The Veggie Seller..

Paris is an old city and when you are in the city center everything has a sense of nostalgia. My hotel too was an old building facing an open park like area called Square d’ Anvers. It had a circular staircase made of wood that made a creaking noise with every step and the rooms were so small that they ended as soon as they started. The funniest thing was the shower enclosure in which a large guy like me had to enter in the state of ‘attention’ make a swirl without spreading my arms and pretend to come out refreshed. Then there was this awkward thing about how the French write and Pronounce so differently so I had to try every version of Square D Anvers with the Taxi Drivers to come back to my hotel! Surprisingly it seemed all of them had their own way of saying it and finally I Had to say ‘whatever’ just take me there.

 

I had been in the city for a week now and was looking forward to the first weekend having slept late as we usually always did. It was a bright Saturday morning and I was lazily lying around in my room. The weather was nice which meant you could open the classic door sized french windows without getting Frozen. When I looked outside I could see a hum drum of activity. There were lots of Vans parked outside on the road and men were busy setting up temporary stalls on the pavement of the park. It was quite similar to what we had back home as in Wednesday Bazaar Flea markets. The only difference was that it was much better organized and professional.

While the stalls were being given the final touch, the vans started unloading their content and setting their house in order so they can occupy the stalls as soon as they were ready. What was interesting to note that while there was so much activity there was no noise or confusion and everyone seemed to be in a relaxed and happy mood. I guessed it was perhaps a regular feature so all of them knew exactly what they were doing or they had to do.

 

My curiosity grew as more and more vans downloaded their merchandise. It was amazing to see the sheer variety of goods – Bakery, vegetables, meat and Poultry, knick knacks, Herbs and spices, Dry fruits, accessories, Plants, Cut Flowers, Decorative stuff, painting replicas and so on. However, loosely the whole pavement was divided into two parts – one for Fresh produce, bakery and meat which was perhaps the largest, then for Herbs, Plants, flowers and few stalls at the end were setting up for decor and Accessories.

 

By this time I had started to feel a bit hungry and realized that the On the House in house breakfast served by the hotel would get over in another half an hour or so. I took a quick shower, changed my clothes and feasted myself of freshly baked croissants, fruit bread, Cheese cake and Coffee. It was the same stuff everyday but the good thing was that it was fresh! After the breakfast, I came back to my room and started doing the usual stuff to kill time – check emails, facebook updates and so on. By this time, it had become quite sunny and warm so I shifted my chair alongside the large window to enjoy the warmth. I noticed that the stall right in front of my window was getting ready too. There was a van parked next to the stall and they were unloading crates filled with fresh vegetables pumpkins, cauliflower, carrots, tomatoes and lots of leafy greens the names of which I had no clue about. Just then I noticed something unusual, the girl setting up the stall was not somebody you would identify with being a vegetable seller !  With her looks she was more suited to be a model donning haute couture than to be selling veggies on the street side.

 

I was in this semi thoughtful mood when someone knocked on the door. I was waiting for a friend who worked with me and we had planned to complete some pending stuff from work plus have lunch together at the Indian restaurant. Sunil walked in with his usually cheerful smile all excited about the day ahead. Soon we opened out our laptops and started discussing about what all we had to accomplish. But with all the activity just across the window it was kind of difficult to concentrate. Somehow we worked for an hour or so before we decided that it was time for Lunch.  The restaurant Au Palais Du Grand Moghol is conveniently located around the corner and because of the customized service it offered to us regulars it had practically become more of a ‘mess’ than a restaurant. The owner Mr. Gafur, a friendly old man always offered either a starter or a dessert on the house and even made stuff that was out of the menu – I mean who could boast of having Lauki ka kofta curry and besan baadam halwa in a faraway land.

 

After the heavy lunch, to avoid sleep we planned for a stroll and the best thing was to explore the flea market. We started from one corner which had the clothes and trinket stalls. It was interesting to note that a couple of stalls which were selling Euro 2 clothing had the maximum crowd – all of them women! They were all shapes, sizes, age, economic class and all of them had a Single focus, how to get hold of the best as quickly as possible from the heap which looked no less than a treasure island, at least to them. I realized that when it comes to women – SALE was the biggest leveler whether you were in the city of joy or the city of fashion. Moving on there were stalls selling fresh Bakery stuff croissants, baguette breads, Pastries, muffins, tarts, pies and Bagels. Let me tell you that there is nothing better than freshly baked French goodies especially if one has a sweet tooth! At street smart prices we certainly had more than what we should have all in the garb of just tasting. Before ending our stroll we thought it might be a good idea to check out the vegetable stall and of course the seller ! I was curious to see Sunil’s reaction to the shop owner and just as I had thought he shared my surprise and excitement. Just as girls and women have a sixth sense that tells them ‘the look’ is not right, men and boys too have a common language that allows them to sniff something that is of common interest. We casually enquired the girl about some vegetable prices and so as not to arise suspicion bought a box of plums. Who would eat all that fruit we had no idea. We were particularly amazed by the confidence with the way she transacted with a cigarette in hand, the smoke from the cigarette puffs giving her an air of confidence and authority. I think it had more to do with our conditioning about women smoking in public than anything else. It seemed everyone in Paris smoked so it wasn’t really anything special.

 

We came back to our room and started discussing how life was so different here vs. back home In India. With the drudgery of having to work on a weekend the conversation soon drifted to working for a corporate vs. working for your own self. To put things into perspective Sunil pointed out to the vegetable seller we had just encountered. According to him She probably grew the vegetables in a farm outside Paris or bought them from an upcountry farmers Market, drove her own little truck, setup her own stall, decided the prices of the produce, transacted business at her time and finally went home satisfied after a day’s hard work. Her business could be small but at the end of the day she was her own boss…and she was doing what she loved or wanted to do. I argued that though it sounded quite romantic it involved a lot of hard work and thinking, even creativity. This further led to the conversation about how a typical day would be for her. We agreed that it was a lot of hard sowing growing and harvesting or even buying out wholesale at different markets and consolidating to make up the wide variety of product mix she offered. She would have to wake up quite early and by the time she reached home it would be late in the evening. But then the idyllic country life was any day more rewarding and healthy than the maddening city (which I didn’t quite agree as we were talking about Paris). Our debate had turned into a discussion and the discussion had finally yielded to a unanimous understanding that It is best to work for your own self and there is nothing like being your own boss. The grass being always greener on the other side notwithstanding. Make the debate a conversation.

 

It was evening time and the buildings around us had transformed into something magical in the soft and warm light of the setting sun. When you see all the carvings and beautiful architecture with statuettes of Cherubs adorning he corners of edifices it seems as if they were conjured up for this very moment. We had made some tea and we hanged on our balcony stretching out of the French Window admiring the lovely Paris evening. The pavement market had started to wrap up as it was going to be 5 o clock soon. France has socialist leanings and it is quite evident in the way they work. Though the work timings are strictly followed in most of the developed world especially in Europe the French have taken it to another level which is great because as Indians we are scoffed at for our 24×7 strife. We are the only ones who promise on a Friday evening to have all deliverables ready first thing Monday evening. The fact that Indians work on weekends and sleep only 4 hours on weekdays is now an accepted concept across the global business world. Anyways let’s move on…

 

I pointed out to Sunil how well organized were the stall owners, everything seemed to have a place and fitted into each other to get perfectly into the small truck. They also had separate cold compartment for meat and perishables. Our veggie seller had also finished Packing up and lighted up a cigarette as she leaned against the back of her truck. Once again Sunil commented about the glow of contentment and satisfaction on her face. I laughed at him saying you can cut the philosophical crap….it’s OK if you just want to look at her. I went inside the room to keep the cups and was arranging the workspace to finish off the job at hand. Just then Sunil called me out to the window. What we saw was surprising, interesting, saddening, laughable …..all at the same time !

 

A black Renault Fluence Concept had pulled up below our window and the enterprising veggie seller was talking to the fat middle aged lady occupant of the car. It looked like she was explaining something to her. Once the brief conversation was over she took out a bundle of currency and handed it over to woman. The women counted the money and gave back a 100 Euros which was clearly the ‘pay’ for all the enterprising, self-gratifying hard work we had been debating about.

 

We looked at each other and what best explained our smiles is a German term called Shadenfreude – the pleasure one feels by seeing others failure or misfortune.

In our case it possibly meant we were not the only ones!

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Heritage Monument or Hotel California ?

We had just landed in Secunderabad in the summer of 2006 and knew nothing about the city,almost.One evening we decided to have dinner at a famous Chinese restaurant on Park Lane but to our dismay we could not get a table even after waiting for half and hour. With two little children and a parking slot which is as difficult to manage we thought we would settle for something a little less fancy.

Bang opposite to the chinese place we saw a number of boards declaring that there was a restaurant and a bar somewhere.We could not figure out where ?

There was this old colonial structure that looked more french than british but it hardly looked like a restaurant or a bar.

Image173But since the board said that this was the place we wanted to have a dekho at it.As our party of 3 and a Quarter headed in the direction of what looked like the entrance we were accosted by a fierce looking man with a guards uniform and club in hand.He ordered ” You cannot go inside” and put his club in front as in to hold us back.

Surprised beyond belief I confronted him”But why not? We will go.You cannot stop us like this”.His expression had by now turned from mild retribution to anger and he thundered” I am saying you cannot go means you cannot go and certainly not with these people”.It was now my wife’s turn to question him while my two kiddos looked at each other Image172and the three of us with a not so amused look.” Have you put a board here that who all can go and who all cannot.India is after all a free country”.The poor guy had given up by now and he said in a very deep tone almost like a whisper”Sir madam does not understand.It is better you first go and check out your self” I had begun to grow suspicious by now as some of the characters coming out of the building did not exactly look like gentlemen.Even they had a weird expression on their faces and they were looking at us as if they had seen some strange ghosts.I asked my wife to wait in a corner besides our car while I went ahead like an adventurer.

Once I entered the hall I could not believe my eyes.The place was straight out Image175of the 18th century.I had never seen anything like this before in my life.Rows and rows of tables with two benches on each side,a dim lit bulb over them and all of the occupied by men in various stages of intoxication.Some were chatting or blabbering but most of them were drinking silently and by the look on their faces it was clear that they did not know the person sitting in front of them and neither did they care.There were 3 such halls and together there must have been some 100 tables !!!

Pulling myself up from the shock I got out and told my wife the whole story.Both of us were at our wits end that how could such a place exist almost frozen in time.I could not get over it and wanted to know the whole story so I went back the other day this time alone and all by myself.

What I found out was this :

Image171

It is amazing that even after more than 100 years the place is preserved in all its original glory.I imagined how groups of soldiers from the British cantonment would come and spend their evenings at the Monty’s hotel.Many of them would even stay there before their quarters were allotted or something like that.

I called up and  checked with some friends who have been living in Hyderabad for years together but no one knew about the place.

I promised to SHOW them Hotel California one day.And if anyone of you are in town I would be happy to take you there too but remember …No women and children please !

Unfortunately The Authorities have decided to delist the Monty’s Hotel from its Heritage building status and soon the place will loose out to a swanky mall or some other fancy and ‘modern’ building.