Haji saheb was busy weighing the potatoes I had bought, when a lady turned up and asked the price of beans. Haji Saheb said, " Laxmi, it is Rs 20 a kilo." I was amused seeing him calling this lady as Laxmi. Curious I asked him, "Grandpa!, how come you address ladies as Laxmi." “All are divine, my boy”- pat came the reply.
Haji saheb has been the face of this market, with a long flowing white kurta, grey beard, a skull cap, full of enthusiasm, warmth and laconic wit. Enter this market, we find Ramu- busy making labyrinthine designs letting go dough in hot oil and then soaking them in sugar syrup to make mouthwatering jalebis. The road is unusually busy with people, vehicles and bovines jostling for the space available. The most relaxed of all are the cows which sit in the middle of the road happily munching in a typical bovine nonchalance. Two pugnacious ladies fight for a strategic location to place their baskets containing sweet smelling roses, jasmines and marigolds. The road is strewn with goat droppings. Ramaulamma, an old lady with a vibrant toothless smile and tongue turned red with chewing pan, sells freshly cut raw plantain neatly kept on a white tarpaulin cloth. As soon as she sees me, she bursts into an innocent smile and remonstrates, "Babu! Today the price is fixed, I can't give you 4 pieces for Rs 10." A gentle wind wafts across bringing with it the sweet smell of the season's first mangoes being sold by Gangadhar in his small auto. The calls of the hawkers beckoning you to buy from their stall fills the space.
The weekly markets are places not only for buying and selling fruits, vegetables and condiments but also a fertile ground for new ideas, business ventures, striking new alliances, business and otherwise, solving family tiffs, getting a wise counsel from an elderly person like Haji Saheb or a casual chat of mundane existence. The concept of weekly markets is very deeply ingrained in Indian psyche and is a part and parcel of its milieu. One can see these markets in any corner of India. I have witnessed them in Delhi a metropolitan city, Koraput a small town in the state of Odisha, Sakori, a village near Shirdi in Maharastra
In the last ten years of my association with Puttaparthi and this Saturday market I have seen different moods and emotions of it. Sometimes it is bubbling with youthful energy during a Janmastami or Ganesha Pooja festivals, sometimes it is a dull and languid like an old man during the peak summer months of April and May or adorned with multiple hues like a bride during a Sankranti and Deepavali.
But the emotion which comes to my mind in the last two years of my association is very sombre, reflected in the despondent eyes of Haji Saheb. Today I missed the sparkle in his eyes when he replied to my question, his wrinkled face looked more old to me, his hair disheveled and he had a tremble in his hands.
Ramu standing at the end of the market and beckoning people to come and taste his jalebis lacked the usual crispness in his voice. The autowalla, Gangadhar who sells his bright and juicy apples sitting in his auto sporting few apples fastened to strings from the frame of the auto, looked morose to me. Ramulamma lacked the usual twinkle in her eyes and gave the raw plantains without protesting my quotation of the price. Suddenly I found the market turning old with a morose and melancholic air.
I tried to explore...
Naryana a young man with a round face, small expressive eyes, a large frame and jovial temperament was stealing a small siesta when I reached him. I beckoned to him and he got up rubbing his eyes, wiping few glimmering beads of sweat from his rotund face and smiled at me straightening his thick moustache.
"Not interested in business, you are sleeping when customers are coming", I said feigning anger expecting him to quickly rejoin with his witty one liners. He gave a blank look and said, "Sir, I was tired, came at 2 am in the morning to set up my stall, but you are one of the few handful of customers visiting today." Tired not due to excess work but due to lack of it. The market has lost its flavour couple of years back", he added with a touch of poignancy in his voice.
Two years hence the effect of the lack of His cool reassuring presence is still showing in the sagging businesses and gloomy faces of these simple village folk.
I was walking back carrying the load of vegetables with me with heavy steps and a downward gaze, ruminating on the statement of Narayana. I heard the calls of a young voice beckoning me to visit his stall. It was a shrill male voice which had a lot of energy and enthusiasm in it. I turned and gazed over my shoulders towards the right side of the road. I found a face which was hitherto unseen in this market. It was the face of a man in his early twenties, with lot of liveliness and alacrity, sitting with a small bamboo basket selling the first harvest of golden hued and sweet smelling mangoes. He looked into my eyes, gestured to me to have a look and gave a sweet smile. I just looked at him and walked back and strange enough- his face with that endearing smile was the only picture which was dancing in front of my mind's eye.