I am a consumer in the stereotypical American sense. Shopping is something that I love to do. But, that is where the stereotype ends — as my materialistic pursuits usually end up being window shopping. Especially now, as I do not have a steady income on which to rely. I cannot be spending money on “things” when I don’t have cash coming in. That wouldn’t be responsible nor is it in line with yogic teachings of non-attachment. I have learned to admire tremendous bargains and the dazzling beauty of things without succumbing to the desire to purchase, purchase, purchase. It has required a new type of discipline.
Nevertheless, I have my moments of consumerism In India. It’s hard not to. India is so incredibly cheap relative to American standards. And the rupee has depreciated in value by roughly 20 percent this past year, so the dollar currently has even more umph.
Allow me to bring this value to life …
You can rent a room in Mysore for as little as 250 rupees ($4) a night. Bottled water is 20 rupees (30 cents). A bag of oranges and bananas will set you back 30 rupees (45 cents). A complete Thali meal at a posh chain restaurant costs 179 rupees ($2.90). Dine on it at a simple mom-and-pop restaurant for 50 rupees (75 cents). A cup of chai at a local tea stall costs 5 rupees (8 cents). Getting a floor-length skirt made from scratch costs 500 rupees ($8). Simple tailoring starts at 30 rupees (45 cents). A dentist cleaning costs 500 rupees ($8). A rickshaw ride 20 minutes across town will run 80 rupees ($1.20). An MRI costs 1,600 rupees ($26).
I could go on …
Most of my daily purchases thus far have been at Big Bazaar (which I affectionately call the “Target of India”) and from push-cart street vendors. These vendors work hard pushing through neighborhood streets carts loaded with everything from fruits and vegetables to fresh herbs to Tupperware. Somestimes walking the streets with calloused bare feet, they shout out whatever they are selling to provoke people to come out of their homes to inspect, select and buy. Of course, they are speaking in the local language, Kanada. So when I heard their shouts from my bed in the early morning hours after first arriving in Mysore, I didn’t understand the commotion. Now it’s part of the daily soundtrack of being a temporary resident. I love the predictable melody and enjoy interacting with these traveling merchants. I have yet to buy a bad orange or banana. Can’t say the same for Whole Foods Back home in Chicago.
As much as I have acclimated to the purchasing power and rhythm of Mysore, it took me nearly a month to make it to Mysore’s biggest outdoor market, Devaraja Market. Perhaps I put off this little adventure off because I have been living unlike a tourist since arriving here. I have been living like a pseudo local, in my own apartment on a residential street in a neighborhood called Lakshmipurum. There’s been no urge to traipse across town to meander this famous market when I can get what I need in my own neighborhood. It would be like heading into downtown Chicago for skyscraper views when I can simply sit on my condo roofdeck to admire the city skyline.
But I got bored yesterday. So I thought, why not play tourist and see what the fuss is about? Plus, local markets have always been a setting toward which I typically gravitate. They exude a mesmerizing swirl of imagery, sight and sounds. They reinforce the art of exploration in a cauldron of consumerism. They provide a window into a culture’s daily life.
I had stayed away long enough, oddly enough.
As anticipated, the Devaraj Market was the antithesis of the western-style grocery store I’ve come to love at Big Bazaar. It was chaotic. It was noisy. It was sensory overload at its most colorful. This was India as most know it from television and movies. It is best to come to this market armed with energy, a sense of adventure and a willingness to barter.
Stall after stall lined the labyrinth of narrow pathways, selling everything from fresh coconuts to heaps of bananas to beautiful flower garlands to vibrantly colored puja (ceremony) powder.
Sparkling white smiles greeted my every turn as a strolled through the market leisurely, taking in the setting. Men shouted from the stalls to get my attention: “Which country? Come look.” Men selling incense and jewelry trinkets from small wooden boxes approached me with their merchandise. A few men extended a promise to escort me to a “special” factory where I could see incense being made — a likely scam that I brushed off with a smile and a “No, thank you.” I didn’t mind being swarmed with such aggressiveness, as a tall white woman walking through this market could be a cha-ching sale, after all. I understood that before I entered the premises — and fortunately was in a mood where I found the attention amusing.
Flowers were everywhere when I entered one section of the market, and a few men proudly displayed for me a massive bridal head piece for an upcoming wedding ceremony. One man gave me a some flowers after I stopped to ask him about the process of stringing such delicate petals into a necklace. Here is the friendly flower seller that made me feel special:
I bought some delicious beans from this man because I was desperate for snack food, and people walking away from him were happily nibbling on his merchandise. He was selling bushels of these beans from the back of his bicycle:
As I write this, I realize that I didn’t see any women working in this market. It was mostly, if not all, men. Another thing I found funny was that the same things were being sold by many stall owners clustered in these same area. There was a flower section, a coconut section, a rice section, and so on. I didn’t understand the logic of positioning yourself right next to all of your market competitors.
For instance, here are three men selling bananas. They sit in a row, right next to each other. Which man gets my business? Why aren’t they at least distinguishing themselves from one another with a sign or a sale? Or is this just my American lens getting in the way of a cultural “Who cares?”
The setting in which I found myself was dizzying at times and extremely hot-sweaty-sticky — but so much fun. It reminded me that I am an explorer and need to remember to get out of my comfort zone every once in my while, even if that comfort zone has morphed into an apartment in India surrounded by cows, push-cart street vendors and restaurants serving 75-cent meals.
When novelty becomes the new normal … it’s time to seek out new novelty.
Thank you, Devaraj Market, for reminding me of this. And, for giving me some of India’s best “window shopping.”