Sabitri of the Flowers
7 AM in the flower market.
“It’s the dirtiest place in Kolkata, why would you want to go there?”, frowned the Bengali uncle, his moustache hiding a look of puzzlement. To see the people and the place and to get a feel of the Kolkata of the common people, I replied. A disbelieving ‘Pah!’ was received in return. And maybe take some photographs. A knowing nod this time, Jio and Wifi networks having made the moustache keenly aware of the wonders of ‘FB’ and Whatsapp and ‘Insta’ (okay, maybe not Instagram).
Indeed, why spend time wading through noise and traffic and discarded garbage when they represented everything the new India was trying to discard in its cities? The youth went only to the malls, it was a known fact, they said. When more shiny Adidas stores are popping up than chaat stalls, business is said to be booming.
Shift back to the market : a sprawling establishment that clung to the mucky banks of the river, in between it and the Howrah Bridge. It was on land that had traditionally belonged to the wealthy Mullick family, one of the principal beneficiaries of allying with the British in the prime of their empire-building. There really wasn’t much to be said about the market itself. Vendors operated out of tin-roofed stalls the size of wardrobes, each wrapped around on three sides by an assortment of tarpaulin and empty sacks. Multiple stalls were strung together by this linkage of tarpaulin, and arranged into some semblance of a layout that lost all order by the end, quite amusingly evoking the garlands that the shops sold themselves. On the periphery of the market, the few buildings and structures there comprised of the same weathered, half-crumbling brick and concrete that composed much of North Kolkata.
The focus of this market, and this visit, lay firmly on the people and the flowers. 7 AM might be eye-blearing for college students, but evidently not so in an environment of desperate and large scale commerce, where livelihoods were made and broken, and fortunes fluctuated more wildly than the flapping of the tarps. No, the business day was winding to a close.
All around, a roar of activity and sound that did not reflect the seemingly serene nature of its wares. Every admonishing high school teacher going on about fish markets should visit a flower market. Throngs of people flowed in quite literally every direction. The odd scooter or truck kicked up the layer of dust and newspaper shreds that had collected on the ground between stalls. On one side young porters were unloading heavy bundles of flower cuttings and stems that would sell throughout the day, on the other side empty crates were being chucked onto the bed of a truck. From multiple directions at once, cellphone ringtones would chirp up, breaking the blanket of human voices, then assimilating as quickly. Instructions were barked in Bengali and Hindi and Odiya, from diametrically opposite sections in a constantly rotating field of human interaction.
None of these observations can be taken without acknowledging the heavy drone of the city that lay all around the market, a predominant, ever-present presence that filled your ear drums to their absolute capacity. Lying right underneath and in the looming shadow of the Howrah Bridge, the screeching of cars and buses to and bikes and autorickshaws fro, along with the metallic quivers of the elderly bridge itself, was inescapable.
But in the midst of this eminently happening environment, stood one woman unmoving, pursing her lips into a resolute frown against the sea of activity. Her name, we can safely assume, was almost definitely not Sabitri. Flights of fancy are multipurpose in that they protect oneself from the harshest realities, but also from copyright infringement.
Sabitri Di, as we will now call her, was an anomaly in the mass congregation of human faces. She stood out amidst the dirt and heat, draped in her pale red sari, like one of the flowers themselves. Roses, sunflowers, jasmine, carnation, marigold : in a palette of colours screaming for attention, she still drew the eye. How many Tollywood film posters might she have featured in if circumstances had been different?
Although the sun was high up by now, and the dynamics of the market had changed, echoes of that 4 AM world still remained. In the quiet conversations of the chaiwala and his customers, in the newspaper shreds that had seen multitudes of stories, and in the tiredness in Sabitri’s eyes as she squinted into the sunlight. Her red, full-sleeved sweater spoke of a chilly dawn spent threading garlands and setting up shop, taking up responsibilities for a husband, a son, a father, a father-in-law and who knows how many others. Cold morning weather spent perhaps in lodgings that didn’t do nearly as much to shield from it as our comfortable bedrooms and blankets. This disconnect in location, habits and worries is why we may never properly understand the 4 AM world, and the perils of inhabiting it.
Hastily applied kumkum on her forehead, that the sun had eventually beaten down into a faded meandering line, spoke of a hard day’s work. But despite whatever assumptions one could make about her from her appearance, a strong personality shown out from her eyes. One of determination and of not taking shit from what life threw at her. One hand on hip, the other clutching flower garlands in what looked like a graceful mudra more than anything else. The danceform of the streets though, for surely the dance classes little middle class girls are subjected to every weekend, were well out of reach for her.
She could not have been much older than 35, but the lines bored into her face spoke differently. But despite whatever hardships she faced, mistakes she’d made, debts she’d accrued, what amazed me was the immediate impression of vivacity and strong willedness I got from that lady. An attitude towards life that the grueling heat and madness of the city rubs out of most people.
The garlands she brandished in her hand were the last of the day, they were not for sale. She was waiting for her ride out of the market and into the city, a single cog in a multifarious commercial system, that itself was just a single machine part that fit into the huge hulking megafactory of human networks and systems that is Kolkata.
Whatever initial ideas I might have had of approaching and initiating conversation were quickly snuffed out by a rickety Honda Activa weaving through crates of bright green betel leaf strings. She hopped onto the scooter to ride pillion behind a stringy youth who had been trying very hard to grow a moustache. Skinny jeans and faded ‘Abibas’ knock-offs completed his look. And as quickly as I’d come across her in the chaos of Mullick Ghat, she disappeared again.
All I had was one photograph, that ended up saying much more than I intended, or even as much as this piece contains. And maybe that’s why I went there.