Walmart has arrived in Aurangabad.
It’s called EasyDay here, because of the foreign investment laws in India that require Walmart to partner with a local player. I guess having a new identity is also part of the deal. I’m not sure why they chose to call it “EasyDay”, however. Life in Aurangabad isn’t really too difficult yet. The town, a fledgling city, still moves slowly. People stand around and talk to each other at a languid pace, and the day doesn’t even start until 11am because families have tea and a proper breakfast meal together.
I pull into the parking lot, off the dusty, potholed road, and sit in my car, amazed. There is a parking lot. And it is a big one. Usually, I’m feeling hassled, looking for a spot somewhere, anywhere, in somewhat proximity to my destination, because there isn’t any provision for me to park right next to where I want to go. A small, saving grace that already puts me in a receptive mood to shop. I almost feel like rewarding them for this thoughtfulness by buying more than I need.
At the entrance, there is a greeter, the hallmark of every Walmart. Except here, she’s barely 20 years old. Instead of retired folks getting a second vocation (if you can call it that), it’s youth that are getting the employment leg up. I don’t know the terms of her job, but i imagine it’s a salary that helps the household. Helpfully, she hands me a basket, and I walk in.
The first thing I see is a display of wheat flour and basmati rice. Interesting. The store’s choice is not lost on me. These staples are taking up prime display space instead of soda and chips. Wow. The state of India’s health seems still good, as people show their wallet’s preference for wholesome, home cooking instead of junk calories.
I start browsing and dropping things into my basket, and before I’ve moved too far, the lights go out. Ah, the joys of halting industrialisation, when electricity comes and goes like a mistress’ whims.
It’s afternoon, and the store is covered in darkness. Hmmm. I wait, thinking the generator will kick in. Tick tock. Nothing. Tick tock. I wait a bit more. I try to read the labels on ketchup bottles in the darkness, willing my eyes to develop superhuman abilities, like reading in the dark. To no avail. Finally, I approach one of the floor helpers and ask, feeling foolish all the while, if the lights are going to come back on soon. She nods, as if I’ve asked an obvious question. I don’t want to risk looking more foolish, by asking how long, because everyone else seems to be in flow and unbothered. So I meekly go back to the ketchup aisle and stand in front of the red bottles dutifully waiting for illumination.
After a few minutes, the lights come back on. I feel relieved. I can see my terrain once again, and I am back in the land of familiarity. Confidence revived, I jet about the aisles, and start walking towards the cash counter, my basket filled generously.
And then, a funny episode happens. As I’m striding towards the cashier, a lady turns to look at me. She’s standing at an end-aisle display of liquid hand soaps, and with one bottle in her hand, she looks up at me. I catch her eye, and we have a moment, checking each other out.
She looks young, like 23 years old. She’s in a cotton sari, draped modestly, covering her shoulders. She’s married, because I can see vermillion filled in the middle parting of her oiled and braided hair and dotting the center of her forehead. She wears a thick streak of dark black kaajal in her eyes, to make them look bigger; i can see she has small, beady eyes, which need the kaajal’s help to be noticed. Her ears have multiple piercings of small gold rings, the way they do it in villages.
She gives me a look-over, a skill women the world over are born with. I’m in flip-flops, torn jeans, and an old tee shirt. No earrings, no vermillion, no eyeliner. My hair is open, unoiled, probably wild looking to her. She has a strange expression on her face, like curiosity mixed with eagerness to understand why I’m dressed the way I am. It’s a friendly regard, though I can tell she can’t make up her mind on how to categorise me.
I look back at her, taking in how different she looks to me, and realizing how we exist in two entirely divergent cultures, even though we’re both standing in the same EasyDay. It is obvious that we are on two different tracks of life. I can tell its her first experience in a supermarket. She seems puzzled by the liquid soap bottle, the way she turns it up, down and sideways. Her posture looks tentative, she’s not sure of her footing in this place.
Unusually, I feel a kinship to her. While I’m confident inside the store, I am unsure of myself outside it, having been a big city girl all my life. Like the strange new form of soap in her hands, I am feeling my way around the contours of a small town. It feels like we’re both exploring new worlds, taking uncertain steps and motivated only by a desire to know what’s out there.
The look over complete, we unlock our gaze and return to what we were doing. I pass through the checkout, and walk towards my car, smiling as I take slightly surer strides in my new world of Aurangabad.