The Fictional Shoppers' Club

Where do some of literature's famous characters go shopping?

Published: Nov 6, 2014 07:39:42 AM IST
Updated: Oct 17, 2014 05:19:05 PM IST
The Fictional Shoppers' Club
Image: Chaitanya Dinesh Surpur

Maharani Gayatri Devi did it at three
Too much of it killed Madame Bovary
It shook Harriet Beecher to the core
And couldn’t save Dorian’s scabrous soul
Big Brother declared it a crime
But Mumbai’s pirates think it fine
For Harry Potter it proved prophetic
Wordsworth thought it catastrophic
China’s nouveau riche love it though
As do Carrie Bradshaw & Co.

Ruinous, decadent, wicked, delicious
It’s all of that, plus so addictive
We hope our little verse has you hooked
To shopping in the world of books
Don’t bring your wallet, don’t fret about parking
You don’t need either:
Let’s go shopping!

Accio Owl, Accio Robes

When Harry Potter, accompanied by the giant Hagrid, steps into a twisting cobbled street, he is so astounded by what he sees “he wished he had about eight more eyes”. He’s at Diagon Alley to buy his broom, cauldron, robes, books, telescope, pet, and wand—no school-shopping list was so eclectic. Harry buys a snowy owl from Eyelops Owl Emporium, books from Flourish and Blotts, and robes from Madam Malkin’s Robes for all Occasions. As he goggles at shops selling dragon liver by the ounce and beetle eyes by the scoop, Hagrid marches him on towards the most important item on their list: His magic wand. At Ollivanders: Makers of Fine Wands since 382 BC, the muttering Mr Ollivander’s tape measures Harry, not merely from shoulder to fingertips but between his nostrils as well. Harry then tries out several different wands. None works, until an exceptionally powerful 13.5-inch, holly-and-phoenix one warms to his touch and sends a jet of red-and-gold sparks into the air. Harry pays seven gold Galleons and is bowed out by the pale Ollivander, to whom he has taken an instinctive dislike. Loaded with their “funny-shaped packages”, Harry and Hagrid take the Underground back to Paddington.

Rowling has skillfully introduced a frisson of menace into this happy shopping scene: Ollivander has noted that the phoenix whose tail feather is in Harry’s wand gave another feather to the wand owned by the evil Voldemort. What does the ownership of brother wands portend? Something ominous, undoubtedly. It’s in this dusty shop that we get the first hint of  the complex connection between Harry Potter and He-Who-Must-Not-Be-Named.

A Royal Toddler Goes to Harrods
In her elegant memoir, A Princess Remembers, Maharani Gayatri Devi recalls how she shot her first panther when she was 12. Long before this, however, she’d embarked on a different but equally audacious hunting expedition: Shopping at Harrods on her own at the age of three. In 1922, her parents, the Cooch Behars, moved to a house in London across the street from the fabled store. That year, when her father was ill with pneumonia and the household preoccupied with nursing him, the little princess gave her nurses and tutors the slip and ran across to Harrods’ toy department. “Why the manager of Harrods, Mr Jefferson, didn’t send me straight back home I shall never understand,” she recalls in her autobiography. Perhaps because the deferential Jefferson was astounded by his tiny customer who solemnly instructed him to “put it on the account of Princess Gayatri Devi of Cooch Behar”. Her purchases included a colossal paper cracker stuffed with goodies for her Bhaiya, a packet of pins for her sister “Ila, who used to tease me” and gifts for her English governess, who promptly reported her extravagance to her mother.

That did it. ‘I can still remember my mother’s slightly hoarse, deceptively gentle voice, saying into the telephone, “But surely, Mr Jefferson, you didn’t take Ayesha’s orders seriously?”’ Ayesha was the nickname chosen by her mother, who, when she was pregnant with her, had been immersed in H Rider Haggard’s She and was fascinated by the wise and beautiful Arabian queen Ayesha, the titular she, also known as She-Who-Must-Be-Obeyed. Small wonder Jefferson took the real-life Ayesha seriously. Gayatri Devi always had a soft spot for Harrods in much the same way Audrey Hepburn’s Holly Golightly did for Tiffany’s.

The Fictional Shoppers' Club
Bucket list: Harry Potter goes to Diagon Alley to buy his broom, cauldron, robes and magic wand

Who Let the Kids Out?
Pallavi Aiyar’s enjoyable non-fiction book Punjabi Parmesan takes a critical look at the decline of Europe vis-à-vis the rise of China. This is sharply evident when she travels with a group of Chinese children to the Swarovski headquarters in Wattens, Austria. These pampered 10- and 11-year-olds are mainly the children of rich (and perhaps corrupt) Communist party officials and businessmen. They don’t care for schnitzels and sleep through classical music recitals. But when their coach pulls up at the Swarovski store, they spring to life—and how. Over the next two hours, Aiyar watches stupefied as the Chens and Zengs and Yaos blow up thousands of Euros “snapping up Swarovski like candy”. One buys a 2,800-euro watch, another demands to be shown every model of crystal bunny and a third cheekily tells Aiyar he likes a crystal dog because “it’s not made in China”. All of them flash credit cards, but the store insists on phoning their parents in China for approval, which is readily given.

Swarovski has ensured that half its shop assistants are Chinese, and those who aren’t, like the Tyrolean cashier, have learnt to say “mima” (pin code) and “men piao gei wo” (give me your entry ticket). Most amazing of all, notes Aiyar, is the cool attitude of the children to all this fuss. “It only seemed to confirm their sense of Chinese superiority,” she writes. “Once again, it made me recall how these were children born at a time when China’s ascent to superpowerdom was pretty much taken for granted, an assumption that would have been laughable for the generation before.”

The Fictional Shoppers' Club
A separation: Uncle Tom’s Cabin describes a slave market scene where Negro families are divided and sold

Buy Us Togedder, Togedder

Abraham Lincoln is supposed to have said to Harriet Beecher Stowe, the author of Uncle Tom’s Cabin, that she was the “little woman who wrote the book that made this great war”. Though there is some doubt about whether he actually said these words, there can be no doubt about how deeply Stowe’s 1852 novel shook America’s conscience. Even today it is impossible to read Chapter 12, which describes how Negro families were divided up and auctioned off, without being plunged into despair. This is shopping at its most abhorrent. Looking to buy some “property” is the Bible-quoting slave trader Mr Haley. On sale at the slave market are a rheumatic, half-blind woman called Hagar and her teenage son Albert. Hagar begs him to buy them “togedder, togedder” but Haley’s only interested in a pair of hands to work at his plantation. After feeling Albert’s arms and making his jump to see how fit he is, he buys him and leaves the weeping Hagar behind. Haley gets on to the boat with his new purchase.

At the next stop he buys a young woman and her baby. Back on the boat, he sells the infant to a stranger for $45, telling him to leave quietly with it while the mother is on the other side. When she finds out what has happened, the mother is surprisingly calm. “The woman did not scream,” writes Stowe. “The shot had passed too straight and direct through the heart, for cry or tear.” That night she jumps into the river and kills herself. Haley is most put out: “He sat discontentedly down, with his little account-book, and put down the missing body and soul under the head of losses!”

The Fictional Shoppers' Club
Image: Getty Images
Nature’s enemy: Wordsworth’s 1806 sonnet is an anguished critique of consumerism

Arsenic and Lace
The popular notion that Madame Bovary is undone by adultery is quite wrong. Not sex but debt drives this Material Girl to suicide. As the English novelist Julian Barnes succinctly put it, Gustave Flaubert’s 1856 masterpiece is “the first great shopping and fucking novel”. Pretty Emma Bovary longs for a more exciting life than being housewife to a loving but dull country doctor. She distracts herself by having affairs and indulging her taste for “the finer things in life”. Eager to service her material whims is the wily merchant Monsieur Lheureux, who allows her an endless line of credit. And so it starts. She spends fourteen francs in one month on lemons to bleach her fingernails. She buys a Gothic prayer desk and muslin curtains and orders a blue cashmere dress from Rouen. She sends for Lheureux “twenty times a day”. As her love affairs crumble, she tries desperately to “soften the bitterness of her life” with silk scarves, kid gloves, and Chinese screens, unmindful that her little daughter Berthe has holes in her stockings. The incontinent shopping continues till her debt mounts to a shocking 8,000 francs. Lheureux, suddenly ruthless, calls it in. Emma has twenty-four hours to pay up before the bailiff arrives to seize the Bovarys’ furniture. Her husband is sturdily unaware that he and his wallet have been steadily cuckolded. Panic-stricken and sobbing, she rushes to her lovers for help. They turn her down. Faced with ruin, she swallows arsenic and dies a painful, and for someone who so loved pretty things, tragically ugly death.

Pirates of the Pavement
What beats buying a good book? Buying it cheap from that beloved and most democratic of Mumbai retail outlets, the pavement booksellers at Fountain. Anjali Joseph’s subtle novel Saraswati Park opens with a scene at one such stall. It’s a hot evening on the brink of rush hour when Mohan shows up. The tall, grey-haired Mohan, who works outside the General Post Office as a letter writer, belongs to that curious breed that buys books for their marginalia: The notes and doodles left by earlier readers. What better hunting grounds than these stalls that contain the remains of people’s libraries? It was here that he had found Mark Twain’s How to Tell a Story And Other Essays with gorgeous two-inch-wide margins. Bookish and retiring, Mohan feels uncomfortable in the city’s new bookstores with their cafes and cut-outs of celebrity cookbook writers, but here he happily holds out a book “where handwritten notes in blue ink danced next to the sober type”. He puts a 10-rupee note into the thin bookseller’s hand and tells him if he sees any more books with writing on the side, he should keep them for him. The young man grunts. Mohan leaves, and the bookseller finally gets a customer whose needs he understands. Joseph describes the ensuing transaction with gentle humour:
“Then a fat man with a briefcase stopped at the stall. He took out his handkerchief and wiped his face all over.
‘Da Vinci,’ he said urgently.
The bookseller bent and picked up two copies of the pirated book, each with a slightly different cover. ‘Complete,’ he responded. ‘Every page is there.’”

Dorian Gray and Dacca Gauze

If Wordsworth was an apostle of nature, Oscar Wilde was an apostle of beauty. No character embodies his devotion to aesthetics more completely than the anti-hero of his classic Gilded Age novel, The Picture of Dorian Gray. The unspeakably handsome and obscenely rich Dorian Gray falls under the spell of the languid hedonist, Lord Henry Wotton, and spends a whole year acquiring exquisite textiles and objects to decorate his magnificent house. The novel was published in the high noon of Empire, in 1890, and Dorian’s shopping cart showcases England’s Amazonian reach: “Dainty Delhi muslins, finely wrought with gold-thread palmates and stitched over with iridescent beetles wings; the Dacca gauzes, that from their transparency are known in the East as ‘woven air’, and ‘running water’, and ‘evening dew’; strange figured cloths from Java; elaborate yellow Chinese hangings; books bound in tawny satins or fair blue silks and wrought with fleurs-de-lis, birds and images; veils of lacis worked in Hungary point; Sicilian brocades and stiff Spanish velvets; Georgian work, with its gilt coins, and Japanese Foukousas, with their green-toned golds and their marvellously plumaged birds.” Wilde was a passionate advocate of art for art’s sake, but in this uncompromisingly moral tale, Dorian learns that this carapace of splendour cannot shield him from consequences of his debauchery.

The Fictional Shoppers' Club
Image: Chaitanya Dinesh Surpur
Compulsive shopper: Madam Bovary is often regarded as “the first great shopping novel”

Big Brother Hates Shopping
Shopping becomes a radical act of resistance in George Orwell’s chilling novel Nineteen Eighty-Four. In the totalitarian empire of Oceania, all individual pleasures have been eradicated. Soon, the orgasm will be abolished. Shopping for non-Party books and pretty objects is a crime, for books make you think and beauty allows you to dream. And yet the pale Winston Smith, who works in the Ministry of Truth, risks his life by surreptitiously going to a junk-shop and buying a diary to put down his thoughts. He is irresistibly drawn to this tattered shop, and on his next trip spots something that fascinates him: “a heavy lump of glass, curved on one side, flat on the other, making almost a hemisphere. There was a peculiar softness, as of rainwater, in both the colour and the texture of the glass. At the heart of it, magnified by the curved surface, there was a strange, pink, convoluted object that recalled a rose or a sea-anemone”.

What he’s spotted is an old pink paperweight enclosing a piece of coral from the Indian Ocean. Its beauty apart, what makes it “doubly attractive” is its “apparent uselessness”. He pays four dollars for it and leaves exhilarated, determined to return to “buy further scraps of beautiful rubbish”. What he doesn’t know is that the seemingly dotty old shopkeeper is actually a member of the dreaded thought police. Soon, the police smash the paperweight to shards, and Winston ends up in the torture chamber. But the brief bliss he experiences in owning a useless “rainwatery” lump of glass is a poignant reminder not only  of Keats’s imperishable line that “a thing of beauty is a joy forever”, but also of the absurd joy a simple purchase can bring. How ironic that a socialist like Orwell should make such a persuasive case for shopping.

Department Stores vs Daffodils
Although William Wordsworth was only 36 when he wrote, “The world is too much with us”, he comes across as a man tired of life. This 1806 sonnet is one of the briefest and most anguished critiques of consumerism. It was composed when the Industrial Revolution had begun to roar through England, ushering in an age of cheap factory goods, but also ravaging the countryside that the poet loved so deeply. The first four lines are particularly moving:
The world is too much with us; late and soon,
Getting and spending, we lay waste our powers;
Little we see in Nature that is ours;
We have given our hearts away, a sordid boon!

For Wordsworth, nature and materialism are implacably opposed forces, and this poem is his cry against a future dominated by “getting and spending”. In other words, the ecocidial world we inhabit today, in which, to use novelist Jonathan Franzen’s scathing example, Asia’s remaining forests are being levelled for “Chinese-made ultra-low-cost porch furniture” for American customers of Home Depot. A world getting steadily hotter as shopping lists get longer. Wordsworth, then, was an early prophet of shopping-assisted climate change.

Nonsense Buys
How many of us have succumbed to buying a pair of shoes that look lovely even if the fit is just a tiny bit off, only to go home and regret our rashness? Shoe shopping is a singularly fraught exercise. Edward Lear, the genius writer of limericks, mournfully captured the problem when he wrote:
There was an Old Man of Toulouse
Who purchased a new pair of shoes.
When they asked, ‘Are they pleasant?’
He said, ‘Not at present!’
That turbid old man of Toulouse.

Threatening to be the pair to the old man of Toulouse is the Manolo-mad Carrie Bradshaw from Candace Bushnell’s New York-saturated novel, Sex and the City. “‘I’ve spent $40,000 on shoes and I have no place to live?” she wails, irritatingly, in one television episode. “I will literally be the old woman who lived in her shoes!”

(This story appears in the Sept-Oct 2014 issue of ForbesLife India. To visit our Archives, click here.)

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