I am determined to finish up this India series if it takes me all year. Here’s one more down on a rainy Tuesday, with one left to go…
I’ve known my friend John since 1993. As a colleague with American Express, he was one of the first people I met when I reported to duty as National Account Manager at the United Nations account. I had an office on the 19th floor of the UN Secretariat Building, and John’s office was across the street at UNICEF. We became “fox hole buddies” in managing one of the most challenging accounts New York City had to offer. From that point on, we have been bonded in a true friendship that has stood the test of decades.
There are few people I have met in my life who can match my insatiable case of wanderlust and love of travel, and John is one of them. So whenever I travel to some place like India, I always consult him for advice. In an email exchange, I told him I was on my way to Goa by way of Mysore, where I only planned to spend two nights, long enough to tour the famous palace there.
John replied, “I loved Mysore and the palace. I would love to know where or what happened to the Devaraja Market. I read this historical market had a fire and the sellers had scrambled to rebuild or find a place to go. I made a friend while there. I often think of him when going through pictures and wonder how he is. Should you stop in Mysore and discover the new Devaraja Market and see this man, (photo attached) tell him I’ve not forgotten him.”
I looked at the photo of the young man in the baseball cap standing in the market stall filled with incense, scented oils, and brilliantly colored bins of gulal powder, and contemplated John’s remark. I considered the odds of finding someone in a market of over 1,200 stalls with the only thing to go by being a 12 year old photo not much larger than a postage stamp on my iphone.
Like most major India cities, Mysuru has two names; an original name, Mysuru, and one coined during the time of British rulers who couldn’t pronounce or didn’t like the original, so they changed it to something easier, in this case, “Mysore.” In keeping with the name change back to the original Indian names, the official name has been reverted to Mysuru, though the two are still used interchangeably. Personally, I prefer the original, as the sound of the other name, “Mysore,” evokes pain.
Though train is always my preferred method of travel in India, there is no service from Ooty to Mysore so I had to take the bus. I booked the highest class of service I could find, and still felt like I needed to hose myself down after the ride. Even India’s “luxury class” would be on a par with the worst Mexico has to offer. I am forever spoiled by Mexico’s clean, efficient First Class buses that rival premium seats on some airlines.
I arrived from the cool mountain town of Ooty into the Mysore bus station in the midst of a downpour. It was hot, humid, and hectic. So steamy my eyeglasses fogged up when I stepped off the bus. Still schlepping my camping gear from my trip through Ethiopia, I felt overwhelmed in the pouring rain, managing to get as far as the nearest covered area to wait for the deluge to pass. With just under 48 hours in Mysore to see what I came to see, I cursed the rivers of rain running through the streets impeding my progress. I really could have used a break where the weather was concerned in this, my shortest of stays in India.
My original reason for visiting Mysore was to make one quick stop to tour the Mysore Palace. Constructed in 1912, this royal residence is considered one of India’s finest, ranking second to the Taj Mahal, and one of India’s most popular tourist attractions. This palace is home to the Wodeyar Dynasty who ruled the Kingdom of Mysore from 1399 to 1950. The palace took 15 years to construct following the devastating fire in 1897 that destroyed the original wooden palace. I planned to visit it by day, and then return after dark for the spectacular light show when the entire palace is trimmed in 98,000 lights.
However, once my palace visit was over, I now had one more “mission” on my list, and that was to at least make an attempt at locating the young man in the market. I had to try. The odds were laughable, but I wanted to at least make an attempt for my loyal friend of over twenty years.
Constructed in 1886, the Devaraja Market is primarily a wholesale flower and produce market. I knew from the photo John sent that his friend owned a market stall selling incense and piles of vibrantly colored gulal powder used for social and religious markings. So I could eliminate the flower and produce sections on my search, and work my way over toward stalls selling more durable goods.
I wandered up and down the narrow pathways through the labyrinth of stalls in the sweltering heat and humidity, a fan in one hand and my iphone opened to the photo for reference in the other hand. Finally, I found an area of housewares, trinkets and hardware. It may sound like voodoo, but I felt an eerie, déjà vu vibe when coming upon Adil’s market stall. I am not sure if it was the crystal perfume bottles or the baseball cap that gave me the sense that I had reached someone or someplace familiar.
I saw the man in the stall, now more mature with a bit fuller face, but still wearing a baseball cap…not typical attire for local men from India. I stood from a distance and studied the structure and shelves in the background of the stall, dazzled by the row of brilliant conical-shaped piles Gulal powder along the front row. Then I lifted my eyes up to compare the details of Adil’s face, glancing back and forth at the photo John had sent from 2008. I anxiously worked up my nerve to approach.
“Excuse me, sir…” I started out nervously while holding up the photo on my iphone. “I am looking for someone, and wonder if you could please help me? Do you happen to know this young man?” Adil took one glance at the photo and exclaimed “That young man is ME!!! When I was a BABY!”
I got so excited I could hardly contain myself. I quickly texted John a message with a photo, “Could it be?? I found him!”
What are the odds? Well, in a market covering 4 acres containing over 1,200 stalls employing 3,000 people in a city where I have never been before, not exactly good. So it felt like destiny. Or divine intervention.
For the remainder of my time in Mysore, and to this day in fact, I am still riding a high when I think about not only succeeding in finding a “needle in a haystack,” but also being able to help reconnect two ends of a friendship severed by distance so long ago.