Was there life before the gas lighters ? It took me about 60 seconds to clear the fog over the last few decades of my life, even though I think I am still of relevant age ! The neighbourhood ‘Kiranedar’ would deliver the monthly ration in a neatly packed cardboard carton, brought up to our first storey flat by a random kid who would always look emaciated just like I did. Child labour was not a fashionable topic those days.
Anyway, the point is that the random kid would lay out the contents of the cardboard content for display on the floor while my mother ticked off each item on her list. There would always be a familiar packet which I now think was green and yellow but I could be completely wrong about the color scheme. What I cannot be wrong about is the brand name : WIMCO encased in a diamond shape black box. Sometime along the way, my mother graduated to a gas lighter. At first it was treated like a decorative gizmo to supplement the matchbox routine and thereafter the matchbox was dumped and it became routine to swear profanities looking for the elusive matchbox whenever one needed to light up the candles on the birthday cake. The individual matchbox cost some obscenely small amount and then for the last many years I have no clue what a matchbox cost except that I’d routinely notice the paanwala throw a free ‘matchling’ of a box to anyone who cared to ask for a light.
In the good old days match box brands and graphics were as creative as they come. There is even a book on Indian Matchbox designs by Shahid Datawala on Amazon. It seems that the book is an obituary to the death of the matchbox in urban Indian homes. So much so that I buy a cigarette lighter in my house to light my daily incense and the multiplication of birthday candles. I guess the ‘maachis’ has relegated itself to the kerosene stove, ‘choolah’ and the odd ‘bidi’.
I did some quick search and found that the current industry consumer spend on matchboxes is Rs. 1250 crores p.a. for 24 billion match boxes. And that the government adopts a reservation policy on the matchbox business since it is considered a small scale industry. ‘AIM’ – is India’s largest selling Safety Matches brand and that ITC acquired WIMCO Ltd. through its arm, Russell Credit in 2005 and therefore owns key WIMCO brands like Homelites, Ship, Cheetah Fight etc.
And after 15 years of growing obscurity the good old matchbox is making Economic Times news today. After having been priced at a standard 50 paise, the Indian matchbox will now retail at double that amount. Is Mamta Banerji reading ? We can blame it on organised retail.