It wasn’t merely the oldest street in the city. It was older than the city too. It was called bazaar street then, when the city was a village on the river ford. It existed simply as ‘the street’ even before that. It had birthed the city and it sat in the city’s edge, unconcerned with the chaos, like an old mother relegated to whispering shadows.
It always wore a festive look. Opiate Flowers continuously fell out of trees. They had fallen on the mud, long ago, fallen fresh as tigers trampled them, licked the soft petals and lay drowsily, and now they fell on the road beneath, through a haze of dust and heat, sunshine and noise. Vegetables were piled in heaps; huge green pumpkins meticulously stacked in pyramids, muddy yams rolling by their base, baskets of ripe yellow bananas, careless mounds of green leaves all looking the same, long gourds hanging from tree branches and banana leaves underneath everything. Scores of little shops stood by the street, under the watchful eyes of the drowsy trees. The little shops sold everything. And the large homes sat behind the little shops, all their people drunk on the flowers falling on their courtyard. Outside the street, a country revolted, men killed and women burned. Changes slowly trickled down time and space to reach the street. The fruit sellers came first; with their exotic cold apples from the Himalayas and dates from across the ocean, large cantaloupes form the north and walnuts and almonds from Afghanistan. A large woman sat one day with fish from the western sea and the fish never stank, since they were perfumed by the falling flowers. Traders from the hot plains brought tamarind and cashew and from the far north, they got delicate saffron flowers. The traders also set up a tandoor and passed around crisp rounds of bread dusted with sesame and browned onions. Then the South Indian women came to live in the big house at the end of the street and brought with them the alien stench of jasmine. Jasmine and almost-jasmine, roses and tiny green leaves in their hair. They drew the men wild, teased the women and even woke the comatose fishes. Their coming ripened bananas and brightened stone-pitted applies. Dates oozed juices and the bees came to live on the trees, dropping honey on the mud and the whole street was mired in a smelly, sticky mess of solid air and languid dust. Then the opium flowers conspired to sit on the women’s heads, and drove out the jasmines and the almost-jasmines and the roses and the little green leaves and the street became liveable again. It was to such a street that winter arrived.
It arrived at night when the men slept and the women lay tossing and turning. The opiate leaves fell as usual but landed on a hard white surface. In the morning the mists hid the white ground from everyone, until a child unexpectedly screamed, running on the street and shattered the veil. Frost and hard dew, clouds and knife-cold air. The ghosts of the tigers fled, and the ghost of old men that sat near the banyan tree fled. The cats turned to stone, the bees fell solidly, like so many fruits and the dogs ate the dead bees and died. The fish stank and bananas decayed, spreading death up and down the street. Only the opiate flowers still continued falling. In the winter when this land turned cold, and the trees were bare, there were no vegetables and no fruits, no gay festoons over the houses and shops, and the street still came alive. It lived in the vapours from the kitchens and on hot coffee from the little shops, bloomed by the old tandoor of the traders and moved about on gossip that circulated urgently and died by the smell of decaying fish.