From my journal, 18 January

Wednesday nights on Sinhagad always mean one thing: सब्जी बाजार  [sabzi bazaar – vegetable market]

On this midweek evening, once the sun surrenders its dry heat to cooler, more tolerable temperatures, a parking lot abandoned during the daytime begins to buzz with activity. Under large tents and bright neon lights, फल [phel – fruit] and सबजी [sabzi – vegetable] vendors from across the city make their way in droves, relentlessly shouting out prices amidst the crates of संतरे [santre – oranges] and the rows of मसाले [masale- spices] and the piles of गाजर [gaajar – carrots].  

“बीस रुपये !” [Biis rupaye! – twenty rupees!]

“केले, केले, केले !” [Kele, kele, kele! – Bananas, bananas, bananas!]

A swarm of saree-laden women, weighed down by heavy  baskets and shopping bags, shuffle in a synchronized movement down the lanes. Master bargainers in disguise, they are on a mission, scrupulously examining the produce and bringing down costs until attaining hard-achieved satisfaction.

“क्या यह ताजा है ?” [Kya yaha taazaa hai? – Is this fresh?]

“बहुत महंगा !” [Bahut mahangaa! – Very expensive!]

Stray dogs lurk in the darker corners, keeping low profiles while waiting for the scraps to fall. Far less skinny than many others who wandering the streets, their success is visibly apparent in their physique.

And somewhere in the midst of the chaos of it all, between the shouting and the bargaining and the roaming animals, there is also me. Nothing more than another member of this human flow, I weave my way through the masses, repeating my mental checklist like a mantra over and over again:

“ पाँच नींबू, तीन अनार, सात खीरे, मसूर दाल ” [Panch nimbu, tin anaar, saat kheera, masoor daal – five indian lemons, three pomegranates, seven cucumbers, lentils]

I head confidently towards my सब्ज़ी वाला [sabzi vaalaa – vegetable seller], the same one that I have been buying from for weeks now, without once feeling lost in the crowd. When the vendor sees me approach, he gives me a smile and a friendly wave; already knowing fully well what I want, he begins to prepare my basket. What better feeling, I then ask myself, is there than to be perfectly understood without having to utter a word? As he subsequently gives me the price, I cannot help but automatically respond with a head bob and my favorite string of Hindi words:

“ ठीक है, ठीक है. अच्छा. ” [Tik hai, tik hai. Atchchaa – Ok, ok. Good]

I willingly hand over the rupees, knowing that even my host-mom would be satisfied by the reasonable price. It is a sum that locals are offered, far from what usually comes hand in hand with the “विदेशी” [videshi – foreigner / alien] label. Heavy shopping bags in hand, I then once again fade back into the masses.

It is here, hidden among this sea of busy strangers, that, almost paradoxically, the strongest sense of belonging washes over me. Under the night sky and the dim lights, my skin no longer seems as white and my hair no longer so blonde – what in most other circumstances renders me a stark outlier now dissolves into the masses. And in this moment, where I am but a piece of a much larger whole moving as one through the lanes of vendors, my mind cannot help but dwell on how far I’ve come. I think back to the first time I successfully crossed the street, proudly dodging the autos and motorcycles and cars and cows coming at me from every direction; to the day I discovered the shared rickshaw, where I could squeeze in the back seat with four other sweaty strangers and pay 20 rather than 100 rupees on my way to school;  to the feeling of comfort and gratitude that overcomes me each and every day once I make it back to Sinhagad Road, once I know I’ve arrived home. These are the experiences that slowly but surely etched away at the worry and uncertainty that once accompanied my every step. Gradually, they led me to no longer ask myself as often if I would be able to find my way back to the apartment, or catch a rickshaw in an unfamiliar neighborhood before the sun sets, or avoid paying exorbitant tourist prices for sub-par produce. Gradually, they allowed me to occupy this space with confidence. And now, I find myself buying फल [phel – fruit] and सबजी [sabzi – vegetable] on Wednesday nights like any other dweller of Sinhagad road, no different and no less at ease.

Oh India. We surely have come a long way. It is today amidst the sights and the smells and the assault to all senses, that I feel most strongly your embrace – amidst this beautiful chaos that I am overcome with the deepest and purest sense of belonging, of integration, of unity, of connection to this place I now call home. Emboldened rather than intimidated by the masses and the madness. No longer the outsider peering in. Far from a local yet far from a tourist.

The word ‘community’ now finally seems to have gained meaning.