U-C: What I See

Tuesday, January 17, 2006

How does one describe an Indian Market?

O.K., try to imagine.

We’re in downtown Ludhiana, in the Punjab region of Northern India, and not too far away from the border with Pakistan. The buildings are three to five stories high. The first floor of each building is tightly packed with shops selling electrical supplies, clothing, housewares, convenience items, pharmaceuticals – I even saw one sign above a store advertising Hot Wheels and Barbies. On a Sunday afternoon, all of the stores have spilled over into the streets, putting tables in front of their shops and piling their goods high like you might see in a some kind of a super-manic flea market back home. Teenaged boys and young men stand among their products on top of the tables, hovering high above the crowd and hawking their wares at the tops of their lungs.

The street is paved, though it is so narrow that it clearly was never meant for cars. On this market afternoon, the cars have been blocked from entering the area. It’s still complete pandemonium, though. People move along shoulder-to-shoulder, fighting for space with old rickshaws, bicycles, motorcycles, donkey carts and scooters. Most scooters carry an entire family, father and mother on the seat with a child sandwiched in between them and another standing on the little platform in front of her father and holding onto the handlebars. The record, for my afternoon, was held by the family of six, which only worked because it included an infant held in his mother’s arms as she rode “sidesaddle” on the back.

As in many other countries I’ve visited, electrical cables are strung “spaghetti” style in every direction just twelve or fifteen feet over our heads. In one short section of the street, instead of shops there was a brick wall in front of the police barracks. Creative entrepreneurs had mounted small mirrors on the wall. Their clients sat on packing crates before the mirrors – watching as they received a haircut. Others faced their barbers as they received shaves with old-fashioned, straight-edged, razors that the men paused to sharpen every once in a while.

At the end of every block the food vendors ruled. They stood behind old, dirty, wooden and metal carts, frying all kinds of foods I couldn’t identify in boiling oil. (Rick’s rule number one for international travel; be adventuresome but not stupid – never, ever eat from a street vendor!)

The noise is deafening. Hawkers of knock-off, designer jeans are yelling their prices and haggling with their customers. Everywhere I’ve been in this country there is the sound of cars, the ever-present, three-wheeled motorcycle “rickshaws” used as taxicabs, bicycles and traditional rickshaws, buses and trucks, scooters and motorcycles, all honking at one another as they jockey for position on the streets and roads. It’s like a high-speed game of chicken on narrow streets with the density of a parking lot at the mall on the day after Thanksgiving.

It is life lived fully and exuberantly at all times. About half an hour is enough for me. After that I begin to feel my senses closing down to protect my U.S., middle-class sensibilities. But when I spend an afternoon like this, I remember immigrants I’ve met in the United States who speak with longing of the vibrancy and excitement of life in their own cultures. Our culture seems positively antiseptic by comparison.

I can’t write fast enough, nor anywhere near well enough, to share all of the marvels of being with other people and learning of the richness of their cultures. I wish I could share this experience with everyone in the U.S. The world would be a different place if our eyes were opened to how the rest of the world lives.