Our taxi stops in the middle of traffic and we step out into the mayhem of Mumbai at rush hour. Across the pulsing artery of cars and pedestrians, I see the ruddy stone exterior of Crawford Market with its clock tower silhouetted against the hazy blue sky.
Crawford Market opened in 1865 and in 1882 it was the first building in the city to be lit by electricity. The market goes by two names : Crawford Market (the original name, after Bombay’s first Municipal Commissioner Arthur Crawford) as well as Mahatma Jyotiba Phule Market (the current name, after Indian activist and social reformer Mahatma Jyotiba Phule).
There’s a bust across from a small shop in the market where we stop to buy water. I have no idea what the inscription on the bust says, but I think this is Mr. Mahatma Jyotiba Phule himself.
The order and color of Crawford Market is a nice relief from the chaos just outside the entrance. Fruit is arranged in piles, big and small. A pineapple vendor is totally surrounded. Which ones are new? Which ones are old? It’s a secret only he knows. The watermelons are bright green and stacked with such precision it seems like removing one would release the whole pile into a rolling mess.
Behind the fruit stalls, the betel nut seller sits on a stone step with his basket full of concoctions. He’s a willing subject when I motion with my camera so I crouch down and see the leaves, the white lime residue and the intensity of his stare. Even now as I edit these photos, I’m struck by the directness — not only in his eyes but in the eyes of a number of men in these photographs. Sometimes people smile with uneasiness when photographed, but in Mumbai there is fearlessness… a willingness to engage. He asks to see the photo and is happy with the result.
I watch the porters who work for hire carrying heavy loads for shoppers and shopkeepers. Dressed in plaid sarongs and sandals, they come and go with their big circular baskets — hoisted up high with one hand, placed on the top of the head or at rest on the ground.
In between loads, the porters hang out together. Maybe he’s checking the score of the cricket match.
This is a spice market, too, where we find jar after jar of exotic smelling masala and curry powders. There is no such thing as a teaspoon here. The spice sellers place heaping scoops in shallow dishes and we inhale the complexity: vindaloo curry, chicken tikka masala, green curry, madras medium curry, tandoori chicken masala, hot curry and even just “normal curry.” And then there’s the Special Spice King Masala 96 — a proprietary blend. With their intense, earthy hues, the spice powders look as rich and powerful as they smell.
We leave Crawford Market. The displays of fruits and vegetables continue on the street. We wander through Mangaldas textile market (where a female officer warns me that I can’t take photos) and emerge on the other side. Cows wander the street, a guy roasts peanuts over a fire on a wooden cart, and another guy stirs the pot… making big swoops with his ladle through a steaming pot of dahl while he stares at me with all the intensity of Mumbai.
Big, beautiful baskets of color greet us at the flower market. We duck into a narrow alley where men sit on elevated platforms, fulfilling orders for customers. They string flowers together in fragrant garlands used for festivals, marriages, rituals and to honor deities at temples.
Bees buzz around the piles of blossoms, the aroma of jasmine lingers in the air and life in Mumbai carries on.