Montreal is easily among the most happening cities I have lived in. Sure, London has cool clubs and matchless museums and New York is where most things are at. But in those better-known, better-celebrated cities, you need to be loaded to make the best of what the city has to offer (barring London’s museums, which are free). A lot happens on the artistic and cultural scenes in many other celebrated cities of the world. But for accessible, public (in every sense of the word) cultural events, Montreal has no peer. For instance, about two-thirds of the performances at the world-famous Montreal International Jazz Festival are free public events. And then there are the street sales. Every year, key streets are closed off, vendors set up stalls and pedestrians rule the road. Music, street food, stylish clothing and bargains galore, mean that everyone is happy and local businesses, often small ones, get a much need sales boost.
This joie de vivre, the savoir faire, is very much a contribution of the French Quebecers to Canadian culture. The French are stylish, laid back and have their priorities right. They know how to live and how to live it up. And because they are so stylish, the stuff they peddle is very stylish too. Today, this panache was on display on Saint-Laurent Boulevard, Montreal’s Main Street. Hundreds of stalls sold everything from Quebec-made underwear (a distinction in itself, for not much remains that is not made in China) and artisanal jewelry to Portuguese delicacies and Montreal’s matchless smoked meat sandwiches.
Tucked away in one corner, was a riot of color – a stall selling Indian stuff. And this one had it all, from moksha yoga lessons and rudraksh beads to ‘authentic’ teas and très chic chiffons d’Inde. One item particularly caught my eye. It was a beautiful, bright silk skirt. Behind it were more skirts. Bandhni, banarsi, kanjeevaram, kota, dhakai, the works. All erstwhile saris, recast as skirts. Shimmering, sizzling, striking and skimpy, these skirts were the perfect marriage of French style ad Indian motifs. They were gorgeous. And boy, were they selling! It’s not just the English who love India so. “C’est magnifique! Tres jolie,” we overheard an excited woman exclaim. “Hmm,” my companion (also desi), remarked, “I didn’t know India was in fashion in Canada,” adding that she knew the Brits loved desi stuff. “India is in fashion in India, too!” I was unable to resist retorting.
And it is too. Just check out any fancy mall in any Indian city. It’s cool to go ethnic, now. And expensive, too. Because while desi baubles are cool in the des, the people who traditionally sold them are not. So while I marvel at street vendors in Montreal’s public spaces, their counterparts in Mumbai are being evicted, ostensibly to clean the city up. Perhaps when there will be little left of it, we will begin to value street culture in India.