Its summer time, brown heat time, tourist and big 4WDs time, sightseeing and shopping time. Shall we drive to the town today? 3 kms down the road and you can see the two hills, covered with precariously clinging houses and shops, linked by three winding roads at different levels.
This is a cantonment town, with abundant pine trees and grassy slopes and just one street of shops. No building can be demolished; no tree can be chopped without permission. Our market street, therefore, looks frozen in time. The only nod to modern times is the selective one-way traffic on the narrow, one lane main street.
Over the years, Sadar Bazaar remains unchanged.
- The same three wool shops , one stuffed with customers and goodwill, another with full shelves and empty counters ,and one somewhere in between.
- The ice-cream softies stall hands out cones, filled from an ancient gleaming machine, and topped with bright red fruit candy, to young mothers and toddlers , school kids and college girls, and cadets from the training centre.
- Three counters for momos and chowmein, some sweet shops with four tables each, and five proper restaurants where one can sit and eat a meal.
- Two bookstalls, a few tailors with harried customers, a set of shanty shops in which women sell jewellery, bindis, combs and all the rest of the stuff which makes pretty hill women glow.
- Seven “bartan” shops sell gleaming steel pots and little brass bells and everything else inbetween.
- Four Chemists have their share of confused and worried customers holding indecipherable prescription slips
- Zillion computer shops are crowded with smart young men peering at their mobile screens and downloading songs
- Another zillion cloth shops stuffed with bright, bright, bright fabrics. Color me bright–the hill motto.
Every other shop, or blank space in the street, is a grocery shop. I would wonder how they all did enough business to keep going. It took me a few months to find the secret—all the grocers expect and respect customer loyalty. My loyalty stays with two shops. Bhatji, a suave and dignified gentleman who has his Dalmation resting under the chair, keeps a neat and modern shop with the right software for billing and stock-taking in his computer, and has everything my kitchen needs. Alas, parking space near his shop is unpredictable, which means driving down the market to the other store. The Goldy shop, run by two quiet brothers, is an old shop with sacks of dal, pasta, jaggery and rice, glass jars filled with dry fruits and candy, a heady spicy aroma in the air, and the magical property of every required item appearing in the hands of these two brothers. Getting in and out of the narrow aisle means polite filing in and filing out of all the customers when one has to leave… and its done with lots of smiles and greetings.
Ranikhet has this intriguing and quaint issue of two “ sabzi mandis”. Sabzi mandis, or vegetable wholesale markets, are these huge, sprawling market areas where tractor and truckloads of fresh vegetables come in at dawn, and one has to buy a minimum of 10 kgs of a particular vegetable or leave empty-handed. In my army childhood, I would go with Baba to haul back kilos of onions and potatoes for feeding the big hungry family, and seasonal vegetables for Ma’s pickling adventures. It was all about size and bulk and trucks.
Try “cut and paste” of that memory onto a small hill market…uh huh, its not happening….. Ranikhet has TWO sabzi mandis, a badaa ( big) mandi and a choti ( small) mandi, with four shops interspersed between them. Both the mandis have six stalls, both of them have the same variety and amount of vegetables, and all the stall owners give me a big Namaste and a bigger smile when I enter.. So, how does one buy from one stall and ignore the others? Still working on that one!
Still working on exploring the other market lanes snaking down the hillside—Zaroori Bazaar, Khadi Bazaar and the Shiv Mandir Bazaar. Still working on meandering purposefully down the market road, shopping list in hand, stopping to greet people, taking a jalebi and samosa break, checking out the yarn shops and returning home in a car stuffed with school-kids and their bags and banter.
Still working on figuring out how shopping turned from “chore” into” fun-times” after shifting to this dear little hamlet .