Most of us probably consider the owner of our local off-licence a character in our lives. They see us at every hour: tinnies Friday 7PM, cigarettes Saturday 4AM, the inevitable slope back for biscuits and frozen pizza 12 hours later. Over the weekends, months and years, we build up unspoken rapports with them. In most cases, however, we see very little into their world, beyond fleeting chats that last as long as it takes to count the change.
Then again, not every convenience store is run by Sindhu.
Some time earlier this year, a convenience store owner called Sindhu rose to modest online fame when his musings on life, friendship and multipack crisp deals began striking a chord over Instagram. The account – Sindhuworld – featured images of Sindhu in his shop, alongside stock selections from cotton buds to candles, with captions like: "Good morning everyone, you've never lived this day before and you'll never live it again, make the most of it. Sindhu :)"
He soon reached over 35,000 followers. Since then the account has undergone a slight change of direction. Older posts of Sindhu were deleted, and in their place he began sharing images of his friends and family.
The crew now includes Sindhu's Uncle Bal, two new staff members called John and Patrick, and a man called Basil who is apparently Sindhu's piano teacher. According to the Instagram account, their store is also the site of an endless number of misadventures and incidents. Recently, Uncle Bal has challenged Patrick to an arm wrestle, Patrick has gifted Sindhu a bull terrier and Sindhu's friend Dip has gone missing. At this stage I have no idea where reality ends and fiction begins.
Recently the Instagram shared some troubling news. Because they had been selling bottles of Basil Juice – a homemade drink Sindhu and his piano teacher created together, which apparently "is good for your heart and tastes like water from a mountain spring waterfall" – with no listed ingredients, Trading Standards decided to suspend the shop's licence. However, out of despair and darkness comes light – in this case "Sun Shines (On You)", Sindhu's debut single, produced in order to save the shop from closure. Yes: they have made a song about sunshine and happiness. Please watch it and help me understand what is going on.
From the opening shots of soft waffles and Biryani paste, to Patrick's otherworldly bars in the final verse, there is something very special about "Sun Shines (On You)". The video is pure amateur exuberance – the Media Studies project your dad and his mates never got to make when they were at school – with an added dreamlike quality. There are many questions – why does that trolley keep freewheeling across the road? Can that dog definitely swim? – yet, importantly, the song really slaps. It's uplifting to the point of taking off, with a genuinely hooky chorus and an absurd drop. Then there are the lyrics, which take the positivity of the original Instagram captions to entirely new levels: "Hey Sindhu, behind the bins here, run free with a lion's heart" / "We can turn a pigeon to an eagle" / "Unstoppable, news topical, juice tropical, tell me the flavour we stock 'em all".
Sindhuworld had all left me deeply confused, unsure as to whether these were real people, or just some bored corner shop employees who'd convinced their older relatives to record a single. I wanted – no, had – to know more, so I dropped the Instagram account a message and was granted a phone conversation with Uncle Bal.
VICE: Hi, is that Uncle Bal?
Uncle Bal: It is, good evening.
How are you?
Not too bad, just getting started on something to eat, cooking some food.
What's on the menu?
I'm going to make some garlic chicken. Have you tried it? Basically you get your butter and you fry the garlic in the butter, not the oil – that's the knack. A lot of people use oil, but butter is better. In the Punjab we only use ghee. It's much better.
Well thanks for finding the time to chat. I was wondering, could you tell me a bit about the store?
It's a long story, I'll try and make it as quick as possible. I'm from the Punjab. I've got a farm there. One day, along came Sindhu. He was small. Four or five, roughly. He was hanging around and I thought, 'Hang on a minute, what's this little kid doing on my farm?' So I took him in. I asked him his name and he just said "Sindhu". Nobody's ever laid claim to him – he's an orphan – so I adopted him.
He started calling me Uncle Bal when he got a bit older and wiser. I tried to give him what I could, being a farmer. I've tried to teach him all about the birds and bees, the good things. We've got a lot of animals on the farm, for example: bulls, cows, the normal things, goats, sheep, we've even got donkeys, horses. It's quite a big farm. I tried to teach him how to wrestle a bull, that was crazy. Thing is, he never really got in tune with how to deal with the bull. I always told him you've got to wear a red cloth, look at the bull and get angry with the bull, and when the bull charges you've got to go for the horns and bring it down. It's basically like wrestling. But he used to just stand there and just drink a glass of milk or something. Wrestling isn't his sort of thing. He'd rather stand there with a glass of milk and talk to the bull until the cows come home.
Right. He wants to be friends with bull, not wrestle it?
He's got a very good nature – I think he's taken that from me. Anyway, by the time he was 17, I told him: "Listen, you've gotta be a man, and the only way you are going to be a man is if you do something." I had a bit of spare money so I packed his bag and sent him to the UK. What he's done is started his corner shop. This is how it all started.
Over time, he's gone on to Instagram. On there he became famous, but he can't really take the fame and the spotlight. He called me and said, "Listen, Uncle Bal, I can't really take the fame, it's too much for me." So I came over to help out in the shop, and now I've taken control of it mostly.
So that's why Sindhu doesn't feature in the posts as much any more?
He's very shy.
What can you tell me about the other guys in the video?
One day, I went for a holiday to Windsor. Sindhu couldn't really handle the shop so he put a sign up saying "extra help required". Patrick came into the shop – he's the Chinese guy. He came into the shop, but he was a bit stroppy, so Sindhu sent him away. He didn't like his attitude, so he said "No, you can't work with us." Then John walked in after that, and he was quite good, so Sindhu employed him.
In the meantime, Patrick was a bit of a malicious character. When I used to turn around he'd leave a piece of burger among the toilet rolls and run out the shop. It went on for a little while. You know the gherkins you get in a burger? I used to find bits of gherkin everywhere. Things like that. One day, what I did was I hid in the kitchen while I was making tea. I could see through the crack in the door. I thought something sinister was going on. John walked in and because he's a big guy, Patrick walked behind him, and he sneakily put something there. As soon as I noticed that I ran after him, and I caught him, and then basically I challenged him to an arm wrestle. I said, "If I win the arm wrestle then you've got to behave yourself." I won because I'm very strong. I'm twice the size of Patrick. Being me, I decided to give him another chance. So he's become one of the team.
I see… and am I right in thinking the song is an effort to save the shop from trading standards?
Oh yes. What happened is Sindhu and Basil got together and made some juice. It's special ingredients – top secret, I can't tell you – and they've been giving it away. So Trading Standards have come in and said, "You can't really sell something without proper labels." That's the issue.
Who wrote the song?
Well, it was my two nephews. Basically, Sindhu done the words, and we did the instrumental with my other nephews.
Are you planning on going into music full time?
No, the corner shop is the heart and soul of everything.
Cool. I know you're hungry, I'll leave you to your dinner.
Thank you for calling.
While one of the more entertaining interviews I've ever conducted, I was still no closer to understanding what was going on. So I decided to visit what I thought was the store's location: Bathu Food and Wine in Greenwich. I was determined to work out if Sindhu, Uncle Bal, John, Patrick and Basil worked there, or if they were even real.
It wasn't hard to find. A short hop from New Cross on the 53 bus, before I knew it I was perusing the hallowed aisles, peering behind Pot Noodles, looking for an elderly synth-playing piano teacher. As it happens, I didn't find Sindhu behind the counter, or anyone else who appears in the videos. Instead, the two blokes working there laughed when I asked about the Instagram account. "Yes, this is the shop," one of them told me, "but Sindhu doesn't work until much later I'm afraid." I asked if they had a lot of people coming in asking about the Instagram, and they nodded. "Every single day."
I thanked them, bought a pint of milk and returned to the pavement. The LED "Open" sign blinked back at me, and closure seemed a long way away.
UPDATE: I've since received a message telling me Sindhuworld is no longer run from Bathu Food and Wine, and is now run from the nearby Quality Food and Wine instead. The plot thickens.