The Luxury of Solitude
Travel Stories: In a Mumbai greenmarket, David Farley hunts for the Indian city's most precious commodity
08.11.09 | 11:23 AM ET
As soon as I closed the door of the cab and told the driver where I wanted to go, an uninvited visitor leaned in my window. “Opium? Weed? Charlie?” he asked. “You like the Charlie?” Before I could open my mouth, my driver barked a few terse sentiments and put his foot on the gas pedal, launching us into the miasma of concrete, steel and perpetual honking that is the Mumbai road system.
“That man,” said my driver. “He’s bad. Don’t buy nothing from him.”
I felt a slight sense of relief. This cab driver and I had known each other for less than a minute, but it seemed he had my back, shielding me from the cacophony of unsolicited sales pitches that I’ve had to endure since arriving in the city.
“First time in India?” he queried, the question I’d already been asked about 17 times in the 36 hours since my plane touched down in this city. Yes, it was my first time. And before he could ask me the predictable sequel, I answered: “I’m not sure what I think of India yet. It’s just so ... chaotic.”
Since I’d arrived in Mumbai—the metropolis formerly known (and still referred to by locals) as Bombay—I’d had enough injections of sensory overload to topple a pachyderm. Until that dealer popped his head in the taxi window, the use of drugs to ease Mumbai’s maelstrom of humanity hadn’t even crossed my mind.
“The greatest luxury of all is solitude,” writes Suketu Mehta in Maximum City: Bombay Lost and Found. “A city this densely packed affords no privacy.” This city of 21 million people has the highest population density in the world, but two-thirds of the residents are scrunched into just five percent of the city, making some sections crammed beyond comprehension (according to Mehta, some parts of Mumbai have more than a million people per square mile).
“You use?” the cab driver asked, rotating his eyes between the road and the rearview mirror. He continued before I could answer: “That man back there only sales fake drugs. I can get you the real stuff. Good stuff. If you want, I take you to get Charlie? It makes chaos go away.” He slightly cocked his head back and laughed.
But I was looking for a less toxic solution to the chaos. I sought food. Specifically, the Crawford Market, Mumbai’s main greenmarket. No matter where I am in the world, I always sink into a city’s greenmarket; the produce, language and currency being exchanged vary from place to place, but there’s something about outdoor food markets that feels so, well, organic. The universal and ancient act of buying and selling food in an outdoor public place makes me feel connected to people, even when it’s in a place I’ve never been. There’s plenty of action, but it’s often deliberate, almost scripted. I had hoped Crawford Market would offer a snapshot of life in Mumbai, but also put me at ease.
During an aimless stroll the previous day, I quickly realized I wasn’t mentally prepared for the wilds of Mumbai. By the time I hit the Coloba Causeway, a long shop-and-stall-flanked avenue in the southern part of the city, I had gained an entourage: a gaggle of disheveled pre-teen boys and girls, their hands outstretched while emitting high-pitched chirps.
“Hello. Hello, sir. Hello.”
Some of them had partial deformities. One girl was holding up her hand, devoid of a couple fingers; another boy’s right eye was mangled. A diminutive weather-beaten granny tagged along. There were also two mustached men in their 30s, trying to persuade me to a take a mini bongo (or two) home with me and there was a teenager selling a large cigar-shaped balloon (“Big balloon!?” he’d yell to me). Finally, there was the fat man with the food-stained shirt attempting to convince me I really wanted him to write my name on a piece of rice. We ambled down the crowded sidewalk together—the chirps, the bongo beats, the slaps on the side of the big balloon, the sing-song chants of desperate queries for my attention and money, all creating a fittingly cacophonous overture to alert the upcoming salespeople that a potential buyer was on his way up the street.
At any moment, dozens of sets of eyes were on me, willing for eye contact. When I would lock eyes with a shop assistant for even a tenth of a second, it was—apparently—a commitment to buy. When I’d pause, the entourage—which would both gain and lose members along the way—would then inch closer to me on all sides, closing in on my private space. My heart sunk for these people (especially the children), but I felt conflicted: Do I give them money? I felt like such a jaded Westerner, but after seeing the racket that enslaved the child beggars in the film “Slumdog Millionaire,” I was washed over with ambivalence.
I had ended that day’s stroll down the Coloba Causeway prematurely, fleeing down a side street and back to my hotel. But now with the cab just pulling up to Crawford Market, its colonialist-era neo-gothic façade announcing itself, I hoped I had found a temporary oasis. I got out of the cab, thanking the driver and insisting that it wasn’t necessary to wait for me.
I was, of course, immediately accosted by an officious man in his 20s. “Crawford Market this way, my friend,” he said. He was right. I had first gone in the opposite direction. But if I took his advice and turned back, it would give him license to tag along, which would have been OK, but I knew we’d wind up at his shop and I’d already been through that a couple times. I really didn’t want to buy anything. And I certainly didn’t want to waste his time. He questioned me for another two blocks, running through the usual compendium of questions, before finally giving up.
I eventually made it back to the Crawford Market and was dazzled by the medieval bazaar-like quality of the place. Sunlight soared in through breaks in the high, strewn-together canopy ceiling, illuminating bales of hay, tied up goats and wandering bovines. Muslim men, their white skull caps and beards identifying them from their fellow Hindu denizens, huddled together sipping tea, while veiled Hindu ladies sat on crates in a semicircle. There were no tourists. No big balloon salesmen. There was plain rice and no one offering to write my name on a grain. No one really even paid much attention to me.
I strolled through the narrow lanes, relishing my newfound invisibility, taking in the whiffs of spices and nuts, fresh vegetables, and saffron that swirled through the air.
Then I took a picture. Poof! My camera’s flash illuminated the shadowy lanes of the market. And suddenly a man rushed toward me. “Sir, you must know the rules. The rules. The rules. The rules,” he repeated. It was my “friend” who had followed me a few blocks outside the market when I got out of the taxi.
“Are photos not allowed?”
“Come,” he said, leading me to an entrance. “Look at the sign.”
I read it out loud.
Please do not spit.
Dogs are not allowed in the market.
And then the one he was desperately waiting for me to get to:
Visitors are requested to employ porters with numbered
“That’s me,” he said. “See.” He whipped out a laminated, official-looking badge with his photo on it. I asked him if he had already approached everyone else in the market—the locals—and he said this rule only applied to foreigners. I had hoped to avoid being hustled—officially or not—but it appeared even the greenmarket wasn’t immune.
“No, thanks,” I said and walked back into the market.
“Really, sir,” he said. “I must accompany you.”
I ignored him and sped up my pace, but he followed.
“Fine,” I said. “I want to buy ... an orange.”
“Right this way, sir,” he said, and led me to the nearest orange-stacked pyramid. He picked one, exchanged a few words with the seller, and told me how much to pay. After the orange was safely in my hand, I turned around and walked out the entrance of the Crawford Market, passing the sign with the list of rules. And there, parked in front, was the same cab driver, standing there like he was my chauffeur. For a city packed with so many millions of people, I found it amazing how some of them just kept popping back up in my life. “OK, we go for Charlie now?” he said to me.
Instead, I opted to walk. I politely turned down an entire wardrobe of T-shirts and jeans during the 20-minute trek back to the hotel. But no one had yet attempted to sweet talk me into their shop or tagged along with me. At least until a few blocks away, when a 12-year-old boy sprinted toward me.
“I saw you tomorrow! I saw you tomorrow!” he proclaimed, like I was some kind of hunting trophy he’d just snared. I recognized him, too. He was part of the previous day’s entourage. The boy with the mangled right eye.
“It’s ‘yesterday,’” I said. “I saw you yesterday.”
“I saw you yesterday! I saw you yesterday!”
“Much better,” I said.
He continued to repeat the correct phrasing of the sentence as he followed me down the block to my hotel. Again, I grappled with giving him money.
But then I realized I did have something that I could give him. I reached in my bag and pulled out that orange I’d bought at Crawford Market. I plopped it in his waiting hand.
“Thank you!” he said.
And with that, he quietly walked away. I stopped and watched as he ripped the skin from the orange, tossing pieces into the gutter.
It seemed, at least, for a few seconds, we had both found our own solitude in Mumbai.