The joy of exploring local markets

(This appeared today in The Indian Express).

Frequenting local markets has been one of the joys of my life. When I think of Istanbul, I think of stacks of colorful lokum coated with powdered sugar in the Grand Bazaar. Paris in spring conjures rain-drenched strawberries bursting with flavour in the 12th Arrondissement. Beijing is a hutong market with customers lining up for grilled snakes-on-a-stick. Lucknow will always be the fragrance of ripe dasheri mangoes from a vendor’s heap.

My fascination with markets goes back to my childhood in Medinipur, a small town in West Bengal. Every day, rain or shine, my father would go to the local market with synthetic striped bazaar bags in hand. He would return with the day’s bounty– more fresh vegetables and fish than we could possibly eat ourselves.

In the United States, where I have lived for nearly two decades, supermarkets are ubiquitous. I appreciate their convenience. I have also grown wary of them. Globalisation has led to greater availability of products, but, paradoxically, to fewer variations. Mangoes from Ecuador are available in the off-season, but they are of one type. Tomatoes selected for long shelf-life and visual appeal taste insipid. Salmon farmed in Chile is available year-around, but there are genuine concerns they are competing for resources and depleting other fish stocks.

And so, local markets are important, not just as centres of commerce, but also because they counterbalance the homogeneity created through the scale of operations of giant corporations. Supermarkets from Shanghai to Seattle stock the ubiquitous Cavendish banana, but look deeper in local markets in south India, and you will still find a dozen or more other varieties of bananas. The potato was first cultivated in the Andean highlands of Peru, from where it spread globally. Centuries later, in a market in Urubamba, you will see dozens of varieties grown and sold by indigenous farmers. In a market in Mexico close to where the chili pepper originated, your nostrils will tingle from the aroma of bushels of hundreds of different kinds of dried peppers. In Bogotá and Lima, you may see over a dozen fruits you have never seen or eaten before, including one called lúcuma, whose flavour can be described as a cross between a chikoo and a sweet potato. Variability in crops is not only pleasing to the palate, but it is a bulwark against global diseases that might wipe out an entire variant.

In my travels, I have found greater enjoyment in seeing what is on offer in markets and interacting with people in them, than I have in visiting famous monuments such as the Eiffel Tower, Machu Picchu, or Hagia Sophia. Families enjoying food from stalls at markets – whether it is charcuterie in France or tacos in Mexico or fried pakoras in India- remind me of the commonalties among different people.

The haat in Enayetpur, a small village in West Bengal, and the markets in Oaxaca, Mexico are continents apart, but serve as important meeting points for indigenous communities. You could take vendors of knock-off brands of clothing, pirated movie-DVDs, mounds of spices, wooden rolling pins, and cloth bags from one to the other, and at first glance, no one would know the difference.

Apart from the occasional standoff between wild elephants and villagers, Enayetpur is never in the news. No tourists ever come here. Every Friday (haat-day) though, this villages buzzes with activity. A haat is an open-air market in rural Bengal, which in many ways has remained unchanged for centuries. My father grew up in a village at a time when there was neither electricity, nor running water, but every week, there was a haat. These markets have been surprisingly impervious to the winds of time.

At the haat, there are vendors selling items such as bulk spices, clothes, knives, plastic toys, mobile-phone covers, vegetables, fish, meat, sweets, and fried comestibles. There are also items uncommon in genteel Bengali markets, such as fresh-water mussels and snails, which serve as cheap sources of protein for villagers. Every week there are also rooster-fights. These jousts are illegal, but no one here seems particularly bothered. Money changes hands openly. After fights, triumphant roosters go home, and the losers end up as meals.

Thousands of kilometers away, with over a dozen indigenous communities and as many languages, the state of Oaxaca is the most diverse in predominantly Spanish-speaking Mexico. Landscapes in parts of the state resemble those in Chhattisgarh and Jharkhand, which are also populated by many indigenous communities.

The oldest continuously run market in North America is in Tlacolula, a village just outside the city of Oaxaca. In its markets, one can encounter exciting new food like edible grasshoppers. But I also found recognizable elements like squash flowers and tortillas, grilled chapatis cooked on Mexican tawas called comals. And just as at the Enayetpur haat, Santal women sell hanriya, an illicit, fermented-rice hooch from kerosene jerrycans, at the markets of Oaxaca, you will find Zapotec women pouring bowls of tejate, a drink made from maize flour and cacao. 

I learned very quickly that it helps to know a few words of the local language while shopping in such marts. At a shop in a market in Mexico, I eyed a calavera, a painted decorative ceramic skull, which symbolizes the Day of The Dead, one of Mexico’s signature holidays.

“What’s the price?” I asked, pointing to the skull. The shopkeeper, who knew English, responded, “Modi price, señor. Very cheap.”

I’d been correctly marked as a different kind of brown, from India. I left to do a survey of the market. At another shop, I spotted the same item. “¿Cuál es el precio?” I asked in my beginner’s Spanish. The shopkeeper responded with the price. It was significantly cheaper.

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Books as the last refuge.

When I’m at home you’re most likely to find me sitting on a sofa in a windowless room in my basement, barricaded behind shelves and stacks of books. This is my refuge. This is where I come after fighting against the world. Without knowing it, in this respect I’ve turned into my father. He had set up part of the house where I grew as a personal library.

Many of the conversations with my father that I remember most vividly were around books– not only their content, but in which distant city he had bought them and for how much; the marginalia and the editions. I never had much small talk with him. But he would share his excitement whenever he found a rare book. He was a consummate collector and a voracious reader, up most nights reading.

As my father got older, his eyesight began to fail him. He would keep a magnifying glass on his table next to the table lamp. His recurring nightmare was no one would take care of his books. This was his “Après moi, le déluge“. I brought over to the United States some of the books he had collected- the moth-eaten copy of Tagore’s “Hungry Stones” he won as a prize in school, the yellow-paged “Kobita Shomogro” of Bishnu Dey he bought from the Kolkata Book Fair.

Instinctively, I understood. When my basement flooded a few years ago, my first concern was “what will happen to my books?” Fortunately, the damage was minimal, though the concern remains.

What is a home anyway? Home where your books are safe and have space. Home is the permanent address for your books.

When I visit the house where I grew up, I still find my bearings. The books on the shelf are exactly as I had placed them decades ago, their pages slightly dusty and worn. And it is comforting. In a world where nothing exists and no one can be relied on anymore, books offer a sense of security and escape, false perhaps, but much needed.

Oh, the luxuries of traveling by car!

Travel by car is relatively comfortable in India these days. The roads are improved and the cars are modern. That was not always the case, and certainly not when I was growing up. There were two kinds of cars- the Hindustan Motors Ambassador and the Premier Padmini- and neither had been updated with creature comforts in decades. The seats were reasonably utilitarian but sofa-like. But you hardly ever enjoyed the seats. The cars were always loaded with more people than there were seats, so you sat on someone’s lap or someone sat on yours. Few cars had air-conditioning. No matter. We were all lucky when we were in a car instead of inside an infernally hot and crowded local bus.

Of course, there was no certainty in traveling by car back then. Hovering over your head to be uttered by the driver at any time were the three magic words- “gaari jabe na” (car won’t go). There was never any point asking why. It could be any number of reasons. Maybe the shoddy car had lost a part on the road. Or maybe the car had overheated. Or maybe the road had washed away in the rain. Or perhaps the road never actually existed anywhere except in someone’s imagination. It was something you accepted as an Absolute Truth.

If the car did go, you could not take for granted that you would arrive where you wanted to when you wanted to, since you were completely at the mercy of the driver. No Indian man has ever admitted that he does not know the way to get somewhere. The driver is too proud, and the villager is too keen to not offend. If the driver stops to get information, it is rarely reliable. Left may be right. Five minutes may be fifty. Time and space are elastic concepts in the expansive worldview of my people.

Just like the parable of blind men describing an elephant, you could ask five people for directions to a place and get five different answers. It does not really matter that that none of them know the answer or have been there: one had heard that the road was closed. Another had heard of dacoits stopping people. Yet another has heard about a new bypass. Someone else might stop you with a log across the road until you pay up for the local puja. Destination? What is a destination? Everything is maya.

Drivers also made it a habit of not telling you about problems with cars, or when they were running critically fumes until it was too late to do anything. I remember one time I was riding in an Ambassador that was so low on fuel that it stopped mid-river on a wood and bamboo fair-weather bridge. We had to gather villagers to help us push the car across the bridge- which fortunately did not collapse under the weight of the car and the mob pushing it- after which went then went with jerry-cans to fetch petrol.

Time was a flexible concept also. One time, we were going to a wedding in Kharagpur. As we arrived at the destination, we realized that we had arrived before the bridegroom and his party. There was a jubilant mob that approached up with “bor esheche! bor esheche!” (The bridegroom has arrived! The bridegroom has arrived). Thinking on his feet, my father immediately summoned us to get in the car and barked at the driver to drive off. Running a recon mission later, from a distance, once we observed that the actual bridegroom’s retinue had indeed arrived by bus and that the coast was clear, we headed back. It was a narrow escape. 

Things are much different these days. Everyone knows exactly where he or she is just from looking at a phone. You can call or text to say how long it will take you to arrive. There were no such facilities back then. Certainly, there was a lot more guesswork, especially at night. After a long bumpy journey, many a time I was relieved to think I had finally arrived at my destination, only to find that the taciturn driver had only stopped by the road to relieve himself.

Learning

Open the door of the closet you have been hiding in and take a look. There is sunlight streaming into the room. The monsters are gone. It is now safe to come outside and learn the stories behind the dry facts and formulae you were forced to commit to memory as a child.

Leaving your assumptions at the door, you enter.

A fact presented as a fait accompli is not a truth. A theory that has no predictive value is useless. If you cannot get an answer to “why?” you keep exploring. This is the classroom you deserved as a child, but have discovered as an adult.

“I need an answer now.” The impatient world rudely intervenes.

“Make up your mind. We have no time.”

“Time is not ours to own,” you want to say. Instead, you smile.

The order is repeated. “Make up your mind.”

You look at a slurry of dreams and memories. You mix in experiences and aspirations. You are taking your own sweet time. You making up your mind on your own terms.

You are finally learning.

On kindness

The Buddha did not answer questions about the existence of God because these questions are irrelevant to the challenges of day to day life. In the morning, more relevant than the question, “does God exist?” is the question, “which toothbrush is mine?”

Everything that brings you joy will also make you vulnerable. Seasons change. Generations are forgotten. Our place in the world is small and we are insignificant except to the few people for whom we matter. Our personal joys are only a small drop of water rolling on a lotus leaf beside the immense pond of human suffering.

In this ephemeral world, the fleeting conversations and the tiny interactions of kindness matter as much as anything else.

Of all the stories and parables in the life of Buddha that can inspire us– and indeed there are many– there the one I wanted to share with you. Siddhartha had starved himself to the point of death in search of enlightenment. Returning from his bath in the river Niranjana, he collapsed. At that moment, a stranger, Sujata came to him and offered him a bowl of kheer that saved his life.

Who knows, maybe your act of random kindness today will save the next Buddha?

On why I travel

I have a peculiar relationship with travel. I complain when I am on the road, but I am listless when I am back at home. I daydream about heading out when I’m in one place for too long. The Germans call it wanderlust; others say there is a travel bug. A Bengali proverb mischievously describes someone like me with a rhetorical question- “have you come here with your horse still saddled up?”

I have crisscrossed the planet many times and each time I have felt a sense of restlessness and paradoxically, of peace. Each time I have been away, I have been reminded of why I yearned to be back. Each time I was back, I reminisced about the parts of me I left in places far away. I have lost count of how many flights I have fallen asleep on, and of how many hotel beds I have woken up in- dissolving in the hallucinogenic intervals of lost bags, smudged entry stamps in passports, and midnight chats in taxis flashing by half-built buildings and bright neon hoardings.

Sometimes, being jet-lagged is waking up and not knowing where you are, what time it is, or how long you have slept. In hotel rooms, I have been awakened by the noise of the bathing of strangers in adjacent rooms, their laughter in hallways in the middle of their night, or their quarrels on balconies in languages I do not know. Travel enough and you collect so many of these snap audio tales.

Each trip taken connects me with other people. As Andrew Solomon observes: “you cannot understand the otherness of places you have not encountered.” Paris is not just the Notre Dame or the Eiffel Tower: it is the city where Eastern European migrants play classical violin in Metro stations. Oaxaca is that child full of promise coloring pictures of azul mountains on a curbside. Cusco is that blind indigenous old woman with a wizened face selling scarves at San Pedro on Easter Sunday.

I do not travel to simply see places, as I once did. I travel to remind myself of my insignificance, to feel gratitude for the light and the air, to be hypersensitive to the strange and wonderful human race, and to rage and sob softly against indifference and cruelty wherever I see it. So often, it is the case that other people make travel interesting and the places themselves are just stages for their presence. 

Ultimately then, travel is form of disciplined self-negation. When you travel, your own problems do not matter in the face of the pressing need to find food, shelter, or a working internet connection. These are not theoretical abstract concerns. Even when you are lying on a beach staring at the waves or impatiently waiting for a train that will not come, you are waiting for something.

And so, travel is a form of hyperawareness- of finding yourself looking for patterns that are familiar. In strange lands, I search for a warm smile, a kind word, and a shared meal. For ultimately, you do not acutely miss the people you are with, until you are separated from them and forced to wander among strangers.

The great experiment

 

Nearly ten years ago on a whim, I started this blog. At about the same time, I also joined Facebook and Twitter.  For all intents and purposes, this blog has been on life support for years. I’ve also severely restricted my forays on Facebook to infrequent personal updates. What I had been doing almost without fail for nearly a decade was to tweet. After nearly 50,000 tweets, I felt that it was a good time to take a break.

Twitter works mainly because there things are always happening in this hyper-connected on the world- on a political, cultural, and social level-  all waiting to be experienced on a collective basis in real-time. Conceptually, it is brilliant. There are always elections, political speeches, horrendous crimes, blockbuster movies, natural disasters, prejudices, and television shows to drive instant reactions. You will never run out of things to feed the machine.

I’m not above the fray in joining these events- after all people face existential threats such as climate change, bigoted world-leaders, and discrimination on a daily basis. But after a while, it started to become tiresome trying to keep up with a world that was “very much with us” all the time.

A few years ago, I decided that I would not tweet mainly on current affairs, but about emotions, experiences, and new learnings. I would skip the latest gaffe or outrage of the day, and focus on what I exclusively found interesting, regardless of whether anyone else cared or not. There were two exceptions: I did comment on gender issues from a personal perspective; and on the beautiful game- international football, which I found irresistible.

These past few years I tweeted about places, food, science, history, culture, art, and poetry (in four languages). I tweeted about my emotions in sending off my son to school on his first day and of leaving my homeland again on a jet plane. I tweeted about reading Neruda’s poems on Machu Picchu and feeling nostalgia for an unknown world. I tweeted about the creation of the universe, on the formation of black holes, on how to rig elections, on the Panama Canal, on a radioactive disaster in Brazil, and on the fall of Constantinople. I tweeted about eating simple marketplace tamales that brought tears of joy to my eyes.

After a while, the returns on Twitter started to diminish: I found a core group of friends on Twitter whose tweets I was interested in, but those voices were drowned out in the cacophony of mean-spirited, hypocritical, angry, or perpetually inconsolable voices that I was trying to escape from in real-life.  The compulsion to broadcast new experiences and knowledge to a largely unknown audience was disappearing, and often I was simply repeating myself.

Tweeting was becoming something I did- a chore. I was taking photos of meals and trips to the grocery store and sharing them. I was engaging in conversations with an unknown virtual audience instead of the real people surrounding me. I appreciated the company, but at times, it also meant that I was disconnected from the here and the now. “Better to stop and enjoy the cup of coffee and go for a walk leaving the phone at home,” I thought.

So is this a long-winded, self-absorbed rationale for quitting Twitter? Well, not quite.

Do anything for ten years and you’ll meet some good people. There are people who are consistently putting out exceptionally brilliant perspectives on Twitter. There are people who are sharing amazing essays, poetry, travelogues, and art. There are people who know the best places to eat and the things you have to do when you visit their hometowns. These are people who I’ve never met, but who I feel I know on a personal level and who I care about. And if you have a specific question, Twitter is still an amazing place.

Ten years is a long time, but it also passes by quickly. A few days ago, I was browsing through photos from a trip to Hawaii I had taken exactly ten years ago, and reminiscing about all that has happened since then. So much has changed.

Ten years ago, I was more arrogant, angry, and restless than I am today. I am sure of less now, but appreciative of more. My hair has grayed a little bit more, but my eyes are kinder. I am still a work in progress. I have fewer friends and family, but I care for their well-being more. I stop to hold doors for people, I talk in lower volumes, I tread on grass softly, I empty my pockets for the poor, and I am pained when see indifference. I have gained so much in experience, but have lost so much in the process. In ten years through external and internal conversations, I have come to terms with my own privilege and the relatively easy life and path I have had because of my socioeconomic, caste, gender, and educational background. Me now and me ten years ago? We are different people.

And so, a very selfish, narcissistic reason why I won’t be able to retreat completely from social media is that it served to fossilize my thoughts in amber. So many of my consequential and trivial thoughts were splattered all across these platforms. I’ve seen myself change through the lens of social media.

That’s the Great Experiment in my view; that’s the key difference social media makes to each of us. Tweets, blog-posts, and Facebook updates remind us of the journey. They’re mile-markers to tell us where we were on a particular day in a particular time.