The early sun was just poking through the tall treetops we parted company with our host- he had been a sterling gentleman. Rosie, Bilaji and the girls accompanied us as far as the road. There was a local shrine that they liked to visit when they were in the area. After that, they would be driving back to Bangalore. They gave us an address to visit them if we get the chance. We had made another set of friends.
Our bus ascended over the remainder of the Western Ghats and through the last of the soft woodland air, tumbling down into the dry, yellow interior that we had left behind in Tamil Nadu. Halfway to Mysore our bus broke down, causing everyone on the bus to migrate outside to the meagre strip of shade that the bus provided. While the heat of a moving bus may have been tolerable, the large, stationary tin can on wheels soon became a furnace that not even the hardiest of locals could stand. In the meantime, we sufficed on miniature bananas and dried biscuits bought from the roadside huts beside us.
In time, the city of Mysore emerged through the haze and heat. But instead of depositing us in a chaotic bus terminal on the edge of town, we were instead let off outside a magnificent classical building of spectacular domes, sweeping verandas, grand arches and broad lawns. Around the vast premises of this spectacular centrepiece were broad, tree-lined arcades that provided shade and space for the local loiterers. For a while, we joined them.
This piece of architecture set the tone for Mysore. The city, which was the seat of the Kingdom of Mysore during the colonial era, is the Karnatakan capital of culture and the second largest city. Much of Mysore is cast in a strikingly more tailored manner than rest of India’s ramshakle cities that all seem to clamber over themselves to eke out a space between the rubble and the pavement. Mysore feels altogether more carefully laid out and constructed. The streets are – while not a dull, grid pattern – still sensibly divided into narrower and grander roads.
The main streets are intersected with intimidating roundabouts that are devoid of any markings or traffic control other than a broad fountain or monument stood in the middle. As the buildings crowd in a wide circle around and the pedestrians warily hug the pavement, one cannot shake the impressions of a Roman gladiatorial arena, into which vehicles of all shapes and sizes try their luck on the inside lane before being run out again by larger, more formidable challengers.
Across town, we passed inside one of the largest markets we have yet visited, within which all manner of wares were plied in a neatly organised tour of Indian street commerce. From fruit, meat, dry goods, and butter through to cleaning products, locksmiths, flowers, perfumes and chairs, few grocery lists could be left unsatisfied after half an hour in these dark, shaded labyrinthian passageways. As we strolled up and down the narrow alleyways, yelled enticements and sales pitch openers would be thrown out at us from the margins.
“Yes sir, yes sir, hello?”
“Come my friends, friend price for you, you need spices?”
My particular favourite was from a small, skinny boy whose father slept in the shade behind him: “Yes sir, come on, come on! Assta price, cheap as chips!”
I’m not sure who would be more flattered at that kind of exposure- David Dickinson or ASDA?
Occasionally, a break in the grubby sheets and tarpaulins stretched between the stalls allowed a piercing white beam of sunlight into these depths, striking off whatever was passing below, so that a pile of multicoloured plastic kitchenware or a crate of tomatoes would send shifting, coloured reflections darting off into the shade and onto the faces of the stallholders behind.
The place was not just a visual assault. The smells were no less polite in their welcome. People often wax lyrical about the sights and tastes of India, but never the smell. It is perhaps the one of the five senses I would have no trouble leaving at the arrivals lounge, such are the thick and often unwelcome smells experienced in India. Again, this market provided them all, with a flower stall providing a rare, delicate fragrance and a perfume stall emitting a heady, pungent air about it. Meat stalls smelled heavy with blood and raw meat as fat, green flies rubbed their hands with glee at the entrails clinging to the sides of heavy chopping boards. Behind the stallholder, heads and limbs hung on hooks in the shade waiting for a brave customer to purchase them.
Further down, the sun fell heavily on the squashed tomatoes and brown-edged cucumbers that had been rejected by the presentation-minded grocer and thrown into the gutters that lined the alleyways. Here, the air was warm and thick with the stench of decomposition, with smaller, darker flies swarmed silently around the decomposing produce that appeared to have smell-lines wafting from them like an old cartoon. Here and there, cows weaved in and out of the stalls, lazily shuffling through the remains and gorging themselves on the day’s leavings as their coarse tails flicked distractedly against the legs of passers-by.