Today, I went with my parents to Green Street, a place I have not been to for a long while even though I live fairly close to it. Green Street is the shopping destination of choice for Asian people in East London – you get all the Asian food supplies, Asian clothes for the women in cloth of their choosing, etc. It is a lot like China Town for the Chinese. We were intending to go and see the newly opened East Shopping Centre, which was an indoor mall of Asian shops, probably the first in Great Britain.
As we were driving down, we noticed that the newly opened sweetshop Nirala was offering half price on Indian sweets. The temptation was too much for my parents and it was decided that I was to go and queue up in the long line so that they could buy some gulab jamuns, amongst other sweet delights, while my mother made some enquiries at clothes shops and my father found a parking spot for the car. After queuing for a while, my mother changed her mind and she pulled me out of the queue. It was only ten minutes and then she changed her mind again, so we had to make our way back to the queue.
As we stood there, at the back of the line for the second time, a middle-aged Asian woman with remarkably attractive brown eyes in her head attached herself to the line behind us and immediately began talking to us. She talked about how her sister, who she had come to visit, had told her about the opening of the new Indian sweet shop and how her children were against her eating Indian sweets, because of the risk of diabetes. She asked us what we were buying and, when I noticed that there were seven chillies and a lime hanging from the corner of the gold shop, she informed me that it was to ward off the ‘evil eye’. The woman informed us that each of us were only allowed 2kg worth of Indian sweets and then, finding out that I wasn’t going to buy anything, she asked me if I would be kind enough to buy some things for her and when I said I would, she handed me over a ten pound note. She asked me to buy her laddoos, a delicacy that I don’t know the name of, so had to point at to purchase, and some gulab jamuns like us. After getting her purchases for her, I met her outside the store talking to my mother and she said her goodbyes and walked off to her car clutching her several shopping bags.
This little incident, which may some unremarkable to most, is highly unusual in my experience. People don’t talk to each other in the queues in the area of East London in which I live. In particular, unfamiliar women don’t come up and begin to talk in a friendly fashion to men like me. I don’t know if it was eccentricity on the woman’s part, or whether it is the atmosphere of Green Street that prompted the conversation, but the little exchange was memorable because it hasn’t often happened to me.
Having said our goodbyes to the friendly woman who was so fond of Indian sweets, we walked down to East Shopping Centre. Inside, there were clothes shops upon clothes shops, all selling exclusive and expensive Asian fashion items. The friendly woman had told us that the clothes shop wasn’t for the likes of my mother and her. She was right. The clothes were tipped at the young, moneyed, most fashionable end of the market. The stores were all like the exclusive Damini’s. The first store to catch my notice was the haute couture Indian wedding dress store. I wondered, as I passed by it, how the owners made any money. Surely there weren’t enough Asian people in the area getting married for it to turn a profit? But, I told myself, there must be for the store to have its existence. The clothes shops all had beautiful clothes in them, with beautiful patterns and beautiful cuts. As I walked from store to store with my parents – window shopping for the most part – I compared the sparkling and amazingly splendid Asian clothes with the garments that Western celebrities wore on the red carpet. To me, the Asian clothes were more impressive and more beautiful. The western style of extravagance does not compare because it thinks that understatement is the key to style. The Asian mindset, on the other hand, is to shout out its flamboyance and dazzle the spectator. In this way, it is like Michael Jackson’s sparkling, sequined stage costumes.
I walked out of the East Shopping Centre concluding that it was a good place for browsing, but hardly somewhere that one could do any serious shopping. Even the restaurants in the mall, which I had expected to serve Asian food, were a disappointment. They served food from other cuisines. A group of school children we passed on the street were also talking about the shopping centre. They were wondering why it was called ‘East’, apparently unaware of the East/West opposition that the name turned on. One child scornfully remarked that the name was just a cheap imitation of ‘Westfields’, another local shopping centre in East London.
My parents ate some kebab rolls at Khana Khazana. I had already eaten, so had turned to the desserts menu in the hope of finding some delightful chocolate filled concoction. The only chocolate ice cream sundae on the menu had cinnamons in it, which I intensely dislike. The second best sundae was strawberry, but I am not such a fan of this ice cream, so decided not to have anything. As my parents ate, the waitress came up to ask for the telephone number of the Indian sweet shop, as she had noticed the carrier bag of Indian sweets that I had put on the table in front of me.
We ended the day in several other shops. My mother was still making some enquiries about clothes from the various clothes shops and lastly, we did some vegetable shopping in Queen’s market before driving off home. My mother noted that the boxes of mangoes everywhere were distinctly unappetizing compared to the ones that could be bought from regular supermarkets.