Moments at the market | Sunday Observer

Moments at the market

The market is a melting pot of human emotions, attitudes and bargaining prowess. It is also the culminating point for all village produce. On my recent visit to the busy town of Jaffna I spent an hour walking round the main market, capturing the moments with the vendors who display business acumen and creative sales slogans. The old market is located along the main road, which also houses the new supermarket painted in yellow and shades of white! The entry way to the “santhai “ (Tamil word for market) is lined with bicycles. The bicycle is a trusted companion of every northern citizen- from the student, to the academic, vendor, clergy and policemen. It is a reliable and cost effective mode of transport- and for the vendor it is the ‘working horse’ that carries their produce for sale.

One of the first persons I met was not a vendor, but a tailor from the Muslim community. He greeted me with a smile. He has been here for many years- displaying a lovely manifestation of brotherhood with the Tamil vendors. Across this stall was a man selling betel leaves and areca nut. Using an old iron clipper he cut the hard areca nut with much dexterity, and offered me some betel, which I kindly refused. At the next turn was a stall displaying Northern products based on the palmyrah leaves- trays to hold string hoppers, ladles that would stir the succulent crab curry and the winnow, a basic item in any Northern home. The palmyrah tree is a resilient resource for the Northerners, who make use of it to turn out many products. Up next was a confectionery stall, and the young man beckons us, “Come and try our natural products, and take them to Colombo”. As to how he identified me as a Colombo guy was quite interesting. The shop was filled with rows of palmyrah based sweets – panang katti (a form of jaggery), pinattu (a flat sticky chocolate like sweet) and other items. New additions are Jaffna cookies- infused with the peanuts from Maankulam and Murugandy. As a Buddhist monk approached the stall others made way for him, giving him due respect. All communities live here in a beautiful cultural symphony which is a lovely sight.

From here we made our way to the vegetable and fruit section- the air was filled with all kinds of natural fragrances. One of the first vendors to catch my eye was a bearded youth selling yams. He had in his stall a large gunny bag full of the king of yams- Karunai kilangu. This is an odd looking yam covered in sand, irregular in shape, and resembled a rock. He explained, “ Brother you have to be careful when you cook this. It contains a thick milk like substance which is somewhat poisonous. But you can cook it like a tasty beef curry. You know, once you cut a portion of the yam you can keep the other portion for days- it will not be spoilt.” Common Jaffna veggies are murunga (drum stick), valakkai (ash plantain) and katharikkai (brinjal). Next door to his stall was a man selling jakfruit, papaya and mangoes. But these were not the famous “karutha Kolumban” variety, but a local hybrid fruit.

Grapes are also on sale, at the Jaffna market. Vineyards are slowly taking root in the North, especially, in the Vasavillan- Palaly areas. The grapes are a bit sour, as they reflect the soil content of the region. Talking of grapes I encountered a divine coincidence- I met my old friends Father Jeban and Father Dennis from the Rosarian Monastery in Achuvely. These dedicated young priests use grapes for cordial and wine production.

Seafood is a prime choice in Jaffna, with mutton taking second place. We wandered into a large tent selling dried fish. The old salesman begins his articulate sales pitch with a kilo of paraw at Rs 1,390. In order to convince me he opens up the fish like a book and shows the flesh laden interior. The tent is full of nethalli karuvadu (sprats) and dried small prawns. The latter is infused into spicy coconut sambal and “kool”- a Northern rendition of a thick soup made on festive occasions and family reunions. Interestingly, the mutton and beef stalls are located closer to the Jaffna Fort, as most people in Jaffna don’t consume beef. The practice during festive moments is to ‘share a goat’- when 4 or 6 families collectively buy a goat and have a feast. It is a time honoured village tradition.

The Jaffna market is a busy and vibrant venue bustling with young traders. I noticed soldiers and policemen making purchases, conversing in fluent Tamil. Learning each other’s languages builds bridges of friendship, a beautiful interaction between Sinhala and Tamil youth. Peace reigns supreme, and I felt more safe here than in the Colombo Fort! This is the way to genuine reconciliation and building trust. The moments at the market will be cherished in my memory. 

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