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Inside a South Indian Bazaar
Brilliant city lights whizzed past me in a dreamy blur as my father and I rode on his loudly croaking motorbike into the amber glow of the central bazaar in our city. Our family lives, and has lived for eighteen years, in a rinky-dink old city called Vellore in south India that only recently became a 'city'.
It was the night before the harvest festival (called Pongal in my native language) began in my hometown and I was in desperate need of new paintbrushes and oil paints. My old ones had gracefully announced their retirements since they were either shedding their hair like chemotherapy patients or dried stiff like pieces of stone. So my father and I were on our way to buy new ones and hopefully a few blank canvas boards too.
Frosty mid-January gusts rushed lucidly through my hair during our tedious journey, as if telling me to go back home right then and there. I realized it was an unfortunate time for me to want to visit the bazaar that night as it was bound to be jam-packed with more people than usual in this festive season. It would be a daring challenge to venture into the merciless hordes and come out the same night alive to tell the tale. But my town only housed one or two art supplies stores at all and if I wanted to buy them, the bazaar was the only place I could go to. Besides, I had procrastinated enough about setting a specific date to go buy them. Painting was an absolute requisite of mine and without it I felt lost or nervous. So I was determined to buy what I wanted before that night ended at all costs.
As I sat behind my father on his bike, while we veered from one tapering road to another, I calculated in my mind that it would probably take an extra twenty minutes or more despite the usual half an hour ride to reach our destined shop in the midst of the bazaar's rabble and traffic.
Before we had begun from home, my mother had actually wished us 'the best of luck' in reaching the art supplies store without getting lost in the relentless crowds of the bazaar since she knew perfectly well how frantic and crazy it could get in there especially at a time like this when the entire city was sure to be out deliriously shopping.
We went, my father and I, in spite of knowing this fact because after a long day, this opportunity also posed as an excuse for both of us to get out of the house and escape the nasty quarrels that arose between my mother and her mother over the most trivial of matters like why my grandmother dozed off while the TV was still on or whose fault it was that our pet parrot wasn't still fed its evening meal.
To me, the Indian Bazaar will always be a nightmarishly chaotic madhouse, no matter how much I'm familiar with it. I loathe how crowded it is; regardless of what the weather or which part of the day it seems to be, they are forever frustratingly abuzz and terribly, unbearably loud. But more than the dreadfully thronged streets and the abundant road rage between motorbike and car drivers who recklessly wend their way through almost anything, I hate how disgustingly dirty bazaars have come to be in India.
People spit like the entire road is their personal trash bin. They just don't care about where they spit, even if they have to step on it right after the glob hits the ground. And in front of every shop or hotel entrance, there squats house-fly infested mounds of garbage into which scraggy stray dogs can be found digging to find anything remotely edible to gobble down.
I cringe at realizing that children and beggars continue to walk with bare feet over those awful spaces, being so poor that they can't even afford a pair of sandals for their miserable feet. Also, there are these horribly strong smells reeking from those piles of junk . Like rotting fruits, feces and spices all mixed together with a nauseating sweetness. These stenches waft and sometimes diffuse with the aromas of the hot foodstuff being sold by peddlers along roadsides and the blending of these smells gives rise to a vomit-inducing effluvium that verily defies description.
These are just a few things I can't stand about Indian bazaars.
After about fifteen excruciating minutes of being stuck in a sea of jostling people and revving vehicles, I decided to maybe hum songs to ease my growing tension. It was worse than I had ever imagined. Where did all these people come from? I thought hopelessly. There were just so many people! On one side, there was a whole family riding on one motorcycle and on the other, I noticed a very colorful rickshaw blasting song after song of Hindu worship as the driver sat smoking while he waited for the traffic to move.
Recently, I had been listening to old English songs from the seventies and sixties and one of my favourites was a song called ' This is beautiful ' by Shirley Ellis. It was a quaint old song that emphasized that absolutely everything in life was beautiful. I turned on the music in my mind and hummed along with the melody. A mighty mountain, a roaring fire... if one appreciates the sight, This too is beautiful... went the lyrics.
But the scene around me was just too overpowering and I lost the tune in seconds. The blaring honks, people's barking, wailing babies and vendors' shrill cries penetrated my skull like a hundred jagged glass shards and I was on the verge of crying. But curiously at that moment, I found clarity. I realized at that moment that what surrounded me was an authentic symphony of sights, scents and sounds. I thought, if I abhor this, then I am a fool. I had to learn to absorb it instead. Like Shirley Ellis' song, This too, was beautiful.
I had always been an introvert in my life. I also took immense pride in being the fly-on-the-wall in every situation, the spectator always on the outside looking in. It helped me get inspired and also notice things that are normally unnoticed and naturally overlooked. Besides that, I was an artist. And an artist, I reminded myself, finds beauty in simply everything. Shirley Ellis had once again made me find the obscure joys in life.
As I sat there in the back seat of my father's bike while he navigated through the traffic which now moved like a sick tortoise, I began to notice everything. Women bedizened in their best saris, strings of flowers in their hair and bangles glinting gold and silver around their wrists. Men carrying sugar canes taller than themselves and bulging shopping bags, elbowing their way through the traffic absolutely with no fear of getting run over. Children and adolescents resting wicker baskets full of sweet-smelling daisies, roses and jasmine garlands on their heads, crying out for people to come buy some for themselves. Gift shops still selling Christmas and New Year's decorations, grocery stores, book shops, fix-it shops, bookbinderies and many more.
It was hectic and buzzing with excitement. The traffic loosened just a little bit and my father seized the opportunity, leading our bike through narrow spaces like a daredevil magician. Like a snake we went bending and twisting and curving and swerving our way through the traffic, always just an inch away from disaster. It was like a dangerous, evocative dance.
I heard suddenly, as we progressed, that out of nowhere a haunting, seductive flute tune was being played faintly somewhere nearby. It pierced through all the clamor, shattering every other sound to pieces and reached my ear. Time stopped for a second. Who could be playing that mesmerizing, exotic tune? I thought.
I searched fast as we were moving quicker now, almost completely having moved past the section of the bazaar from where the music sounded. My eyes darted like lightning across glowing jewelry shops and boutiques, overflowing novelty shops and tawdry confectionaries. There was a line of vendors who stood by their parked bicycles with baskets full of really beautiful flowers which I realized were only plastic after a closer peek. People were buying them as though they were heavenly honey. It was absurd.
I soon discovered, after much searching, who was playing that enchanting melody. It was a vendor boy, who stood hidden behind the other vendors. He could not have been more than 12 years of age. Dark-skinned and weary-eyed with dirt-caked nails and a frail body, he stood with a large bag of extremely cheap toys as he clutched a wooden flute and nonchalantly played the most curious tune I'd ever heard. It was simply magical. Reminding me suddenly of the Pied Piper of Hamelin. I could've stepped right off the bike right there and followed him in a trance wherever he went, listening to that captivating tune for I found it immensely hypnotizing.
I listened with every ounce of energy in me until I could no longer hear the tune or see the boy.
We finally reached the art supplies store after another grueling fifteen minutes. It turned out that the shop was closed. There was nothing I could do but chuckle peevishly at the irony of my situation.
After a hefty sigh of disappointment, my father asked around if any other shop sold art supplies in the bazaar. No, they didn't. We had no other choice but to go back home and return maybe on Tuesday after the harvest festival got over. (The harvest festival extended for three days and that day was a Friday).
My father and I had a surprisingly hard laugh over this unexpected turn of events and rode back home, stopping briefly at a makeshift restaurant to buy some dinner for my family. It probably took us another half an hour to get out of the bazaar and some more time to reach home but I never noticed how much time flew by. I was too busy making a mental note to remember this extraordinary trip for as long as possible in my life.