Chhote chhote sheheron se, khali bore dopaharon se, Bunty aur Babli jhola utha ke chale...
What is it that defines a 'chhota sheher'? By population, Indore city is a large town of 1.8 million residents - double the size of Chandigarh.
And yet, Chandigarh is not a city you associate with being a 'small town'. It's almost 'metro' in its attitude and way of life. Indore, on the other hand, is still a chhota sheher at heart.
I would define a chhota sheher as one where the residents are still very worried about log kya kahenge. Many choices an individual makes are within certain 'acceptable' boundaries. Boundaries set by the elders and some amorphous being known as 'society'.
One important point to note here is the large population of banias in Indore - traders and businessmen from the Jain, Maheshwari and Agrawal community. That partly explains why Indore is far more 'traditional' than Chandigarh!
Punjabis are far more freewheeling and freespending, while banias tend to be quite attached to prathas- or social conventions.
Which is why my cousin's mother-in-law - a sweet old lady - found me rather vexing. No sari, bangles, no sindoor, no toerings... "Kam se kam bindi to pehen ni chahiye", she murmured, after silently observing my kurta-and-jeans-clad frame for two days.
Kam se kam logon ko pataa to chale you are a 'decent married woman' is what she meant. But was too polite to declare, in so many words.
As they say - in Indore, do as the Indoreans do. Which is why a hoarding for Dena Bank featuring Juhi Chawla - without any bindi in Mumbai - has a prominent red dot painted on - in Indore!
Ek alag soch
'Progress' is a strange creature. Mother-in-law does not mind my cousin taking guitar lessons or choosing to have only one child (a daughter). But, she insists that bahu wear only saris. Bahu would much prefer to switch to salwar-kameez - but accepts silently.
Meanwhile, Indore is on the radar of all consumer marketers. But does junta here think and behave like Mumbai or Delhi? Not yet.
Both Dominos and Pizza Hut set up shop here... and subsequently shut down. "Sau rupaye ka pizza kaun lega?" reasons Lucky, a young nephew studying 'MFA' at the local Vaishnav university.
Ditto with the Lee-Levis variety of outlets which he says, hardly any students patronise. The unbranded options give them more bang for the buck and offer acceptable quality/ variety.
That ain't good news for all the malls and multiplexes which will soon throw open their doors in Indore. But perhaps housed in a mall - with a concentrated 'feel-good' ambience - the same brands may have better luck. And hopefully, sales.
As of now, Lucky is quite kicked with the local 'Vishal Megamart' (a chain which offers 'Fashion Street' kind of clothing in a/c environs). For now, 'value' scores over 'snob value'. But values can, and do, change over time.
What is 'value' anyways?
Consumers are complex creatures. That's evident from the consumerism practiced at this cousin's home.
A battered and seldom-used semi-automatic washing machine stands in one corner. The television is an ancient model of BPL and there's no cable connection. "Bachchon ki padhaai affect ho jayegi", is one reason. 350 bucks a month is too much to shell out - is the other.
However, the same household has a computer, with a broadband internet connection. Why? "Bachchon ki padhaai ke liye zaroori hai". Even though they aren't planning to take up 'hi-fi' careers, an investment in a computer is seen as 'worth it'.
And now, jijaji wants to buy a laptop. "Kaun sa brand achcha rahega?" he asks. I wonder why he needs one. The answer is surprising but simple: dhande ke liye.
You see, jijaji is an 'investment advisor' and although he has a loyal client base, there's a whole lot of competition now from new players. The likes of Citibank, HDFC Bank and HSBC have set up shop and their army of young, locally recruited MBAs is on the prowl.
These MBAs wear suits and ties and make jazzy presentations on laptops. "Is liye mujhe bhi laptop lena padega," he grins. "Impression jamaane ke liye".
What the Citis and HDFCs can't do is offer the 'personalised' service many clients require. For example, there are ladies who will specifically ask jijaji to come to their homes after their husbands have left for work - they wish to make certain 'private investments'.
Yup, these housewives want to make FDs or post-office savings - of money received from the maaika, or quietly salted away from the household budget. Like many other clients, these women use our address to receive their official correspondence.
"Hamare ghar mein roz ke itne courier aate hain ki sab delivery waalon se acchi khaasi jaan pehchaan ho gayi hai," says my cousin dryly. The perils of 'customer relationship management'!
And yet, the picture I have painted so far does not tell the complete story. Although still small and not very visible, a 'new' Indore is coming up.
The new Indore consists of nuclear families, multi storeyed apartments, women clad in Babli kurtas and an emerging professional class.
This Indore houses a 'Bombay hospital' and an 'IIM'. Of course, IIM is only technically part of Indore - physically it's 16 kms outside of it and mentally, a completely different world.
But there are local MBA schools like 'Prestige'and 'IMS' which, by Indore standards, are decent. The students may not be CAT-level but speak fairly good English and don't look all that different from college kids in Delhi or Mumbai. They also have more 'freedom'.
Lucky explains the difference thus: "On Valentine's Day, Prestige had an 'official program' where students even auctioned roses...At our college (Vaishnav) when a group of boys and girls went to the local ice cream parlour a professor jumped onto a scooter, located us and dragged us back to the campus".
That's not to say Lucky is bechaara. He has plenty of friends who are girls - but no girlfriend. And, that's a conscious choice. Shaadi to arranged hi karni hai, he reasons. So, bekaar ke lafdon mein kyun padna?
It remains to be seen how long young people like Lucky - who still form the majority - continue to think this way. Until then, Indore's 'small town' status will remain safe. And so will the sale of bindis!