Mama’s love for shopping was unconditional and mine, for her. So, on each trip to the market, one could spot an uninterested me beside her (although I don’t hate shopping, I love it neither).
Once in a month, to shop for exotic yet cheap items, we would travel for three long hours to visit the famous street mart down south, which was a hustling-bustling arena of roughly every sort of trade and commerce—medium-scale, small-scale; semi-organised, unorganised; legal, illegal.
People—residents as well as nonresidents—kept launching into the place all hours and, like ruthless bulls, banging into each other. At that, handcarts, rickshaws, and bicycles tended to worsen the space crisis, by spontaneously taking the sole responsibility for cautiously filling up any possible room for our locomotion across the street. Fortunately, we were compensated for such inconvenience by the enchanting array of colours and hues exhibited by the houses and shops. My gaze would sharply deny cooperation—I wished to view one thing at a time but it would immediately sight another; what a splendid frenzy it was!
As Mama bargained over product prices skilfully, I would notice that the
shopkeepers were barely eager for customers or sales. They were carefree, though not careless. Walking ahead whilst holding her warm, supple hand, I would see groups of men in high spirits—sipping hot, milky tea—at crooked, unhygienic snack corners and rarely, the women. The men, out at work, would wear plain clothes but the women, inside the houses, all shiny garments with showy jewellery. I would ponder such irony often. Perhaps that was their feeble attempt to expression of liberty, the only attribute adding glitter to their monotonous lives. They were an obvious contrast to Mama— an educated, independent, confident woman.
The children, in incredibly shabby clothes, were a bittersweet delight to the eyes - playing in swarms and running recklessly into everything, everyone; oblivious to the harsh realities of life, which Mama had taught me to stay ready to face sooner or later.
Furthermore, while chitchatting with her, I would always find either that old couple near the crossroad, buying groceries from Laalaa Kalkattvii’s stall across the way, or that lady with a half-burned countenance, receiving heartless, horrified stares from the passersby, or that disabled teenage boy lying on the far end of the path, who appeared poor but, weirdly, I never discovered him begging. Those persons were not my acquaintances, yet not even strangers. I knew their faces and nothing much—this would provoke my curiosity all the more.
Despite longing for asking them why they laboured to run their household at such a fragile age—‘do you have no guardian?’—or how that happened/who did it —‘doesn’t each dreaded stare shatter you from within?’—or how he sustained
himself—‘isn’t it dificult for you to live alone?’—I couldn’t.
Maybe because none broke the ice, or rather it melted away on its own and, sadly, the cold water remained in between us—unquestionably, they were my ‘half-strangers’!
Eventually, after Mama finished her shopping, on our way back home, I would
conclude sensing a strange overall idleness—typical of suburban elements—
peculiarly concealed by the active struggle to survive. To me, everybody there seemed uninspired, as if they never dreamed, never thought beyond today. Nonetheless, I would wonder if any of those small, dilapidated houses be raising our next popular child prodigy/politician/superstar, etc.; I simply wondered, as Mama reckoned aloud the leftover chores...
Now, it has been thirty-odd years down the line.
I do visit the street once in a blue moon, to be, each and every time, taken aback by the transformation it has undergone over the years—the crowd and vibrant scenes being its exclusive constants though. The shopkeepers are overly careful of their customers and sales, and way businessminded. They hanker after money, by hook or by crook.
The masculine get-togethers at the snack corners continue to be held and,
remarkably, most snack corners are managed by the women, dressed in the very same shiny garments with showy jewellery—their new and bold expression of liberty.
Oh, and the children! They still keep playing and running around, like cut kites flying wildly in the open sky. Their tattered clothes have been proudly replaced by local school uniforms paired with little jute bags.
However, sadly, I fail to trace my ‘half-strangers’—the weary couple, the scarred
lady, or the crippled teenager. I regret not trying to learn more about them, their life stories.
They will never know how some complete stranger—in this large, cruel world—
cherishes their vague memories even now. Yet, I hope for, one fine day, to stumble across them and, finally, break the ice, myself.
All along, I vehemently miss Mama’s smart bargaining, affectionate handhold,
chirpy chitchat, and more; that educated, independent, confident woman taught
me everything but how to not miss her once she is gone...
Anyway, when returning home, hiding a tear or two, I smile at my young daughter holding my hand tightly, like a child of two; and, wonder how quietly a place, as buzzing as the streets, can preserve people’s fond recollections, memories, and nostalgia in their pristine beauty.
Truly, lives have changed, times have changed; but, love for people and places goes on.