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The bazaar that’s India

So, my living room is full of vanilla custard. Or, it must be, given that almost anything on god’s green earth seems possible after one enters these places. Especially after a continuous decade-long stint abroad. The place is Lajpat Nagar Market, if it can be called one, and it thrives in one of South Delhi’s less-pretty areas. But whatever it is, it manages to redefine markets, more than. Culturally and spatially, if not economically, anyway.

Plop out of Chicago’s biggest mall, plastered with larger-than-life photo-shopped posters announcing the discount for the day, that still leaves the brand with enough profit to sponsor the next celebrity photoshoot, Lajpat Nagar, well, looks different and smells different, but most important, it sounds different.

To the unsuspecting first-timer, the well-intonated, out of the blue, repetitions of ‘Why does your gaze dart about… all that you desire is right here’, by voice on a loudspeaker can almost be stunning, as they rip through the crowd and the air to reach you, wherever you may be. It took me several moments of ruling out a raucous street play in the middle of a crowded bazaar at 12 noon, with the sun turning both man and word to pulp, to conclude that it was an advertisement. Holy crap. How quickly I’d got sucked into voice’s creativity and how quickly peculiarity was asked to take a backseat. Besides, voice made you laugh and look, if not care. (Lesson 1 in salesmanship, after all: getting the customer to the goods.)

But, then, I wondered, having gravitated to the epicentre of the hollering, looking around, where were the spoken-of goods? Wondering isn’t a necessarily a private activity in India though. Voice had been following my eyes, darting about with me, participating in my cluelessness and finally pointed up to help. Ah, the goods were sitting high in the air, quite comfortably, given their position, one would say. Goods on tiny metal hooks that grow out of brick walls, which were probably as makeshift as the hooks. Would the whole precarious arrangement fall on my head? Upon closer inspection, laws of stable and unstable balance, told me that the goods actually sat in padmaasan poise and wouldn’t budge, rain or thunder, unless their dhyaan was voluntarily disturbed. (Lesson 2 in marketing: judicious use of resources.) So far, these street-side salesmen seemed to be giving Harvard businessmen decent competition.

’What size are these bangles?’, I asked, in my best I-belong-here voice

’Your very own size and just that, madam’, the voice said, his ingenuity impressing me by the minute and his hands having slipped the thing in question onto my hands before I could finish my thought. Ignore the intrusion into personal space, because you are no longer abroad and back in your own country and that’s how things roll here.

‘And how much is it?’ I asked, knowing that I would be able to do little to match his wit.

’Exactly the amount you wish to pay, madam’

I should have known this one was coming.

I walked on and had barely batted half an eyelash at some hand-stiched kohlapuris, when the fellow responsible produced himself. Where did he come from? There was absolutely no one in sight when I walked towards the thing. Was he looking at me looking at the stuff all along? But I had barely given it a glance. How smart were the radars on these guys? Would anyone be able to get away with shoplifting a single safety pin from the pile of stuff lined up beside the gutter, with these guys’ eyes on the case? I was willing to bet not. The Chicago mall, of course, has its web-cameras. (Step 3: Ensure that your profit margins are high.)

’Madam jee, this has been crafted for you,’ interrupted the new salesman, in whose hands my foot was already squirming. He was equally undistinguished in his appearance, but distinguished at once, by how many extra miles he had already gone to make the day’s wages.

I decided my old sneakers would do for the moment and tore away from him, my heart breaking a little.

I thought I would leave for the day, to digest the flavours I had registered, but barely had another five steps passed when I heard repetitions of ‘O, Madam jees’ too close behind me for comfort. I turned to see a man who was on his haunches and only a millimetre behind me. Now, where had he come from and how long had he been there? And what did he want, since his ‘Madam jees’ had sounded as if he wanted to say something.

‘Madam jee, I just want to say there is a hole in the bottom of your shoe. I am a cobbler. I’ll stitch it in a few minutes.’

Ah. The realisation that cobbler on haunches was under the impression that it was normal to start a conversation dawned upon me as disbelief gave way to belief. So he had been hopping on his haunches following the hole in my shoe, to tell me this?

‘Madam jee, just five minutes’, he said, having already relocated himself from my heels to a brown gunny bag by the street side, his instruments and hands in position.

I don’t think I know anyone who can refuse such an offer. And if I do, then I will probably unfriend them, soon.

(Step 4 in business: don’t take no for an answer.)

Exiting the market quickly after the delay, more was in store for me, as I overheard the icing being put on the cake.

’Have you not got a mirror?, asked a girl with electric blue eye-shadow and enough makeup to encourage its makers to start manufacturing more, for fear of running out, of a man in tatters selling kurtas in a heap on a gunny bag. Kurtas in a heap. Easier than picking them off hangers.

‘Jee Madam jee, the day I set up my showroom, I will install the mirror. In the meantime, please take a look on the Leveej window’, grinned the fellow.

The girl who sounded like Mary Antoinette said, ‘You ought to have a mirror… Levi's is not so close…’

I made a mental note to investigate where these fellows kept their radars, in the form of precariously perched associates, so that the Mary Antoinettes of the market wouldn’t walk off with their kurtas in hand.

(Step 5: The customer, Madam jee and Sir jee, is always right.)

As I finally left, I was beginning to lose my mind, the good way, though. A million shades of India’s colours rushing and clinging to my chest all at once, after having lived in the rather carefully sterilised space I was allotted to dwell in, abroad.

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Printable version | Jun 20, 2021 6:56:10 PM | https://www.thehindu.com/opinion/open-page/the-bazaar-thats-india/article26619748.ece

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