BENGALURU: I live, like many other migrants to Bengaluru, in a well-guarded multi-storied bastion, keeping the rest of the world out. I also live on a bustling main arterial road and the nearest market is a good 20-minute walk, 20 minutes too long after a long working day. My early days in the city thus saw me heavily dependent on a well-known supermarket chain which has its outlet right within the campus of my building. While it is adequate enough for daily groceries, it is a disaster as a greengrocer. With maggoty fruits, holey salad leaves and bruised veggies, this was the nail in the coffin for my supermarket adventures which had started with a rat which jumped out of a shelf full of wilted spinach in a neighbourhood supermarket in Delhi. For me, that moment marked everything that was wrong with our so-called retail food boom.
I had grown up in Kolkata, going to the local market with my grandfather, where everyday's veggies were bought fresh from the vendors whose burlap sacks upended piles of fresh seasonal vegetables straight from the local farmers. There was no excess and there was no wastage from the seller to buyer and from the cooking to the eating. It was a way of shopping and eating that has become alien in our workaday lives. We now live away from our families and their expansive kitchens. We shop on weekends at chain stores, buying stuff for the fortnight and the food we eat comprises limp, half-frozen vegetables that are turned into quick and insipid curries.
In my mind I was an old-fashioned sort. It is the early morning market visits with my grandfather which taught me that. I liked handpicking my veggies. However, as a recently grown up, working and married woman who had recently left her pampered home and hearth, these shopping rituals were hardly a luxury. From Delhi to Bengaluru, my experiences with local sabziwallahs have been complicated. As they looked at my discomfiture vis-a-vis veggies that I had grown up hating, they would give me withering looks. My naivete made me especially gullible to the vagaries of these men and women who would convince me of the seasonal freshness, the problems with the crops and the unfamiliarity with the local prices.
This is what drove me to a supermarket and its everything-under-one roof convenience. As I would move from aisle to aisle towards the vegetable section with my hope still afloat. Every single supermarket disappointed. Every fruit and vegetable on the shelf looked like it had travelled the breadth of the country fighting disease and deprivation till it reached this particular metal shelf—its chosen spot for its last breath. It was organic carnage. The potatoes had either turned green or into mutant flowerpots with little leafy stems. Tomatoes would burst into a bloody mess the moment I dropped it into my empty cart and once, I even saw a few little worms clinging to the plastic of the cling-wrapped Washington apples.
My local sabziwallah would set up his cart-shop ten minutes away from my apartment every evening from 5-9 pm without fail. I would return to that shop over and over with a woebegone face. I imagined him smirking as he imperiously tossed fresh-from-the-field veggies into my bag while charging me a premium and dismissing my arguments about the supermarket deals with a single "take it or leave it" look.
It is quite the conundrum, one that eludes a perfect solution. Bengaluru is a city of many choices from the exorbitant organic to the weekly farm-fresh produce in mandis at the other end of town. However, in all these situations, the idea of being an incompetent haggler in an unfamiliar language was as unpleasant as it is was a blow to the ego of a bargain hunter such as myself.
In my search for options, I often ended up at a bright, airy and air conditioned gourmet store sprawled across the top floor of a swanky city mall. The visit to this store ended up being weekend entertainment like visiting the zoo rather than a chore. As unfamiliar food and artistic culinary displays have a strange allure for me taking me to unknown lands on the culinary map. This particular store with its piles of delicate berries, smelly cheeses, exotic mushrooms and candied fruits, is my vicarious food trip across the world. Rare mushrooms, Mediterranean peppers and hairy tropical fruits jostled for space in this alien smorgasbord straight out of a Ridley Scott masterpiece. The end result, I purchase no useful staples that we can actually eat, but overpriced and useless exotica which sit uneasy in a good home-cooked meal.
Despite my aversion to aisle store fare, I do recommend its fair pricing. In the many veggie cons that have been pulled on me, most famous was the one where I went to a specialist Bengali market where I met a vegetable seller with the gift of the gab though and I was the recipient of the one standout sale he made that day. I bought a lau (a bottle gourd), which according to him had arrived that very day from Kolkata on the superfast train. And with such a narrative flourish, he sold us a `15 vegetable for more than five times its worth.
As I returned time and again to my neighbourhood sabziwallah, his grouchy face seemed to occasionally carry the hint of a smile. It was a less-than-perfect relationship. Yet, we learn to make do. And he always sold me the plumpest, reddest and freshest tomatoes which made up for my disillusionment with the pre-packaged "lowest price" supermarket rotters.