Friday, October 1, 2010

The Bangalore City Market, The "Real" India,

The Bangalore City Market (some of it).

So. In a Facebook controversy of sorts, I had been accused (fairly gently) of doing India too plush this time, of avoiding the Real India. Now, the Real India concept is one that I find vastly irritating, mainly because it seems to escape the lips of everyone in the West who has been to India, is thinking of going to India, or has ever even vaguely noticed the base existence of India.

I took the Real India question to a number of Indian friends of mine. My Indian friends, I hasten to add, are definitely not what you might define as salt-of-the-earth types. They're uniformly well educated, hold down good jobs (or have done so in the past) and have generally traveled at least somewhat, either nationally or internationally. No, these are not the people of Mumbai hovels, Calcutta orphanages, or Bihar's baking and miserable plains. However, all of them, every single one, took serious umbrage to the notion of a "real" India.

Apples for sale at the market.

As a friend of mine observed: "Why do Westerners think the Real India is something out of Slumdog Millionaire? What, am I not a real Indian because I have a BA and I don't live in a hut? Where the hell do you people get these ideas?"

Flowers at the market.

I suppose it's wrapped up in the Western, educated notion of Authenticity Tourism. In other words, we want to get away from the beaten track and tour-buses sort of travel and get at something real, touch the heart or the soul of a country in a fashion closed off to the average and lazy-minded tourist. This is, I think, a noble goal. But I also think that this goal causes some Westerners to point-blank dismiss all that is not gritty, difficult, and mildly disturbing about India (or any developing country) as "not real" enough for them. As I overheard while in Sikkim, a little-known and incredibly attractive and well-maintained area of India: "Yeah, I mean, I like it here...but it's so Westernized. So clean."

The Sikkimese had better knock that civic pride and prosperity shit off if they want to draw the Western bohemian tourist set, apparently. Maybe they should import some starving children and leprosy-ridden beggers from nearby Calcutta to jazz the place up.

This notion that a clean, safe, and functional place is somehow "false" is, to put it plainly, a load of hooey. And highly offensive to the Inspiring Native People to boot, who are often extremely proud of what they've achieved in just those areas of cleanliness, safety, and functionality.

Think of it this way. When you receive friends from overseas or out of state, do you immediately drive them to the nearest ghetto-area (and there are plenty, even in the USA) to show them the "real" America because your nice house and interesting neighborhood somehow lack "authenticity"? Somehow, I doubt it.

Now, I think that a tourist should take it upon themselves to get out of the "nice" areas and officially sanctioned tourist areas. Slum tourism is a sticky moral issue in my book, but it seems to work for some. Volunteering is another popular, if somewhat controversial, way of getting at a reality not accessible at the immediate surface. These are things that are good. But they are not the only things.

I refuse to buy that you are somehow being a decadent and ignorant Westerner if you occasionally skew towards the "nice" end of the tourist spectrum, even in developing countries. If staying in a safe hotel that is refreshingly bed-bug free and avoiding cheapie night-buses is a flagrant denial of the Real India on my part, then, well, I suppose I am guilty as charged. To quote Anthony Bourdain, I guess I am a mere tourist and not a traveler.

Another surprisingly uniform thought emerged from my Indian friends.

Dried fruit cart.

"There's no such thing as a single India. You can't define a Real Indian, or even a stereotypical India. India is a bunch of different things mashed together, more so then anywhere else." In other words, there is no Real India (just like there is no Real America) and you are out of luck if you intend to find it somewhere untouched and off the tourist-track. There is no real India, and the notion will set off a fiery and impassioned debate if put to a group of Indians pretty much anywhere.

That is one blanket stereotype about Indians that is 100% true. They are incredibly argumentative).

But anyway. I was feeling guilty about this Real India thing, and so I decided to go out and have a look at the closest thing wealthy Bangalore offers to the Real India of tourist and literary fame. I headed to the Bangalore City Market.

The market building.

The City Market is technically located inside an ornate and lattice work-ridden building in the center of town. This is not actually the case, because the Market is an enormous and tentacle-bearing organism, an organism that has spilled out of its original surroundings (if it was ever contained by them) and has grabbed at most of the neighborhood nearby.

The City Market is nearish to Lalbagh Gardens, but it is easy enough to tell when you're almost there: the automobile and hardware shops increase in numbers, a lot of signs in Arabic and people in white robes appear, and the number of free-roaming cattle and women carrying stuff on their heads increases exponentially. Congratulations, you've made it to the Market.

I like the Market for a few reasons.

Pomegranates at the market.

The first is that the Market clears up a number about mysteries about the operation of Bangalore as a mostly-functional civic unit. The Market is, to put it simply, where most stuff comes from.

Ever wonder where your neighborhood fruit guy gets his stuff? (yes, the one who shouts about fruit while wheeling about his cart at 6 in the morning, turning your thoughts to murder, that guy.)

Why, of course, he goes to the local pineapple wholesaler, who crouches spider-like in the middle of what looks like a pineapple massacre, and sells his stuff to all comers. There's other Guys for all manner of other fruits: bananas, melons, pomegranates, apples, custard apple, guava, you name it, it's here. Don't ask where it came from.

Many restuarants in Bangalore serve their thalis on banana leaves. Paan sellers also use smaller leaves to wrap their mildly narcotic goodies up in. Well, this is where they get them. From this lady. Let's pretend they are given a good chemical bath before coming to the table. (That's a good one).

I am endlessly fascinated by these enormous cones of spices and sandal-paste. I have no idea how they are made or how they manage to stand up like that, without losing their structural integrity. If someone can tell me how this is done, I'd be very grateful.

Ever wonder where the endless, endless buckets and mounds and bags of flowers used for puja come from? Well, here. The Central Market may be better termed the Flower Market, for that is the good that now dominates the entire central area of the building.

It's an absolutely magical sort of place - the corriders are small and incredibly crowded, and you squeeze through as if conveyed by an outside force, shoved along in the crush of bodies, past stall after stall of fresh and heavily scented flowers. The flowers mask the usual India scent of body-odoer and cattle dung, or at least they mix it up and turn it into something more roundly appealing.

The boys at the stalls shout when you go by and hand you armfuls of roses and marigolds: I am totally inept at tucking them behind my ear in the demure fashion of the South Indian girls, but I do them the honor of trying.

The flowers are everywhere being fashioned into garlands, piled into immense structures, or crushed into the ground by the millipede-like churn of a thousand almost conjoined feet. You come in and out of the flower trading area very quickly mainly because you are not able to stop moving, not unless you find something sturdy to hold onto, an anchor in the sea of chlorophyll.

The first time I came here, I was somewhat terminally stoned. The combined effect of the flowers color and scent and the constant movement of the selling arena was, well, psychedelic. You might want to try it. It's not like half of the sellers aren't stoned themselves, you know.

The flower market's best aspect is from above. If you walk up the stairs, you'll find yourself with a fantastic view of the action below. Great photo ops. You tourist, you.

A lot of people in India like it when you take their photo. You have to be careful about this - it's often a scam involving pay-per-snap moolah in touristy areas - but is usually an entirely authentic request in places like the Market. This old lady just wanted to see what she looked like these days. Like this. There was some gesturing in broken English and Hindi afterwards. I recall that I got a marigold out of the deal. Life goes on.

There's quite a few restaurant supply stalls up here. If you ever wondered where you might acquire a karahi big enough to cook a reasonably-sized person in, well, here you are. Not that anyone would ever want to do that.

The Mosque near here. This and Commercial Street are the more "Muslim" parts of town, which is apparent enough judging by signage and what people on the street are wearing. I was in Bangalore at about the height of Ramadan, which meant the faithful were taking especial pains to play by the rules.

India is defined by its street-side food sellers, isn't it? What a shame that us Westerners are advised to stay away from the street-stands, for fear of stomach bugs and possible death. Tragically, the warnings are extremely sensible. But what tasty looking stuff is on offer.

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