A strange and sublime grocer

Palash Krishna Mehrotra | Updated on June 25, 2020 Published on June 25, 2020

The Covid-19 pandemic has revealed the utter necessity as well as the literary possibilities of being a shopkeeper

In the pandemic world, grocers are everywhere. The shop down the road that used to sell hip-hop t-shirts has shifted to selling groceries. The hiking store next to it has cleared out the climbing gear and replaced it with packets of detergent. Now news comes in that penurious writers, burdened by the collapse of the newspaper and publishing industry, have also opened their own grocery stores. Others are writing books on grocers. It reminded me of an earlier BLink column I’d written — ‘Life as a Grocer-Writer’.

Writers told me there were two reasons for this turn towards grocers, both as a means of income and the subject of new books. Writers need fresh stimuli to write, which is hard to come by these days. Gone are the days of observing people and their mannerisms, picking up snatches of conversation in restaurants or the subway. The only person who is still allowed to do this is the grocer in her shop. Grocers have also become the subject of new books because the grocer is the only human a writer gets to observe at close range.

I’ve been calling up writers and asking them about their adventures in grocery. Here is what I learnt. Suketu Mehta has returned to Mumbai and runs an outlet called The Maximum Grocer, which sells everything from phone and computer accessories to rice and wheat. Arundhati Roy has moved to Kerala, where she runs the opposite of Suketu’s outlet — a tiny establishment named The Grocer of Small Things. Amit Chaudhuri has decided to stay put in Calcutta, where he runs a grocery store — Afternoon Grocers — that opens only between 2 pm and 5pm. By night, Amit is working on a new novel, ‘A Strange and Sublime Grocer’, about which he was tight-lipped, citing a publishers’ embargo.

James Joyce has returned to Dublin from Paris. He told me his outlet, Finnegan’s Grocers, was doing booming business. Over in England, Hanif Kureishi is busy running The Grocer of Suburbia, which stocks the freshest Asian spices. Chigozie Obioma recently opened An Orchestra of Grocers; he says business was slow to begin with, but is picking up ever since he organised for a string quintet to play in his store. Salman Rushdie exploited a gap in the market — the night-time satanic shopper. His store in Manhattan, Midnight’s Grocer, is a hit with New Yorkers.

Over in Canada, Rohinton Mistry tells me his outlet, A Fine Grocer, specialises in selling the most expensive and exotic groceries on offer. JM Coetzee was adamant on calling his store Disgrace Grocers, and is unfortunately not doing well at all. On the other hand, William Dalrymple’s Anarchy Grocers is doing well with vegans, though he was at pains to explain that he had nothing to do with Antifa protesters. Vikram Seth too had a moment of epiphany. He’s abandoned ‘A Suitable Girl’ and is furiously at work on ‘A Suitable Grocer’.

Anita Desai’s Grocer by the Sea is focussed on selling tinned seafood, while Kiran Desai’s Haha Heehee Grocers has an in-house clown to keep the clientèle laughing and to lighten the grimness of our times. Jerry Pinto’s Big Hoom Grocers has been distributing items free of cost to the needy and the impoverished. Among those writing books on grocers, we have Saikat Majumdar’s ‘The Scent of Grocers’, which promises to bring to life the hidden erotic smells in a grocery store. Cyrus Mistry is working on ‘The Radiance of Grocers’, a reworking of his earlier novel The Radiance of Ashes. Ruskin Bond said he was too old to be starting a new venture but has promised a sequel to Room on the Roof, tentatively titled ‘Grocer on the Roof’. Proust is writing multiple volumes on the minutiae of a grocer’s life in ‘Remembrance of Grocers Past’; RK Narayan is working on ‘Grocer and Friends’, while Upamanyu Chatterjee promises to bring Agastya Sen back in ‘Mammaries of the Welfare Grocer’. Adil Jussawalla’s ‘Missing Grocer’ is about him feeling like an alien in his grocery store.

There are also authors who are intent on highlighting the bigger picture. These include Allan Sealy’s ‘Grocernama’; Pankaj Mishra’s ‘Age of Grocers’; Dalrymple’s ode to Delhi’s kirana stores, ‘City of Grocers’; VS Naipaul’s attempt at a whodunnit, ‘Finding the Grocer’, as well as a scathing account of the phenomenon of grocer-writers called ‘The Enigma of Grocers’. Ramachandra Guha’s ‘India After Grocers’ promises to be prophetic and prescient at the same time. Shakespeare was tetchy and grumpy when I called him but admitted that he was writing a new play titled ‘Much Ado About Grocers’.

The big scoop: I tracked down the philosopher Immanuel Kant, who is about 300 years old and still hasn’t moved out of provincial Königsberg. Michiko Kakutani is on record saying that Kant’s ‘Critique of Pure and Practical Grocers’ promises to fundamentally alter the course of human history. The treatise will be available at all good grocers later this year.

Palash Krishna Mehrotra   -  BUSINESS LINE


Palash Krishna Mehrotra is the author of Eunuch Park and the editor of House Spirit: Drinking in India

Published on June 25, 2020
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