There is something that must be said about walking amongst people. I don’t think it’s an Indian thing – this particular love to experience a place through the crowds that throng the streets. I’ve met people who live in countries with really low density who like experiencing new countries/cities through the people. I think it stems from the greater need to join in, to belong, and to be a part of what is regular and mundane. And the need to be a traveller and not a tourist. There is another reason I love walking in cities. Walks through a rural setting or a village/countryside gives me a glimpse of what it must have been like years ago, that peace, quiet and beauty, so far from current polluted city-life. And walks in forests take me one step further back, much before man’s careless and selfish intrusion stamped over Earth. Walks in cities though, they tell me about people, about civilisations, about lives in other places, those walks tell me about the underlying similarities that makes all of us human. And what better place to see that than in a market!
The walk through the market lanes at Port Louis was one such. Before I got there, I walked through the Caudan Waterfront, a modern shopping high street like area spread out near the port in the capital city of Mauritius. Like any modern shopping space it was shiny splendour wrapped in warehouse-like buildings. There was that adequate amount of metal, and glimmering glass fronts to create an ambience of modernity and new-age luxury or progress, depending on your perspective. I could have been anywhere in the world, and others on that trip said Caudan Waterfront actually looked just like the waterfront at Cape Town. So there you go… I’d just visited Cape Town too! Like with modern airports, which are in denial of their country’s heritage, shopping complexes (and other 21st Century constructions) forget that the actual charm of a place lies its uniqueness, in that confluence of styles you can get only there. I wonder if years later, someone else, maybe a writer like me, will look at Caudan Waterfront as a unique symbol of Mauritius in the 21st Century. But I had something more original, and linked to the land, that I wanted to visit.
Across Caudan Waterfront, through a subway, you emerge on the other side of the road, and enter lanes that are the bazaar areas of Port Louis. These are shops that have mushroomed all around the Central Market building of Port Louis and all the way till Chinatown. Neatly arranged roads on a map that meander in real life with shops pouring out onto the sidewalks, people selling wares along the roads, and cars honking with a pre-conceived irritation. I felt like I was unearthing a treasure and experiencing Mauritius that was not just those serene beaches, picture perfect lagoons and shades of blue!
The Central Market resembled any old bazaar building in India with rows and rows of stalls selling perishables and a range of other knick-knacks. Outside, and extending on all sides, and for you to walk around and discover, are bustling lanes. These are not neat and organised like Portobello Road in London with the right amount of everything. This is like India and its a mess. And therein lies the character. There are people walking around haggling, others slurping on a drink, or gobbling up something from a roadside vendor and there is always the child whose icecream is turning quickly into milkshake. As you walk towards Chinatown you see those the old name-boards/signboards with a type that’s long brushed away. At every corner, buildings stand in honour of another time. I wish I was an architect or more of an enthusiast, to recognise and know the particular style and influences; but I sadly I’m not. I do know that some of these buildings were very pretty, and for that, I believe, there must have been some French influence, as British Colonial styles were much more bulky and heavy, without any delicacy. Let’s take a walk.
The soul of a city resides in its tiny lanes, in its oldest sections, in the areas that were built before the world became ‘global’, in the areas that were built before the wheel was invented, and where the pedestrian was King and Queen. The soul often lives in the past, as the present and future demands a conformity, a uniformity of styles that leaves no scope or hope for individuality. While I am not against popular demand, and would rather rules were not enforced on how places should look (for e.g. the enforced façade of Amsterdam house fronts) I hope, that the demand for heritage, for the preservation of our past, only blooms. But it shouldn’t lie dead within the walls of a museum, but be throbbing and pulsating on the streets, in the buildings still being used, in the lanes crowded with everyday mundanities. Our civilisation’s story resides there, lingers there, for as long as we manage to hold on. When we stop respecting it, or even acknowledging its impact on the current, we lose its soul and with it, maybe a bit of ourselves. We’ve reached here by building on our past.