Wednesday, April 9, 2008

Window Shopping without the Windows - Golden Triangle 8

A bazaar thing happened to us on the way to the shops. No, really. Sanjay turns off the main road, down a side street as wide as the car, plus a grain of rice on either side. He has to reverse out of his first attempt, on account of a truck coming the other way. It’s all brinkmanship. We pull into a parking slot, and all open our eyes. Well, not Sanjay, hopefully. We crack open the car-doors, and step into a wall of heat. It smells like a urinal, on the tiniest of breezes. We wanted local colour.
Radiating from a central square, in the heart of the Pink City, these shopping streets are famous, the world over. Tripolia Bazaar points west, Ram Ganj Bazaar goes east, Hawa Mahal Bazaar, north, and Johari Bazaar, south. If you want authentic, here it is. Not for the faint-hearted, nor the easily-led.
The roads are busy with the usual madcap taxis and trucks, so progress is halting. You need one eye on the traffic, another on the uneven foothills of concrete and stones doing service as a pavement, and your third eye on the sights you’ve come to see, the shops. I say ‘shops,’ but don’t think Brent Cross, or Arndale Centre. These are lock-up shops, like rows of garages, welded together, filled to the lintels with any and everything, from writing ledgers and industrial pots of paint to loose tea and push-bikes. For each booth, add four or five barefoot salesmen within, and two shod ones, touting, without, and you have some idea of retail experience, Jaipur-style.
We saunter, hopelessly conspicuous, along the first row. At first, the shops seem like murky caves. Coming out of the white-hot sun, it’s difficult to see, on the shady side of the street. This is sewing-machine alley. They all look like the curvy black and gold Singer my Mum used to have, in another century, which could sew a perfect, even, straight stitch, better than any computer-on-board-do-you -want-a-row-of-ducks-with-that modern contraption I’ve had since. It makes sense, given the dictates of local fashion. Some are loose for inspection, being flicked with a rag. Others are mummified in swathes of plastic, against the dust. Every other shop’s a pots-and-pans store. The goods are stacked in diminishing size, in towers taller than me, like stainless steel Matrioshka dolls. The salesmen don’t even get up from the floor, to tempt us in. Evidently, we don’t look like we’re in the market for a sewing-machine, or a pressure-cooker. It’s as close to invisibility as we’re going to get, today.
The next street’s seething with colour. Sari-shops. You have to peep past the dazzling curtain of sequinned chiffon, to see the rainbow of fabrics lining the walls inside. The floor’s spread with sheeting, and customers sit on cushions, tell-tale flip-flops parked at the threshold, as the sari-wallah unravels bolt after bolt around them, in gleaming heaps. I’d love to linger longer, but the sales-pressure’s overwhelming, and it’s all we can do, to tear ourselves away. “Later,” I say, “we’ll come back, later.” “Promise?” “Promise.” We’re allowed to pass, unmolested. Diana says, she hopes God will forgive me for telling lies – but it’s Ganesh, who’s the remover of obstacles, isn’t it?
We pass the shoe-seller, with his racks of would-be Adidas trainers, and curly-toed camel-skin slippers, and the paan-man, soaking betel leaves in water, and the drink-seller, crushing ten-foot lengths of sugar cane into sweet pulp. Interspersed among the tourist tat, honest-to-goodness everyday shops for the Jaipur housewife: laundrymen alternating hot irons for cold, straight off the stove; dyers, dropping lengths of white cotton into hissing vats of boiling pink or green, on the pavement; and the iceman, hacking bricks from huge blocks of ice, to crush in a hand-grinder. Gunsmiths, locksmiths, cobblers.
Look at the spices!” Diana says. The man in front of me says, “Is no spices. Is tobacco.” Loose shards, in mountains, on the counter. Now we don’t need introducing, he invites us to his off-street silversmithy, but we don’t go. Later, maybe... “Look at the tobacco!” Diana says, with new wisdom, two yards further on.

On the pavement, a man’s making a necklace, feeding beads onto a thread hooked round his big toe. The flower-seller sits on his stall, threading blossoms. We take his picture. We’re charmed. He’s charmed. We’re all charmed. He gives us each a rose. The perfume-seller next door paints our wrists with patchouli, jasmine, lotus and amber. We smell like a brothel. We smell what I think a brothel might smell like, I mean. On squares of grubby cloth, in front of the spice-stall, piles of graded chillis, red and brown. A whole booth, full of wedding turbans for the groom’s men. Then another. And another.
What we need, is a little cafe, where we can sit under a parasol, and watch the world go by, drinking it all in. What we’ve got, is the chai-wallah, rinsing smeary glasses in cold milky water, in an aluminium bowl, in the gutter. We head for home, intoxicated, exhausted, and drink tepid bottled water, instead, at Cafe Sanjay, the boot of his car. “You like Jaipur shop?” he asks. “Yes,” we say, “we like.”