Laloo Yadav's attempt to popularize Village on Wheels did break its snub-nose, after landing with an unceremonious thud on its low-budget face. However, the unofficial bazaar on wheels series is quite a sight.
The engine chugs to life and the trains in Bihar turn into a lively travelling bazaar, providing an endless source of entertainment to the travelling consumer.
I saw this first-hand in the Northeast Express, from Guwahati to Patna. The air-conditioned compartments turned into delightful corridors where you may buy everything... and I mean EVERYTHING... you can imagine, short of nuclear bombs and submarines.
It began with muri-bhel and fruit-salad-walla. I must admit I was surprised. It had been a long, long time since I saw the fresh salad-bearing vendors on trains, ever since I started traveling in air-conditioned classes, I suppose.
This surprise was not unwelcome. I like salad. I like fruit. and crisp, chatpati bhel is way preferable to stale, oily daal-wada.
Then came the guys selling watches and plastic glares (dhoop ka chasmaa). And hard to believe it may be, but these guys were also selling 'numbered' eye-glasses. The real thing that opticians prescribe for you.
You could take a rough 'test', by trying on every pair of spectacles that the vendor had, and if you could read a fine newspaper print with the pair, you bought.
Then the guy selling toys arrived - and these weren't wooden handicrafts. These were high-tech stuff. Dancing dolls, racing cars, helicoptors, singing GI-Joe clones... you name it!
Then came the baggage vendors - bags in leather and rexene and cardboard and whatever you want. Suitcases, airbags, backpacks... The elctronics guy had a great collection too - walkman, discman, batteries, rechargeable batterries, battery recharger, calculators, mobile phones, call-ID fixed-line phones, WLL phones, VCD players....
VCD, did I say?
Yes, they also sold pirated versions of every single movie and music album, released or unreleased, on VCD (AND DVD!!). I saw a fellow-traveller lean in and whisper a movie-title into the vendor's ears. The CD walla, a boy of about eighteen, frowned and asked aloud "What? Is that the name of the hero or heroine? What's the title?"
The passenger quickly hushed up the young boy and whispered again. I suspect he was looking for porn of some kind, for the boy clicked his tongue disapprovingly and left quickly.
The consumer-king attitude engulfing my fellow-passengers began to put me off.
I had a brief respite with the peanut-walla and the aloo-chip walla, who were relatively soft-spoken.
I was just settling down for a nap, but it was not to be.
The next vendor appeared with shoes and slippers. "Only hundred rupees... you want?"
No, thank you. I do not want. But sleep, of course, was kissed good-bye.
The bazaar took over.
Almost every other item had been inspected by every other passenger. Almost every other vendor went away smiling, despite the hour-long bargain session he'd just been subjected to.
Passengers knew they had a long, long journey, and time to kill.
Many bargained just for the pleasure of it. Many made a killing. Money changed hands all through the day. Vendors would pass the compartment again and again, calling out loud, bazaar-style. They would disappear for a bit, probably into the next compartment, or maybe to rest their parched throats.
Then the whole chain began afresh - chinese pain balm, followed by body massagers, followed by cameras and binoculors.
Safety pins, sarees, trinkets.
Baby frock and adult gamchha, checked lungi and plain white kurta-pajama.
But the prize catch was this guy selling vests, undies and (the horror!) panties.
No one bought any.
I was quite sorry for the panty-walla. I even considered picking up one pair - black nylon imprinted with orange sunflowers and trimmed with yellow lace.... it was truly a collector's item. you don't get to see this kind of erm... unusual, fashion sense everyday.
But I decided against it, seeing that the men in the compartment took particular care to avoid looking at this particular vendor.
I finally bought some more chai. Then some more. Then more and more and more. Chai!
The bazaar has something for everybody, after all.
(C) Annie Zaidi, Jan 2005