When you turn the corner on the 4th crossing of Main Street, you retrace your steps back in time. It’s true – boutique hotels, underground pubs and international consumer retail outlets are replaced with hole-in-the-wall shops selling locally manufactured snacks and candies, hawkers ranging from astrologers to magazine-and-paperback sellers use the prime real estate of sidewalks to put up their goods and services on display, vintage songs in the local language waft down in raspy waves from public broadcast systems overhanging the traffic light and the entire colour scheme changes from an urban neon to a saturated sepia. People halt to stare at newspapers pasted daily on metal display boards. They pause to sample the wares at the various shops that open their doors wide on this street – the brightness of the assortment of clothes, utensils, bicycles and even pets for sale somewhat dimmed by the warm filter of light that shines on them from age-old street lamps. If you are lost and ask someone for directions, chances are that you would have caused the most interesting and (aberrant) event to have occurred on this street on that day and thus aroused the interest of more persons than just the one you intended the question for.
Traffic on this street is the only thing that is rushed, except for the times when a tram comes snaking down its tracks and serves as a reminder to all other vehicles that they may very well outdo its ancient pace, but here, on Main Street, they will have to observe a ceremonial pause upon its arrival. After a tram – which makes its appearance about twenty times a day, has passed by, and its accompanying rumble and the din of vehicles taken by surprise has died down, life on Main Street reclaims itself. Old men continue to sit at jewelry stores with cut-glass counters that house gaudy gold trinkets and stare into nothingness, sweetshop owners fan themselves under the signages of their storefronts – some apparently dating back to the early nineteenth century. Potbellied men wearing nothing but checkered lungis resume the act of bathing in public at water outlets that open on roads in the city and gush river water into its gutters at scheduled intervals. Bus conductors hang from the doors of buses and call out names of stops – making their buses dawdle till they have enough people ready to travel to the destinations they’re selling and thereafter egg their drivers into participating in impromptu races with other buses in a most violent fashion.
Meanwhile, the houses on Main Street maintain a most dignified and slightly disdainful silence. What with the laying out of the pavement and broadening of the roads, and the chaos of the street market, it seems as if these houses have been forced to recede in the background. It takes a practiced eye to tear away from the faded madness of the street to notice them. Their shuttered windows, extended patios and hanging verandahs with cracked, red floors and even dimmer indoor lighting seem fragile, almost two-dimensional. You hardly ever see anyone go in or out of these houses and rarely will you spot a face at their windows or verandahs. The stillness of these houses is left absolutely undisturbed by visible human activity. For all practical purposes, they may actually be the hollow facades left behind during a Festival season countless years ago. For we all know that during the Festival, Main Street is transformed – every by-lane furnishes numerous makeshift temples to house the goddess who is on her annual home run, every shopkeeper bears a special glint in his eye, and every pedestrian is pushed and jostled by the endless crowds that emerge from suburban regions to shop at these shops and then visit these temples dressed in their newly acquired Main Street finery. Even then, the houses remain passive – sometimes they bear a few strings of fairy lights or receive a fresh coat of paint, but other than that they show no signs of participation in the added chaos.
Main Street is a small yawning gap in the new design that is slowly enveloping the city in its blue and white wash of Progress, a dark spot where the twirls of glimmering, luminous cord lights do not cast their redundant and eerie glow. Is Main Street an unfortunate oddity because of that, or a welcome relief – a true picture of the city that houses it? You could ask around for an answer, or you could decide for yourself. I, however, am reminded of a time when I spotted a sergeant at an intersection trying, with all the sluggish agility he could muster, to prevent a standee from flying onto Main Street. The standee advertised a conference on Progress organised by the Most Honourable State, it was in the signature colours that Progress comes in – blue and white, and as it defied the cop’s attempts at restrain and landed bang in the middle of Main Street, it seemed mighty incongruous. And just after a minute or so of lying there, fluttering to the tune of an ageless song, it seemed mighty irrelevant as well.