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On and off the beaten track

Away from the glitz of Commercial Street, one can get clothes at a third of the price as well as scrumptious chaats.

A traditional jewellery shop in one of the bylanes.

THE NIGHTFALL metamorphosis of Commercial Street is dramatic. The shopping artery lined with sleek boutiques, posh showrooms and trendy cafés stirs to life, shaking off its afternoon torpor. The swelling throng weaves in and out of a stream of cars that inch along the road, honking impatiently. Laidback Bangaloreans, chatting and laughing, sipping Coke or munching popcorn, and carelessly littering the street with the empty newspaper cones, stop by garment or footwear shops, selecting and appraising before moving on to a neighbouring store. A woman in stiletto heels and a tight top steps out of a Mercedes, bangs the door shut instructing the chauffeur to return in an hour, and struts into Weekender to entertain herself with some expensive shopping. A college girl leans on her boyfriend's arm cooing sweet nothings: "You look nice, daa" and the flattered young man tightens his grip round her slim waist, grinning sheepishly. A thirtysomething mother, laden with Kids Kemp plastic bags, pushes a pram even as she drags along another squealing child.

The multilingual murmur — a sure proof of Bangalore's cosmopolitanism — is mixed with the cries of balloon vendors, knick-knack peddlers and flower girls who wheedle traditional-looking women into buying the fragrant jasmine by thrusting garlands under their noses. The road is illuminated with flickering neon signs that scream for attention and seduce opulent customers to open their bulging purses and splurge on luxuries that take their fancy.

Further ahead, venturing into the narrow, uneven bylanes branching off Commercial Street, a crush of jostling wanderers — rupee-conscious and practical-minded — press into shops to haggle over prices for the best buy, adept at reducing to a third the outrageously hiked up rates initially quoted. Most stores, barring popular brand shops such as Westside, Weekender, Wearhouse, Identiti, Woodland, are open to startling deals and bargains.

Prices are mercurial entities subject to time and circumstance, the appearance of the consumer and the mood of the owner-salesman.

An attractive woman walks into Dirty Fashions:

"How much for this shirt?" she inquires. "Four hundred rupees." "I'll pay no more than a hundred rupees," she snaps, frowning. "Take it for three fifty, madam." "No," she says peremptorily, and dropping the shirt on a pile of clothes, proceeds towards the door. "Okay, shall we settle for three hundred?"

The neon-lit Commercial Street looks dramatic by night.

There is concern in his voice. After a brief moment, "Two hundred, maybe?" The woman splashes a flashy smile; she had not expected to pay less and he, in turn, had not lost.

Shirts such as this one cost a minimum of Rs. 600 on Commercial Street; a designer salwar suit that sports a tag of Rs. 2,000 can be bought in the side lanes for a surprising sum of Rs. 700, and chic leather sandals purchased at a bargain rate of Rs. 250.

"Jaisa desh vaisa vesh," comments a wayside garment tradesman, "Me no money. Me no big shop." Exorbitant rent (sometimes over Rs. 1.5 lakh a month), trained staff, and other expenses such as air conditioning, elaborate window décor, guarantees on shoe buckles and stitching warrant the pricey goods of Commercial Street. Though some affluent Bangloreans never stray from the main shopping artery, it is not uncommon to spot a woman toting a blue Westside bag walking out of the functional Kumar Shirts with an embarrassed look on her face. Competition is steep in these small stores, which cater to a miscellaneous crowd. "There are too many shops and too many clothes," says a garrulous Tamilian working in Colors for All Occasions, "If we don't keep the prices low we will go out of business."

People gather on Commercial Street and its environs to hang out with friends and associates, maybe to shop. But certainly for most, it entails eating out — a modern trend fast turning into an addiction or a vice, as disapproving grandmothers maintain.

The hungry public congregates at the tables outside Maheshwari Sweets and Chaats or queues up in front of the adjoining Sagar Chaats and Sweets, both popular pani puri and bhel puri joints on Ibrahim Sahib Street. Others seeking cheaper snacks mill around pushcarts where vendors, working under petromax lanterns, fix portions of mouth-watering North Indian fare adapted to the South Indian tongue. Some serve crumbled samosas with a generous helping of warm pea masala and chopped onions; others ladle bhajias from a pan of hissing oil on to paper dishes. Health-conscious individuals prefer sliced fruit, fresh fruit juice, roasted corn or salted peanuts. "People don't have extra bucks to spend — a little food and a little enjoyment is what most want," remarks the owner of an embroidery workshop adjacent to a well-known food hub.

Following a tinsel evening of fun and frivolity, satisfied yet glad to be going home, I back my car loaded with redundant buys. Riding into the silent night away from the glitter of Commercial Street, I spot, all of a sudden, the milky moon, which I had failed to notice until then, gliding out of a mass of dark rain clouds . . .


Photos: K. Bhagya Prakash

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