Arre, sirji, badde changay jootay leylo. Jootay nahin pasand? Koi gal nahin, saax leylo. The salesman trying to interest me, in Urdu laced with Punjabi, into buying the shoes and socks he was selling was a Pakistani. Next to him an African woman, her hair intricately pleated in dreadlocks, offered silken scarves colourful as a clutch of rainbows. Like the strolling crowds on the street, scents mingled amiably in the air, hinting at curry and sambhar, Jamaican jerked chicken and Angolan piri-piri. A score or more of languages spiced the aromatic broth: Chinese, Arabic, Punjabi, Urdu, Gujarati, Bengali, Tamil, a lilting medley from Africa, and variants of English from the calypso rhythms of the Caribbean to East End cockney.
Short weeks before racial riots scorched the city, we were in London’s Petticoat Lane Sunday street market. London has a number of such markets. But my favourite is Petticoat Lane. You take the underground train to Liverpool Street station, go out of the main exit, cross the street to where the Dirty Dick pub stands as a landmark (Dick apparently was a legendary miser who never bathed, to save on the cost of soap perhaps), and turn right into Middlesex Street which is where the market, spread over several back lanes, begins. You’ll find over a hundred stalls and kiosks selling just about anything you can name: toiletries and perfumes, second-hand clothing, souvenirs and gift items from five continents, musical instruments, electronic equipment, fake designer labels. Calvin Klein jeans? Givenchy eau-de-toilette? You brand name it, Petticoat Lane’s got it, mispronunciation and all.
In the brisk efficiency with which it conducts business, and in its spirit of camaraderie and good-humoured, multilingual haggling, Petticoat Lane reminds me of the haats which dot the villages and towns and cities of our country and which, put together, make up what is called the Great Indian Bazaar, that market of mutual give-and-take which constitutes our republic. Beside the lush green backwaters of Kerala, i’ve seen halal meat being sold next to puja flowers in a proximity which testifies to our secularism more eloquently than any constitutional declaration can. In the thronging bazaars of Mumbai, and Delhi, and Kolkata, and Bangalore, and Chennai, and in myriad other cities and towns and villages, a thousand million and more negotiations and transactions daily take place, each one a tiny but indispensable knot which helps to hold together the fabric of the country, despite all differences of caste, creed, language and ideology.
In Petticoat Lane i stood in front of a kiosk selling watches of all descriptions. Unset, they all told different times. Or was it that they accurately told the time as it was at that moment in different parts of the world, brought together here in this marketplace?
Marketplaces, all real marketplaces – call them bazaars, haats or what you will – are like that. They bring together different people, living in different places and perhaps even in different cultural and social zones, in the simple, necessary act of buying and selling, that humdrum, everyday exchange which is the basis of any society, the seed from which a very large banyan-tree word has sprung, a word called civilisation.
No, i didn’t buy the shoes and socks the Pakistani was selling. But i did take back a gift from Petticoat Lane. The hope that one day a common marketplace, a common haat, would span the chasm of fear and hostility that continues to cleave apart our shared subcontinent. And to that, today i add the hope that the scars left by Britain burning will soon heal, at least partly thanks to places like Petticoat Lane which more than any political punditry are a streetside testament to an age-old truth: Commerce can be an antidote to both conflict and chaos. Maybe i should have bought those shoes after all.