The markets in India are brilliant blend of texture, sounds, smells, and people as colorful and various as the vegetables. Some are open to the sunlight, but most are arranged under a quilt-like expanse of tarps to protect goods from the heat of the midday sun. We enter the maze from the main intersection in town where the streets bustle with throngs of pedestrians, rickshaws, and lorries full of produce. As soon as we step inside and under the patchwork awnings, the sounds of the street vanish; in their stead, the clucking of chickens tightly caged and the smell of the fish monger immediately arrest our senses.
We move quickly through the small square where carcasses hang from a shower rod, and butchers wait for customers to choose their next meal. It brings me back to the English Market in Cork City, Ireland where I became a dedicated vegetarian for the first time. Siobhan’s vegetable stand was a staple for us college students, and she always huddled me in and made sure I went back to our flat with plenty of greens.
There is so much to see, and it is clear that in the time we have, our eyes will pass over just a fraction of it; my gaze moves from place to place until it finds the moments that hold my attention. Perhaps the most interesting part of being in this place is watching the people as they come and go, pointing at this or that, and the vendors as they restack daikon radishes, purple cabbages and root vegetables into neat piles and rows.
There are beggars who sit in the dirty corners where market lanes intersect under the lattice of blue and yellow, and they hold out their precious palms and ask from under wrinkled brows and sad eyes, “please?” And there are little ladies who can’t afford a stall with shelves, so they spread their goods over a blanket on the ground or in baskets like this woman selling garlic.
One of the loveliest things of all in the market is the square full of flower stalls, each with its strands of jasmine piled as high as white wedding cakes, and blossoms of every imagineable color hanging in long necklaces from the rooflines.
People buy garlands for the temple deities and to hang over doorways; even the rear view mirror in a “tuk-tuk,” or rickshaw taxi, becomes a place to hang a bough of rosebuds. The jasmine, though, is everyone’s favorite, and all of us bury our noses in blossoms and inhale deeply. Just look at these beauties!!
We wander through the passageways, no sense of direction, one shop almost folding itself into the next, each one chockablock full of spices, veggies, clothing, or kitchen utensils. Every once in a while, we emerge from the blue underground of tarps and shade sheets to an edge of the market where the city buildings stand filthy in the afternoon sun. A small river filled with trash separates us from this section of the town, and a pair of dingy white goats knock heads across the mire as one skinny, presumably female, goat looks on with interest.
I duck back into the mystical blue and disappear into the thicket of stalls, tins of colorful spices, rows of grain bags, and the perfume of sweet jasmine.
Some of the sellers love to have their photos taken and approach us with an outstretched hand to hold: “Where you from?” they ask with a curious smile and even some pride that we have come to visit their little city high up in the mountains of Coonoor. Some shopkeepers grimace as we hold up our iPhones and snap. Occasionally, I ask if I can make a picture of them, and more often than not, they nod humbly and stand silently while I frame them behind their vegetables and then say “thank you” with a gesture of namaste. Here passers by seem too tired to use both hands in prayer pose to acknowledge each other; instead, they put up half a namaste the shape of an “L” over their forehead, and we joke that perhaps they see us as a nosy nuisance. A couple more snaps down rows of hot peppers yields me this image of red chiles in a mint green bag:
The group of eight that parted somewhere near the housewares section of the market nearly two hours ago eventually seeps back together, and we flow out into the shuddering traffic, which watches our white river cross the street and climb into a single van, and we are whisked away from this hub of humanity and delivered to the gates of the retreat high up overlooking the tea plantations.