The old city has always felt like a maze to me; A maze I’ve always wanted to wander through, not necessarily looking for an exit. I have visited numerous times before, to buy books, visit historical monuments, and to print cards, but never have I made a shopping expedition to the city. Maybe because it felt daunting, or maybe because I felt like the shopping mall close by was a better destination. But towards the end of 2016, I felt this compulsive need to discover what the old city had in store for me and what I had missed out on.
Don’t expect this piece to give you names of shops you must visit, or directions that will lead you exactly where I went because honestly the latter would just misguide you (unintentionally of course), and the former; well that’s just not the point of this article. For shoppers willing to go past the glitzy discount-heavy malls and I-want-to-pick-what-I-saw-online-IRL, Laxmi road, Tulsi Baug, and their neighbouring lanes can be quite the heady encounter. Be prepared for a ton of nostalgia, some child-like wonder, moments of why have I never come here before, and of course, lots of walking.
The roads here are a one-stop destination for pretty much anything under the roof, and for a bargain-hunting, willing-to-go-through-mountains-of-stuff shopper, these shops are paradise. New-age window displays jostle for space with tiny, old stores which can only fit two or at best, three clients at a time. Take Mr. J.D. Kulkarni’s bindi shop for example. Yes, a bindi shop, with several hundreds of sheets of bindis hanging from every possible spot. He’s been running the store for almost 31 years now. Says Mr. Kulkarni, “I have seen women using kumkum for bindis and transitioning to the stick-on variety. I have seen trends change where women have chosen simple round bindis or elaborate bindis, inspired by TV series. There may be fewer people wearing bindis, but the regulars keep coming back, and some people just find us.”
Every shop around here tells a similar story, like Mahavir Jewellers, an imitation jewellery shop that has changed ownership in the 20-25 years it’s been around, but has retained the shop hands who know exactly what the customer may be looking for, or Shewani Fabrics, a readymade blouse and petticoat store that has been based at Kunte Chowk since 1974. Purshottam Shewani, the son of the proprietor of Shewani Fabrics, says, “We have clients who come in from every part of the city, for regular and festive wear. Our regulars know what they want and know that we have the best. Also, our prices range between INR 500 – 1500, so that is a selling point, too.”
And that may just be the winning mantra for shopkeepers in the old city. The pricing of products here give good-old malls a run for their money. I found a funky earcuff for a mere INR 40, my friend picked up a spectacular ring for INR 100 (she would’ve paid about INR 500 online), and we found dupattas at Prakash Shankar’s stall, located off Vishrambaug Wada, ranging between INR 80-200. Add to these prices, a knack for selling and unique marketing techniques. For example, this unnamed bag stall where the owner, who sources bags from Rajasthan, sends out Whatsapp messages to a group of his regular clients informing them of new stock.
It’s a testimony to ever-growing innovation and undeniable business sense.
There’s a German word, fernweh. It loosely translates to mean a feeling of homesickness for a place you’ve never been to. For those shopaholics amongst you who are fascinated by the story of a place as much as you are by the things you find there, the old city is a good way to tame that fernweh, albeit momentarily. Take a day off, find things that you would find elsewhere but more mechanically, discover stories, relive your childhood, make that shopping expedition a journey of sorts.
Believe me, it’s quite an experience.