Tag Archives: people

Olfactory Overload and Market Mélange

I breakfast on spicy crêpe, follow my nose to market, and cook up Indian aromas; I practice Hindi and bypass heatstroke, dodge dentists and float through floral fantasies.

mavalli-tiffin-rooms-waiterI began my penultimate Saturday in Bangalore at the Mavalli Tiffin Rooms, where steam from metre-wide vats of sambar clouded my camera lens as I entered.  It’s been a popular spot since 1924 and the walls are lined with black and white photographs.  It was the first fast food eatery to serve 21,000 customers in seven hours, and I had to put my name down to queue for one of the faux marble tables.  I ordered the classic South Indian breakfast of masala dosa: a thin pancake – sometimes over a foot long – wrapped around a yellow potato-onion curry, with side bowls of cooling coconut and spicy red chutney.

I made way for the next customer, stepped outside, and traversed a very different suburb from my previous weekend in the swept-up city centre of Nike and McDonald’s.  Here in one block were Birla Tyres and Raja Tools, the Hanuman Auto Centre, Sagar Radiators and Sita Tractor.  Hindu deities meet greasy mechanics.  I passed the Eastern Compressors and Pneumatics, Citizen Clutch Center, and Motor Cycle Shrinagar.  A poster over Studds Helmets and Accessories showed a rider performing a handstand and motorbike wheelie, while the Automotive Sales Corporation rhymed, “If you are making a bus, you will definitively need us”.  It was tempting, but I decided not to build a bus just now and moved on towards Bangalore’s City Market.

bangalore-mechanics-streetAlthough I carry map and compass, I could have just followed my nose.  Deepening piles of rotting produce spelt paradise for goats and cows.  A barefoot holy man with dreadlocks reverently touched one cow, then brought his hand to his forehead.  A kitten meandered past with diseased eye and missing patches of hair.  I stepped aside for a woman sweeping rubbish onto sackcloth.  Something didn’t seem right and I took another look: her sandaled feet each had six toes.  Further up the road, I squeezed between a stone wall and a truck delivering vegetables – the driver said he came every day from outlying farms.  Tomatoes were piled into stacks of square plastic crates and the ground was slippery with red pulp.  A front-loader cleared a path through the refuse.

vege-deliverySome months ago a friend asked for a sample of the aroma of India.  After endless experimentation, I have created the Titheridge Smell India At Home recipe, patent pending, to share such experience.  First assemble the following ingredients behind an old car or lawnmower with a dirty-burning engine: matches, perfume, a stick of incense, fragrant flowers, dry leaves, rotting compost, a fresh steaming Indian curry, a fresh steaming cow pat.  Then start the motor, spray the perfume, light the incense stick and burn the leaves.  Swallow a handful of curry, close your eyes and breathe deeply.  Voilà!  You have the olfactory mélange of an Indian market, without the cost of an airfare.  For that extra dash of aromatic authenticity, first go for a run so your shirt is soaked in sweat, then smash open a coconut and pee on the ground.

bangalore-market-workersWhat you won’t experience at home is being so often hailed “Your country, sir?  Your name?” that it’s hard to note your surroundings.  So many people asked for photos I feared my battery would run out.  One guy posed with a Jurassic Park T-shirt and cane basket on his head; two reclined on sacks of onions under a red awning.  A skinny bloke with a short lungi cloth wrapped around his waist leaned against boxes of Kashmiri Fresh Apples, while others sold emerald capsicums or lime peppers, mottled green-orange mangos or small sweet bananas.  Shiny scale pans were balanced by rusty hexagonal weights.

As the heat increased I also feared my water would run out, far from middle-class tourist terrain and 7-11 superettes.  I needn’t have worried.  Akbar was so delighted I knew of Emperor Akbar the Great he gave me a bottle of Indian “Fanta” from a friend’s shop.  He refused payment, proving that the study of history does have pragmatic value.  I passed a woman ladling cold drinks I wouldn’t trust from bulbous clay jars on a cart, then a guy in a singlet soaping and sluicing down his pavement.  He grabbed my hand, pulling me aside.  “Wait!  Wait!”  He sat me on a chair and shot off.  I’d just wiped off the soap suds when he reappeared with a bottle of Thumbs-up, the local Coke.  I don’t much like its liquorice tang.

In a shady side lane with more solitude, flowers were strung over apartment doors.  Drying saris rippled down from balconies like crimson and emerald waterfalls.  I sketched the kolam patterns on the step where I was sitting, traced out by women with a fistful of rice powder after sweeping their threshold at dawn.  These ones resembled a white Celtic knot; others are like multi-coloured flowers.  Most show a mathematical symmetry, like drawings from the Spirograph cogwheels I had as a boy.

A slim young chap with black beard sat on a scales platform – the LED display read 53 kg.  He invited me over, and was excited to find I could speak some Hindi.  Even a little makes a lot of friends.  A Muslim himself, he introduced his best friend, a Christian, then Hindu comrades, showing off his country’s inclusiveness.  He joked that one friend was the “Shaitan” (Satan) of Bangalore, drumming on the bare belly of a corpulent mate.  Another brandished an iron hook with a cow-horn handle, which he said he used to carry sacks weighing up to 150kg.  At last their chai-wallah pal arrived with a stack of glasses and thermos of steaming tea, for my third complementary beverage that day.

For lunch, I cooled off under a fan with my favourite Muslim dish of mutton biryani: spicy yellow basmati rice with tender meat, and a bowl of purplish eggplant-and-tomato curry.  I amused myself while waiting by identifying menu items in the “culinary reader” of my Lonely Planet phrasebook.

outdoor-market-dentistBack outside was a stand of pirated DVDs: the vendor offered me “Nauty Movie: English Romantic Video”.  Other stalls flaunted photos of dentists holding open their victims’ mouths, and vampire-like close-ups of jagged incisors in blood-red gums.  On their counters were neat rows of molars in glass cases, assorted pink dentures and torture instruments laid out for road-side extractions.

A man in a long purple shirt was combing his chest-length black beard near a booth with shelves of Muslim caps and perfume bottles.  The owner dabbed some on my shoulders and lapels.  I watched a woman praying at a small Sufi shrine, the tomb covered in red cloth and white jasmine with scores of small padlocks fastened to the green bars of the gate.  She held an open padlock and I wondered what she was asking for, but I gave up waiting for her to fasten it on.  Then back through the market farmyard – its aroma overpowered the perfume on my collar.  Pyramids of apples and oranges and limes, then a stack of pomegranates, the top row cut open like stars or flowers.  I declined a grubby handful of the crimson seeds, and entered the breezy but gloomy market building.

tikka-powderCones of powder as bright as a baby’s toys in yellow, pink and red.  I was nervous I’d jostle them in the crowd.  Pedal-driven sewing machines.  A shop of farming implements displayed scythes and sickles, then two wooden coffins leaning against the wall.

bangalore-flower-market-making-garlandsMen and women on the floor were pulling petals or stems off flowers of all colours, threading them into chains or tossing them into baskets.  Some were arranged on frames of lettering with wedding felicitations, or into a deity’s outline, or onto papier-mâché shrines.  A man announced I was from NZ and a young woman rose from the knee-high drifts of blossoms to tug my hand, saying something like “take me with you”.  I was startled.  A middle-class woman might shake hands, but I’d never been touched – or hardly addressed – by one in the market, except for beggars pulling my sleeve.

bangalore-flower-market-sellingEscaping the flirtatious florist, I moved towards the market’s inner sanctum.  Indian idols are often smothered in thick floral garlands; some are all of the same flower species, some have alternating stripes like blown-up football scarves.  In the central courtyard, lit by sunlight through the plastic roof, garlands were coiled in cane baskets a metre wide.  Salesmen drew them out to measure arm-lengths for customers.  Seen from the balcony above, each basketful resembled a huge blossom, or a giant pin cushion, or perhaps a pot of gluggy paint.  On the ground, swimming through the ocean of colour, it was a camera battery-flattening visual overload, the same vibrant explosion I experienced here in 2007 (see here).

bangalore-flower-market-above

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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.