Saturday, January 19, 2013

Revisiting Russell Market

Kane - to be coated with rice flour and fried - delicate and delicious!

It had been two years since I last visited Russell Market.  I made the usual excuses to  myself - I was travelling every month, there was not enough food to be cooked to justify a visit, the new organically farmed (expensively packaged) vegetables in the 'hypermart' were tasty, the new supermarket 'cleaned and iced' fish was a boon.  Besides, I could park in large concrete basements and push my purchase trolley down there instead of scurrying everywhere, bags falling off my shoulders.

But, of course, it just didn't ring true.  I was concerned about many of the media reports on Russell Market over the past year - how it is a dying market, how they have lost a lot of clientele.  There was a gigantic fire many months ago and the market was supposedly closed for a month for renovation.  This was followed by a sewage disaster during the monsoons and the death of a salesman (speculated homicide due to gang warfare).  I just didn't have the heart to go.

However, after many weeks, a desire to revisit this old haunt overcame all my objections.  I wondered though whether I would still find all the original shops (and shopkeepers), whether I would have the energy to walk carrying bag-loads of vegetables and - what footwear to use.  I had visions of wading knee deep in slush and reminded myself that the rains were long gone.

Of course, once I reached, it was as it always has been - wonderful.  The shopkeepers were delighted to see me, they remembered approximately when I had last visited.  Some told me I had lost weight, some enquired about my health, some simply said they had missed me and were glad to see me back.

A few things have changed.  A slushy area in front has been cemented and enclosed.  This now functions as an additional car park.  It's a small but well kept area.  A few small shops have shut down and a bigger shop (my English vegetables' place) has taken it over - I suppose their business is thriving.  The corporation has stopped supplying electricity for a year now and I thought the market would be steeped in darkness or filled with diesel fumes, but actually there are a few small generators and each shop has one light connection.

"The government is trying to drive us out," they all say.  The word going around is that the fire was not an accident.  It burnt so fiercely that all the metal beams got warped.  But no one was badly hurt and the market was closed just for a day.  Repairs, of course, took longer.  "We all came back the very next day and began work," they say with a hint of pride and satisfaction.  "The government wants us to leave; they say they will build a large fancy market.  But what will happen to us?  We can't afford to leave this place, where we have worked for generations..."

Vacating an old heritage market to build a superstructure seems a strange notion to me.  And to all the shopkeepers.  And probably to many other old and new Bangaloreans as well.  It would be far better to restore the market in stages, to retain its old charming facade and interior airy spaces, improve the car park and bus services, provide electricity and repair the sewage lines.  Russell Market, as it stands, between an old church and tiny lanes of local shops, would draw quite a few tourists and serious shoppers, if it were cleaned up a bit.

I shopped, as always, a little more than I might have done in a regular mall.  Fresh kane (ladyfish - a local variety, rarely seen in other states), small sea prawns and crabs.  An assorted bag of soup and salad ingredients for fifty rupees (less than a dollar) - yellow peppers, plump pink radishes, slender cucumbers, tiny turnips, leeks, rosemary, basil, lemongrass.  I suspected the shopkeeper of undercharging, but he shook his head and waved me on.

Crabs, to be dunked into coconut curry

I bought my 'nati' (local varieties of) vegetables from my oldest acquaintance - a wise, wizened man (a retired schoolteacher) who asked if I would ever get such vegetables elsewhere?  "No," I replied promptly, meaning it.  His neighbour, a younger man, smiled and said, "You will get these vegetables but not these vegetable sellers!"

Chholia - green chickpeas, in season for just a few weeks each year

The tomatoes' man asked me what kind I wanted, pointing to two piles that looked identical to me.  He explained the difference.  "These hybrid tomatoes," he complained, "People say they are local varieties but they are not."  He said his son was the one to climb up and break open part of the roof and also to help evacuate some of the people who were sleeping in the market, on the night of the fire.  It is a scene vividly etched in the memory of everyone I meet.

The greens' man came late.  He is diabetic and comes only on weekends now, but needs every bit of the money for his family and his treatment.  He handed me all kinds of winter greens - sarson ka saag (mustard greens) which must be cooked with bathua (local greens) and palak (spinach) - he handed them in the right proportions needed to make a thick, hearty dish of creamy greens.  We will eat this with makki ki roti (flat corn bread) and dollops of white butter.  A winter Punjabi delicacy.

Sarson ka saag and bathua, to be cooked together

After this I moved on to buy some fruit.  It's winter and there's plenty to choose from - I was tempted by the guavas but ended up buying pineapple and strawberries.  The bags (left at my old nati vegetable shop) didn't seem as heavy as I had imagined.  My taxi was parked in the little cemented parking lot, waiting for me.

It was a wonderful morning and the shopping took me only an hour (much of it spent in conversation).  The shopkeepers know exactly what I want and fill my bags swiftly and efficiently, throwing in a few extras of 'this and that'.  No haggling.  No hassles.  And best of all - no plastic.  Just my bags filled with fresh, wholesome food and me filled with a sunny, happy feeling.  I won't wait another year to return to Russell Market.

Sunny tomatoes - reflecting my mood

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