“Kya ma, tum kuch khata nahi? Tumara umar ka kitna ladki log tumse bada ho, tumse zyada height, weight hain. Beef nahi khata kya tum?” (What is this? Don’t you eat? So many girls your age are bigger than you. They are taller, heavier. don’t you eat beef?) Asks Mr. Parvez, president of the Russell Market Association, as he offers me a carrot from the sizeable pile he is sitting behind.
This is a fortnightly lecture I’ve been getting since the age of four. It is almost always followed by the words “Ma tum isse mera ghar bhej do. Ek mahina mein pandra kg aur ajata.” (Ma send her to my house. She’ll be 15 kg heavier in a month.)
The first time I was taken to Russell Market, I was two months old. My mother took me there and she was lectured heavily by everyone -the fish mongers, vegetable vendors, and butchers- for bringing a baby to such a dirty place. But when I was left at home the next time she went there, everyone asked about me and told her to bring me again. And so it’s been ever since.
Mrs. Firdaus who cleans fish calls me over to her her makeshift stall comprising two small crates. She is very chatty. “Tumhara exam kaisa tha ma? Pass hua kya? Meri beti fail hua. Result padkar to behen ke ghar chali gayi aur mereko nahi bataya. Kya karoon ma?” (How were your exams ma? Did you pass? My daughter failed and went off to her sister’s house without telling me. What should I do?)
If she isn’t complaining about her daughters and their husbands, she is asking me about my dog and my family. She doesn’t really like dogs, but she thinks it’s funny that mine sometimes wears a sweater. When she cleans the fish other people give her, she hides the eggs and gives them to my mother “ Tum malayali log iska kuch banata na ma? Rakh lo.” (You malayali people make something with these fish eggs no? Keep it)
She and her husband once found a baby girl in a pile of garbage and took her home. This girl, Raseena, until quite recently, would sit and clean fish with her. But now she wants to focus on her studies. Next to her sits another one of her daughters whose head and neck are covered completely by her hijab. It’s not exactly to cover her face, but to hide the burn marks on her neck left by her angry husband. I know. Her mother told me.
After the fish market, we usually go to the beef market. While my mother asks for various different cuts and slices, I go to the pet stalls right next door. When I was younger, Mr. Sannah-ullah (the butcher my mother goes to) would make me stand beside his stall and watch as he threw pieces of scrap meat onto the ground. As soon as the pieces are thrown, the kites circling overhead swoop down and grab them; sometimes even before they hit the ground.
Mr.Riaz who sells root vegetables and raw bananas constantly badgers me about my board exams and studying for them (this is even after telling him that I’ve already written and passed them). After his last heart-attack, his memory hasn’t been that great. But he always remembers to keep some drumsticks for me; I like them a lot. Mr. and Mrs. Ramachandran also save food for me, but they save green mangoes and star gooseberries. The last time I went there, Mrs. Ramachandran told me how to make nelika juice but I haven’t tried it yet.
Going to Russell market is always an adventure. The sights and smells are unlike anything you’ll see anywhere else in the city (if you’re lucky). But that’s not all it is. It’s a family that is constantly growing and adding new people. Go there once, they’ll remember you. Go there more, and they will feed you everything they want to, and you can’t say no.