Diya Gupta


A Strange Shopping List and Stranger Encounters

12:20 AM, Friday, 2nd May, 2014
A bird's eye view of Barabazar
Shaun goes shopping in Barabazar
There are only a few days to go until the mountains of Spiti materialise before Shaun and me. Yet even now, every photograph I see of Spiti fills me with a sense of the dreamlike nature of the place. How can I find a place real that visually reminds me more of Tolkein’s Middle-earth – Kye monastery bears an uncanny resemblance to Minas Tirith, the White City – than anything else I have experienced?

I can’t yet picture my life there for the next six months, but I know it is coming my way. There will be a day, surely, when it will seem entirely normal to wake up in Spiti and go to teach, have my lunch and go for a walk, work in the afternoon and relax in the evening, much as I did in Cambridge and Sheffield. But the shape and contours of that day elude me now; its outlines are dim and hazy. I have decided to stop anticipating its familiarity, and let the mountains in all their strangeness and starkness welcome me as they will.

In this last rather frenetic week, Shaun and I are trying to prepare as much as we can for our teaching classes. In Shaun’s case, this has meant hours poring over YouTube videos of practical science demonstrations – which has delighted him to no end, and resulted in the strangest shopping list I have ever seen. Magnesium. Neodymium magnets. Heat-resistant gloves. Icing sugar. Balloons. Click lighter. Potassium permanganate. Bicycle pump. LED lights. Acetone. Sulphuric acid. White vinegar. Plasma ball. CO2 fire extinguisher. All this, and a varied assortment of clothes, shoes, books (we are non-Kindle users) and teaching material for the children will be carted to Spiti. Please don’t ask how.

It has been quite the journey finding most items on this strange shopping list. Shaun tried practical and sensible methods of locating relevant shops, like using the internet. But Calcutta’s roads can often turn into labyrinthine warrens that defeat even the almighty Google maps. The first shop we set out for near Netaji Subhas Chandra Bose Road had vanished into the ether. The second shop turned out to be buried deep into the annals of the wrong end of Central Avenue, which Google maps kept assuring us it wasn’t.

The third time we got lucky. A lone voice of knowledge in a group of taxi drivers (what’s the collective noun for taxi drivers? This word must exist!) gave us precise directions to Barabazar’s Old China Market, where, amidst the carts, cars, bicycles, people and workers bearing heavy loads (I am being selective here), was a lane of shops that sold chemicals. Hallelujah!

Compared to the shape-shifting nature of Barabazar, where everything including you is constantly in motion – you move or get mowed down by whatever is coming at you - the electronic shops at Chandni Market were a breeze. Shaun could not believe the range of products that they sold. I could not believe how competent the shop owners were. Our shopping list was whisked out of our hands, brisk eyes summed up the items of purchase, the mandatory ‘new boy’ was sent running to the stores for more supplies, and one man looked at Shaun over his glasses and admonished him for not ticking off items on the list that had already been bought! Lovely.

“Where is the tall white man from?” queried one Chandni Market shopkeeper in Hindi, who seemed to have taken a shine to us. “England,” I said, since the tall white man didn’t understand this conversation. “And you must be his assistant,” he went on sympathetically – perhaps he was someone’s assistant himself? “No,” I said. “Then who are you?” he persisted. “I’m his wife,” I said, enjoying the sensation that this sentence caused.

I wonder if this explain-yourself-in-relation-to-the-tall-white-man will continue in Spiti too. If it does, the remote otherworldly Minas Tirith-like Spiti will grow very familiar only too soon!
Diya on 5:04 PM, 6th May, 2014
Laura, enjoy the Atacama desert! Dunstan, there will be more very soon - writing from a tiny cafe in Dharamshala at the moment!
Dunstan on 10:06 AM, 6th May, 2014
Great to hear the update. Safe travels up there. Looking forward to the next post!
Laura on 1:18 AM, 5th May, 2014
Great reading Diya, sounds otherworldly! We too are in a landscape from another world or a movie - currently in the middle of the Atacama desert! Good luck for the journey to Spiti, and hope the 'tall white man' and you have a brilliant time!
Diya on 1:22 AM, 4th May, 2014
Thanks, Peter! More pictures will certainly be on their way. We have a four-day journey to get to Spiti, so I hope to take some photographs en route too. Debbie, Shaun has dastardly designs on that school! I hope it survives his experiments!!!
Debbie BT on 9:24 PM, 3rd May, 2014
Can't wait to hear how Shaun's chemistry lessons go! Hope your journey to Spiti goes well xx
Peter on 7:39 PM, 3rd May, 2014
Hi Diya and Shaun. Thanks for the update! It sounds as if the preparations are going well for this brilliant adventure. Please post a few more pictures when you get to Spiti, it sounds like a beautiful place. Happy travelling.
Diya on 1:14 PM, 3rd May, 2014
Katy, hahaha! I like that - next time I'm so telling them that Shaun is my assistant! The reaction will be so hysterical that it will be worth dedicating a whole blog post to it! Victoria, thank you for all the good wishes - we are excited!
Katy on 6:13 AM, 3rd May, 2014
With u guys in spirit all the way, I look forward to hearing more stories of the tall white man and his helper/wife. Next time can you tell them that he is your assistant and report back about the looks and comments plz ;) xxx
victoria l. on 1:09 AM, 3rd May, 2014
I think you have done well goint to spiti. I´ve got the feeling it´s going to be e tremendous experience in more than one direction.Keep on recording your impressions. I´m just waiting for the next.I wish you the best of lucks. Love xx
Diya on 11:49 PM, 2nd May, 2014
Cheers, Bird and Ushasi! I was his secretary in the UK; I am his assistant here. He leads a charmed life! :-) Will write more about our adventures. It's going to take four days to get to Spiti from Calcutta!!
ushasi on 11:33 PM, 2nd May, 2014
His assistant! Sounds like the kids at spiti are in for some memorable classes! I am all agog to hear of your impressions of your temporary home in spiti. Good luck!
Bird on 5:52 PM, 2nd May, 2014
That made me laugh out loud! From now on I will only ever call Shaun tall-white-man, and your new moniker is 'Shaun's assistant'.
Diya on 3:55 PM, 2nd May, 2014
It's fine, Suzy. Yours and James's good wishes will warm our cockles in cold Spiti! :-)
Diya on 3:53 PM, 2nd May, 2014
Thanks for the good wishes, Rashmi and Gail. I like the comparison of Barabazar to Meadowhall - different versions of chaotic shopping places! Rashmi, the 'supplies' are driving me crazy at the moment! That fire extinguisher weighs 12 kilos! Disha, the Middle Earth analogies will only continue, I think.
Suzy on 3:30 PM, 2nd May, 2014
Have an amazing time Diya and Shaun :D if I had any money to donate I would. Lots of love from me and James. xxx
Gail on 1:50 PM, 2nd May, 2014
Sounds like the only similarity with Meadowhall (on a wet Saturday afternoon) is the being constantly in motion, moving along! Looking forward to hearing more about your adventures. Take good care.xx
Rashmi on 1:12 AM, 2nd May, 2014
Good luck Diya and Shaun! It's going to be great! May you and all your 'supplies' reach Spiti safely :-) Looking forward to hearing more about your wonderful adventure Xx
Disha on 12:29 AM, 2nd May, 2014
Starkness. Minas-Tirith. XD
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