Railway Bazaars and Marketing Marigolds

An emporium on rails and gullible crafts; ominous veges and arty pomegranates; cubes of pineapple and cones of peanuts, pyramids of colour and garlands of carnations.

My stomach recovered for Tuesday’s Chennai-Bangalore Brindaven Express.  When the British commissioner made this trip in 1862, the railway only went part way so he completed the journey, his diary says, with “14 hours of severe jolting in a hearse-like transit carriage”.  By 1895 the line was finished so I went the whole way in six hours.

The seats were hard but the ceiling was studded with fans so the trip wasn’t bad.  I browsed my 5 cent Indian Express paper and was entertained by a stream of entrepreneurs, some blind, who jostled down the aisle like a mobile $2 shop.  They offered drinks – coffee, tea, tomato soup, soft drinks – and sustenance – foil-wrapped breakfasts, Indian snacks, potato chips, avocados.  Wary of re-aggravating my stomach, I bought only safely sealed chips.  Everyone discarded their cutlery and containers out the window, lining the tracks with plastic and paper.

The carriage bazaar also sold ornamental accessories like bead necklaces and flowers, and devotional essentials like wooden gods.  There was in-flight amusement galore – Rubik cubes, story books, plastic kids’ rattles and guns – and if I grew tired of the circus of sales, there was the scenery outside.  Stations sailed past with spray-painted stencil signs canvassing votes for engineers’ unions, some platforms with more dogs or goats than people.  Glinting gold-green coconut palm trees shaded grass huts.  A golden wheat field was neatly trimmed up to a line of bright working saris.

Beggars joined the hawkers on board as we neared Bangalore, so I was doubly glad to have a window seat.  As I queued for a prepaid auto-rickshaw at the station, bystanders restrained two guys from blows – a villainous driver getting his deserts?  I spent three more nights at the church guest house in Central Bangalore.  My room had the verse, “My grace is sufficient for you”.  With lower temperatures, as winter approached and I was back up at Bangalore’s 920m, I dreaded the cold shower but by grace it ran hot for the first time in two months.  (See more Bangalore photos here and here.)

Back on MG Road, my snake vendor friend recognised me, and the same eternally hopeful hawker still flew his boomerang helicopter.  It never returned to his hands but crashed among parked cars every time.  A bronze Shiva danced on shop steps before a larger statue of his consort Parvati, alongside store dummies modelling the latest Indian blouse-skirt-scarf combos.  Fleeting fashion and eternity: does filthy lucre or Shiva’s dance make the world go round?

With home-coming and Christmas approaching, I catalogued craft shops.  Assistants pulled a fine Pashmina shawl through a finger-ring, or revealed the secret mechanism to open magically-locked wooden caskets.  They showed me carved lattice-sided elephants or camels, “pregnant” with a smaller copy inside, sometimes a third “baby” nested inside that.  One claimed I was his first customer after two months holiday, drawing a finger along dusty shelves as evidence; if I didn’t buy it would bring bad luck.  An entertaining story, so I bought a wooden triplet of see-hear-speak no evil monkeys.  (I mostly purchased from fixed-price emporia to avoid rip-offs and bargaining hassle.)  Another entreated me to buy something, anything!, as he had no money for his bus fare home – he raised his arms and invited me to verify that his pockets were empty.  Unlike with street hawkers, in a shop you can enjoy such performances and then leave when bored without being followed.

Striped prayer mats dried on a white mosque balustrade, archways reflected in the courtyard pool.  A bearded man in dark skullcap and white baggy pyjamas sat on his motorbike conversing by cell phone, in front of a “no entery” sign on the one-way street.  As I ate lunch, two women gossiped and giggled at the next table, then finished their meal, rose and tied on black veils.  I was taken aback by their sudden faceless anonymity.  On the street I was warmed again by a wrinkled smile, remaining teeth stained dark red with betel juice.

In the older part of town the whole sidewalk was an emporium.  Shoe shining.  Crumpled clothing smoothed with a coal-filled iron.  Names engraved on a grain of rice.  Rows of water bottles, cigarettes, jars of sweets below fluttering silk head scarves or magazines.  Gleaming brass or silver lamp stands, single, double or triple tiered, topped with spikes or peacocks.  Blankets, tables, carts were spread with a medley of trinkets: combs, hairclips, tooth brushes, razors, nail clippers, cotton buds; underwear, socks, sweaters, beanies; cell phone covers, mirrors, padlocks, pens; colonial coins, fine bead necklaces, brass pots and idols; neat rows of rings and jumbled polished stones.

There were plenty of snacks.  Bread rolls with jam, a cart of potato chips.  A woman in a crimson sari scooped peanuts from a sack as big as a toddler’s paddling pool into cones of rolled newspaper.  Bicycles bulged with coconuts like bunches of huge hairy grapes, the tops deftly lopped off by machete and replaced with a drinking straw.  Sugar cane rods were fed into grinding cogged wheels and the juice trickled into a glass.  Slices of tomato, cucumber, pineapple and melon looked refreshing, but I saw the vendor rinsing them with water to prevent drying and, I feared, add fresh bacteria.  (See market shots here).

It was fascinating stuff, but my goal for the afternoon was the Bangalore produce and flower market.  I had broken my compass in Chennai and it was too overcast to get my bearing by the sun, so I wandered off track into an industrial neighbourhood.  Overall-clad workers were loading trucks, arc-welding or cutting metal with gas torches.

Despite such side trips, I soon found the veges.  I edged through the river of haggling customers, rushing saris, munching cows, trying not to stumble over artistically piled carrots, carefully balanced avocados, overflowing hemp sacks of rice, grain or fiery red chillies.  Pomegranates were sliced in flowering polygons of shiny crimson seeds.  Rows of stainless steel bowls with vibrant pyramids of tikka powder, for cosmetic decoration or ritual anointing, presented every tint of the rainbow like a kindergarten poster of colours.  I was nervous of bumping them in the crush.  Dull square tins held half-excavated cones of ochre, olive, orangey-brown – what a friend called the “masculine range”.

Workers posed for photos with their basket hats, like Mexican sombreros with high upturned edges, as I entered the concrete building.  I passed people sitting in piles of petals, threading buds with nimble needles.  Then I found the mezzanine floor that ran around the vast hall and overlooked an ocean of blossoms.

Piles of orange marigolds, crimson carnations and white jasmine, heaped and scooped onto scale pans.  Garlands coiled in baskets that could hold a man.  Some monochrome, of uniform species, others striped like candy cane.  Men drew them forth like botanical snake charmers.  It was the psychedelic zenith of my India trip, a temple of the spectrum, a saturated summa of colour.