on the way home I remembered that we had no can opener. So I turned into another little market street where there are a bunch of hardware stands. I chose the stall with all the plastic colanders hanging on hooks and strings around its perimeter. It also had a big sign: pressure cookers repair.I figured the pressure cooker repair man would surely have a can opener. Plus, he had a nice white mustache.

— Yes, ma'am? (the standard shopkeeper's hello).
— Yes, I need a can opener.
— Please. Come. Come.

There wasn't really anywhere to come to, but I stepped up onto his floor next to his service counter. His narrow stall was stuffed with household goods, most of them dusty, dirty, and balancing in precarious stacks. It looked like a mad jumble to me, but of course he knows exactly where it all stands. He rummaged around and brought out a small box, from which he presented this handy gadget:

[A can opener very strange to American eyes]
— This is very good opener. One, two, and three. It has three openers. All in one piece.
— Yes. Okay.
— Very good opener. Only 50 rupees.
Tiik he. (Okay.)
— You speak Hindi?
Ji, thora-thora hindi. (Just a little.)
— I have small English. I am old man. How many years you are?
Chaalis. (Forty.)
— I am eighty years. You are forty, I am eighty. Still I am working here every day. This is my shop.
Achaa. (Good. Meaning: I see.)
— I come here in the morning, I stay till the night.
— Sir, you are very strong.
— Yes, yes! I am good health!

Meanwhile, some young women stood behind me fingering the colanders, napkins, rubber rings. “Uncle,” one spoke up. “Uncle, have you got…?”

I handed him a 100-rupee note which he took with both hands. He touched it first to his chest, then to his forehead. Then he turned around in his chair and waved it around in the incense smoking behind him, then circled it over the head of the goddess Lakshmi in her little niche. He unlocked his cash drawer and waved the bill over the money inside, then brought it to his chest and forehead again. All the while chanting a little prayer.

When he noticed me watching, he said:

— Madam, first customer today.

And gave a little shrug as he passed me my change.

-Thank you.
-Welcome, ma'am. Welcome. Namasté.

So the opener doesn't work. But the conversation was worth it, don't you think?

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Aman
Aman
11 years ago

ahhh…good old Indian shop keepers are one things I miss…some were nice like the above mentioned one, while others tried hard to rip you off (even if you can speak perfect Hindi might I add).

Sadly, each time I go back to India, I’m watching less shopkeepers as towns expand, and more of the Wal-Mart type stores in places like Mumbai, Delhi and Punjab.

Monevator
Monevator
11 years ago

Ah, India. It breaks your heart to watch what’s happening in Mumbai at the moment. I’m sure we all hope your friends are all safe and so on.

Regarding your post, I was a bit saddened to read one of my favourite shares, the UK retailer Tesco (our version of Wal-mart), was pushing into Indian cash-and-carry. As an investor I was thrilled. As a citizen of the world, well, you can’t hold back progress but it does seem sad.

Stephen
Stephen
11 years ago

Does the can opener really not work, or does Kris just not know how to use it? When I was a little boy that design was going out of use, and the first time I had to use one, someone else had to show me the technique.

heather
heather
11 years ago

That looks like a perfectly good can opener. Although, it is upside down in the photo. I’m really curious about how it failed to function.

Oh, and that’s a conversation I totally would have had.

Mister E
Mister E
11 years ago

Neat little story.

I’m also confused how that opener could fail. Any one I’ve ever had of that type has been pretty much fail proof.

Brandon @ Car Insurance Guidebook
Brandon @ Car Insurance Guidebook
11 years ago

We certainly get spoiled in the U.S. Everything is very convenient at our Wal-Marts, Fred Meyers and various grocery stores. I’ve had the experience of shopping in Eastern Europe, but it wasn’t the adventure that Kris described in Delhi.

Stay safe over there, Kris. Hopefully things have calmed down some after the shootings.

Jared
Jared
11 years ago

Kris’s description of the “grocery stores” in Delhi was spot on. My wife and I just returned from India two days ago. Our host took us to see a western-style mall with one of these grocery stores. I was wearing a backpack (day pack size) and had to go wait outside for my wife because there wasn’t enough room for me to turn around in the aisles. It was hilarious how much they crammed into that little store.

Miss M
Miss M
11 years ago

I love this little look into daily life in another country. Thanks.

Mary Sue
Mary Sue
11 years ago

How does it not work? It has all the parts, and looks sharp enough.

deepikaur
deepikaur
11 years ago

Not bad.. Aapki Hindi tho bohat aachi hai. 😉

Haha, ooh, this makes me miss shopping in India sooo much!

Jade Cow
Jade Cow
11 years ago

Another person confused as to how it can not work! Are you sure that you are using it right?

A. Dawn
A. Dawn
11 years ago

We should travel in third world countries just to compare how things are totally different and how fortunate we are to have everything right at our footsteps. My trip to a third world country gave me a chance to compare some socio-economic issues between two worlds. Interested readers can follow this link – Lessons From a 3rd World Country
http://adawnjournal.com/2008/11/16/lessons-from-a-3rd-world-country/
Cheers,
A Dawn Journal
http://www.adawnjournal.com

Lisa
Lisa
11 years ago

Hi! I have used that kind of can opener many times. It’s perfectly good & easy to use . You have to jab the sharp end in the can then,slide it around the can edge. I prefer them because they can’t break really. They are kind of like the small military issue can openers.They are about a third that size. Ask someone to show you how to use it. It’s just one of those things you have to be shown. We also have opened cans by holding a sharp knive over a can edge then tapping the handle into the… Read more »

nd
nd
11 years ago

The description would be true for most of the shops in India if you are the first customer of the day. One very good thing I miss in USA compared to India, is MRP (maximum retail price), the printed price which will same across India and no shop can charge more than that (of course they can sell less than MRP).

Lorna
Lorna
11 years ago

It boggles my mind, too, how a perfectly fine-looking can opener like that wouldn’t work 🙂

The man’s attitude is touching to me. Not a lot of people take the time to be grateful for the little good things in their life that happens every day.

Trendy Indy
Trendy Indy
11 years ago

Shopping in India in onething, I never really shopped for gorceries though I lived in India for 22 years. I am a spoiled kid. One thing that still irritates me is that none of the exported goods or goods sold in India have an expiry date.IfI ever manage to see an expiry date the packaging looks so old that I give it a second thought before I buy it. All that said, nothing compares to my beautiful India. Its one life that you have to expereince. Its like feeling peaceful amidst the choas.

Susanna
Susanna
11 years ago

What a great post!

The opener will work when used properly. I had one like it for many years and am looking for another one. My electric one that I had for around 15 years finally died and I have decided to go back to man powered.

If the metal handle becomes hard on the hands, wrap a pot holder around it.

paul g
paul g
11 years ago

So true it makes me laugh.Can opener should work otherwise he wouldn’t sell it to you.I am an Indian American -more American than Indian now.

Saravanan
Saravanan
11 years ago

@Monevator: Things are fine now in India as you must have got to know from various sources.

As an Indian I always feel that we are not a third world. We are better off than many other countries. I know we lack in many things but we will be in a good shape. When people like you guys are there to help us and give a shoulder when we are struggling, things does seem good.

One thing that most of the people around the world have to learn from us, how to be frugal and smart. :).

Cairsten
Cairsten
11 years ago

Just chiming in to say the opener should work just fine! * Use the large blade to punch into the lid, *parallel* to the edge of the can. * Push down until the blade is all the way into the can, and the loop part of the opener rests on the edge of the can. * Then, you can use a rocking motion, lifting and pressing down the blade as you advance around the edge of the can, to continue cutting around the lid. You can try just sliding, but rocking always works. It looks sharp enough, it has no… Read more »

juno
juno
11 years ago

By saying that the can opener doesn’t work, I get the impression that you think you were shortchanged. I’m sorry but I disagree. Like everybody says, you have to learn how to use it. I grew up with such a can opener and I doubt very much that it doesn’t work. You should have asked him to show you how.

Jordan Pearce
Jordan Pearce
11 years ago

Such graciousness and respect for patronage and monetary rewards from the shoppe owner. I love it! Americans take for granted how little competition there really is around here. I’m going to make up my own money jig from now on.

“Perfectly fine-looking” low tech can opener: 50 rupees

Comments on said low tech can opener: Priceless.

Tzctlpc
Tzctlpc
11 years ago

In many countries foreigners are always told they are the first costumer of the day.

Subodh
Subodh
11 years ago

Somebody mentioned India as a third world country? 🙂 Really?
On sidelines, Rs. 50 for a can opener? Whoa!

JoB
JoB
11 years ago

What an absolutely charming story!
For those ofus who live vicariously thru others, I loved this little spot of life!
Great job!

latika
latika
11 years ago

well, its a lovely story..but i dont agree with butter in a paper or something like this..i’m born and brought up in new delhi..and we dont get butter in paper..there is load of international,national and local brands which taste really good..specially local..no matter how modern we are i still like everything in india..

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