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Saturday, 16 June 2007

SHOP GUIDE - India's Oldest Toy Shop

Nothing about Connaught Place is unfamiliar to me. And yet, this amazing place called CP never ceases to spring surprises. But as I had said in my earlier post, even in these 25 long years, I always chance upon something new in this market.

Our latest find in CP was also thanks to my non-Delhiite husband who loves walking around the inner circle. When he told me that CP has the oldest toy shop in the country, I was sure that it must be one tiny shop, tucked away in some corner of the market. Well, not really.

The toy legacy

With a bright red board saying India's Oldest Toy Shop, Ram Chander & Sons stands proudly next to the Odeon theatre. It was impossible to miss the board but still I had managed not to see it for so many years.

And when I finally saw it, I was little curious as I walked in. One look around the shop took me down memory lane, back to the good old days when birthdays always meant how many new toys were added to my cupboard!

Dolls, doll houses, kitchen sets, cars, aeroplanes ... just about every imaginable toy was stacked here. I guided myself to a small stool kept next to a dignified looking, grey-haired man who was busy working on his computer.

I only had to ask, so this is the oldest toy shop in the country? There was no stopping him after that.

The man turned back chapters and chapters of Ram Chander & Sons and his very own life. "Just like people are given injections to prevent TB etc, I was given an injection of toys, " Satish Sundra, the fourth generation owner of Ram Chander & Sons thus begins his conversation.

I was informed that the shop was first set up in 1890 in Ambala Cant, at Kasauli in 1928 and finally in Delhi in 1935. For Sundra, it has always been a question of maintaining a heritage.

"When they started renovating Odeon recently, I was worried because the shop is hidden by the barricades surrounding Odeon. But with God's grace, our loyal customers still make it a point to come to our shop," he said.

"When I took over the shop after my father, people used to come and tell me, arre tu kya janta hai, hum tere dada se mal khareedte the. I used to feel little angry but soon realise how much those words meant. Even now I have customers whose famiies have been coming here for generations."

This shop too had its brush with celebrities. "Begum Pataudi used to come here to buy toys for her children." They also claim the Modi's and the Birlas used to at one time shop for toys here.

With this, I glanced around the shop. Somehow, even after all those years, the shop seemed to have an old world charm. Nothing seemed modern and in sync with the contemporary world here.

There were no glass showcases with toys decoratively displayed or sign saying 'Good to see, nice to hold. Once broken, its considered sold.' I could see children just walking in, digging into piles, taking out their favourite toys and just examining them.

It was a carefree world which would seem fascinating for any child. As if reading my thoughts, the old man started talking again. "I have never got this shop renovated from my father's time. Everything here is as it was all those years back. I feel my shop should be like a child's messy room. Children should not feel scared after entering my shop. So here, nobody is ever stopped from opening anything. A child should always go home smiling."

Testing times

Life was not always easy for Satish Sundra and his family. "My father came to Delhi after he had a split with his brother. So when we came to here, we were not rich. For a long time, this shop was our home since we didn't have money to buy a house." I was engrossed hearing the tales of survival.

"My father died when I was sixteen. The onus of running the shop came on my uneducated mother. But even in these circumstances, she didn't compromise on our education. I studied, graduated from St Stephen's College. But I was never keen on joining the shop. I wanted to get into foreign services. God of course had different plans for me," said Sundra.

The business has had various phases. "Since 1969, we used to import some toys but the government imposed a ban. Things being produced were sub-standard. In 1982, we were producing nothing but garbage. But slowly, because of competition, duties have come down. So a water pool which used to cost Rs 1495 some years back is now available for Rs 495," said Sundra.

Times change, people change

Sundra gets philosophical and calls himself a sentimental old fool. "My regret is that the people's involvement with their children is not high as it was 30 years ago. Today, I see them buying expensive toys but somehow they don't have the time to teach their children how to play. We're going to pay a very heavy price for all this," says Sundra with disappointment.

After these words, I wasn't surprised to see that Ram Chander & Sons has a different way of functioning. The customers here seemed more like family as they chatted away to glory with the shop owners.

The fifth generation, Sundra's son now works along side his father. He might not have renovated the shop, but the seventy-year-old man is adapting with the changing times. "See at the age of seventy, I am now learning how to use a computer," is what he tells me as he sees me off with a grin.

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