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The Hustle and Bustle Of India's Outdoor Markets

ON my way to and from work in India, I pass a vegetable and fruit market. There are no shops or neat checkout counters here. Instead, wooden pushcarts piled with the season's bounty stand in broken array on either side of a stretch of road. The ground around the carts is heaped with leafy cabbages, tomatoes, potatoes, onions, and other produce. Behind the carts and vegetable mounds are fruit shops. Inside the fragile bamboo constructions, patient men sit with wicker baskets full of guavas, pomegranates, apples, coconuts, and raspberries. Bunches of golden bananas hang from hooks, and the high sugar-cane stacks outside the shops spread an exotic, tropical mood about the place.

Every other day I stop to make purchases. The task is a little arduous, especially in the evenings when the bazaar is most crowded. One has to make one's way around, in the normal course, through the press of fellow shoppers, bicycles, and scooters parked close together, and stray cows in search of leafy throwaways. But as I reason with myself, it would be a pity to pass up the opportunity of enjoying the fresh stuff for the sake of saving myself some hard work. Also, the ``carry `n' consume'' policy means that we have more space for other things in the refrigerator. This part of the arrangement pleases Charu, my wife, very much.

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Of course, it's three years into the routine, and I've gotten used to the perennial clamor of the bazaar. In fact, I have come to regard it as an exciting, exuberant place, awash with the raw energies of living. And despite the rigors of buying cabbages and cucumbers, I have not been denied my moments of pleasure. Like the other day, when I spotted my friend Vineet in the melee. We hadn't met each other for months. ``Hoiaa . . . Vineet!'' I shouted over the raucous cries of hawkers and the sputter of slow-moving traffic. Up ahead, a head turned quizzically in my direction. Vineet flashed a grin. I made my way to him, asking where he'd been all these days.

Yes, the bazaar is the scene of many such encounters. And come to think of it, these chance meetings with friends and acquaintances continue to serve a purpose. Here, amid the onion heaps and potato mounds, I get constant updates on marriages, births, change of addresses, holiday plans, how the kids are doing at school, and job promotions. I often wonder how I would have come to know about those hidden eateries and inconspicuous flea markets if I hadn't been tipped off by some friend while shopping for vegetables. For me, therefore, there are two market mechanisms at work. One where the cut and thrust of demand and supply determines whether I can afford that extra coconut or not, and the other, yielding a more expected outcome, brings human hearts together for brief moments of closeness.

Essentially, the vegetable bazaar happens to be a pastoral institution in an urban setting. It's a common sight in Indian villages, the spontaneous congregation of people at some itinerant spot brought together by need and inner volition. Usually in the evenings, when the earth begins to shed the midday heat and the air turns balmy, the village marts come to life.

For the rural folk, it's an occasion. There, even as bags of rice are bartered for pints of mustard oil, and motley crowds gather about salesmen from the city hawking colorful T-shirts and glass bangles, the radios blare popular film songs, and groups of farmers can be seen relaxing beneath trees with their ubiquitous hookahs. Sometimes, a wandering circus sets up camp. Then more revelers appear, wooden merry-go-rounds full of kids creak and shriek, acrobats walk the tightrope and, willy-nilly, a fair gets going.

Of course, things are different in the market I frequent. Here, barter is as old-fashioned as the Stone Age. Only the greenbacks (rupees in the Indian context) count. And instead of pack animals winding their way back with the harvest, you see big trucks unloading gunnybags full of produce brought in swiftly from the fields.

But, while the rustle and clink of money and the growl of trucks manifest the dynamics of a modern urban economy, the vegetable market exudes the lively spirit of rural India. The human crush, the clamor, the din, and the apparent chaos create an air of festivity and a certain warmth one experiences in small village bazaars and remote country fairs. An English friend, who happens to be a historian, once accompanied me to the open-air bazaar.

It was slightly after sunset, and the portable gas lamps on the vendors' carts glowed. Quietly taking in the scene, he commented that it must have been like this in his country before the Industrial Age. ``Reminds me of the marketplaces described by Thomas Hardy,'' he said.

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Mixed up with the nostalgia is a bit of country magic, too. Have you listened to the undergrowth rustle as the long cucumbers grow with incredible haste? my vendor friends query quizically. I plead my ignorance even as I revel in the mystique my friends carried from the hoary fields when they came to live amongst the tenement blocks and neon lights. But I am trying to grasp the secrets.

I already know, smelling the east wind of summer, the the mango crop is ready for harvesting. I am happy when it rains in winter, for this is what the cauliflower needs to grow bigger in the fields and cheaper in the markets. And above all, I have become intensely aware of the fact that my bazaar is much more than an economist's impersonal definition of a place where only commercial self-interest prevails.

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