Chapter 6 - Cultural Bargains

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-- Mumbai - Maharashtra - Mirchi Galli --

Crimson red chilis hung in strings, shining waxy in the filtered light through the faded cloth canopies. Freshly ground spices thick in the air along with the sickly-sweet aroma of fruit and the constant hum of conversations was assaulting Rohan from every side. Greens and reds and yellows brightly bloomed out of each stall, begging to be felt by the soul, inhaled and held in memory because nowhere else in the world could you find such life in simple ingredients.

Rohan wished he felt more kinship to this place, instead of a sad wonder that he had denied himself the knowledge of this culture. Regrets were fast and furious as he made his way, another example of how he had pushed aside any notion of understanding where he had come from.

Ahead of him, Atesh was gesturing and haggling at a stall over the price of some spices he said he needed, to cook a special meal for him, on his first night back in India. Atesh was grinning from ear to ear, like a cat who had found cream, and his eyes sparkled with restrained mischief as he and the merchant went round after round.

This was Atesh's world, not his and the doubt of his plan reared up heavily in his mind as he watched the whirl of life steam past him in the busy market, watching, observing, but not engaging. Grief did that. It sucked out your ability to leap into the fray. It robbed you of your confidence. He had carried that grief so close to himself, he didn't know how to put it down and feel light again.

He had no memories of this particular place, only tiny snippets of quiet countryside, the slow pace of the town where he and Atesh had cut their teeth, an exact opposite of the teeming city he was now inserted into. This was not anywhere close to the India that peppered his painful memories. The traffic, smog, and constant crush of people was foreign, just as he was.

He hadn't been treated as such by the strangers around him, jostling and pushing past. They assumed he spoke their language, and he had more than one look of irritation thrown at him as he opened his mouth to speak if someone greeted him, his accent gone. Raised eyebrows accompanied the irritation when they heard his voice. He was as Canadian as they came, in that sense. Completely and utterly devoid of any inflection that was supposed to accompany his features.

He stopped at a lone clothing stall at the edge of the spice merchants, and touched a beautifully sewn thin silk scarf, the blue so vibrant it took his breath away. Silver thread work of peacock feathers and paisley shapes held white and black pearl-shaped beads to it, the winking sequins and glass seed beads like the water on the river back home, sparkling in the morning light.

Miriam would love this scarf. Miriam would love all of this, dancing up the aisles as she would, laughing and interacting with everyone around her, even if she couldn't speak a word of their language. She could always transcend barriers like that with her free spirit and mischievous sparkle. Another regret flashed through him. He could have brought her here so many times, and now, it was too late.

His stubbornness did that.

He missed her so much that the ache was a sharp stab right above his heart, catching his breath short. He rubbed at his chest, willing it to pass, breathing in as it eased, a lungful of potent spice filling the space. He had to get past this paralyzing pain, and the pungent sting of curry and garam masala in his lungs reminded him of that as he coughed.

He needed to be at peace. Was this the answer, coming here, now? He felt clueless in what questions to ask to even hope for an answer. Miriam, of course, would already know, and would tell him, even if he asked her not to. Was that irony?

She would know that, too.

The woman at the booth gestured at him, speaking in fluent, fast Hindi. He could only catch every third word. He silently handed over what he thought she had said, which was two hundred rupees, and slid the scarf off the hook, winding it into a small folded square, protecting the beads.

The woman took the money, shook her head, obviously disappointed he had not haggled on the price. He pressed his hands together and bowed in silent thanks, and she begrudgingly smiled and did the same. As he placed the tiny square of fabric into his pocket, he turned and watched as Atesh and the merchant shook, several bags of spices changing hands, a oblong yellow box labelled 'Methi' in blocky blue letters under his arm. Both men were beaming, the enjoyable sport done and a bargain struck.

He was lost in a sea of a culture he was supposed to identify with, and it was rendering him inept. As Atesh spotted him and made his way over, Rohan was again struck by how different their lives were.

How could he be Indian if he couldn't haggle for a small trinket such as a scarf? He didn't even know how.

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