Shop Till You Drop

Oct 10, 2005

"It's time to upgrade my pilgrimage clothes," they all have been telling me. Ok, fine. Guri and I decide to go shopping at some recommended stores.

We walk into the first store -- a Macy's-like store in Baroda -- and man, I am totally uncomfortable.

I complain to Guri, "I feel like I just don't belong here. Can we go now?" Guri, of course, laughs it off as we try to orient ourselves in the store. On the streets of India, there are no maps or signs, no; instead of static sign posts, India has dynamic human beings that are willing to show you the way at almost every intersection. "Hey buddy, where do I go?" "Oh yeah, just go from here to here and ask someone there." Held by a rosary of beating hearts, Guri and I walked a thousand rural kilometers without ever getting lost. But here, inside this store, we fumble around till we find the right billboard-like placard: men's section, left arrow, kids, right arrow, women's showroom, 2nd floor.

Almost every couple minutes, I spot some guy cleaning the floor with an upright broom, or some teenager wiping the railings on the staircase, or someone wiping the windows squeaky clean. I'm all for cleanliness, but this just seemed like an artificial facade of beauty, a plastic surgery to cover up the dirty defects. In a way, India is a filthy place -- cow dung everywhere, smelly beggars on the footpaths, polluted air, bad water. Yet in another way, this mess is a manifestation of our collective mind that harbors inequities, chaos and dis-satisfaction; many parts of the world offer cocoons to run away from this filth but India, to date, still offers straight-up reality. After all, it was on these same Indian streets that Gotama the Buddha saw old age, disease, and death and was inspired to walk on the path of full liberation.

Anyhow, we get to the right section. Everything is very modern and stylish, and I must admit, fashionably impressive.

Unlike the road-side mom-and-pop stores, this store is huge. Amidst the sea of clothing apparel, I spot a cool-looking looking shirt that I sort of liked. I lift the tag to check for size, and then the second tag to check for price. Large. And Rs. 400. After some tag-lifting experiments, Rs. 400 seems like the minimum price at this store. With the right kind of mathematical gymnastics, perhaps you can make a case that its worth the price but I recollect my dialogues on Khadi and wonder how much gets taken up by enterprising (and corrupt) middle-men.

Another fact also becomes quickly obvious -- there are five, six, seven (sometimes more) copies of the same exact design. Cookie-cutter mass production. When Guri and I were walking, I remember receiving a gift from some potters on the street. With such joy, the family of potters showed us how they made each pot. Every one of them was unique, with its minor defects. I kinda of liked it. It was human. Guri and I were touched by gesture, not because it was high quality art piece with a high market value but because it symbolized the unbounded spirit of the human heart. None of that here. All I see are mannequins of commercialized behavior.

To top it off, the price of the half-sleeve shirt is 400 rupees. That's half a month of survival for two pilgrims living on 25 rupees/day and for more than 200 million other Indians below the poverty line.

I don't know.

In disbelief, I pass the mirrors next to the cosmetics section that are meant to make one feel incomplete without the gold plated accessories, I see the uniformly dressed up salespeople behind all the counters as if this was some sort of a game, and again, I spot the sweeper boys who diligently clean your mess to preserve my cocoon of beauty. No one is doing this to make my day; by buying from that store, I'm paying them to create this illusion for me.

In a blind-leading-deaf world, I always find it difficult to find a person to blame. Ultimately, it's all us. Personally, I'm not really for or against the clothing chains nor do I want to launch a rally for khadi. No. For me, I want to fight another fight. As Vivekananda would say, "Have you ever wondered why YOU are alive in a time like this?" Yes, Swami Vivekananda, I sometimes do wonder and I'm still looking for the answer. That's my fight. Me vs. Me.

"Ah, thank God for the heat," I semi-jokingly tell Guri as we walk out the two-storey, air-conditioned store. Until I got out, I didn't realize that A/C was actually nauseating me in some subtle way.

I recently read a popular quote, "Give us courage to change what we can; the patience to accept what we cannot change; and the wisdom to know the difference." I would put it this way:

Give us courage to be the change we wish to see;
the humility to accept our role in that we cannot change;
and the wisdom to keep serving without any expectations.

On the way back, our rickshaw driver greets us with an unusually broad smile. He says, "Sir, do you remember me? I gave you a ride yesterday." A simple reason for some genuine joy. "Oh yeah, wow. Is that you again? ... What's your name, brother?" "Raju." With a pat on his shoulder, I add, "Rajubhai it is great to see you again." Really, it doesn't take much to be happy.

It turns out, I would run into that same rickshaw driver, three times in the next three days in three different parts of the city. Sometimes I feel like I am running into everything over and over again.

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"Service doesn't start when you have something to give; it blossoms naturally when you have nothing left to take."

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