Hawkers, Bookworms and Chai: Notes on Bangalore

Snake-selling hawkers and evasive manoeuvres, cheap books and street pirates, interfaith tea and Muslim markets and capturing labyrinthine details.

I’ve now been into central Bangalore several times (see my photos).  The city around Mahatma Gandhi or MG Road has more intact footpaths than suburban Whitefield though in places still resembles a construction site, as does most of India.  At least the human-to-dog ratio is far higher.  There are many familiar chains: Planet M, Adidas, Levi, Sony, Nokia. “Happy Ramzan Mubarak” signs encouraged Muslims fasting for the Ramadan month, while I resorted to McDonald’s and KFC on my first trips into town, afraid to sample indigenous establishments lest sickness-sweepstake Grant grow rich.

Streets are patrolled by persistent hawkers with portable backgammon and chess sets, life-like wooden snakes, and toy jack-in-the-box vipers in cane baskets.  I casually, carelessly, asked the price of the latter – 450 Rupees – and the guy tailed me for several minutes, reducing the price by 50 Rs every half-block.  I wonder how many deaths hawkers cause by distracting pedestrians from watching traffic while trying to cross the road.

A tourist office had directed me to the Public Utilities building for train timetables.  In the railway office on the 22nd floor.  I managed to bypass the long seated queue waiting on slow manual ledger entry, but was informed that only the railway station had timetables.  After exploring craft shops in the lower floors, I headed out, and the same snake hawker pounced.  Sob story of no sales yet all day.  Worn down by his entreaties, I eventually bought two flexible wooden snakes for 200 Rupees.  While escaping hawkers on your own is difficult, groups can shift configuration.  One watch seller locked on to St Olaf Eric for over ten minutes, till we shifted Eric between Taylor and me, then steered closely past a lamp-post and shaved the hawker off!

My preferred retreat from traffic and hawkers, however, is the dozen inner-city bookstores.  Some are tidily ordered, like the basement “Book Cellar” or Higgenbothams, where I at last found the official 2007 “Trains at a Glance”.  The cover announced this is “Observing Cleanliness Year”.  Premier Bookshop or Gangarams Book Bureau slower but more adventurous browsing with dusty, disorganised shelves overflowing onto wobbling stacks.  When you give up, knowledgeable assistants dig requested treasures from the mayhem.  I enjoyed ferreting around “Book World” and “The Bookworm”, indeed “a treasure trove for used, new and rare books”.

Books printed in the West cost little less than at home, but those printed here are around four times cheaper.  Some Western titles (such as Wrox computer manuals) have cheap special editions for sale in India with fuzzy, non-glossy cover photos.  Purchases are detailed on carbon-paper receipt books and stamped at the exit (supermarket guards clip your receipt).  Books are also spread on the street – some 2nd-hand for bargaining, some at 50Rs=NZ$1.70 each for low quality printings of Western bestsellers.  One bookshop owner complained to me about these pirated street books.  A national network distributes bestsellers within two weeks of Western publication, and the police take a cut so nothing can be done.

My top finds so far (from reputable dealers, of course) are three works of South Indian novelist R. K. Narayan, poems and plays of Tagore, comic strip books of Indian history, folk stories and epics, and shortened prose versions of the epic poems Mahabharata and Ramayana, the Indian equivalent of Homer’s Iliad and Odyssey.  The difference is that all Indians know these epic stories and watched the recent TV series, and questioning their historical accuracy or defiling their holy sites has sparked nation-wide riots.

After the books, my friendliest afternoon was in the labyrinth of lanes near the Bangalore City Market (see my photos).  Elegant white and green mosque minarets, intricate balustrades and bulbs glowed in the setting sun above dirty shop fronts of flaking plaster and peeling movie posters.  In an alley of narrow hardware stores I chatted with Mohammed, who sells bolts and pipes with his brother, Allah, in a corner hardware founded by his dad.  There was a mosque just down the lane and a small Hindu temple across the road.  I shared a cup of hot chai tea and my parents’ photo on my camera.  He was impressed by my venerable father in his 70s, thought I should be married by now, and was shocked that my sister is still single after 30 – women should marry by their early 20s.  I met his Hindu three-wheeler truck driver friends and his Roman Catholic friend Ambrose, selling wire mesh two stores down with his brother Alfred, whose cousin runs a petrol station in Auckland, NZ!

It seemed to confirm what many Indians say: religious conflict here is just stirred up by politicians, remote from the common people (though of course I only hear from the English-speaking elite).  A few blocks further, shopkeepers sitting on raised platforms sold Muslim marriage articles, their gold thread and silver tassels glittering in the sun.  Another lane seemed all banana shops – green stacks on the ground, ripe yellow ones hanging.  Down an alleyway was some sort of Sufi shrine: Muslim men circling and kissing a tomb inside, green flags and a wild-looking Dervish outside.  In the next block, two boys stacking dried banana leafs, used as disposable plates, asked to be photographed and gave me a small ceramic lamp bowl for Diwali.

Supermarket shelves at home contain numerous items, but most are familiar when you look closely.  Here even small shops present overwhelming detail.  Glass fronts and gloomy interiors are stacked with jars of unidentifiable foodstuffs, packets and boxes with unreadable labels, a miscellany of articles with unheard-of functions.  A mysterious, disorienting chaos that defies mental attempts to classify or domesticate it, and hints at unknown worlds.

So much is happening that if I don’t note particulars, India’s stream of life can merge into a hazy blur, leaving only vague impressions.  So I sometimes just sat on steps and observed the bustle for an hour, jotting in my notebook.  In one lane I wrote: bulging hemp sacks, tied bundles of leaves, cane baskets of bananas, plastic crates, stacked plastic chairs, cardboard boxes, Phillips or LG flat screen TVs.  All of these carried on heads, (un)loaded from bullock carts, trucks, autorickshaws, bicycles, and a new silver Suzuki hatchback.