Mean­while, in his lit­tle Ker­ala...

The pan­demic-era life in a spe­cialised gro­cery

Hindustan Times (Gurugram) - - Htspotligh­t -

How lovely it would be to meet some­one whose life hasn’t been al­tered by the coro­n­avirus! A life that is still go­ing on un­hin­dered, as al­ways, more or less.

Well, then meet Suresh S Nair of Am­badi gro­cery store, in Gu­ru­gram’s Old Rail­way Road.

“Yes, the busi­ness is the same as be­fore,” he con­firms, speak­ing on phone from his gro­cery shop. “No, I haven’t got the in­fec­tion, nor any mem­ber of my fam­ily, nor any­one among my rel­a­tives .... coro­n­avirus hasn’t touched me.” In spite of this happy fact, Mr Nair is be­ing as care­ful as a gro­cer can be. “I’m near­ing 60... I fear it would be dan­ger­ous for me to catch the corona.” His voice be­trays no fear, as when one talks of calami­ties that only seem to hap­pen in the news me­dia, not in real life. The soft-spo­ken man re­veals that he has aban­doned his habit of tak­ing a break in the af­ter­noon and head­ing home in nearby Lak­shmi Vi­har for lunch. “Now, I tend to stay in one place for a long time rather than ex­pos­ing my­self to too many places and sit­u­a­tions.” He gets the food from home. Un­like most other busi­nesses, neigh­bour­hood gro­ceries have been spared of the col­lat­eral toll of the pan­demic, Mr Nair ob­serves. The kinds of things such mod­est es­tab­lish­ments sell are used for daily con­sump­tion, which are needed in good times and bad. So, “shops like ours” were al­lowed to func­tion dur­ing those many weeks when the city, as well as the coun­try, were in a shut­down mode. Mr Nair played cau­tious even then. “I would open the shop for lim­ited hours only.”

But ini­tially the lit­tle store did suf­fer from a hic­cup, be­cause of the na­ture of the busi­ness. The shop isn’t just any ran­dom gro­cery giv­ing you yel­low dal and brown dal. Mr Nair’s is a South In­dian store spe­cial­is­ing in food from Ker­ala as well as other south­ern states—he is him­self from Pathanamth­itta, the dis­trict in south­ern Ker­ala fa­mous for the Sabari­mala temple. In­deed, en­ter­ing his shop is like step­ping in­side one of the most in­ti­mate as­pects of a Ker­ala home, its kitchen pantry. There’s gu­ru­vayur pap­padam, sacks of red rice, putt kadala lentils, gar­lic pick­les and sa­chets of gin­ger cof­fee—he shows all of these on What­sApp video. While the counter has at least one clus­ter of ba­nanas hang­ing from the rope, just the way they are put up in road­side shacks through­out Ker­ala.

The sup­ply of these in­gre­di­ents was briefly af­fected in the early days of the lock­down “and I couldn’t keep all stuff avail­able at all time for my long-time cus­tomers.” Even­tu­ally, the goods trains started mov­ing, Mr Nair says, and his shop was back to run­ning smoothly on the tracks. As soon as he would get the stock re­plen­ished from Ker­ala, the gen­tle­man would in­form his cus­tomers, many of them fel­low Malay­alis, on What­sApp. They would mes­sage him back with their shop­ping list and he would get the pack­ages ready be­fore sum­mon­ing them to the gro­cery. “That way, no­body had to wait and gather in my shop and in­crease the risk of spread­ing the in­fec­tion.”

Now Mr Nair ex­cuses him­self—a cus­tomer has just turned up. He sells to him a good quan­tity of kappa, or tapi­oca, which he de­scribes as “Ker­ala ki arbi.”

Mr Nair speaks flu­ent Hindi. He has been liv­ing in the Delhi re­gion since 1985 and ini­tially resided in west Delhi’s Janakpuri “which is home to a lot many peo­ple from our Ker­ala.” A re­tired X-ray tech­ni­cian in a hos­pi­tal, he opened the shop in 2011 and op­er­ates it all by him­self. His wife is a tech­ni­cian in a ve­teri­nary lab and his daugh­ter, a school teacher, is cur­rently work­ing from home. These days, Mr Nair feels that life is again be­com­ing “nor­mal for ev­ery­one.” He shuts down his store by 7pm (it was 9pm in the pre-corona era) and heads home on his scooty. To­day, though, he will reach a bit later be­cause “I’m de­liv­er­ing a stock of ponni chawal to a friend whose house falls on the way.” He, how­ever, in­sists he doesn’t do home-de­liv­ery, fear­ing that on read­ing this dis­patch, his cus­tomers might start bad­ger­ing him into de­liv­er­ing stuff to their home, too.

Later, on reach­ing his house, Mr Nair is pho­tographed through the phone screen that con­nects him to this re­porter. His wife and daugh­ter are too shy to ap­pear in front of the cam­era. Any­how, soon enough the fam­ily sits down to din­ner. Tonight’s menu: red rice, aviyal, mam­bazha pulis­sery (mango curry!), neembu achar and uzhunnu pap­pad. All these dishes are cooked with Ker­ala spices— sourced from Mr Nair’s shop, nat­u­rally.

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