The scent of mahua & a man
in a village haat
Preeti Verma Lal
the time I could cross the mahua pile, there was a huge
downpour. I had no choice but to run for cover under the
tarp where mahua was being sold. The smell of wet earth
mingled with the heady scent of mahua and I was already
feeling tipsy. I did not want to pop off by the shop, so
I bought a wicker basket, used it as an umbrella over my
head, hitched my skirt and ran towards the car. In the hurry
my skirt got stuck in a bundle of wood and I struggled to
entangle it. The wicker basket covered my head but I was
worried about my camera and my stuck skirt.
silk crinkled skirt, black ribbed turtle neck, my Paloma
Picasso sunglasses and my unclothed, funky Sony camera were
such a give away at the Khunti haat. Not that I was the
only one wearing bright colours, but perhaps I was the only
urban face in that huge crowd and I was being stared at
blatantly. That narrow stretch by the roadside was so crowded
with cycles, bullock carts, tempos and walking men and women
that I had to park at a distance and well, walk. The previous
night's showers had created puddles and I had to hitch my
skirt to scamper past stray dogs and unruly kids. Not many
minutes later, I could feel a shadow following me, I could
feel the discomfort and I turned around to look - there
was a young, limp man the colour of ebony, his purple trousers
quaint, his magenta shirt soiled and shiny and his hair
looking oily. He grinned sheepishly when I looked back and
I thought I had gotten rid of a pest.
The discomfort gone, I was readying to
explore the village haat that gathers every Monday and Friday.
As I crossed the bees and flies-laden gulgulas and roasted
peas being sold for Rs 2 a leaf bowl, I could feel the scent
- naah! not of a handsome cologned man - of mahua, the fruit
of a wild tree that is fermented into an intoxicating drink.
Loads of brown mahua was tumbling out of brown sacks and
everyone seemed to be buying at least a sack full. The scent
was getting into my head and if I had stayed a little longer
I would have probably popped off. But not before I asked
how they make the drink. The pot-bellied man in dirty pyjamas
and sweat dripping down his jowl, tried explaining, but
his speech was slurred. I am not sure whether he was drunk,
maybe just sitting by a pile of mahua made him inebriated.
I don't know, but I could not take the mahua any longer
and headed to where what looked like stones lined on an
old jute sack.
Stones? How wrong could I be? They were soaps - brown, white,
charcoal, pink pieces that seemed hurriedly cut and embossed
Shabnam. Some were wrapped in plastic while others lay there
naked. Not too far away were other branded soaps that looked
almost condescendingly at the brown Shabnam soaps, though
I seriously doubted the authenticity of the wrapped ones
too. They looked so phony, but the shopkeeper vehemently
denied any fake "stuff in my shop." They were
cheap but I was in mood to risk my brocades or my brown
skin with Gold Mohur, Saral or Aafhi soap.
I stopped at every make-shift shop, looking
at the silver jewellery displayed on velvet trays, stacks
of tobacco leaves being sold for Rs 10 a kilo, puffed rice
stacked in gigantic yellow and blue sacks, standing upright
amidst the blue and white fish nets. I was looking for handcrafted
wooden combs and asked everyone where I could find them.
Some smirked, others were baffled at my question - perhaps
they were amused at what an urban woman would do with an
ancient-looking comb. I really wanted them and I kept looking
Then I saw the shadow again, the ebony coloured
man in purple trousers and magenta shirt. He was stalking
.I feigned not having seen him and continued walking.
A village haat is like a one-stop shop,
you find everything - from vegetables to striped underwears,
flouncy nylon skirts, wicker baskets, brooms, decapitated
chicken, bleating goats, leaf bowls, hookahs, fake watches
and earthen pots. The ochre of the earthen pots were offset
by aluminum utensils that were neatly arranged under a blue
tarp. Three men sat on large upturned pots and did brisk
business. There was a little drama being played out on the
wet floor. Next to the aluminum woks lay a man, completely
drunk and absolutely oblivious of the world around him.
He had been lying on wet soil for several hours and was
muttering a tale, a tale of unrequited love. His histrionics
were hilarious - one moment he would gesticulate intensely,
his voice reaching a crescendo and the next he would go
flaccid, his voice vanishing into a whisper and he would
roll over and snore. But there were no takers in that improvised
proscenium, I was the sole audience. Such recital happens
in every haat and nobody is interested in this clichéd
Excitement was being betted at in another
corner. There were at least hundred men there waving their
hands vigorously, chatting noisily. As I wriggled my way
in through smelly bodies and lecherous men, I saw a really
young boy juggling three very large flat plastic coins on
a chintz sheet. Another man was squatting nearby and fiddling
with a knot in his shirt. There was money in it, I guessed.
I was not off the beam, he pulled out a Rs 20 note and placed
a bet as the young man shuffled the three plastic coins,
of which only one had 'Welcome' painted on the flip side.
When the shuffling stopped you had to guess which one had
Welcome on it. If you win, you get a Rs 40 for the Rs 20.
Wow! I thought, that's good investment, but when I saw a
lot despairing faces I realized a lot of them must have
In that crowd I again saw the man in purple
trousers and magenta shirt
.Gawd! Why is he stalking
me? I wondered. I should do something, I thought. But before
I could blink he got cheekier. He walked up to me and asked,
"Are you alone?" That was my moment, I stood still
and sternly said, "No, there is the chauffeur and the
police escort too." I lied brazenly, there was no police
escort, but it worked. I saw his magenta shirt getting lost
in the crowd
I still hadn't found the wooden comb.
The clouds were gathering, the car was far away and I had
to return. By the time I could cross the mahua pile, there
was a huge downpour. I had no choice but to run for cover
under the tarp where mahua was being sold. The smell of
wet earth mingled with the heady scent of mahua and I was
already feeling tipsy. I did not want to pop off by the
shop, so I bought a wicker basket, used it as an umbrella
over my head, hitched my skirt and ran towards the car.
In the hurry my skirt got stuck in a bundle of wood and
I struggled to entangle it. The wicker basket covered my
head but I was worried about my camera and my stuck skirt.
Suddenly I saw a large, black umbrella
over my head. I turned to look, the man in purple trousers
and magenta shirt was protecting me from the rain. Strange!
Published in Discover India
magazine, November 2005