A smiling man in an orange checked button up shirt and striped dhoti sells long green beans in a vegetable market outside of Madurai.

On the drive from Madurai to Karaikudi in Chettinad, we stopped to take in the action at one roadside market bazaar. Business was brisk. Women were shopping for the next day’s main meal.

Colourful blankets, spread on the ground, were de facto kiosks to display produce. Squatting vendors worked to balance antique scales with weights and balances as they tallied purchases. Small red onions, long green beans, brown husked coconuts, long white, round purple and striped mauve eggplants, fat orange carrots, beige new potatoes, ripe red tomatoes and mounds of shiny green chilies told the story of what the farm workers had been tending in the fields we had glimpsed from the road.

 

A white cow with large horns is framed between a white tarp and a black motorcycle on the grounds of a vegetable market in Madurai.
Cows roam amongst shoppers, merchants and motorcycles at a vegetable market near Madurai.

A woman, face wrinkled and hollow, looked nonchalant as a cow wondered up from behind her to lap some of the onions that spilled from the pile on the tarp where she sat. She did not, could not, protest. All cows are sacred in India. Shiva, perhaps the mightiest of the Hindu Gods, had a bull named Nandi who was his transport and in constant attendance to him. The reasoning follows that if a cow is near now, perhaps Shiva is as well.

On my second pass around the place, a slim man dressed in a pressed orange shirt and dusty blue dhoti (men’s sarong) beckoned for me to come near. He was holding a small coconut towards me. I pressed my palms together to greet him and mimed my lack of money. He waved off my confusion and pressed the coconut into my hands before bowing and pressing his own palms together. As I took the gift he smiled. I pressed my hand to my heart and smiled back in gratitude. Bowing my head a little, I noticed he was missing a few toes on his left foot. I could not deny him the joy of giving what he could to me anymore than I could help wondering how he lost those toes.

I realized that after a mere fifteen minutes in the market we’d been sized up. We were the only foreigners and as such, of course, we stood out. Especially as one of us had a camera and the other was jotting notes and asking questions (through our Tamil-speaking Travel XS guide, Charles).

The coconut felt like we had passed a test. We left feeling our presence was not only tolerated but that our genuine interest and kind intentions had been perceived and appreciated. Food had once again provided a key to connect, to open a door between cultures when words could not.

 

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We’d like to thank the Kerala Travel Mart Society and Travel XS for sponsoring our trip to South India and for their gracious hospitality during our travels in throughout Kerala and Tamil Nadu in 2016.

All words and photos are our own and were not shared with our sponsors prior to publication.

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