Tuesday, March 29, 2011

The Fab India Legend

My friend Radhika Singh's book on Fab-India has just been published (you can order it here). At the Dehradun launch for the book this past Sunday, people shared stories about what the shop meant to them and I found, to my surprise, that I had a few stories of my own, though in the heat of the moment, the first one came out a bit garbled and the second one didn't emerge at all.

So I thought I would give it another try - because they are both good stories.

Fab-India, for those who don't live here, is "an Indian chain store retailing garments, furnishings, fabrics and ethnic products handmade by craftspeople across rural India." (I lifted that from wikipedia.)

It was started in 1960 by an American man named John Bissell who came to India as a Ford Foundation consultant and ended up marrying an Indian woman (Bimla Bissell) and staying here for the rest of his life. It's a store that, in spite of being a chain, people feel passionately about and intimately connected to.

So here are my stories.

The first time I set foot in Fab was in 1981. I was 23 and I was going home for my first visit since moving to India with Ravi. Gifts for my family were obviously in order and my friends Libbie and Amitav told me I would love Fab India. "It's got an American sensibility," Amitav said. "You can pull things off the racks yourself - you don't have to point at stuff and hope the guy behind the counter knows what you mean." Amitav was right. What a beautiful store! Full of the most wonderful fabrics!

So there I was, walking wide-eyed through the place, running my hand appreciatively across the cloth, loving the fine weaves and the dazzling colors. But the price tags! Ravi and I were dirt poor in those days. I wanted to get something for each one of my family, but there was no way I could afford to do it.

Just then, John Bissell and an American woman appeared on the shop floor. It was clear to me that she was a buyer for a large US firm. They stood just a little way from me and I could hear John saying "See. That's a typical American buyer. She appreciates the weave, the 100% cotton, the design."

The woman said: "And yet, she walks past without buying."

John: "She's worried about the ironing."

No, John! I wanted to say. I'm worried about the money! Because, of course, I wasn't a typical American buyer at all. I might have looked like an ex-pat or a tourist, but in fact I was a very poor American girl on an Indian rupee budget.

Fast-forward to 1996. By now, Fab-India was a force to be reckoned with. It was wildly popular and known throughout the country.

I had changed too. By now I had a little more money and didn't feel quite as daunted by the Fab-India prices.

So there I was in the same N-Block Market shop and there, in a little deja-vu moment, was John Bissell again. And again, there was an American buyer beside him. Only this time, there was also a nurse. John Bissell had had a stroke a year or so earlier. He was no longer able to speak and he had trouble controlling his saliva. The nurse was there to wipe his chin, but John Bissell was still clearly in charge.

I had only recently gotten involved in the field of disability so I didn't really understand what the communication board he held in his hands was all about. What I did understand was the tremendous courage and dignity I was witness to.

John Bissell was not going to allow a stroke to change his ability to engage with the world. With determination and tenacity, he got himself back up on his feet. He worked out a way to communicate - with staff, with customers, even with American buyers - and he carried on.

That image of this strong, lovely man - out on the shop floor, doing what he had always done - has stayed with me all these years as an icon, as a vision, as a dream come true of what it looks like to prevail, to hold fast, to stand tall against the odds.

We all have much to learn from his courage and from his grace.

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