The Cochin Market, Impression of a Burgeoning city


Although I’m prone to long silences (while I’m guaging the pompousness of my potential proclamations), this one was justified by my being in India. It was a rather last minute thing, spurred more by necessity than desire. Most of my extended family live there and so, having been absent for more than four years now, I had to go to pay my respects to my grandfather who is now confined what looks increasingly to be his death bed.
These subjects, however, are not for a blog.

So. Impressions… Well, Kerala has changed rather since I was last there. I’m not really sure if it’s for the better or not. Perhaps this is more a reflection of a personal change in attitude or perspective than a of any real state of affairs, but it seems that the world is becoming obsessed with wealth and capitalism. Kerala is certainly no different. The first time I visited that I can remember was 13 years ago. Cochin at the time seemed to be a rather large city, perhaps only due to the total dissimilarity to anything I to which I had before been exposed and my total inability to navigate around it. The senses are entirely overloaded by sights sounds and smells. Everything looks so incredibly different too. All over the place, crammed into every nook and cranny is some business or other. In Paris, along the banks of the Seine, there are small impromptu shops sitting on walls jutting out onto the pavement, where various fellows in Parisian market coture tout their wares to the public. The variety is generally that of most European cities – a few miniature brass makeups of famous sights, the ubiquitous selection of inane keychains and then some paintings and prints for the tourist who has had their fill of kitsch.
In Cochin’s market, the viability of some product or other for sale in the street seems to be based not on the general public demand for such an item but rather on its portability. All are transported on the panier rack of a bicycle and spread on tarpaulin somewhere between the centre and the edge of the road. The market itself is a veritable labyrinth of criss-crossed streets brimming with every conceivable form of commerce. There must be thousands upon thousands of shops there, with shopfronts normally no more htan seven feet wide or so stretching back to twenty or thirty feet from the street. I say shopfronts but I really mean the openings. Doors are few and far between. The masses of people walking down the streets make opening a door a less than attractive prospect for any potential customer. More than this, many of the streets in the market are lined with two story buildings of concrete which although presumably once clean and white, have now deteriorated through the action of the climate and the paucity of maintainence into slightly shabby constructions smacking of post WWII prefabricaton.

Every street however, is punctuated by much more ancient shops. For instance, walking into the Royal Coffee house, gives a person the impression of being transported back in time to the days of British rule. The shop consists of a front portion at a slightly higher level than the road and a raised half toward the rear. Vast sacks of “tea dust” and coffee beans are piled high against the white walls and sitting on the wooden counter is an imposing cast iron weighing balance, which must have been there since the shop was established. In retrospect, it is to most nothing more than an antiquated warehouse, but there were certain quaintnesses which drew me to it. To buy coffee there is to live in colonial times. The whole place smells rich with the aromas of coffee mixed with spices from neighbouring shops and the general smell of the street. As with anything anywhere in Kerala, there are two people employed in a job that should really only require one. The coffee itself is transfered from one of a number of sacks behind the counter to the grinder and then to a bag placed on the balance by the first coffee seller: a spindly man in his fifties, black and silver hair parted in the centre, moustache neatly trimmed, shirt ironed with sharp creases on the fold lines, munde tied tightly around the waist and folded above the knee. These bags are first wrapped by his associate on the other side of the counter in newspaper and then tied in twine which hangs down from an enormous spindle attached to the high ceiling. By this stage, gaze distracted by the spindle and the experienced efficacy with which the parcel is tied, the unwary customer misses the bemoustached first man silently gliding past onto a chair behind a desk with much practiced ease. On the desk, which must also be as old as the shop itself, lies a ledger in the centre of a writing block into which the details of every transaction since time immemorial are neatly noted. As the coffee seller calculates and counts the change, one cannot help but notice a rosy cheeked portrait Jesus looking up to the heavens like Cherkasov, framed in gilded wood and draped in a rosary of electric candles on the wall behind. I felt slightly underdressed to be honest (and I was wearing white linen trousers, a white cotton shirt striped in brown and boat shoes…)

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