Sunil Sethi: Will masterji save his job?

Last Updated: Sat, Sep 29, 2012 15:35 hrs

Not long ago I went to the opening of a small new guesthouse in Delhi’s trendy Nizamuddin. It was a pleasant place – unfussy, efficient and well-priced, where literary guests are often put up – and among the fixtures I noticed were simple but stylish standing lamps. Spare brushed-stainless steel jobs with Isamu Noguchi-style crinkled paper shades. “They’re from IKEA, but made by a vendor I know in Noida,” said the guest-house owner.

I contacted the manufacturer’s sales rep and he duly sent me a piece, neatly flat-packed in a DIY kit, for the princely sum of Rs 1,500. For functional design quality and value for money, it was the best lamp I ever bought, after years of paying for overpriced but often incompetent lighting fixtures or tacky made-in-China rip-offs. But my luck ran out, for next time I called, he said, “Sorry, Sir, it was an item from an export overrun. We’re not really allowed to do this as our unit is based in an exports-only zone. You’ll have to wait till IKEA starts its retail operation.”

That day may soon be at hand, along with the arrival of Walmart, Tesco, Carrefour et al. The government-threatening noise has generated (in my case, anyway) more heat than light. The “corrupt capitalist” media of the West is ringing with the story, though it takes them time to decode clumsy Indian acronyms (FDI, SMEs, TNCs) that infect the debate. Responses vary from the critical (for every new job Walmart creates in India, at least 17 workers will lose employment) to the apologist (opening up supermarket retail is the key to prevent India’s growth story from tanking) to the sentimental (the musical cries of street vendors will forever vanish from Indian streets).

As a rule I avoid supermarkets, in metropolitan India or elsewhere. Their clatter and clutter, the sight of glassy-eyed folk pushing trolleys, terrified grannies stumbling on escalators, children shrieking in food courts — these things stupefy me. For most shopping, clothing for instance, I go to stand-alone retailers situated in the calm backwaters of local markets. Like an old-fashioned draper, the friendly owner stocks a range of Indian readymade brands, offers tea and samosas and has all the time in the world. Best of all are the services of masterji on his sewing machine in the arcade outside that several shops share. In 15 minutes, masterji will shorten trouser lengths, alter cuffs, change button tacks from black to white. There’s no extra cost and no nonsense of “Come back tomorrow”.

These geniuses on their pedal machines are a mainstay of Indian markets; sometimes known as “Ladies Tailor”, they are the butt of cheap jokes for fitting intimate, size- and style-specific items of women’s clothing such as blouses. Will masterji lose his livelihood with the arrival of foreign supermarkets? I very much doubt it.

At the other end of the shopping spectrum in the same market is environmental activist Vandana Shiva’s outlet for organic produce grown from seed banks in Uttarakhand that have trained 500,000 farmers in food sovereignty and fair trade. I use this shop sparingly; prices are 30 to 40 per cent higher than street prices. Poor or most middle-class householders don’t stray in there.

For fresh vegetables, fruit, spices, cheap clothing and household goods shoppers across the board visit the bustling impromptu market of about a hundred stallholders that springs up in the shadow of a Lodi dynasty mosque every Thursday from 7 to 11 p m. It is the urban version of the village haat, moving from one neighbourhood to another every day of the week, for everyone to find sharp-eyed bargains, stock up on weekly supplies and for a companionable outing.

Will the Thursday market shut down with the entry of Walmart and Tesco? I’ll wager my next kilo of onions it won’t. The Indian market is huge but also a hugely complex, many-layered place. There is room for all, from Louis Vuitton to “Ladies Tailor”. And the hills will still be alive with the sound of NGO profit.

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