We waited at the corner for almost an hour, the three of us a trio to note in a sea of local Mumbaikars: tall, dark haired Alexandra, Snow White in the flesh; small, thin, bespectacled Simone, a pocket-sized trendy New Yorker; and me, green eyes, freckles, and hair shorter and lighter than any woman within a five (ten?) kilometer radius. We clutched our heavy packages in our hands, aware of the garbage and mud covering the ground around us, resisting the urge to put them down. When the waiting became too long and the bags too heavy, Simone set hers in the ground, resting her small self upon boxed sets of glass jars and packages of dried fruit. The locals looked at her questionably, then to us with concern – clearly one does not sit on ones purchases – but then again, their eyes seemed to ask, what do foreigners know about local shoulds and should nots? Behind us rose the arched entry ways of Crawford Market, the clock tower jutting high above the noise and chaos below. Finished in 1869, the market is home to fruit, vegetable and spice sellers, poultry and fish stands, and a maze of stalls selling cheap cutlery, backpacks, and plastic toys.
We entered the market with confidence, certain that recommendations from friends and guidebooks would carry us through the thick crowds. Immediately we were approached by a man with an official looking badge. He swore to us that he was a market guide, here to keep us safe and make sure we were not cheated by the venders or bothered by the untrustworthy characters who prowl the market. He said all this while pointing to a large sign on the clocktower wall which stated clearly that visitors must have a guide, their visit officially registered with the market. Still, none of our friends had mentioned anything of the sort, no guidebook or website said anything about guides, badges, or registration. As politely and circuitously as possible (for one doesn’t say “no” straight out in India), we declined his offer, setting off down an aisle of fresh fruit and vegetables. The man followed, talking hurriedly, pointing at the sign and his badge (“number twelve, official”), proclaiming noisily that without question we needed a guide and could trust him. Our confidence waned as a neatly dressed man, a local by every description, assured us that we did indeed need a guide. Feeling uncomfortable and confused, we again refused his offer, and continued walking deeper into the market. When it became clear he would not desist, I turned to a trick a friend had casually mentioned on my first day in Bombay – that of the aggressive white women. (Sidenote: I have been called “aggressive” on numerous occasions, the word most often employed by a man with a negative connotation to describe my tendency towards straightforward, often abrupt, and self-assured speech. Most days, in that context, I find the word both offensive and inaccurate. Hillary Clinton might understand. Yet in this circumstance I was more than happy to embody this adjective.) As my friends moved further down the aisle, trying to evade him, I turned to face him directly with my no-nonsense Emily glare on, saying “We don’t want your help. We just want to look around. Please go.” When he tried again to protest, I rebutted with a firm No. No. Nay. Nay. Wagging his head and throwing his hands up in disgust, he pinched his lips together and turned to go. Uncertain if I had done the right thing, I quickly braided my way through shoppers to catch up with my friends.*
After an hour in the market and numerous purchases and wrong turns under our belts, we found our way out, ready to explore the streets and stands around Crawford Market. Surrounding the market one finds row after row of men selling everything from purses and shoes to specialty stalls of stoles and duppatas and stainless steel spoons. One man proudly stood before neatly folded piles of towels in every possible color. When our curious eyes caught his, he pulled out a water bottle for a demonstration. Pouring out one cap full, he let several drops fall onto the the first towel, and we watched as the water rolled effortlessly from one end to the other, not a bit hindered by the fabric. “No good, ma’am,” the owner proclaimed, flicking his hand in disgust. Our attention rapt, he picked up the second towel, a smile on his face, saying, “Better. Yes. Watch.” and he poured out the rest of the water. Unlike the first towel, this one soaked the water right up, and we gasped and laughed along with the hijab clad women beside us. In the next sixty seconds, the towel seller sold four towels, a sale of one thousand rupees, or about sixteen dollars.
These towels were only part of the purchases weighing us down as we waited on the corner, our driver stuck in the endless traffic that pulses slowly through the arteries and veins that sustain Mumbai (both the traffic and the driver deserve their very own post…more on them later!). At a spice and nut stand we waited our turns dutifully, pushing our way to the front even as women in yellow, green and pink saris pressed in between the counter and our outstretched hands. Because white faces attract attention, soon a clerk in a clean pressed button down (how his shirt wasn’t sweaty and wrinkled like mine is a question that will go unanswered) looked our way and started taking my order: a half kilo of walnuts (ahkrot) and a quarters each of salted cashews (kaaju), dried and salted plums (bera), and sickly sweet dried dates (khajoor), 250 grams of powdered cumin (jeera), turmeric (haldi), and of course the stand’s signature masala chai (caya).
Making our way down the rows in search of glass storage jars (Mom, I swear it wasn’t even my idea…I have actually come to grasps with the fact that the next two years will likely consist of more plastic than I have used in the last ten…but that is not part of today’s tale), we stumbled into the delivery and unpacking area, quickly walking past men drinking chai and overflowing pallets of potatoes, onions, and cauliflower. The smell of iron and a puddle of mud and blood let us know we had arrived in the meat section, which we hurried through on this day, the stench too much in the heat and humidity left behind after the rains. With a single turn, our trio suddenly burst into the afternoon sunshine. A quick detour into the plastic jar section (yes, section) got us directions to the glass store (“first right, cross street, you see it”). A dismissive laugh and headshake let us know we were indeed fools to search for glass in the plastic section, but the directions were clear and in fact as simple as they seemed.
Now, going to buy glassware may not seem notable to most of us back home. Perhaps you stop into the local grocery, picking up a set of Ball jars while you grab a gallon of milk or a dozen eggs. Maybe you prefer The Container Store or just good ol’ Target for all your bean-rice-and-pasta storage needs. If that’s the case, and you don’t see the point in reading this nextparagraph, feel free to move on, but you would miss a summary of shopping in India in four hundred words or less.
The store: tiny, packed, filled with more glass and more men than seemed possible. The air: stifling, solid, heavy. And us: sweaty, confused, tired. Within minutes we had located the jars and pitchers we collectively desired, and the shop owner had set to bringing us the pieces we needed, one by one by one. (To give you a better idea of the pace at which this interaction went I ask you to consider the following: Imagine you are trying on shoes in the United States of America. You ask for the one you want, and the sales person brings back that shoe in the correct size, along with a few other options, just because. Now imagine if in that same scenario the sales person decided to bring out each pair of shoes you wanted to try not only one by one, but one shoe at a time. Oh, and the shoes still need to be laced. By a three year old. That is the speed at which this transaction moved.) And yet each piece he brought out was inspected carefully before boxing up, checking with us that it was, yes, exactly what we wanted. His movements were deliberate, and his momentum purposeful. I felt cared for, I felt content. Each time he left to find another jar or glass, it seemed I had world enough and time to imagine he had entered into a labyrinth behind that wall, with ladders a thousand feet high, and pitchers stored in clouds, that he was asking deities for directions and stopping for a tea on the way back. His patience was my patience, and I delighted in the quiet of the shop compared to the noise of the streets outside, into which we stepped an hour later, heavy with bags, immediately thrust into a stream of people that carried us to the clocktower at the entrance of Crawford Market.
And so we found our way back where this story started – waiting. Waiting on a corner in India, bags in hand. Around us moved the masses: peddlers selling kiwis, dragon fruit and melons, men pulling carts laden with bags of cement mix and boxes of unmarked goods, hired porters carrying cane baskets piled with bags to taxis and waiting cars, scooters and bicycles, trucks and pedestrians. All moving, moving, moving, talking, shouting, laughing, scolding, moving, resting, waiting, moving. Every fifteen minutes or so our driver, Sukhdev, would call one of our phones and reassure us, “Five more minutes, ma’am, five.” And the garbage and the mud was all part of the scene, and when the waiting became too long and the bags too heavy, we rested and watched. A porter waited patiently while a woman in gold bangles and flowing cream silks hailed the perfect taxi. He smiled at us, crossing his eyes inward and standing on one leg, wagging his head in playful jest, even with a full load on top for even in the waiting there is joy, even in poverty, riches. When the car pulled up, Ascend International School streaked across the side, we hurried to unload our packages without causing a pile up behind us. Climbing in, we thanked Sukhdev, who only wagged his head and quietly said, “No problem, ma’am no problem,” the faintest smile playing across his lips before he asked, “Where now, ma’am?”
Where now, na? I’ll let you know when I get there.
*A friend of a friend later confirmed our right choice, calling the man’s insistence on a guide “rubbish.”
May you be safe and free,