Up by Crawford Market in Bombay, I saw a brief cultural dance that would fit neatly in a Kipling story.
A white-haired couple from somewhere north of Pennsylvania, plump and pleasant looking, was walking tentatively, bravely alone. They walked through jumbles of porters with boxes stacked high on their head like bearers in a Tarzan movie and in the slow flow of heavy wooden handcarts pushed and pulled by one or two or three men. The loaded carts are hard to start, hard to stop and hard to steer. And the streets there funnel the engine-roaring, horn blaring trucks of retailers loading up on fish and fruit and vegetables, and taxis swarm. Hovering, little roosts of thieves, crowlike, watch with sharp eyes.
The couple had passed me when I stopped to buy three bananas, and I noticed that the man had a large Canon camera swinging from a shoulder strap, its long lens swinging this way and that as he walked. He and his wife were both in khaiki shorts and bush shirts, as if looking for leopards, and the man was wearing a canvas expeditionary hat of the sort sold in New Yorker side-panels.
Just outside the market, they mistimed traffic on a side-street and nearly got hit by a truck. You can cross through the flow if the truck or bus or cycle, the tuk-tuks, have time to swerve, but you must walk in a straight line, balletically, fending off speeders with a fluttering bull-fighter hand, and at a predictable speed.The traffic streams around you. It’s a lovely, enlivening system. Stopping suddenly or changing course screws it up.
They lost their nerve, understandably, and stopped. The truck driver slammed on his brakes, shouting Mumbaikar imprecations, and created an even bigger obstacle. Somehow, in the blare of horns, the oblivious couple, unimpressed by the virtuosity that left them unsquashed, staggered on to the other side. They neglected to thank the truck driver for his reckless virtue (though, of course, the paperwork for killing a pedestrian is formidable, and the required bribes would go on forever).
“Are you with them?”
A young professional man of some sort was speaking to me, tilting his head toward the old couple.
I wasn’t, I said.
“That camera,” he said. “I worry that thieves will take it. The market is full of thieves.”
Some thieves in India rob from scooters, whizzing by and snatching gold chains, shoulder bags and large-lensed Canon cameras swinging casually from the left shoulder on a broad strap that would move from the leopard-hunter’s shoulder to the thief’s in a trice, whoosh, never to be seen again; others are runners, or a hand from between vegetable stalls, or a team: one hits the opposite shoulder, and when the head turns, the partner grabs the chain, or bag; the camera. The market is crowded.
“I am trying to tell him,” the professional man said. “But he thinks I am selling him something.”
I told the man I’d do my best and followed the couple onto the vegetable wholesale floor, a busy place.
They were uneasy. The guidebook had said “busy” and “colorful,” but it hadn’t mentioned the porter suddenly blowing his nose between two fingers right in front of them, or the sidepusher on a loaded handcart shoving them aside with a quick arm—“He hit me! That man hit me!”—to save them from getting run over, again, and who is this little man now in front of them, appearing from nowhere, holding up a badge of some kind and chattering in Indian English about “veddydangerous.”
“No, no, no, my dear,” the little man said to the camera man, “I am not guiding. I am working with market. Your camera,” he motioned at it, “not so good here.”
The man understood. His lip curled. “He’s saying we can’t take pictures,” he said disgustedly to his wife. “We have to pay something.”
The small man fluttered unimpressively. He was not selling, he said too quickly now to be understood, but the camera could be stolen, “taken, you see. Not everyone here is so pleasant,” he said, more to me now, standing sympathetically beside him, than to them. They had figured him out and were ignoring him, unless he made them buy a ticket.
I tried. I had the advantage of looking familiar to them, though it might be like Midnight Express, with me working some fiendish scheme to steal their passports. I planned a suave intervention, but abandoned that and gave them both a mighty shove, “Jesus Christ!” grabbing the woman to keep her from falling. She nearly screamed. They hadn’t seen the heavy cart bearing down on them, nor had I until the last moment, and they were unsure even as it passed us by, a ton or two, inches away, that it was serious. Surely there were rules!
“This man works for the market,” I said. “He, and the man outside, were trying to warn you that your camera will be stolen if you carry it like that. You’ve made yourself a target.”
“A target!” the woman said.
The man snorted. “No problem so far,” he said in an executive voice, and turned away, toward the oranges and Kashmiri apples, stacked high in American-looking cartons (brought in on the long handcarts).
“He said ‘target,’ you’re a ‘target!’” the woman said to White Hunter.
I watched them walk on, their pale legs incongruously soft amid the hundreds of muscular worker legs around them. They walked against the flow, forcing the porters to dodge them. Behind them, wringing his hands and gesturing to other market workers, the little man followed at a distance, watching on their behalf.