Smart phones? Shiny malls? Home delivery? Cash on delivery? E-commerce?
“Pfft…. No way. Nothing would replace Pondy Bazaar! India is always going to rely on retailers and online buying can never be taken seriously by the Indian market because people here like to get out and see and feel what they are getting.” – my response a few years ago.
Ask anyone who grew up in Chennai in the 1990’s and they’d agree with me. With its garments and jewellery stores, Pondy Bazaar used to be a shopper’s paradise, right in the heart of T.Nagar. The street hawkers there swear by the quality and price of their products. They promise to sell everything that was sold inside for a much ‘cheaper price’.
As a kid most of my clothes were from Pondy Bazaar – Naidu Hall, SKC or sometimes Flora, all of them promised to bring ‘Bombay fashion to Chennai.’ Any piece of overpriced attire or jewellery found in any mall would have to be first checked out in Pondy Bazaar. A replica of the exact same design was bound to be available there, at one-tenth of the original price. But like everything else in the world, even this changed. Post 2010, lesser and lesser people frequented these stores and started taking to malls.
But Pondy Bazaar was supposed to be different, wasn’t it? People still go there, to buy or to simply check out the roadside hawker stalls. Rumour has it that these hawkers had to pay a considerable sum as bribe to the police and politicians to keep their stalls. In late 2013, the Corporation of Chennai, had all these hawkers moved into an indoor complex, a blue building with little space and very poor design. They now pay a rent. Their move was intended to benefit the retailers who felt that the hawkers bite into a big chunk of their business and also to reduce the traffic caused by the encroachment. With this ended the charming life of Pondy bazaar. Pondy bazaar had more space than before. But it was empty. College goers no longer felt the need to buy some ‘cute stuff’ purely out of impulse. Slowly, the crowd stopped going there.
Every time I went there, it was the same routine! Take a cab to Pondy bazaar, get-off at the Saravana Bhavan, walk making a mental checklist of what I want and don’t, buy more than what is required, and have a snack and coffee from Geetha Cafe. I usually go in for a coffee, and end up having a snack too. There’s something about the smell of coffee. It makes me hungry than usual. In fact, I think they should make a coffee fragrance in deodorant. Eating my chaat and coffee, I’d then sit and watch the entire road just pass by. Do you do that too? Do you also stand outside after a meal and smile, without knowing why? It’s what I’d do even if I won a lottery. Just take a deep breath and smile.
I always wear sensible footwear when I go to Pondy bazaar, no heals or straps. Owing to all the walking involved, I usually wear just plain boring floaters to avoid any pain. But my visit would never end without a trip to the bargainer’s paradise! The hawkers’ complex, the one-stop shop for all your accessory needs!
The colours, the noise, the smell of the flowers from the florists and everything else that was missing on the road, is now inside the hawkers complex. The hawkers complex is not aesthetically built. Strictly speaking, it is not even a complex. It is just a building with stalls that would otherwise be on the streets. The whole place is vibrant but now the business is also slow.
The stall owner would hand you a basket to put in all your picks. I’d pick a few clips and ask him what it’s worth. He’d push for a twenty and I for a ten, though both of us know that the pair is really worth only fifteen. He’d then say fifteen and I’d buy. But then all is fair in war. Besides, it is your birthright to bargain when in Pondy Bazaar. You’d be considered rather odd if you didn’t.
Every time I walk through that complex, I take it all in – the colours, the sounds, the bargaining in Tamil, everything that the glamorous malls and websites have taken away from us. I love finishing my day with a dessert, may be a falooda, to celebrate my sense of accomplishment in having probably paid much lesser than the original price. Now that is something that can’t be replaced by the shiny malls, smartphones, courier services or home-delivery.