In Focus

Grocers, All Too Essential, That Stayed Open

The war seems upon us and the enemy is in no mood to relent. Even as most of us wear masks, stay indoors and safe, there are a few who brave the storm and risk all for us, at these times. The Draft Colaba in its ‘Unsung Warriors’ series goes beyond the usual Corona Warriors to pays a tribute to the few unsung others, each fighting personal battles and winning…all for us.
Here goes the fourth of the series Unsung Warriors: The Grocers!

"I want a frooooti!" yelled an uncompromising Fizan Khan to his grandmother on a hot summer afternoon. It was the month of April and Colaba was just beginning to deal with the excesses of the lockdown. Like the rest of India, Colaba was enduring its share of gloom and desolation.

The eerie silence, closed shops and empty roads were unimaginable in an ever-bustling Colaba. Most children, just like Fizan, had no inkling why their favourite shop was shut for the last few days or if the shop would even open, again!

SMALL JOYS: Fizan Khan getting his way with grandmother Moazma
at his favourite neighbourhood shop, after the lockdown
When the national lockdown began from 25 March 2020, the first thought that crossed minds of more than a billion Indians was: Will we be able to get food and food supplies during the lockdown to feed our families? And, fortunately, not only did the food supply chain run uninterrupted; distribution too continued smoothly, through grocery and general stores.

In Colaba, several grocery shops continued to serve their customers, old and new, during the lockdown. Many even 'modified' their shops to minimise 'contact' and enable social distancing. While a few grocery stores, taking advantage of public fears and the pandemic situation, started selling goods beyond stipulated MRP even compromising on the quality of the goods sold, a few refused to succumb to temptation and, instead, rose to the occasion. After all, they had to pay back the loyalty of their time-tested customers. And, what better time to prove it than now.

Colaba Market's Sangam Stores owner Prakash Singh has been working incessantly since the lockdown began. "Contrary to fears, my work increased multi-fold since the COVID outbreak. I had to ensure the material came on time so when the shop opened, I had enough supplies for customers."

Problems mounted when his shop staff returned to their villages in the middle of the lockdown leaving behind just a handful of people to run the shop. "I had seven workers, all from Rajasthan, who left for their villages fearing the pandemic. One returned after some time, but we are still severely short on staff," says Prakash.

OVER-WORKED: Prakash Singh's days were packed with sales and delivery during the lockdown
Prakash was constantly on the move, managing the shop, attending to customers, riding a bicycle or an Activa to make deliveries in Colaba and Cuffe Parade areas and…from the start of the day right until midnight. “After all, there were so many customers living in the neighbourhood who were unable to travel for fear of contracting the virus, most of them senior citizens. I had to reach them their supplies to help them manage things till the lockdown opens,” he says.

Prakash's shop stands, incidentally, in the middle of the many containment zones in Colaba Market and the adjoining slums. Moreover, "the owner of a shop next door also tested positive for COVID-19,” and so did sporadic others in the neighbourhood, escalating the risks of contracting the virus too. It was in the middle of all the action that Prakash, helped by his brother Ganesh, reached out to customers.

“We never hiked the price of even a single item, during the lockdown unlike so many other grocery shops in the neighbourhood. After all, the trust we have built over the last two and half decade cannot be broken,” says Prakash sounding way wiser than his age.

The lockdown had badly disrupted and slowed down the supply chain but many shopkeepers, like Prakash, worked hard to keep the work going.

Colaba Post Office’s New Variety General Stores owner Ramesh Patel would travel from Wadala’s Pratiksha Nagar daily even in the lockdown to his shop. “Two of my staff were stuck in their village and one managed to return, thankfully,” says Ramesh.

FIXED PRICE: Ramesh Patel, distinct from his locality counterparts, didn't overcharge customers during the lockdown
“The question of over-charging doesn’t arise at all,” he maintains.” Ramesh's, sadly, is not representative of the lot of grocery shops in the vicinity, let aside the locality, which charged on a whim at a time when people would easily pay up even buy in excess fearing an imminent shortage of goods or an extension of the lockdown.

It was the handful of sensitive community stores which stayed open, throughout the lockdown, fighting fear only to cater to their regular clients.

And, when Fizan threw a fit, as always, every second day for his frooooti – his treat after a bout of studies, all his grandmother Moazma Khan had to do was stroll into a next-door Maratha Stores to buy him the drink. The store stands in their residential premises.

That the entire nation was under a lockdown, didn’t matter to Fizan in the least. For families with children, distraught with being locked up at home for days on end, the presence of a general store - open and functional throughout the lockdown – in their vicinity, was priceless.

LOCAL LURE: Yogesh Bhanushali travels from Dombivali to Colaba every day to work
Colaba’s Maratha Stores stayed open and operational throughout the lockdown, selling goods at MRP, sometimes even at discounted rates, but never for more. Why, manager Yogesh Bhanushali travelled from Dombivali to Colaba, every day, from the onset of the lockdown, till date.

He would first ride all the way down to Colaba and back on his two-wheeler before travelling by train once Mumbai began to unlock.

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