"When was the last time you have been to an actual subzi bazaar?", my brother had challenged me earlier in the day. Does the produce section at Hypercity count, I had wondered sheepishly. His look was pure disdain.
Our first stop was the ATM. No sir, your Visa is not welcome here at the bazaar. For everything else, there isn't Mastercard. In fact, our local subzi bazaar is exclusively for things only cash can buy. So you can leave your plastics home, thank you very much. And do not forgot to get your own bags. Environmentally minded laws banning thin plastic bags seems to have really changed the shopping experience that I remember. 'Bag?' asks every seller, with thin stocks of thick polythene.
Stocked with cash, armed with bags, wearing our warm weather clothes and old chappals, we set off.
In my childhood, the Sunday vegetable bazaar was an established ritual. Our weekly tryst with local villagers selling their imperfect looking but undeniably fresh vegetables. A large open area where the vendors would squat on the ground, vegetables spread out in front of them, the sun beating down from above. Our dad would stride confidently through the stalls, weighing this vegetable here, pinching that one there, enquiring prices, arguing about the quality, but for the first 30 minutes, not buying anything at all. We would be tired and ready to go home by the time he would start. We would stare at the felicity with which he handled the cauliflower, the way he would toss the cabbage up to get a feel for its density, the way the ends of okra would be casually snapped. Veggies in the bag, we would reach home tired and hot, but there would always be a reward. Hot samosas, jalebis, and pakodas from the local halwai! Another Sunday ritual.
So how are things nowadays, I wonder, walking to one of these bazaars after some five hundred Sundays.
Under the tents, it is a golden yellow, sunlight filtering through the tarp. It is an assault of colors, of smells, shouts. It is early enough in the morning that the vendors are still stacking their 'maal', but already, there are buyers eagerly eyeing everything, flitting restlessly from one stall to the other, looking for the best tomatoes, the freshest drumstick. Unlike the Sunday bazaar of my childhood, no one seems to be squatting on the ground. There are benches and chairs where the sellers are perched, with their pushcarts in front looking like a painter's palette - stacked with yellows, greens and reds.
Everyone has his own style of attracting the buyer. Each has his own little ad jingle. 'Barah ka aadha kilo, barah ka aadha kilo' someone is shouting. I look around but cannot make out the source, or see what is being sold twenty-four rupees to the kg. We stop at a cabbage cart. The seller is the quick tongued variety. 'Kitna sahab? Ek kilo? Ded kar doon? Yeh wala lo. Mast hai sab. Mast. Arey eh!", this last exclamation aimed at a boy who seems to be a helper of sorts, 'woh bag khol.' He is also quick with the hands, weighing this, bagging that, doing the math, handing the cash. And all the while, his commentary goes on. Dad has a happy, tickled smile, playing along with the game. He is doing his tossing-the-cabbage thing.
We are in the red section now, ten different tomato vendors, all shouting for our attention. A woman in a bright green sari is haggling with one of them. 'Woh nikalo!', she is yelling right back at him, taking away a couple of suspect tomatoes from the weighing scale and replacing them with others that look just the same, if you ask me. She is staring at his hands suspiciously, making sure he isn't getting too frisky with them, biasing the tarazu in some way. 'Arey aunty, bag sambhalo!' shouts a vendor from across the aisle, laughing. Her bag has given way, spilling potatoes everywhere.
The greens section is all wet and fresh. Every cart has greens liberally sprinkled with water. 'Rasta, rasta!', a well toned young man is chanting as he makes his way. He is wearing ragged jeans and a sleeveless vest of black net, from what I can make out. His upper body is slick with sweat, and on his back is a sackful of cucumbers. He dumps it near a stall, where a boy, where looks barely twelve, is in charge, slicing the bag open effortlessly, digging the cucumbers out and stacking them neatly on his cart.
My dad is at the lemon cart now, bargaining with a tiny woman who is playing the 'poor woman' card, but can't stop herself from breaking out into a grin every now and then, which reduces the impact somewhat. 'What? Such small lemons and 4 for 10 rupees?' my dad is asking in a tone that is intended to convey equal parts disbelief and dismay I presume. Kalyug is here, I tell you, he seems to suggest with a roll of his eyes and a shake of his head. 'C'mon dad', I tug him gently, cringing at this smidgen of a negotiation where the result is equally unimportant to both parties. No, I am going to be no good at this myself. 'Oh its part of the game!', my exasperated wife often says, 'you can't just give them whatever price they ask!' Well, my dad sure isn't giving that woman what she is asking. And we are going to be richer. By a full two rupees. Yay.
There seems to be a little corner dominated by the herbs and spices group. For some reason, there seems to be something of a religious overtone to this section. There is an old muslim man, cap firmly on his head, green jacket with golden embroidery, grey beard somehow indicating both age and religion, selling garlic cloves and ginger root. Across the aisle, selling dhaniya and kadi patta is an even older man, with a little tape recorder next to him. The tape recorder is set to a low chant. 'ohhhhhhmmmmmm', it goes, slowly, sonorously, continuously, 'oohhhhhhhhhhhmmmmmmm!'. What is it about spices and herbs that seems to attract the old, seriously religious types? Religion is the spice of life, anyone?
'Ratnagiri saat rupaye!'
Ah, the sweet smell! The saving grace of a relentless Indian summer; the desire long suppressed during my American years; ratnagiri, langda, hapus, kesar, banganapalli. The king of fruits. Oh yes dad, let's pile in the mangoes, shall we?
The bags have been getting progressively heavier as the time has worn on. The handles are biting into my palm now. Boy, I should have gone with the shoulder jhola variety, shouldn't I? I can see the red welts of temporary discomfort lining my palm when I finally put the bags down. 'So, what do you think?" asks my brother, obviously enjoying the spectacle of showing off to an R2I. (Yes people, that's a term. There are enough of us Return To India folks around.) Well ... I start.
'Arey, I almost forgot', interrupts dad. 'Let's take a short detour, shall we? Let's buy some samosas and jalebis from chandu halwai.'