By Malini Aikat
Amazing but true, Shivajinagar, this jangly, shabby market place, where rivers of men and women, children, dogs, cats and cows, struggle for space, move as one, carpeted as it is with old rotting vegetables and litter creating a postmodern tableau, soothes your soul the way spas are meant to. Cutting through its mad expanse the other day, in a hurtling auto rickshaw, indifferent to any traffic rules, I took the time, once more to let it whoosh into my mind space. Not an ATM in sight, no big-chain restaurants, no acts of corporate creation, no design daring to speak of. This was just plain old humanity living another day. There is enormous beauty in that and as I write this I am reminded of a BrainyQuote: philosophy is the art of the well fed. So too is art – the indulgence of the well fed. There is no art here to speak of, nothing conscious at least and what does pass for aesthetics is composed of basic paint box colours and broad strokes. What reassures me is the plain authenticity. There is no time, no energy for effete expression. There are livelihoods to earn. When not invaded by the culture of the golden arches, India speaks a charming language full of enormous humour, intended or not, compassion and sweetness. I’m romanticizing. People fight too – loud, raucous affairs that draw crowds the way a heavyweight championship might. Faiths, personalities, even different species seem to co-exist in complete harmony.
Laws of physics alter here. No lane is too narrow for a jumble of beings not to pass through. At the same time. An SUV, a sedan, a cow, a donkey, a couple of women, a vegetable cart will push through any space together, micro-negotiating even the most minuscule gap of opportunity. These are life lessons. Because gone are the school room niceties to be replaced by a more natural code. I love the crazy bakeries, like no other bakery anywhere.
Jars filled with rock like cookies, shelves of cakes that look like impersonations of the real thing, rusks, and pots ever simmering with brown milky tea that is served to lounging, chatting customers in a peaceful, spontaneous engagement, cut off for a moment from the melee a footstep away. The beef vegetable markets have been around since the 1800’s testimony to a thriving community. If you continue your stay and walk the winding, crooked streets you’ll come across old, forgotten street signs their heads pointing sorrowfully down with names in an alien phonetics: Cockburn Road. I say it out loud. It’s pronounced “Coburn”.
I know this frock-coated world, Dickensian world so well. And history becomes a visual phenomenon: people leaving behind layer heaped upon layer of their existence, some of it seeping through, blending, mixing and becoming something else. In an often fraught world to hear mosques calling out to prayers right next to a shop selling Christian material and people going about their day with all their differences peacefully is soul filling. There is art in that.
Photo credits: Rajvi Mehta, Bharat Ram, Vivek V Ram, Sara Kolster.