Mumbai has always struck me as having two personas. The older of the two can be found quietly surveying the city from its vantage point on the imposing state buildings which rise, detached, from the grubby roads. Characterizing the streets is the younger and more spontaneous Bombay who hustle and squat below, balancing their lives in the wicker baskets on their heads as they meander through the crowds. Crawford market is an arranged marriage of the two.
On the outside, the building’s colonial design plays to the tune of the fanny-pack brigade and the sleek Norman arches and sun burnt bricks wink sleazily at passing tourists, inviting them in. But not even the addition of a charming clock tower can hide its dirty secrets and the interior gives way to a more unruly underbelly where all manner of stalls are sprawled around the narrow passageways.
Brimming with confidence after I had successfully fought off the advances of a pony-tailed tailor, I saw the market’s enclosed space as the ideal grounds to give my newly acquired skills of evasion a fresh challenge. I was immediately put the test when, moments after I had read a sign which stated that visitor’s must be accompanied by a porter, an ancient figure apparated from the shadows right on cue.
Dressed head to toe in a white tunic, his attire was crowned by a small sailor’s hat that looked as if it might have been made out of origami. Neglecting any verbal introduction, he instead presented me his porter I.D card with the ill-disguised apprehension of a sixteen-year old handing his fake Belgian driving license to a nightclub bouncer.
Nevertheless, I was undeterred and I saw in him the qualities of a seasoned campaigner. He bore his marks proudly in the form of a glazed eye, and a reduced set of teeth which enabled him to open his sales pitch with the line, “I can show you shpishes, animalshs or shilk, what’sh it going to be?” After that I was taken over by curiosity, both in seeing what these categories would offer and hearing how my guide would tackle more complex sentences.
Upon my request, we headed for the animals and he led with the care and attentiveness of a loyal butler showing a visitor around his deceased master’s house, pausing to show me the firmness of the beetroots or thrust lemongrass under my nostrils. However, his monopoly power over the solitary tourist was short-lived and I was soon embroiled in an attempted coup d’etat from a predatory associate. Steering me in the direction of his potatoes, the relative youngster deposed my current guide unceremoniously saying, ‘that’s my father, he’s crazy.’ Looking at his crooked smile, I doubted any form of relation. My suspicions were confirmed when, after we were reunited, my host disowned his temporary son and ushered me onwards.
Although I knew little of what to expect, the courtyard which housed the animals certainly wasn’t on my list. Sawdust had been scattered across the ground and the smell had a pungent quality to it that far surpassed anything that had been offered by the outside streets. In modestly sized cages that were as crude as they were small, a Cruft’s catalogue worth of puppies lay around lethargically, almost resigned to their fate.
The message, however, had not gotten through to the hordes of rats, which clawed continuously at their glass walls in an effort that would have inspired communists worldwide. Lurking near the back of the courtyard was the largest cat I had ever seen and, borrowing a popular technique from Mother Nature, had further magnified its size by equipping itself with a rug of white fur. It was also one of the only animals to have the luxury of a personal cage, either because it had eaten the previous inhabitants or there was a subtle challenge from the owners to see if it could grow to fill the remaining inches of space.
In small shops, and with the benefit of shade, huge choruses of birds provided the soundtrack to this lively scene and their range of colors rivaled those of the saris that brushed past them. I was also surprised to see the addition of pigeons, who were seemingly aware of their role in making up the numbers and paced guiltily around the cage. In a bid to bring in some diversification, the walls had been lined with fish tanks in which, through the murky water, I could make out their aquatic inhabitants drifting around aimlessly. I couldn’t think why anyone would choose such a place of singular depression for the traditionally joyous activity of buying a pet, but the throng of people proved me wrong.
Back inside, I bypassed the spices in favour of the fruit and vegetable section. This was tended to by hawkers who had decided that the labyrinth of stalls was a picturesque setting for their early retirement. Having amassed a pile of supplies that towered over seven feet, they employed these sacks of carrots and lettuce as mattresses and surveyed my presence with the detachment of a Roman Emperor.
My guide seemed unable to comprehend that my visit was motivated by curiosity and chose instead to characterise me as some kind of underground fruit dealer. He savored in telling me the origins of each of the goods and looked expectantly for my approval when he described some melons as the “besht in whole of France.” It all got a bit much when, in a desperate effort to appeal to my fruit expertise, he jammed a banana in my face, squeezing it gently with an almost pedophilic glare while saying “you like that, eh. Shoft.”
After that, I started to have second doubts over my guide’s sanity and this was only made worse when he took me across the road to the silks, taking on the role of traffic-tamer in the process. As he slapped car bonnets and the backs of dawdling pedestrians, I began to reassess my assumption that he had lost his teeth through age, and not brawling. Whether it was through a general lack of knowledge about cars or sheer bravery, he seemed undeterred by their hulking mass and the horns only served to instill in him new degrees of fervor.
When we finally reached the other side, it was after he had re-enacted his individual take on Moses’ crossing of the Red Sea, where he had waded out into the traffic and held his arms aloft whilst irate drivers swerved to avoid him. His credentials as a subjective guide were then put under scrutiny, as he led me down a back alley to, what I can only assume, was his real son’s shop.
The tour, much like the hot water in my shower, was good while it lasted, but I soon had to leave and realised I would have to cross the exact road that he had just terrorised to return to the station. As I left him arguing with a cab driver I regretted not catching his name, but I had a feeling I would see him again somewhere, probably on the news.