Bachi Karkaria's Tales from TJ Road: A kirana shop's makeover embodies migrant enterprise, Mumbai's 'metromorphosis'
Through this fortnightly column, Tales From TJ Road, Bachi Karkaria tells the story of Mumbai's metromorphosis
Read more columns in this series here.
The Siddhirella of Sewri
It is the story of migrant enterprise, of Mumbai and the metromorphosis unfolding before us. ‘Siddhivinayak’ shed its ragi-rags and, with a wave of the branding wand, turned into ‘White Magic’ five years ago. This Sewri landmark started life as a rough and ready kirana shop; it is now a sleek, climate-controlled ‘supermarket’, with signposted aisles and a watchman at the entrance who checks your temperature and another at the exit door — just a yard away — who checks your bill.
It is a totem of the change that marks this once-historic-then-shabby-now gentrifying area. The wand was waved by just one young man with ‘dhandho’ in his blood and fire in his belly — that double helix of the Kutchhi traders whose localised shops are as legit a part of the animal spirits of this commerce-driven city as any globally listed MNC.
Rameshbhai Ramji Kutchhi Patel, now 30, came to Mumbai from his village, Adhoi, as a 15-year-old, and with the help of the bhai-osphere of extended family, set up shop on Sewri’s arterial Acharya Donde Marg. He flourished enough to buy over the neighbouring property, expanding business and carpet area from 1500 sq ft. to 3,800. At age 23, he decided on a sexier change. In 2015, our jaws dropped as we beheld the familiar ‘Siddhivinayak’ emerge from its burlap cocoon as ‘White Magic’, complete with uniformed sales girls persuading you to add one more item to your shopping cart. The inventory has snowballed to ‘25,000 + products’. Rameshbhai emphasises the ‘plus’; it’s a work in progress. It now includes roll-on deos, bin-liners, cold pressed oil, chia seeds and all the other markers of upward mobility — and the locality’s transformed demographic.
What prompted the decision? “Jamano badli gayo, and if we don’t change with the times, we will be thrown out,” says Rameshbhai. He elaborates, “Kirana shops had already turned into provision stores, and now it is the supermarket trend. E-commerce had also increased, so we too had to add value for our customers.” He’s unlikely to go online, but ‘mobile app toh sharoo thai gayo chhe (has started)’.
Doing business in Sewri has changed unrecognisably from just 20 years ago when mill dmazoors would finish their shift and pick up ‘rations’ on a day-to-day basis, usually on credit, ‘udhar khatu’. Rameshbhai says “Development has forced out the poor. I cater for the towers as well as the older tenements. I pass on scheme discounts. This way the customer saves two paisa and I add to my profits. It has always been our motto to help all, big and small. Newer people have come in; older were doing better before the lockdown hit everyone.” Peppering Gujarati with English he says, ‘Purchasing power strong thayo, toh business pann (also) grow thayu.”
As marketing jargon trips off his tongue, I naively ask if he’s taken some professional courses since coming here from his village. Without any self-consciousness, he says, ‘Na, bas SSC Fail.’
Did they get professional help at least for the new branding exercise? Rameshbhai replies as nonchalantly, “We only did it. One of my cousins came up with this new name because ‘white’ is a positive colour; we don’t want to cause any nuksan to our customer. And ‘magic’ just matched this. Pehley devi-devtaon nu naam chaltu hatu (At first the practice was to name shops after deities). Young generasun fancy naam mangey chhey.”
When I moved to this ‘Lowest Parel’ in 2008, Siddhivinayak was not so much my go-to provision store as it was a ‘come-to-me’ one. At any given time, from 9 to 9, its boys with their large, grubby canvas bags would be delivering the orders we’d place on the phone; the guy at the other end always saying ‘Biju kai? (Anything else?) after I’d recited my long list – or merely ‘10 gm elaichi’. Even better, the boys always came with change for the 500 or pre-DeMon 1000- rupee note we’d give. In fact, you could even tell the guy on the phone to send change for a far larger denomination than your puny order merited. Which is why I’d written a column when Walmart loomed, saying the big chains would never match this kind of customer interface.
White Magic’s profits have increased 10-15 percent annually. In this disastrous year it was “50 percent-plus, but that was because everyone else was closed, so it doesn’t count”, says Rameshbhai. White Magic was our saviour during those desperate early months. Our housing society volunteers went there with our lists every 10 days, and the shop assistants filled the individual bags marked with flat numbers. Mercifully, the home delivery boys are back. And just as in the early years of brand-change the guy on the phone would promptly correct me if I said ‘Siddhivinayak’, now he politely tells me ‘mobile app pe order bhejiye’.
The big online players are back, but, remembering who served us in our time of stress, I plan to remain vocal for local.
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