Though I stayed in Siliguri, a city in West Bengal, for more than two months, I have not written a blog post on it, yet.
The reason could be that I was busy with a creative writing project that took all my time. I was not venturing out a lot either. With my head down in writing from six am until I got up to meditate and do a little yoga before sleeping, I wasn’t actively exploring the city. My partner and I visited a national park which could be, at best, called a zoo: some tigers and bears were in cages and the rest roamed near them. I don’t understand why were the animals put behind bars.
The most I did was walk out into the open grasslands around the suburban house. A stream, which was not so clean, cut through the land. Though the area was dirty, it had long dry copperish grass on which buffaloes and cows grazed while locals shepherded them. Seated on the ground, groups of youngsters talked, played music, and smoked. Sometimes, they drank.
On sunny winter afternoons, families lit bonfires and cooked meals. Those winter days with families and friends chattering around in the open area made me miss my own family. I wished I could do a bonfire with my parents, too. But when I strolled in the ground the next day after the picnics, plastic glasses, polythene bags, and other garbage were strewn all about the earth. Once, a man had made a big fire and was putting all the garbage in it. As I picked plastic cups from the ground and threw them in the fire, I smiled at him. He didn’t. My partner and I left him alone. Maybe, he wanted to be by himself.
Most of the time, I went to the pastures alone. Passing houses and people huddled over little fires outside their independent homes, I reached the open grounds. I took the most obscure tracks through the tallest golden grass to be hidden from the people roaming about. Thus I reached a little pool: a part of the stream I liked to walk next to. When I am in nature, I am not alone. Sometimes others try to disturb that solitude though. Once I was reading my book on a bed sheet I had spread on the ground under a tree. A man cycling past saw me many times. I wouldn’t be surprised if finding me alone, someone would have come to bother me.
Mostly, everyone minded their own business in those riverine lands around our house which we had rented first for a week, then for a month, and later for another month. (I would share the story of the host or how cumbersome was to live in the apartment another day.)
Another reason I have not written a post on Siliguri yet—apart from that I didn’t do too much there—is that I have been thinking of something big to write about. In a city, whose things to see list ends at a few national parks, which were more like zoos, there was nothing big to do. Home, writing, pastures, cooking, eating out on Sunday afternoons, shopping, playing with dogs and cats, saving our clothes from the neighbors, and then grocery shopping. The end.
A couple of days ago, I realised I do have something big to share: the weekly vegetable fair of Siliguri.
Grocery markets have always fascinated me. As a little girl, my father used to take me to our city’s vegetable market. We walked to the bazaar together, he shopped and filled many bags, and then we carried the fresh produce home. I have continued the practice of buying vegetables and fruits myself from a local market to date.
Greengrocer fairs spread around the streets and roads enchant me more than many other things.
First of all, the bazaars are colorful. All the produce is put on a show in their best colors. Vendors throw water on vegetables and fruits all day long. Shiny flower garlands wait to be bought and adorned in hair or put on the gods and goddesses. Coconuts in their husky shells pile up on the roadside. Little pyramids of bright spices can fool anyone into buying some more even though the spice boxes at home are full. Pulses, rice, ropes, baskets, combs, pins, pots—everything is for sale, and everything is bought.
The urgency of the shoppers enlivens the bazaar. Women, men, couples, and parents with their children stock up their baskets and large bags with produce enough to last them a week. These are special weekly markets that sell things at a cheaper price than the regular stores. These buyers wobble through the stalls spitting out onto the 12-inch lanes, their eyes still fixated on the spread and mind calculating what more they need or were asked to bring. Haggling is a must. Hand-waving will happen. Some customers nod their heads in disbelief and walk away. Sellers also shake their heads to send away a customer who asks for a price that has upset the greengrocer.
Thirdly, these markets show a lot about the local culture. Who buys what vegetables? Are fruits being sold and consumed? What do people say to each other about the hawker who was quoting a higher price than the rest? What do locals wear while out shopping? Which fruits are local and which greens are present in which season?
Just by visiting green grocery bazaars of India (and elsewhere), you can get the pulse of the geography.
Fourthly, I love to buy fruits and vegetables, a trait of my father I believe, I love to cook, a feature of my mother, and I love to eat: something of my own. There’s something special in making the time to go to the market, grabbing shopping bags at the last minute before leaving or returning to the house to get them, and then walking for an hour or more through that hotchpotch of people and grocery. The touch of the coarse guava or the plump sour country tomato, the fragrance of the fresh green coriander or the powdered red chilli, the sight of the pile of crisp pink onions tightly wrapped in their shells and golden bunches of banana, the rhythmic well-rehearsed and well-timed calls of the sellers, and the saliva oozing out of my mouth imagining the food I will make with the overflowing bags—all of these make me go back to the vegetable markets no matter where I am.
Though I don’t reside in cities where I can order things online, going to a market is more of a necessity for me than a choice. Still, the immersion of the five senses in physically visiting a grocery bazaar and buying my food cannot be beaten by any of the online apps. Even in Bangalore, even during the pandemic, I was visiting the supermarkets and local grocers with masks on, waiting in the queue outside, and being let one by one into the shop. Well, until I started ordering medicine-free produce online.
Needless to say, picking every mango or every bean by oneself is the only thing that can ensure you are eating fresh food of the highest quality. For almost a month at a friend’s place in the outskirts of Calcutta where getting the local greens wasn’t the easiest, I was ordering simple fruits and vegetables through an app. Not only the items were expensive on an ongoing basis, but they weren’t the freshest or the best produce of the season. Sometimes, the potatoes were sprouted and the onions dull. When I finally left her house and got onto the roads of Bengal, I came across papayas such plump and alive and sparkling onions and potatoes that the delivered products seemed lifeless in front of them.
For me, grocery markets are places that keep that era alive when things were done well, no matter how much time they took.
So for now, I want to share pictures of the Siliguri vegetable fair I visited on most Mondays until I got so busy that I instructed my partner to buy what was needed and sent him away. Along this narrative, hopefully, the vibrant colors of the verdure would lure you into stepping through the grocery bazaars yourself.
A Vegetable Street Fair in Siliguri–the Everyday Delights
Let me take you to the heartbeat of Siliguri, a city that (they say) has nothing special apart from being the Chicken’s Neck through which the rest of India is connected to the Northeast of the country. Though the market in time was in Siliguri, it could be any other green street market in India.
Now as I sit in a hotel room near the Kaveri river in Karnataka and publish this photo essay on the vegetable and fruit fair in Siliguri, I miss a kitchen where I could cook all sorts of things. But, at least, when I had a stove, I used it to its full capacity.
Pots, cookers, and pans,
in my kitchen you find them all sizzling.
Greens, purples, and red,
I treat them all equally.
Every tomato is picked by hand,
and every bean knows its destiny,
that’s my tummy.
I wouldn’t have it any other way.
Do you buy your groceries yourself? Why? Or why not? Let me know in the comments.
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