February 2016 By Prajnaparamita Padhi There is no dearth of love, thoughtfulness, camaraderie and kinship in mundane, ordinary places, provided we lift our heads from our smart phones, open our eyes, and reach out, says Prajnaparamita Padhi What if you made friends, not just with folks from school or college, or with the few you got along with at work, but also with an old bearded Mussalman shopkeeper, selling home and kitchen utilities? His shop is stacked with stainless-steel containers, strainers, graters, dusters, all kinds of mops, piles of colourful buckets, mugs and tubs. He sits behind an old wooden counter, positioned at the centre of his shop. When I point at a mop hanging from a rundown aluminium roof, among a dozen other different shapes, colours and sizes, he slowly steadies himself and wobbles out. Two burqa-clad women are holding lids of milk-cans in their hands – opening and shutting them again and again to check their air-tightness. He tells me why the mops are priced differently, their relation to the sizes of homes or family, assuring me like my granddad did, of matters I didn’t have much practical experience. He also promises an exchange, if it loses my fancy, after I take it home. He wins my trust. His shop is one of the hundreds of shops in a century-old market in a Muslim-dominated bazaar in my city, Kolkata. When I enter the old, unkempt bazaar, whose high roof is among the first iron and mortar constructions built during the British Raj, it is buzzing with activity. I have always wondered whether my Mussalman friend may have watched the untiring masons at work, as a little boy, while they took their directions off English blueprints. Even if he did not, I am aware that he must have spent a gem of a childhood, roots growing deep down common turf. He and his other raucous and wild playmates would have played ‘guli-danda’, winning each marble with boisterous frenzy, living on daily poverty and boyhood camaraderie. I buy the mop he suggests. He has fathered seven sons, each of who have sons and daughters in turn. I feel drawn to his stories and his benign fatherly air. Like always, I linger. His ancestral home is in a village called Deulpur, near Bagnan, in Howrah district. He strives to build a pucca house in spite of the losses his sons incurred while cultivating betel leaves. His grand-daughter wakes up before sunrise each time he visits, and makes him the best tea, he claims. Then she bathes and teaches little kids flocking his courtyard. He has seen many illnesses, marriages, young brides, new furniture, elaborate cooking, village fairs, unusual worries, and surprise happiness. He patiently waits for the two burqa-clad women to decide on a milk-can. The girls decide, I bundle and secure each unsolicited advice deep within me. We return, not because my mop or their milk-can is better than the ones on display at the ‘hyper-mall’, but for another asset – wisdom! Thanks to technological advances, and the rapid pace of modern life, we have become secretly mutated. Emotionally destitute, we jostle for space and recognition in virtual meeting places, sharing electronic emotions compressed into 140 ‘characters’. We are losing our core, and our chance of cultivating abiding relationships is increasingly dwindling. Life brims with colour and vibrancy at these unkempt bazaars which have existed since ages in modern cities Pretending sometimes to be in urgent need of a mop, I arrive at this natural meeting place. Cataract dimming his eyesight, wobbling occasionally on his weak knees, the shopkeeper, dressed in a spotless kurta, takes eons to count money. No instant transactions, no messenger pop-ups, no Barbie-faced helpful assistants. Here it is all tangible, maybe tenuous, but so ‘real’ No comfortable air-conditioning, cold smiles, machine-produced artificial drinks. No factory-packed food or clothing, sans smell, flavour, texture or colour. The chaotic normalcy of this bazaar is a cultural experience, a life capsule. A man sits behind a huge heap of steaming hot, creamy, crunchy “dal-kachori,” scooped out from the spitting-hot oil in groups of five. The hot oil is left to drain off in a huge wok. A large cylindrical vessel is filled with yellow spicy potato curry, into which a long spoon is dipped. I want four ‘kachoris’, more than I can consume. I also ask for extra curry. “Aloo jada dena!” I greedily utter. “Take six,” he insists, “Comes with ample curry and a bigger pouch of chutney.” I shake my head disapprovingly, again and again. “Too much, too much!” I gesture. He smiles and gingerly begins pouring extra curry. No amount of head-shaking, gesturing, protesting takes away his friendly grin. He doesn’t take my intent seriously. “Feed your family!” he suggests, like my uncles would, looking unperturbed. I give up, my persistence fails, but by now I am eyeing the syrupy ‘jalebi’. “Ek dijiye” I tell him, I am diet-conscious! “Please take two, only two!” he says. While I protest he drops the second ‘jalebi’ too in the small packet. Secretly, I am pleased; in fact, I feel a teeny bit pampered. His pride over his kachoris, his attention, his hospitality, are a catalyst to my happiness. I feel at home among this large collective home. These connections have long perplexed me, baffled me and I have been unable to articulate the cause of this high. Haggard and crushed after a day’s work, I wander here. I step in. It is electric. Hundreds of people through dozens of years have bred, shared and exchanged lives. Their kindness is a cultural phenomenon, their humaneness, a tradition. I leave reluctantly, each time with an assurance of hope and a promise of unfading sustenance. Thus on a chilly winter evening, the extra curry and the forced “jalebi” makes me plain happy. He decides for me, like my uncle would when I was young. My uncle used to take us out on evenings, and buy us simple surprises. Now, I grant myself a few, in my lone effort to fight this rushing, harrowing, mechanical life, and years of negligible true contact. “Come again,” he says, as he hands over the change and the newspaper bag to carry home. Bits of his language, gestures, smiles, neatness, and the echo of his voice resound in my ears as I descend into my sofa. Here, life happens all around. A bakery chap hands me small change a fortnight after I mistakenly leave them behind. I see a display of new pickle along with biscuits and bread. He promptly selects one for me to taste. An avuncular act again! A poor man sells fresh coriander leaves, but tells me to give it a skip on days they are not very fresh. A vegetable-walla springs up on a “macha” (a high shelf made of cane and ropes) to fetch coconuts. Like an elder brother, he takes time to pack them in a way that would make it convenient for me to carry. While I am busy trying red and yellow glass bangles, the man from Muzzafarpur tells me I must change my spectacles since they are too big for my face. My embarrassment goes unnoticed as it would at home in a joint family. The fruit-seller wears his wife’s shawl – it is yellow with green flowers. The bazaar is a haven for me, of bona fide sensory stimulation, of incessant interactions. The bread-walla offers to slice up a quarter-pound bread and spread dollops of margarine if I am hungry. I buy the red and black ‘rajma’ from an energetic boy who helps his father after school. I can’t let go of the unbranded phenyl, fake Lux soap, indigenous bleaching powder simply because with him I feel like a trader from far-off Mongolia, and he, the immortal inn keeper. I select a knife, the man quickly fetches a mechanical device that he rotates to sharpen the blade before he takes a lot of care to pack it, all the while telling me how I must store it in my bag. The dry-fruits guy offers walnuts as I approach, like a toffee my aunt gave me each time we met. Who are these people? Gujarati, Punjabi, Rajasthani, Bihari, Bengali, all part of a cosmos I enter with glee. Sikh women offering to dye my ‘dupatta’, repair my worn-out shawl, petrol wash my Banarasi sari, an old Muslim tailor offering needle work on chiffons, a middle-aged Bengali ready with four yellow chrysanthemums for Rs. 35 instead of Rs. 40. I can roam forever! Won’t you walk with me? Give it a chance. They will hold your hand, fill your heart, and eagerly fill you abrim of the life force that emanates so effortlessly from authentic human connections. Prajnaparamita is an entrepreneur since 2005, providing animation and digital graphics for television and corporates. She is also a classical dancer, fiction writer and traveller.
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