I went window shopping today. I bought four windows. British comedian Tommy Cooper.
A few weeks ago, I had sounded off on the unintended perils of online shopping, regretting our inability to actually shop at shops, if you get my drift. All that is fast changing. What with the pandemic and everything, for the past couple of years or so, we have hardly ever stepped out of hearth and home to do a bit of shopping. The operative phrase there is ‘stepped out.’ Shopping, as in finding a place to park the car, wheeling around the premises pushing a cart, looking at packs and bottles, squinting at the almost unreadable expiry dates and price tags, going through that touchy, feely, tactile experience that real-life shopping entails. The other kind of shopping we have done aplenty, all of it online from the comfort of our drawing room or study or wherever the mood took us. Highly impersonal of course, but the convenience cannot be denied. Press a few keys on your smartphone, select the items, approve the amount, tap in the OTP and literally in the blink of an eye, 4 tetra packs of mixed-fruit juice and 2 packets of salt have arrived in place of the 6 cans of Coke and 2 packets of sugar you had ordered. No problem. The complaints procedure online is smooth, somebody will rush round to your place by the evening to collect the erroneous deliveries, but you will have to re-order the original items you wanted. No, the amount will not be refunded, but will be held in suspense and adjusted against the fresh order, which will be delivered the following day provided said items are in stock. Which is often not the case. Some of them agree to send the money back to your credit card account, but tracking the credit to see if Rs.153.40p has actually been returned is tedious in the extreme. The only hassle with this arrangement is that we might have invited guests over that very evening. Woe is me. Let me try another portal.
I should not be too harsh. Fair’s fair. Most of the time the online giants get it right, but until we have actually opened the delivery bags, we will have no clue what surprises and shocks are in store for us. That said, now that the pandemic appears to be behind us, more or less, most of us have ventured out to enjoy the real, and at times dubious, pleasures of real-life shopping, something we had almost forgotten about. Virtual shopping will be there till the cows come home but now we have an alternative option, one that we are accustomed to. I am, of course, referring to those of us who were born before the new millennium.
The nearest departmental store is just a stone’s throw away from where we live, so thither we repaired in good spirits, the wife and I, suitably masked up. Parking was not an issue as we set out fairly early. As we approached the entrance, we observed, to our dismay, that the shutters were three-quarters of the way down, and there was a handful of other customers waiting to get in. I turned to the nearest gentleman and inquired of him what the problem was. ‘The uniformed chap at the entrance says they are taking an audit of the inventory, and that the sales boys and girls are being given a quick briefing. All this could take some time and we will have to wait.’
‘Was the shop burgled overnight or something?’ I asked. ‘It’s 10.30 in the morning. Surely audits and stuff take place during the small hours of the morning.’ The equally miffed customer merely shrugged his shoulders.
Anyhow, after another 20 minutes or so of idling and goggling (and Googling) at our mobile phones, the shutters clattered up. Open sesame. We all rushed in like there’s no tomorrow. An assortment of smells assailed our olfactory senses. Fishy from the meat corner, heady perfumes wafting from a nearby shelf and spices catching our throats and nostrils from the condiments and provisions space further down. A strange, smelly concoction this, one that I was quite happy to experience though they could have spared us the fishy pong. It was time to hurry along and not waste time tarrying. The poet might have said, ‘What is this life if, full of care / We have no time to stand and stare.’ Unless we were standing and staring at our mobile phones, naturally. The adrenalin was now coursing through my veins as I looked forward to that touchy, feely experience I was talking about. While my wife traipsed off to some section specialising in branded astringents and cleaning agents, I made tracks for the food section. I was looking for some interesting salad dressing and dips for our cocktail snacks. My intense searches having revealed zilch, I cast around for a shop assistant. There were not more than three in the entire shop, so I walked across and cleared my throat behind a slender, uniformed girl, who looked not more than 17 years old and who was bending down inspecting some nameless bottles in a cardboard carton. She turned round, startled, on hearing my catarrhal throat-clearing.
‘I need some help. Can you please point me to where I might find dips and salad dressing?’ That was plain enough but the adolescent looked out of her depth.
‘Fruit salad, Sir? This way, please.’
‘No. no, not fruit salad. I am looking for salad dressing. As well as some interesting dips.’
‘Yes, got it first time, well done. And salad dressing.’
The girl scrunched her nose, raised her eyebrows and said, ‘Sir, we have got chips. Also clips in that section,’ she pointed vaguely towards the middle-distance behind her back. Why she would word-associate chips or clips with dips and salad dressing was a mystery, but I let it pass. I felt like giving her a clip round the ear, but wiser counsel prevailed. I decided to put her out of her misery. ‘Why don’t you call your supervisor?’
Relieved of the inquisition, she rushed off to some back office. After another ten minutes had passed, a tall, not-so-young man presented himself – an authority figure. I felt reassured.
‘Good morning, Sir. I understand you are looking for drips. Saline, would that be? Sorry Sir, we do not have a pharmacy section here. There’s one just across the road.’
What was wrong with this place? Was everyone hard of hearing? ‘Thank you,’ I replied not hiding my irritation very well. ‘How about salad dressing? Are you going to send me into the waiting arms of a nearby Italian restaurant?’ He didn’t quite catch my bitingly sarcastic dressing down.
‘Salad dressing,’ he repeated thoughtfully spelling the syllables out, like he had never heard of it, which he probably hadn’t, ‘you mean like that gooey liquid they mix all those leaves and vegetables with?’
Now we were getting somewhere. I had wronged the man. I knew how to leap on the back of dawning intelligence and make it gallop, as I once heard someone describe it. ‘Exactly. Gooey liquid. I couldn’t have put it better myself. I am talking about Vinaigrette, Thousand Island, Honey and Mustard, Bleu Cheese, that sort of thing.’
The dawning intelligence took three steps back towards fading dusk. We were back to square one. He whipped out his mobile phone and called up someone, presumably another colleague sitting in that mysterious back office. He moved further away from me so I couldn’t follow the conversation. After five minutes or so, he stuffed the mobile into his shirt pocket and returned with a half-smile.
‘Sir, we can do some imported olive oil and vinegar dressing, nuts and seeds, beans and legumes as well as a variety of dried fruits. Not to mention baked tortilla, pita chips, shredded hard cheeses and fresh fruit. I am told you can make an excellent salad from these ingredients. We are well stocked with all these items.’ I was irresistibly reminded of the Waldorf Salad incident in that hilarious television comedy, Fawlty Towers.
I was on the verge of stealing Clint Eastwood’s Dirty Harry copyright with a threatening ‘Go ahead, make my day,’ but by now, in a strange turn of mood, I started feeling sorry for the staff of this establishment. I mean, they have also been suffering without a single customer walking in for over two years. This sudden deluge of walk-ins had left them unprepared and caught off-guard. Fresh, wet-behind-the-ears trainees were being put through the mill. Inventories were out of whack. It was a mess. Still and all, actually interacting with another human being made for a refreshing change. I was simpatico.
‘I fully understand, my old Supervisor. We have to give you all time to differentiate between dips and drips and salad dressings can be tricky. Tell you what, I’ll take 250gms of all that stuff you just listed and we’ll see how it goes.’ The supervisor beamed and the adolescent was all smiles, 32 pearly teeth in good order. I had made their day!
As I was proceeding to the check-out counter, I saw my wife approaching with what looked like a fancy, stainless steel pedal trash can and a roll of black, perforated rubbish bags. ‘What happened to the branded astringent and cleaning agent?’ I asked. ‘Not in stock, but they helpfully gave me these’ she replied, not without a touch of irony. We paid for the items, after some drama with the recalcitrant credit card machine and soon were home again, home again, jiggety-jig.
Settled in my favourite reclining arm-chair, I got my mobile out and logged on to my Amazon account.