Three-quarters of the world’s homes have a fridge – an appliance that can revolutionise a family’s life. A tailor in one Indian village has just become the first person in his community to own one – something he has dreamed of for 10 years.
Santosh Chowdhury is pacing up and down speaking into his mobile phone.
“How much longer? It’s left past the auto-rickshaw stand, yes that’s right,” he shouts, and then continues his nervous pacing.
It’s a big day for him and indeed for the village of Rameshwarpur, just outside Calcutta in north-east India.
Santosh has bought a new fridge – not just his first but also the first in the entire community of 200 people. “Owning a fridge is quite rare in a village like ours,” he says.
The lack of fridges in Rameshwarpur reflects the situation across the whole of India. Only one in four of the country’s homes has one. That compares to an average of 99% of households in developed countries.
But change can be rapid when linked to an emerging middle class. In 2004, 24% of households in China owned a fridge. Ten years later this had shot up to 88%.
“Ours is the first generation to own a fridge in my family,” says Santosh. “No one in my father’s and grandfather’s time had ever seen one.”
Rameshwarpur has a distinctly rural feel. People bathe in a pond in the middle of the village, children fly kites in the dusty lanes. The homes are little more than simple huts, made of mud and brick. But the village has electricity and many houses have televisions.
Santosh works as a tailor. He lives in a modest, two-room hut which doubles as his home and workplace. “I don’t have a regular job as such,” he says. “Sometimes I also work part-time in a factory. I make about three to four dollars a day.”
Life is quite hard, especially for his wife Sushoma.
She cooks lunch, stirring a pot of rice on a wood fire outside their hut. It’s something she does every day because they have no way of storing leftovers. So Santosh has to go the market early each morning to shop for groceries.
He’s always wanted to make life easier for his wife and has been dreaming of buying a fridge for 10 years. “Owning one will be so convenient,” he says. “You don’t have to buy vegetables every day, you can store food – especially in the summer.”
So he’s been saving hard, putting away a bit of money every month for a purchase that costs more than a month’s salary. “I don’t make that much money, that’s why it’s taken me so long. But now I have enough,” he says, smiling.
At one of Calcutta’s high street stores, about 15km from his home, Santosh had several models to choose from. Peering inside, he ran his fingers along the side of a bright red model.
“It was quite confusing. It was my first time you know. I couldn’t figure out which one to get,” he says shyly. “My wife wanted a red one. I wanted one that will consume the least power. We need to keep our bills down.”
Finally, the deal was struck. Santosh got a discount because it was the final week of the winter sales. The price was 11,000 rupees (£120) – but more importantly, he was able to pay in instalments, having paid just under half the money up front.
“No one pays cash any more like they used to,” says store manager Pintoo Mazumdar. “Everyone can get a loan from the bank or the store – all you need is a bank statement and ID. That’s why so many lower income people can afford to buy a fridge these days.”
Fridge ownership around the world
• 65% Asia Pacific
• 99% Europe and North America
• 87% Latin America
• 63% Middle East and Africa
Fridge ownership around the world
Santosh’s fridge finally arrives on the back of a cycle rickshaw. He walks along next to it with a broad smile. Many of the villagers come out on to the lane as well, craning their necks to get a better look.
“Careful, careful,” he cries out as a couple of them help carry the fridge into his house.
Then it’s time for a religious ceremony.
His wife applies a dab of vermillion to the fridge, to keep away evil spirits, and then blows on a conch shell to seek divine blessings and welcome the fridge into their home. The fridge has pride of place – next to Santosh’s sewing machine and their tiny television set.
They simply cannot stop smiling.
“We’ve dreamt of this moment for so long,” says his wife Sushoma. “Some of our neighbours have already asked us if they, too, can store some food in our fridge. “And I can’t wait to drink cold water in the summer.”
As Santosh shows off his fridge everyone crowds around, excited. “Imagine, they won’t have to shop for fresh vegetables every day,” says one woman. “I’m thinking of getting one too,” another man says.
It’s a special moment for the Chowdhurys. This acquisition could potentially transform their lives. “I can focus on finding more work and not worry about buying food for the family,” Santosh says. “My wife will get more free time and perhaps she can give me a hand as well.”
With those words, he opens his fridge and places the first contents inside – tomatoes, an aubergine, eggs and some milk.