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A Green Affair in Siliguri–Picking Tomatoes and Turnips

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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 caged tiger in siliguri bengal
the caged tiger, North Bengal Wild Animals Park, Siliguri
the others walking outside growling (1)
the other tigers pacing outside, growling

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.

who can avoid buying these fresh vegetables
Who can avoid buying these fresh vegetables? The weekly vegetable fair in 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.

broccoli spring onion onions potatoes fresh produce siliguri (1)
Those deep colours! The long aisle of fresh produce, Siliguri weekly market.
greens of all kinds
the kind of greens people eat changes from state to state. Mustard greens are popular in Bengal, but so are bok choy and other greens used in Asian cuisine.
new pink potatoes siliguri grocery bazaar west bengal
new pink potatoes in Siliguri grocery bazaar, West Bengal. When I ordered new pink potatoes online in Calcutta, I would get such brown potatoes that I claimed refunds on them. The potatoes looked brown and old, not pink and new. But look at these beauties in the market. Very close to what you get in Peru.
not so happy that we are clicking her picture
More potatoes. Three things are sold throughout India, and probably the world: tomatoes, onion, and potatoes.
seller vegetables fruits siliguri weekly market
We have so many greens, that even though I control, I end up buying more vegetables than I can eat in a week.
fresh produce of a different kind in siliguri market
eggs, various mushrooms, greens, lemon, chillies, potatoes: this vendor promised a health benefit with each of the products he sold. This is for sugar, this for blood pressure, this for stomach, and so on. Once I took the tiny potatoes from him (for taste, not for sickness) only to repent the purchase.
some interesting things in Siliguri market
A closer look. One does get a virtual closer look of vegetables and fruits on online apps. But could you ever compare that to this?
when shrines are no parking signs
When shrines have no-parking signs.
Also notice the tri-rickshaw that is pulled by Indian men. I have seen the tri-rickshaw in North, West, and East India.
little tiny potatoes
the little potatoes. they may look pretty but good luck cleaning and cooking them if they have spots.
quietly waiting
waiting quietly
a tea seller on the roadside, the photo tells many stories
This photograph is not that from that vegetable market. I took this picture while walking around in the streets of Siliguri. How this old man sat on a low wooden stool cooking tea on coal for customers made me think of the poverty in India. What is he thinking, I wonder.
a very bengali handkerchief i should have bought
handkerchiefs that I have been using since I was a little girl. this red one is a very Bengali handkerchief that I should have bought.
and then all the other snacks also lined up
peanuts being roasted whole in sand over wood fire. This is food as mobile as it gets. Along with peanuts, a paraphernalia of snacks one gets on such hand-pulled carts. This was not in the vegetable fair, but in the streets of Siliguri.
money being handed for roasted peanuts being sold
peanuts being roasted in sand on siliguri streets
I seem to have tonnes of pictures of peanuts. Believe it or not, simple roasted peanuts are so hard to find in big cities. In Siliguri, I searched for big packets of roasted peanuts that were still in their pink skin. but I didn’t find any. Somehow, outside the Siliguri vegetable market, I found this old peanut seller who roasted peanuts on his stall every day.
Now I get into the old lanes and allies of a town or a city to find the good-old peanut stalls. Because neither in any fancy stores or regular supermarkets do I get the kind of simple roasted peanuts I like. The lanes of India remain the same though.
another guy hard at work on the road in siliguri
Another guy hard at work on the road, Siliguri city
fresh sugarcane juice, anyone_
And another one. Sugar cane juice, again something that sells in all of India. From the West to the East and from the North to the South.
hard work of an old man
the seller freshening up the cabbage by peeling a few outer skins
The vendor is freshening up the cabbage by peeling its few outer skins. My father can always tell fresh vegetables from the rest. Practice makes a human perfect.
everything you ever need bangles hair bands siliguri market
In the main market of Siliguri. Everything you might need for your hair, and other accessories.
old style sewing machines still found in bengal (1)
These old-style sewing machines which are run by the foot are still being sold in West Bengal. I wonder which other states have them.
i have to get those greens
Waiting for the guy to hand me spinach. The weekly Monday vegetable fair in Siliguri.
more dry fish big and small siliguri west bengal in a street market
Dry fish of various kinds. Sharp, silver, pointy: beautiful each one of them. I still don’t understand how Bengalis or other communities cook dry fish. I know that some fry with coconut, others put them in rice, many fry the dry fish and prawns with chilli, but I still don’t know how one cooks them. Are they to be washed first? If so, then which preparation would go with what? not sure. Help me, please. At least, until I quit eating sea animals, too.
more dry fish omg
couldn’t help but share these white stars
dry fish being sold in siliguri green grocer weekly market
a close-up
dry fish and turmeric in siliguri market (1)
silver versus yellow
only in bengal can you see the dry fish and spices together-a cultural nugget i couldnt have learned if i hadn't visited the local grocery bazaar
how they spark! only in Bengal can you see the dry fish and spices being sold together: a cultural nugget I couldn’t have learned if I hadn’t visited the local grocery bazaar
spices and spices
Things I love India for. Wherever you go in India, spices follow you.
the woman who kindly let me click the pictures
The kind woman who let me take the pictures of her fish and spice stall outside Siliguri main market.
you can tell the place by seeing the list of news paper
In India, you can tell the place by seeing the list of news paper being sold on the streets.
amul milk cart
An Amul milk cart. I had a fan girl moment when I spotted this cart outside a supermarket my partner and I frequented in Siliguri.
and after grocery shopping glistening noodles in siliguri
Refuelling after the grocery shopping. A very glossy—because it is oily—chowmein: made with noodles and vegetables in a Siliguri street shop. My partner can’t resist these while I can’t eat a plateful, only a few spoons.
both together momos and noodles chowmein siliguri food
Ah, the whole combination. Momos and chowmein: the kings of East India, at least these two dishes were the most sold in Siliguri to visitors who weren’t expected to have much knowledge of the East Indian food. But, it was assumed that everyone recognises momos and chowmein. If we asked for a more typical north-eastern dish, we were told we wouldn’t like it.
and then the meals that came out of the purchase
The meals that came out of the purchase. Unsurprisingly, I don’t have many pictures of the food I cooked back in Siliguri. One, because I was busy. Two, the food was so good we gulped it down. Three, as my partner and I eat either one or two meals a day, we would be hungry by the time the food was ready. Why do we eat only one or two meals? I have described intermittent fasting in the article on mindful and healthy living, where I talk about a lot of other healthy and loved practices I follow every day. PS: the rotis aren’t burnt, I like them a bit more charred than usual.
on most days this fruit basket used to be filled, this is saturday, see this on monday
Again, I don’t have a great picture of our filled fruit basket. The sun coming through the tree-shadowed window behind the kitchen isn’t making things clearer either. but I was thankful for that window, the tree outside it, and the birds that often watched me with suspicion from its branches. Whenever I’ll have a home, I’ll have an outdoor kitchen, right in the garden that would be more like a forest. Ssshh, don’t tell anyone.
not my preferred method of buying things
Not my preferred method of buying things. Why would I want to sit at home all the time?
cotton is still filled in mattresses the old style in bengal
Mattresses are still being prepared in the old way in West Bengal. At my parent’s home, too, an old woman used to come, ask if we needed any new mattresses or had to get the old ones fixed, then she would take the mattress home, and bring us the new one. Cotton is reused over a long cycle.
on the last day of 2022 in siliguri west bengal
on the last day of 2022 in Siliguri West Bengal. Siliguri is home to many different cultures.
a beautiful view of mountains from our home
though you can see the mountain range, the icy peaks that I used to see from my guesthouse in Siliguri aren’t visible in this picture. I am pretty sure that on clear days, we could see as far as Kanchenjunga.

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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2 thoughts on “A Green Affair in Siliguri–Picking Tomatoes and Turnips”

  1. Hi Priyanka,
    I loved the photo of the elderly gentleman preparing chai on the streets of Siliguri… this image epitomizes one elderly man’s quiet grace and dignified humility as he ekes out a meager living selling chai on the streets of India.. although one can only see the side of his face, he maintains an air of composed calm, seated simply on a wooden stool amidst cracked concrete….there’s no hint of bitterness or distress marring his expression, only pure acceptance.


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