A Cultural Delight

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The delicate gold plated earrings stare back at me.
In the busy shopping centre at the crowded Bazaar, I breathe in the scent of Hyderabad.
People, walking around in search of useless things to buy, crowd the narrow roads; hardly bothered about what they’re bumping into or whose feet they’re crushing underneath theirs.
Middle aged ladies cling on to the tiny fingers of their terrified children as they push and shove their way through the unstopping masses of humans, trying to find the best deals.
Shopping bags clutched tightly, they proceed for more, never tired of the throng.
I look at those earrings again, hanging at the top on a block of cardboard, catching the fancy of a lot of women in front of me.
I try to push forward, but either due to my lack of ability or my restricted upbringing, I watch sadly as the Khadi clad shopkeeper takes my dream pair out of display and hands them to a fair skinned Muslim lady.
There is exchange of money and suddenly, the lady is gone, earrings and all.
My heart sinks as I make my way forward to the next shop in hopes of finding something half as good as the ones I just lost.
Distracted by the man pushing a wooden cart of soda in my direction, I stop and ask him how much a glass costs.
He states a price that is a few rupees more than I had estimated it to be.
I’m about to hand it to him when another customer stops me.
“Wait” She says in Hindi and turns to the man.
What happens next is a heated exchange between the soda seller and this strange lady in a language that seems to be a mixture of Hindi and Urdu. As I don’t know both of these languages, I stare on stupidly, my change in my hand, feeling like I don’t belong here.
Finally, she turns to me and smiles.
The soda man looks at me, annoyed and ends up taking half the price he quoted.
“Don’t let them cheat you” The lady tells me, and walks away, leaving me astonished.
All this for a few rupees, I wonder, suddenly feeling like I don’t belong here, in Hyderabad.
I watch, fascinated, as he takes a glass and starts filling it with soda, squeezing lime into it.
“Sweet or sour?” He asks and I opt for the former.
As he hands it to me, I can hardly contain my delight.
My mother always told me that I shouldn’t have anything to drink or eat from outside.
“They’re contaminated.” She used to say. “So many germs!”
I take the first sip and sigh in bliss as the cold, sweet liquid fizzes in my throat.

I remember how, when we were kids, my mother used to take me and my sister to the second hand book markets of Hyderabad, holding our hands and dragging us around hundreds of shops, shyly haggling for the best price.
We’d stop at the centre of this book market, watching all the vendors sit on footpaths, their books spread on the dusty streets of Hyderabad as we each got a glass of sugarcane juice as a treat for being patient.
Bhaiyya!” My mom would shout at the sugarcane man. “No ice. And I want plastic glasses”
I’d look at the large, unwashed glass ones and then at the tiny, clean plastic glasses, wanting the former, despite their disgusting, filthy condition, plainly for the fact that they were larger.
We still never argued. We knew that our mother knew best.

I finish the soda till the last drop, my mother’s voice a tiny nag in my subconscious mind.
Thanking the man, I give him back the bottle and walk on.
The heat starts building up and eventually, I feel droplets of sweat at the nape of my neck.
I watch as all the women around me start taking hair clips out of their bags, as if on cue, and
tie their hair up in neat little buns.
That, for some reason, makes me cringe.
Maybe because I’ve been brought up to look my best in public.

My mother had thick curly hair that hung beautifully around her shoulders.
She was the kind of woman who looked impeccable no matter what she did.
When it came to her appearance, she always put style ahead of her comfort. I’d watch her waddle through mud puddles in her five inch heels, dress like a star to go to the vegetable market and apply bright red lipstick to walk down to the shop next door.
“Always look your best” She’d say. “It doesn’t matter where you are as long as you’re putting your best foot forward!”

So, I end up leaving my hair down, suffering with the dust and the grime while everyone else around me is feeling very comfortable.
I stop at a bangle store and get into it.
The seller has strategically placed the bangles in tall spirals, in magnificent colour coordination.
This, I believe, is the essence of my country.
The vibrant colours.
As I stand in this shop, I see long rainbow coloured shawls hanging from hooks and multiple shiny trinkets piled together.
Customers are walking in, taking the entire beauty in.
Some walk out empty handed.
Others end up purchasing something.
But one thing is the same among all these people.
Not even one of them has walked out without trying to bargain.
I realize that people like me will end up fools and make up my mind to try it at the next shop.
“How much is this?” I ask the vendor, holding out a beautifully carved pair of green gold bangles.
He looks at me, analysing my economic background from my clothes.
“600” He says.
In my mind, I start deciding whether to get it or not.
If I get this for 600 bucks, then I can’t buy those beautiful red beaded slippers at the shop opposite the street.
Maybe I can get both?
Or, maybe I’ll make do with my old slippers.
And then I remember the bargaining.
After a painful minute of mental math, I hold the bangles out to him.
“400” I say.
He shakes his head and tells me the price is fixed.
Then, without a moment’s pause, he starts packing them up for me.
I reach into my bag, bidding farewell to the slippers I wanted.
Just like before, a lady stops me.
“What are you doing?” She asks, in Telugu.
She looks nice, her hair plaited, her sari plain.
I shake my head, suddenly scared.
“This will hardly be worth a hundred bucks each” She says, shaking her head in disbelief and unwrapping my delicate bangles.
The vendor shakes his head again. But the lady won’t listen.
“I’m taking them” She says and hands him 200 bucks.
He refuses to take the money till she threatens to keep the bangles for free.
Then, muttering some curses, he reluctantly takes the crisp notes and pockets them.
I watch, amused.
A few minutes later, I’m wearing my bangles and am trying out my new footwear.
I try the bargaining thing again, but this time, a Tamil speaking, plump lady butts in and does all the work for me.
This happens quite a few times till my arms are aching from carrying the shopping bags.
Walking out of the bazaar, deciding that I’ve had enough for the day, I start searching for a bus.
I’ve never been in a bus before. So, I decide to try it. How hard can it be, right?
Besides, it is really cheap and I’ve seen a lot of my friends use it.
But, I can assure you, I was totally wrong. I’ve never done anything harder.
Three bags in my left hand, a pair of slippers clutched in my right, my handbag constantly running down my shoulder, I start running behind a bus.
The problem with these giant things is that the drivers just don’t care.
They’re stuck jiggling the gears all day long and take that frustration out on us.
One of the men who is hanging out of the bus, one foot on the step, the other in the air, hits hard on the body of the bus to stop it.
It begins to halt and I run, panting, thanking the man with my eyes because I’m too tired to say anything.
As I move to the front to get in, because the men are blocking the other entrance of the bus, I notice that the women are spilling out.
Shaking my head, I apologize to the driver, telling him I can’t get in because I have too many bags with me.
He looks at me angrily and drives away.
Even the man who helped me out looks peeved.
Feeling miserable, I decide to catch an auto instead.
I start looking out for one of those yellow and black, dangerously imbalanced, three wheelers, when I hear a whistle.
Looking around, I spot a group of young men watch me and laugh.
Feeling offended, I look away.
They utter something which I believe translates to ‘What a woman!’ and at that moment, I begin to walk away.
They shout after me, cat calling and using rude words.
Though later on, I shall feel flattered about this incident, I feel fear right now.
Stopping the first auto that comes my way, I get in, telling him where I need to go.
“Two hundred” He says, holding up two fingers.
I say ok reluctantly and he starts driving.
Looking out, I see a lot of spectacular things that I don’t think I’ll find in any other country.
I’m surrounded by unique greatness that astounds me.
Five women and three men crowded around a Pani Puri stall, waiting for their turn for some of that delicious goodness.
A tea vendor makes conversation with a customer, pocketing the cash he makes out of Garam Chai (Hot Tea) and Sambar Idlis.
Overcrowded roads of dented four wheelers, scratched two wheelers and buses that block the way, creating kilometres of blocked traffic jams.
Life here is hectic. But it is also fun.
I breathe in the polluted air of my city and I realize that this familiarity is what home feels like.
Over the pot-holes, the auto driver trundles, knowing he has made a good profit out of the money I’ve saved from all that bargaining.
The sun sets on the busy roads of Hyderabad, only to rise again tomorrow for my imperfectly perfect city, diverse with cultures, tradition and languages.
I only have two words to describe what this place means to me.
My home.

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