Sunday, August 27, 2017

Brindavan Express

Traveling by Brindavan in the A/C chair car between Chennai and Bangalore, used to be my favourite mode of transport to visit Bangalore. This was before the two A/C coaches were detached from the train,  a couple of years ago to promote the use of fully air conditioned, less expensive  `Double Decker` trains.

One enduring memory I have of the Brindavan express, as a foodaholic ( I was one in my younger days!) is the parade of vendors from the pantry car, selling a variety of mouth watering snacks, which I could hardly   resist! While in  the Shatabdi,, where the caterers mechanically serve you fixed items, often unpalatable, at appointed times with clockwork efficiency; the vendors in Brindavan were more human, friendly and very hard working. Imagine having to walk up and down the aisles of the coaches hundreds of times in a day, holding the tray of snacks on one hand and balancing themselves, by holding on to seat tops with the other hand. That too in an undulating train, running at high speed .And doing this day after day, for a living. Great guys! Hats Off to them.

Now coming to the food items …If you were catching the morning Brindavan from Chennai to Bangalore, the first items to appear would surely be the traditional breakfast menu: Idli or Pongal with Vadai (invariably cold and hard because the items must have been prepared the previous night), served with insufficient, watery and sometimes stale coconut chutney.

If you have the patience to wait for the next round of snacks, which could well be “Hot Masala Dosa” or “Hot Bread Omelet”, then you are assured of a better fare. But the chap would insist on serving a minimum of two dosas at-a-time, with a generous serving of fresh chutney. My favorite was Omelet and Bread with a packet of tomato ketchup; my second breakfast in two hours.

Obviously there are many more hungry people like me on the train, who were not satisfied with even two  breakfasts. So from about 9.30 am there would be  a parade of vendors selling Vazhakai (raw banana) Bajjis, Chilly Bajjis, Cutlets, Masala Vadas, Garam Bondas or Samosas  not to forget ready snacks, like biscuits, Lay’s chips etc.

They kept  coming back  again & again until I was  tempted to try just one Bajji or one Cutlet, just for tasting them,  you know?! But the smart vendor  insisted  that a plate came  with a minimum of three Bajjis or three Cutlets. They had a target to meet, you see!.Needless to say, I invariably fell into this trap and had my third breakfast.

I always admired  the guys who went  around selling tea or coffee in the train. The way they balanced the hot steel containers between their legs, leaning on the side of the seat, adding a spoon of Nescafe and sugar into the cup and then filling it up with the watery milk from the container to give you a hot cup of a concoction called Coffee! No wonder the term “train coffee” or “train tea” have become synonymous with bad coffee or tea!

Though the food items continue to be available on the Double Decker trains, its cramped seating makes it one of the most uncomfortable trains to travel.  Shatabdi, though fast & comfortable, provides no choice when comes to food items. Any day I will vote for the re- introduction of the two A/C chairs cars in the Brindavan Express. It had a charm of its own!

Monday, August 7, 2017

The Corner “Annachhi Kadai”

                After nearly two months I was visiting Mahalaxmi stores, a grocery shop which has been in existence for over 40 years close to my home. I was pleasantly surprised to see the complete transformation of the shop. From a typical  `hole in the wall` kind of shop with an open counter manned by the shop owner and his assistant , it has now become a closed  air conditioned shop. Instead of the crowded interior with products lying haphazardly, it now had all the products stocked & displayed on neatly laid shelves offering an opportunity for the customers to help themselves. But the customers can have a choice of only the pre packed items in different SKU`s (pack sizes) and pay the MRP mentioned on the packs. 
In his earlier avatar, the assistant would take the order, weigh the exact quantity required on a weighing machine, pack it in a portion of a newspaper converted into a conical paper bag, close it and wrap it around with a white string pulled from a bundle on a rod hanging from the roof. Once all the ordered items were assembled he would list them on a white blank sheet held in a pad with a clip, mark the prices and add the amounts using a pocket calculator lying next to the cash counter. Even if there are only two items, he would use the calculator. He would exchange  this `Bill` for cash and hand over the items in a plastic bag.
 One of the advantages of shopping in such a store was the facility to touch and feel the products, be it  rice, pulses or any other item which needs to be felt, before you were satisfied with the quality and place the order. The shop also accepted orders on phone with assured door delivery and monthly payment  facility for those who opted for it.

Today the calculator has been replaced by a computer with the necessary software suitable for retail operations, which also helps  in getting  printouts of  the bills for the customers. The small 200 sq.ft shop also has four CCTV cameras which are monitored at the cash counter by the owner. While the air conditioned shop offers shopping convenience, the flip side of the self help system is that you tend to buy much more than what you came to buy. Good for the shop keeper , not so good for the customers. This is probably one idea adopted by the small shops to counter the onset of many branded department stores in and around our area.
 I remember,  my visits to such stores on Sundays  when on my return home, I was guaranteed  to get admonished by my wife for buying many items  which were not in her list. She would bitterly complain about my wasting money and also adding to her workload. All the joy I derived from shopping would be dissipated in no time.

Almost all the grocery stores run by Nadar Annachis or  the Muslim Bhais in my area  continue to exist  serving  the poorer people who shop  on a day to day or weekly  basis buying  items in smaller quantities, while the well-heeled citizens patronize the more up market department stores or even buy online; a trend catching up in a big way with the younger generation.

Does the Corner grocery store have a future? Only time can tell.

This article appeared in Adyar Times Issue dt. 6-12th August,2017 under my column `Rajan`s random Reflections`