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A blast from what will soon be past.

The mushrooming of supermarkets in Indian cities has somehow made shopping for staples so much less interesting. I miss the carts trundling through the streets of residential neighbourhoods with the seller crying out his or her wares. The noise, chaos and colour were an intrinsic part of life. Now that larger-than-life canvas has been diluted to sterile standards, losing its charm in the process.

If one wants to relive that experience, one needs to go to the big market, which is usually located within a labyrinth of alleys. There is no chance of getting parking space close by, so you are forced to leave your vehicle some distance away and proceed on foot. As you step over decaying vegetables and wet stones, you may catch sight of some bovine company. For them, it is a buffet of indescribable variety and it's free. Sometimes you have to vie for space with cattle and, if you are not careful or take too long to inspect the vegetables on offer, don't be surprised if you are prodded and pushed aside.

This happened to me once on one of my few visits to such a hive of activity. Turning around in indignation with a retort ready on my lips, imagine my shock when I was confronted with an impressive pair of horns which had just been trying to get me out of the way! There was no arguing with such intimidating weaponry. Beating a hasty retreat, I decided to call it a day.

For many families, a trip to the market was a weekly outing, normally undertaken in the morning. As you walked through the haphazard collection of stalls, you soon became familiar with the vendors who sought your attention by extolling the quality of their products. Often a rapport was developed and you found yourself unerringly seeking the business of several who you felt were giving you a good deal.

On my recent visits home, I have been taken to a variety of super and hyper markets, where I am struck by the cleanliness and hygiene. But despite the advantages of cellophane wrapping and neat packaging, I find the items there lack a certain vibrancy. They look like they have come out of a precision machine. At the old market, situated in the heart of the city, you have these piles of fruit and vegetables that shoppers sift through to pick the best. Each piece is hand-tested for firmness and there is not a murmur from the seller at the indignity her goods undergo to check for freshness and quality.

Greens like coriander are tied and sold in bunches and often these and a handful of green peppers or chillies are thrown in free if you are a frequent shopper at these street stalls. The smells and sounds that assail the senses are unique and can never be reproduced in any other environment.

That is why the spice souqs in the UAE draw tourists (normally from the West) who are enchanted by the piles of colour and variety of exotic herbs, most of which they can't even identify. The shopkeeper is flattered by their interest and will patiently list the names of those that catch the eye. The trader is fluent in many languages so there is usually no need to refer to a dictionary or google the word on your smartphone.

A visit to special markets set up on different days of the week in areas in a city or town offer another fascinating vignette. I went to one on a recent visit to Goa and was bewildered by the choice of goods on display. While my sister-in-law ran hither and thither, looking for special spices and sauces, I was content to stand and stare, mesmerised by the multi-hued tapestry of life itself.

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Publication:Gulf News (United Arab Emirates)
Date:Oct 4, 2013
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