The shopping bag that I am carrying is filled to its brim with vegetables. In fact a cauliflower is peeking out as there is not enough space for it within.
Yet I see lot more fresh fruits and vegetables that I am tempted to purchase but cannot, as I have no further means to carry any more of them.
For the record, I am in the Sunday Haat of Bamnipal village (which technically is in Keonjhar), but attracts lots of visitors from neighbouring Jajpur as well, as it straddles the border of both the districts of Odisha.
The bag in my hand is heavy to hold, yet I feel light headed with joy as the experience of shopping in a typical village haat has given me an unique perspective of life in rural India.
The sellers are all spread out in an open space with a large banyan tree in the middle providing ample shade. A small stream runs behind at the eastern end of the field. Small hills which are part of the Chota Nagpur terrain can be seen in the distance. They look green and verdant after the recent monsoon season.
The haat is alive and there is a buzz around the place right from the time it starts at about 10 am. I am amongst the first ones to arrive there. There is noise, there is cacophony but they are pleasing to the ear. Buyers and sellers are haggling over the prices, domesticated animals on sale, pitch in their own chatter and people catching up with their friends and relatives – all add up to the festival like atmosphere.
I am wonderstruck at the diverse assortment of wares on display. From guavas and papayas, to wicker baskets and earthen pots, from toothbrushes made from Sal tree to sweetmeat made from jaggery – everything and more is being sold.
A trader sits in a corner and is willing to take back old and soiled notes. He will get them exchanged for you at the local post office and keep 40% of the currency value. I am surprised to see the number of torn and damaged Rs. 10 notes he already has in his kitty. So if you have given him one, you can come back the following Sunday and collect Rs. 6!
At the entrance there is a tribal youth selling an exotic delicacy – red ants with their eggs! Yes you read that right. He displays them on Sal leaves and each leaf costs you Rs. 10. (By the way most food items are priced at Rs.10/-. This figure psychologically could be easy / convenient to transact, I guess).
Once each leaf with the ants is sold, he inserts his hands into an earthen pot kept nearby and scoops out more of them! And his hands are totally bare when he does this ‘transfer’.
After being amazed at this sight I move a little further ahead towards the livestock section. Goats, ducks and chicken make up this section lively and interesting to watch. They are not sold by kilos as in our cities nor are they butchered. The price is pre-determined by the owner and after the bargaining is complete the villager takes the live animal home.
I notice how healthy and handsome the country chickens are! They stand tall and are rust coloured. This is in sharp contrast to the drooping and sick looking broiler chicken we consume in towns/cities.
The other thing which comes to attention are the number of women traders on view. They are selling multiple produce from their kitchen gardens and seem to be at ease doing commerce alongside the men. Their sarees with bright prints add a dash of colour to the atmosphere!
In fact, the local handia market (a beer made from fermented rice) is completely dominated by women. They sit at various points in the haat with aluminium pitchers containing the highly sought after drink. One can have a glass (yes you guessed it) for Rs. 10 and in the afternoon heat of the market it cools down the person consuming it and needless to add also makes him/her feel giddy headed and intoxicated 🙂
In case a shopper feels tired after jaunting around the market place then a single makeshift dhaba* (restaurant) serves hot steamed rice, dalma and tomato khatta on banana leaves and one can sit under the shade to relish it.
Just as I thought I had seen everything, I run into an old man sitting on the side of a mud path with charcoal burnt Sal leaf packets in front of him. This sight piques my curiosity and I stop to ask him what he is selling. Pat comes the reply “Bhuna Kukuda” (roasted chicken). I am flabbergasted when he carefully opens the Sal leaf and neatly lays down the contents for me to see – 4 very small pieces of chicken marinated with turmeric, chilli powder and spices, wrapped in the leaf and thrust into the fire.
The chicken looks mouth watering and without further encouragement I buy it and soon I am licking my fingers at its simple yet amazing taste. No oil, no other ingredients – just some rock salt to go with it. It is yum!
It is now time for me to leave the place. Before walking towards the exit I cast one more glance and realise the Haat is not just a market place for the villagers. It is a weekly meeting point of friends, relatives and even for the traders amongst themselves.
So in essence, a trip to the Haat is not just to procure goods for the kitchen. It also serves a social hangout too. For the rural folks this is their Phoenix Mall, their Lulu or Esplanade.
I cross the Banyan tree again and I cannot help but stop and request the vegetable vendor sitting under it for a photograph. With a quizzical expression he looks at my camera and is wondering why I would need to click him. Before I can explain, a fellow vendor sitting behind me comes to my help and cries out, ” for Facebook!”
A sincere thanks to Mr. Abdul Hakim in whose company I could savour this unique experience. He is involved in community development work since many years and he is Jajpur based. Travelling with him, through some of the tribal hamlets and interacting with the people was a learning in itself. I look forward to more such visits!