What on earth could a young chit of a girl be doing, standing happily with a wide smile in the middle of a flooded street in Broadway, holding on to a closed umbrella taller than herself that towers over her, while the rain pours down on her bare head? No, false start. I’m jumping ahead of my story. But think about it. I’m not making it up. I took a photo of the strange sight (see below).
But in the photo above, there is no girl with an umbrella: a coconut seller pushes his laden trolley along Broadway. He looks at home in Broadway, and well he should. What could be more natural than traditional wares in a traditional shopping area? Notice, however, the newly laid interlocking bricks; this appears to be a durable solution to the problem of the annual crumbling and patching of roads in Cochin. Besides, the new bricks have eliminated water logging, which was the curse of Broadway. Only the first block of the road near the entrance from the CSI church has been paved, but the rest of the road will also be done.
Broadway, the oldest shopping area of Cochin, is a must-see destination for any visitor. It has an unwashed, sweaty, old-world charm that is the antithesis of the come-hither lure of the frosty, antiseptic, air-conditioned malls that attract shoppers like magnets. The buildings cluster together cheek by jowl, most sharing walls. Many are ancient, decrepit, and unpainted, freckled with cemented patches that look like raw wounds. Vendors line the pavements, forcing shoppers onto the road. And yet there is not much that you cannot get in Broadway, and much that is not available anywhere else in the city.
Five years ago one evening, I was trapped in Broadway by a sudden spell of violent rain. The road soon became flooded, and I could see that the water level was slowly rising. It was then that I noticed the plastic girl with the umbrella in the middle of the road. Who had placed her there and why? Can you guess? I doubt if even Sherlock Holmes could formulate a hypothesis, without making inquiries among eyewitnesses. I wrestled with the mystery for some time before asking the owner of the shop in which I’d taken refuge for an explanation. He said the water on the road often entered the shops, damaging the goods inside. And what made matters worse were the cars passing by, which generated waves that created even greater havoc inside the shops. So some enterprising shopkeeper, taking the law in his hands, had put that girl with the umbrella on the middle of the road, to block vehicular traffic.
I have mixed feelings about improvements to Broadway. It evokes a period that has long disappeared, and a modernized Broadway, I fear, would lose much of its charm; a living umbilical cord to the history of the city would be severed. A parent is similarly dismayed at the changes in his rapidly growing children. Change is inevitable, and I must not be selfish or sentimental. Under the facade of modernity, the shops and the people manning the counters will be the same old-fashioned tradespeople. So, all will not be lost. But I draw the line at malls in Broadway; God, not that abomination, not in my lifetime at least.
This monsoon at least, the shopkeepers of Broadway need not regard the rain as their mortal enemy. They need not scurry around desperately to save their goods from the rising flood waters. They can, instead, like the rest of us, savor the music of the falling raindrops.
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