From Marco Polo to Vasco Da Gama, all the explorers were, when they were not at the helm of their ship, traders, carrying casks of wine and cheese to barter with items that were considered as valuable as gold, if not greater – spices and silk.
The Chennai local train that begins its run from Velachery and stops beside the port-side Beach Station, took me to one of the pulsating bazaars of the city – Sowcarpet. Thus, I hit my Bazaar Trail.
I stepped off the train and looked to my right with the fantasy of every child that grew up in a landlocked city, deprived of even the pleasure of watching ferries and small fishing boats lulling along the river.
I saw large container ships docked at the Madras Port, and these creatures were magically realistic. The cranes lifting and loading looked like Giant Dragons. How I wished the steel containers were wooden crates and the cranes, giant sails!
A board with “Jesus Calls” welcomed me as I walked out of the station. The symbols of religion , that came in ships centuries ago, were all around me – the evangilical mission across the road, muslim merchants to my left, two nuns haggling with an autowallah, and a trader filling water for a saffron clad old man. Furthur ahead, “Holy Land Tour – Jordan – Israel – Egypt” announced a standee placed by St. Anderson Church at its gate. I was half-excited and half-seduced to go in and ask for the cost of the tour.
I saw Cinema City – a small CD shop – that had its name written in the font style of the fast-vanishing single-screen theatres. Who buys CDs these days, I thought. Madras is a cinema city. Film posters are a recurring sight and one can expect tamil dick-chick songs to fly out of any and every small lane and fancy autorickshaws.
I walked on, away from Parry’s Corner, and toward the lanes of Sowcarpet. A hoarding, rather well-named, I thought, caught my attention. Its large board with “East India Company” written on it paid respect, rather subtly, to those who built Madras, by selling sanitary ware.
I suppose every sea-side city has welcomed sea-farers, and now ‘air-farers’, to its local tastes, and doing so, aspires to feel foreign which is seen in the red Indo-Sarcenic Madras High Court and tasted at Paris Cool House beside Madras Coffee House.
I was throttled from my flaneurish reverie by the loud bud-put-pud-but of bursting crackers, set-off by party workers in front of the High Court to celebrate the victory, rather, the narrow escape of their Beloved Leader.
As I walked past the several stationary and book shops, past all the bakeries, juice centres, tea points, and wedding card shops, and neared the narrow lanes of proper Sowcarpet, a tickling scent probed my nostrils, and the prick it left brought me to its lane and even before I could see the wares of the shops, I sneezed. And, I sneezed again. It was a lane full of flowers and spices. Heaps. Mounds. Rolls. Garlands. Singles. Couples. Necklaces. Red. Orange. Yellow. White. I was overwhelmed.
I was pushed, hit, shoved, and scolded – for being slow. I saw the flowers come to the sellers, carried by strong arms and overhead, and leave the market in small plastic packets in the hands of the buyers. Behind the road-side hawkers were concrete shops selling fireworks, decorative items, and pooja essentials – the destination to which Chennaiites take trains, buses, autos before every festival.
I stood in the narrow lane and saw in the sea of people, travellers, who made trips every day, every season, and there wasn’t a woman there who hadn’t walked the silk road and sailed over the spice route. They were all to me, like me, on a bazaar trail, and were in their own little might – travellers.
For the first time on my trip, I felt scared – for myself and for the people who traded next to godowns where fireworks, cloth and paper was stocked. I saw, when the shutters went up, cigarette cartons stacked to the godown’s belly. One spark flying off the wires running overhead and the fireworks would explode, paper would burn, and those cigarettes would get smoked.
Before I could extinguish my fears, I heard the police siren. Siren! All the hawkers, those selling Guava, Oranges, Muskmelon, and Papaya on the footpath, shut shop, closed their shade, and ran. The police scrutinized, took bikes off non-parking slots, shouted, screamed, sirened, and honked.
“Not in the corner. Move! Move!” said a policeman.
“The shopkeeper, looking away, muttered, “ Where do I go?”
The commotion spread along the street with the police pick-up van. I followed it. people came running out of the shops to move their bikes within the parking line, or to at least stand next to their wheels so that the police wouldn’t take it away.
I, too, moved out of Sowcarpet with the police pick-up van, and proceeded toward Ritchie Street – the electronics hub of Chennai. When I read that their goods come from China and Taiwan, by sea, it made it easier to imagine the contents of the huge containers at the port. But I was still curious.
Then, I was lost. I was at the Beach Station, trying to board the right train. I got in, felt confused, got out, and asked a person sitting by the window if the train stops at Park Town. He said that he doesn’t know. I stopped a young man in a white shirt and black trousers and sot him with my question.
He simply nodded and got into the train after me. Before I could sit in my seat, my name was spoken, and I turned to see the young man smiling at me.
I had last met him ten years ago at a National Table Tennis camp. He was, as the saying goes, someone I played with in my childhood. He was a plump kid. But, now, a handsome man. We exchanged numbers, shook hands, and parted with the promise to call, to keep in touch.
After shuttling twice between Park Town and Beach Station, I rushed out of the train at Chindadripet. I stood on the Periyar Bridge and looked upon the magnificent Government Hospital – a sight rare and expensive for an often ignored government service.
I walked past Simpson and Co whose entrance was like that of an old theatre. As I was walking from one bazaar to the next, it became increasingly hard to stand, look around, and not ask, whether Madras was in Chennai or Chennai in Madras. Did the old give birth to the new or the new sprinkle charm over the old?
I looked for Ritchie Street but the map had missed a lane that, as a young boy revealed, took me directly there.
The route went through a poor neighbourhood where everything was on the road – washing machine, cooking vessels, clothes, cupboard – all that they owned and used.
Many monstrous megaphones seemed to be blaring, end-to-end. Voltage stabilizers were on sale for a discount, but, I felt as if the roads , circuits really, needed their own circuit breakers and voltage stabilizers.
Amid the honks, the blares, the shouts, I saw people queueing up to get a shock. ‘Ice Paan’ – pan rolled up in a beetle leaf and topped with ice – sent tingles up the nerves to the brain and the one standing at the counter would hold it in hand, look at it as if it were a live wire.
I made my way out of the electronic bazaar as carefully as I could. The moment I would stand, someone would whistle or tsk or oye me off their path.
I cursed the wheels that missed my toe by an inch. And soon, I saw the fate of those wheels – removed from the vehicle and kept aside without the tyre. They lay like skeletons.
I came across the first workshops along the sewer next to Pudupet. The notorious auto spares market welcomed me with coolers, horns, shock absorbers, broken down clutch, head lights, tail lights…
I saw gears spewn in front of shops and men working them with greasy arms. How I wish I had gone there when I was a little boy! I would have screamed with joy at the sight of two young men carrying shiny alloy wheels on a two-wheeler – nothing less than a stunt.
I took a bus late in the afternoon back to Chennai Beach Station. I think cruising through the last stretch to Anna Square is every driver’s thrill – windy, straight, and clear.
I got down in front of a huge golden Pegasus which was shining in the four o clock sun. Confused, I let several buses stop and go. A middle aged man whom I asked urged me, as we were speaking, to get in to the bus whose driver was revving, having reached his impatience in five seconds.
I travelled the final meters in a share-auto, requesting the driver if I could sit next to him in his seat, despite being his only passenger. He laughed and agreed.
Thus, having travelled in all the modes of local public transport in Chennai, I got into the train at Beach Station just before sunset.
I journeyed back home with thoughts about journeying.
I saw people take their siesta in the train. When I took the train to Park Town, the man who sat in front of me would close his eyes, sway his head, hit it upon the air, wake, look, and close his eyes again. I saw from the window the hospital where my friend was admitted. I saw a sporting mural at the Chepauk Station – a graffitti, really. I saw romantic scratchings on the walls of the stations – surrealistic, if you find your name and your girldfriend’s within a heart, inscribed by a lovestruck youth or by a couple bearing the same names, in love, standing there, in a different time and space.
I saw boys jump off the train onto the platform at every station and run along the train until their soft bones could no longer match the rolling iron wheels. Then, they jump and leap and land a feet and haul themselves in holding the bar and laugh and laugh. Then, they look out of the door and calm their rushing hearts and await the next station.
As I walked the final stretch of my bazaar trail, I heard a group of boys and girls shouting and whistling in the subway as a local train passed overhead…