Takeaway

Ulsoor: Rooted to a city in flux

Usha Rao | Updated on December 13, 2019 Published on December 12, 2019

A neat century: Gopal Setty from Tamil Nadu established his grocery store in Ulsoor in May 1919 and built it up over the years   -  USHA RAO

In Ulsoor, an old Bengaluru neighbourhood convulsed by ‘development’, a century-old grocer serves as a reminder of the slow-paced life the city enjoyed before the IT boom

To the cursory eye Ulsoor, aka Halasuru, appears as a blur of densely packed buildings, half-finished façades and a confusing melange of colonial monkey top windows and glass-fronted structures that conceal rather than reveal the layers of history it has lived through. It is nestled between two high-end locations teeming with pubs, restaurants and bars that epitomise Bengaluru’s hip image. Ulsoor almost defiantly holds on to what city buffs call its ‘quaint heritage’ character even as the proximity of the metro station has set off tremors of change. Some old residents have made a killing on the real estate market and moved to other neighbourhoods. Others have demolished single homes to build rental apartments, which have invited new settlers. Sounds of Bengali, Odiya, Hindi and North-Eastern languages have blended into the salad bowl already brim-full with South Indian tongues. Skeletons of demolished buildings and shadows of old homes visible through the metro pillars speak to us as spectres from the neighbourhood’s past. Yet, there is a sense among residents that the ‘essence’ of Ulsoor continues to permeate their lives.

Here and there: Skeletons of demolished buildings lie scattered across Ulsoor’s streets   -  USHA RAO

 

While chain stores and branded outlets have replaced older forms of retail in the neighbouring areas of CMH Road further on the metro line, local merchants — most of them residents — are the lifeblood of the Ulsoor market. The market is packed with shops selling utensils, ritual items, ironware, puja ingredients, neon-coloured chicks and lovebirds, pump stoves, jewellery, herbs, bangles and cheap ready-made garments, all crammed too densely for the eyes to absorb. Vegetables, fruits and groceries are to be found along a meandering market street barely broad enough for two adults to rub shoulders. The squawking of chickens and the deadening thud of cleaving knives announce the meat shops towards the southern end of the street. The market continues to serve customers across income levels, although chain grocery brands have made inroads into Ulsoor’s vicinity and all across the city. Gopal Setty Store, located midpoint on the busy market street, is one such Ulsoor business that has served the neighbourhood and the city for over a century.

Talking shop: The Ulsoor market continues to serve customers across income levels, although grocery chains have made inroads into the neighbourhood   -  KARAN ANANTH

 

 

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It is a busy Sunday afternoon. The young man is surrounded by neatly arrayed sacks and pyramids of produce: Globes of dark jaggery, a speciality of Tamil Nadu, rice of various vintage and variety, chillies round, long, fiery red, and all kinds of things that go into kitchens. Kaushik, the founder’s great-grandson, switches seamlessly from Tamil, to Kannada, and to Hindi (with a Dakkani twist) and back to his native tongue Telugu, as he responds to customers and their endless queries. Between breaths he throws out instructions to his staff as they weigh and pack things into plastic bags, spinning them dizzily before securing their necks with a swift knot. Kaushik’s mother, known only as Mrs Babu to almost everyone, sits calmly behind a desk decked with bottles of sweets and tiny Dairy Milk chocolates. She looks up and asks her son, “How much?” in Telugu and scribbles the amount on a slip of paper, which she hands over to the customer, fishing out the change from a drawer in the old teakwood desk. Jars of cashew (whole and broken), dates, strings of figs and almonds flank her. “When my grandfather-in-law ran the store, he used to hand out fistfuls of nuts and raisins to children who walked in. Our old customers remember this. We can no longer afford to do that,” she says. There is a twinge of regret in her voice and a matter-of-fact acceptance of the tides of change that are sweeping Bengaluru and blowing into old neighbourhoods such as Ulsoor.

While some have chosen to flatten old shops and build up with steel and glass, retailers such as Gopal Setty Store continue in establishments that retain an ‘old world’ feel, evoking a sense of continuity in the midst of flux. The store retains elements from its founding days a hundred years ago — original mud walls and pillars, and an open, ‘bulk’ display of grocery items that invites customers to see, touch and even smell before deciding to buy, and interaction between customer and proprietor.

In the aftermath of World War I, Gopal Setty packed his belongings and moved from a village near Salem in Tamil Nadu to Ulsoor, a buzzing hub of commerce in the heart of the British Cantonment in Bangalore. He established his store (dinsi angadi or grocery store in Kannada) in May 1919 to cater to a growing local population, and steadily built it up. Grains, spices, and condiments were transported by bullock cart to his private godown, where they were sorted, graded and prepared for retail. Mrs Babu recalls that the Setty home had a ‘mirappakai (chilli) room’, where red chillies of various varieties were cleaned and dried.

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At the store, and its counterparts that evolved before the era of packaged groceries and self-service, conversation between storekeeper and customer is key for business. While selling the benefits of cold-pressed sesame oil to a loyal but somewhat traditional customer, Kaushik rattles off the comparative prices, cooking time and relative benefits of ‘diabetic’ rice to a frail-looking ‘sugar patient’. Sensing her hesitation about the product, he throws in a piece of advice: “It is a little more expensive, no doubt. But instead of paying the doctor, I think it’s a good idea to put the money in our stomachs.” Mrs Babu feels it is personalised attention that brings people back. “Those who buy in malls and other chain stores pick up something, pay and go on their way in a mechanical fashion. They don’t get this experience that our customers get. They like the way we talk to them and we feel a sense of fulfilment (tripti) as we are selling them food that will nurture them and their families. Yes, it is hard work — all such shops run on hard work.” The shop is demanding and the Setty family is devoted to running the store with little time for leisure.

The store has a diverse customer base and a wide range of products that cater to specific needs. For instance, you will find the round dark chillies that are the mainstay of Tamilian cooking sitting alongside the bright red but mild byadgi chillies preferred by Kannadigas, ragi malt mix, store-made baby food, millets and grains of every kind to suit a range of pockets and tastes.

As I stood conversing with Kaushik, a group of construction workers stopped to buy small quantities of garam masala and oil. Strains of Odiya, Bengali and Hindi did not seem too complicated for Kaushik or his mother, who quickly understood what they needed. They paid and proceeded towards the vegetable and meat shops, presumably to prepare for their Sunday special meal. Mrs Babu claims that the building frenzy around the neighbourhood has brought in a new customer base. “We get daily wagers who are building the new five-star hotel coming up behind Ulsoor. They come and buy enough for one day, as that’s all they can afford.”

The store continues to be patronised by a loyal customer base that stretches across generations. In Mrs Babu’s view, ‘business’ is not merely about material transactions but also a space for social exchange. For those who have left Ulsoor, a return to the store is a way of recovering the texture of everyday life of the past, a touchstone to innocence and the slow-paced life in a city yet untouched by the IT boom of the 1990s. “Just the other day some people dropped by. Apparently they used to come here in their childhood but had gone away from the city. They bought stuff and said that they would get their monthly groceries from here. They were so delighted — they took pictures of the store and of all of us,” says Mrs Babu with a giggle.

Buried in stories about childhood, are sensorial maps of places and time gone by. The seemingly mundane acts of living like playing, buying daily provisions, or sniffing the air in front of the neighbourhood bakery weave together places and people in an act we call inhabitation. When the scale of transformation is as profound and telescoped as it has been in Bengaluru over the last decade, memory, personal histories and relics of the past are significant pegs on which people renew their connection to the idea of home, neighbourhood and city. Often these are recovered through a return to ‘everyday’ — maybe to a familiar place, a store or a street where the quotidian was lived. The presence of Gopal Setty Store, for many, is reassurance that some essence of the neighbourhood endures.

Every time I return to Ulsoor, I notice a new tall building amidst the debris of an old structure. In my last visit I almost missed Gopal Setty Store as the mud-walled shop next door had been replaced by a towering cement structure. A small puddle had collected in front of the store — run off from the curing of cement walls next door. Kaushik stood where he always does, surrounded by his merchandise, transacting business with a smile while his great-grandfather’s portrait watched over him somewhat anxiously.

Usha Rao is an anthropolgist and writer based in Bengaluru

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Published on December 12, 2019
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