Khadi Experience - The tale of two cities
For as far back as I can remember, the khadi emporium in the premises of the Assam Khadi & Village Industries Board in Chandmari, Guwahati has been a part of my memories. Having been born and brought up some 200 metres away from the Khadi office, its emporium has willingly or unwillingly been a part of my life.
I remember it as a dingy room, dusty and depressing with the shelves are pretty much empty. A few white kurtas hanging shapelessly, the people inside least bothered whether customers come in or not. Well, I knew Gandhiji popularised Khadi, but looking at these boring clothes, I really did wonder who wore them at all!
Fast forward a few years and I am a student at Delhi University (DU). Janpath, the cheap flea market in Delhi’s Connaught Place, is the fashion haunt for DU girls. On September 30, after a shopping session, a Delhiite friend dragged me to a huge four-story glass building which is a walking distance from our flea market to buy some shampoo, lotion, and a few other things. The building looked attractive and expensive, but it was packed with people – which doesn’t happen in high-end stores.
As I approached the building, the name “Khadi India” was engraved in huge letters. I was shocked! This glossy, beautiful Khadi India was the same as the dingy, old, depressing one next to my Guwahati home – and packed with people! Stepping inside, felt like stepping inside an alien land. Yes, I had been to supermarkets, I had seen posh stores – but to think that the dusty Khadi store of my childhood could be something so amazing – felt like I was living in alternate reality. There was an underground section especially for cosmetics. From Bhringraj oil to almond oil shampoo, from rose skin lotion to gold peel-off mask, it had it all. That too at prices much lesser than the ‘herbal’ brands that are usually commercially well known. There were sections for food grains and all kinds of edibles.
I spoke to a few local woman customers who informed me that they purchase their monthly grocery supplies from that store. The ground floor houses traditional handloom from all across the country, along with handmade decorative items. The first floor is exclusively for women’s wear and oh, how lovely!! From the most exquisite khadi sarees to fashionable skirts, from breezy pants to vibrant dupattas – it was a heaven for any fashion-loving woman. To top it off, the prices were much reasonable as compared to other brands like ‘Fab India’ which too sells khadi products.
The third floor is dedicated singularly to men’s fashion, from dhotis to shirts, from kurtas to what not! As it was near to Gandhi Jayanti, the whole store had discounts in place. That’s when I understood what beautiful fabric Gandhiji had encouraged the nation to use!
Through my graduation and master’s years in DU, I came back time and again to this place. Be it to buy shirts and kurtas, whose colours my father specifically chose over a video call, or to buy scented soaps for my grandmother. We have even visited this place to get some respite from the Delhi heat in the centrally air-conditioned building after a shopping session in Janpath! I started using Khadi hair care products exclusively. For this, I didn’t need to go to CP but instead, I found several malls in Delhi kept these products in their stores. Later, sometime around 2017-18, I saw that even Delhi airport had its own Khadi India store with a lot of their attractive products.
Now fast forward to 2020, I am pursuing my Ph.D. at IIT Guwahati for the last two years. After coming back from Delhi, I made a trip to the Khadi India store near me in Chandmari. The only change was that they had replaced the front with a glass showcase. The insides were still dusty and dingy, the shelves quite empty, the people still uninterested. It felt like I had gone back in time. I enquired about the shampoo I was looking for but they had no clue about it. They said, sometimes you get a shampoo or two, prominence on "sometimes." The few kurtas they had, though the same as the ones in Delhi, were hung so clumsily that people getting attracted to them was highly improbable. The only thing they had in plenty was mustard oil. I went back home disappointed.
Since then, I have been ordering Khadi India products online, having to pay an extra delivery charge despite the store being 200 metres away from me. I am often left embarrassed when my friends from IIT-G belonging to other states ask me to get different Khadi products from the store near my place, and I have to return empty-handed. I am not aware whether we have a stocked Khadi store in Guwahati somewhere, but it's definitely not popular – otherwise someone in my family would have heard of it – being such Khadi fanatics that we are! Sometime near Gandhi Jayanti, the Chandmari Khadi cleaned up a little. Once I found a few new clothes hung, and some body washes were put up as well. However, only body washes and Gulab Jal though, almost as if variety is a crowd killer. But I literally had a cobweb on my hand when browsing through some of the kurtas.
I just cannot understand why the store, which is so vibrant in Delhi is in such a poor state in Guwahati. The Khadi emporium here has enough space to accommodate a lot of products. Guwahati markets are filled with products from Patanjali and SriSri, so why not Khadi India? While people flock to Fab India to buy kurtas (which sell from around Rs 1,500), why not sell the vibrant good quality Khadi India kurtas that I bought from Delhi at Rs 800?
I recently went to the store again, hoping that maybe I will get some products. There were around 10 bottles in a total of shampoo, oil, and conditioner combined, which when I touched left a layer of dust on my fingers. With the dust in my fingers I came out of the store, thinking about the packed Connaught Place Khadi India – if not alternate realities, then what? In these times of ‘Atmanirbhar Bharat’ and ‘Make in India’ campaigns, I sure do hope that the Chandmari Khadi will finally someday wake up and be an example of what Gandhiji wished for our country.
(The author is a PhD Scholar of the Physics Department from IIT Guwahati. Views expressed are personal)