The Sweet Mart

As you turn left into the dark valley between the tall buildings, away from the traffic and the light, the road is still cobbled and the pavement cracked. The world changes. It is winter and down here. The only light comes from the window of a small shop, a fluorescent glow reflecting off the rain wet cobbles. The first thing you notice is the smell. It is the smell of spices, the smell of something different, new, dangerous. This is the Sweet Mart, on the outside a small shop much like any other in this dark Northern town. This is the Sweet Mart, on the inside it is a link to something and to somewhere left behind.

The shop is owned by an old man, he is short but upright, hair silver and receding. He came to live here when it wasn’t safe to live in Uganda any more. What made him think that it would be safe here? In this place with freezing winters where it rains for days on end and where people are not renowned for liking change.

From the opposite end of the street I see two huddled shapes as appear out of the gloom. They are walking towards the shop. Two old ladies wrapped tightly in heavy overcoats to keep out the bitter cold. The tips of their brightly coloured saris peeping out with colours so vivid that fire leaps from them. They might easily light up the whole street if they weren’t kept concealed. It is as unnatural as light on an English winter’s day. They smile as I hold open the door. It is as much a smile of suspicion as it is of gratitude, “why is white boy coming here? Coming to our shop. What he want with us?” But I know the old man and he knows me, since I was a lot younger. I would come into his shop and he would give me Indian Sweets, “here for you, try this. You will like.” Sweets with names and tastes I couldn’t pronounce. He gave me Mars Bars and Coke cans on dusty summer days and they too tasted of India, the magic of the shop casting it’s spell over everything. “Please, have. How is father?” My Dad and the old man had known each other a long, long time.

I buy papads and some deep red Kashmiri chillis. I’m tempted by the luxuriant bunches of coriander and can’t resist but turn quickly away as I reach the pungent asafoetida. Some mango pickle would be nice but it hasn’t arrived yet. “Tomorrow we will have, you come back then.” I notice the two old ladies, still looking at me, an occasional glance from behind a shelf.

I wonder what they are thinking and what they will say when I have gone. In here I am the minority. I am the one who stands out and who does not understand the customs, the little quirky habits and sayings that everyone else takes for granted. It is me that must be shown and taught, there are new words and new ways of doing things. For the few minutes that I am in the Sweet Mart I can see what it is like for these two old women in my world. The world outside, a world that makes no allowance for their faltering English or for their customs and traditions. Outside they are expected to be a part of their new country, to speak its language and understand its strange ways. They might not expect to be insulted or spat upon by children who should know better and they shouldn’t expect to be treated as second class because of the colour of their skin. But they are.

I pay the old man and turn to leave. I smile as I reach the two old women and mumble a hasty and unconfident “namasti” as I pass them. They reply, bowing slightly and smiling broadly.

 

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