Thursday, October 28, 2010

a Street corner in Mumbai

The corner junction where Shaikh Memon street meets the Lohar Chawl lane in Mumbai is a stage setting for a play that happens here every day of the week. The play is enacted by actors who are street vendors. They walk from one end of the loosely defined and no-shape corner to another and then back again. They sell goods for real. You can buy a plastic tablecloth, a dancing doll, clips for your clothesline or a stuffed toy for your child.

When you first begin to notice the phenomenon, it seems like a play, but then, it isn’t. These are real vendors. The corner is crowded with pedestrians. There is a sea of faces in front of you, if you stand still in one place. In a few moments, the density of faces which almost seem like molecules moving rapidly changes. There are suddenly some empty pockets or voids. The picture is not so blurred anymore. Some people in that crowd are trying to get the attention of other passersby. These are the street vendors who have goods for sale. The voids get filled back again. But, you begin to recognise some faces since they keep coming back into your frame of vision or the stage, if one were to call it that.

You wish the vendors would wear colourful masks so you could spot them more easily. Later, as you view this amazing phenomenon from the upper storey of a nearby building, you realise that they are each carrying their goods in an identical blue bag which hangs from their shoulders with some of the goods being held in different ways either in one hand or both hands. It seems the word ‘person’ derives from the Greek word meaning mask or the role played by an actor in a dramatic performance. Maybe, they ARE wearing a mask. Masks allow one to pretend, don’t they? Here are vendors who are pretending they are just pedestrians, a face no different from the others, no identity revealed. If and when the police approach, the goods move from the hands to a large blue bag and now they are truly pedestrians only.

This is the story of livelihoods and the story of a changing city. The people of Mumbai find entrepreneurial opportunity literally at every corner. Actually, it is not every corner that is found suitable for business. Almost all the streets that are perpendicular to the Crawford market building are high density shopping areas. Some streets are exclusive zones for stationery items, some for textiles, some for light fittings and so on. This brings us to the issue of why this corner and not any other corner down that entire road. There is the Abdul Rehman street corner. This phenomenon did not take root there.

As I talk to one of the shopowners on Shaikh Memon street, I learn that this is the corner with the maximum footfalls. It is the meeting point of the Crawford market entrance, the Lokmanya Tilak road that connects Crawford market to Metro Cinema, the entry point for Lohar chawl (market for electrical & hardware goods) and the Shaikh Memon street that leads to the Jama masjid, to the Mulji Jetha wholesale textile market beyond the mosque and to the Zaveri Bazaar (Mumbai’s gold jewellery market) It is also at this junction that people get off the taxis to enter any of these shopping streets. This corner becomes the crossing of many paths and it is where street vendors can do the most profitable business.

This corner phenomenon is a Clustering of retail that is perhaps not so common. The street entrepreneurs or bazaar entrepreneurs make their choices about locations in unconventional ways. They seem to be very observant of the physical changes within the city, whether it is a widespread inner city core area or a single shopping street. It is not uncommon to find new retail shopping rhythyms merging with existing rhythyms and the gradual dependence of one over the other with the passage of time.

As in many Indian cities, the bazaar is the nucleus of the city. It has been the starting point of the commercial development of the city. Here, in Mumbai, Crawford market has been the central fruit and vegetable market. It has also been selling dryfruits and spices for several decades now. It was also a place where many people, especially the Anglo-Indians came to buy pets. It was a market that catered to western tourists who visited Bombay and to the affluent citizens residing in South Bombay.

Some of the owners of formal shops believe that the street vending brings vibrancy to the area. Without the street vendors, the Shaikh Memon-Lohar Chawl corner would not be as lively and attractive as it is now. The street vendors selling products at cheap prices are a crowd puller. Once people start frequenting these areas for their regular shopping, they also begin to visit the formal shops and the shopowners benefit from the impulse purchases that result.

Some time ago, due to a vigilant Municipal Commissioner, there were raids by the municipality twice a week. This went on for over 15 months. The street hawkers would vacate their places and their goods would often be confiscated. Their business suffered heavy losses. During this period, Shaikh Memon and the other streets here had almost no hawkers.

As per the Government regulations on Street vendors in Mumbai, this street has been declared as a ‘No Hawking zone’ and even today, it is a street where hawking is officially not permitted. However, business goes on as usual for the hawkers. They do pay hafta or an unofficial fee to the police regularly. According to the shopowers, they have a strong lobby and are a vote bank for the local MLAs who permit them to operate here.

With no investments to be made on renting a selling space and no overheads, the street vendors are able to offer the customer a good price on household and other goods and people continue to shop here in large numbers. The shopowner who has been sharing his insights with me has the corner shop that faces the “corner phenomenon”. He has been selling branded ready-to-wear garments, labels such as Scullers and Indigo Nation. This shop has been owned by the same family since 1926. During the pre-independence days, it sold dinner crockery and silverware. Later, it became a shop selling textiles and linen and is now in the readymade garment sector.

With real estate prices in South Mumbai being extremely high, more and more people are opting to find a place of residence in the northern suburbs. Although many of these people work in South Mumbai and commute daily to work, they prefer to return home immediately after work hours on the weekdays and shop at the shopping centers within their own local neighbourhoods. For shops in the Crawford market area, business has dwindled over the years. The owners of formal shops believe that if it were not for the street vending, business would have been even more bleak for them.

The banning of street vending does not seem to bring any tangible benefits to either the public or the shopowners at Shaikh Memon street. The road continues to be a ‘No Parking’ zone at such times. So, if the vendors are not here, it is not as if car parking becomes available and business can improve. If the vendors are here, business only gets better because of the large number of people who visit this street. As in a bazaar anywhere, bargaining in a street bazaar always attracts more customers and becomes the social phenomenon that people add to their shopping cart as they manoeuvre their lives in an evolving metropolis. 

Related posts:
Dadar Flower market
Fish market Mumbai
Bollywood posters

This post is part of the ‘Lonely Planet Blogsherpa Travel Carnival’ on the theme ‘Memorable City Experiences’ which is posted by Denise Pulis at her blog ‘Travel with Denden


Anuradha Shankar said...

I was there just yesterday, and also had my camera with me. I actually remembered you and wanted to take some pics, but was so engrossed in looking for the shop I wanted, and then in getting back with the loads of stuff I bought that I just couldnt take any pics! your pics capture the essence of the place.. in spite of the crowd and the chaos, i love it!

Anil P said...

Sometime back, not so back in time though, a few shops in Lohar Chawl caught fire, and I dreaded to think what might've happened there since I used to visit the place often before.

From your narrative it appears that all is well there.

radha said...

Thanks to your blog, any visit to the market and you are always in our thoughts ( as Anu mentioned). I was at General Bazar at Secunderabad and wanted to capture a few pictures. Maybe next time. I would also have to hold on to my belongings and do a balancing act.

ginger beirut said...

What a great read. You've made some stunning observations, but also looked so much deeper than the surface into the how and the why. Fantastic.

Jason said...

Excellent post! This is what good travel reportage is all about...spending emough time in a place to understand the motivations of the people of the people you are watching. I love the metaphor of the "play".
There are plays going on all around us if we stop and look.

Savaari said...

I have remembered some of my memories after viewing your street corner blog. Thanks for remembering that wonderful experience of mine.

Indian Bazaars said...

Anu: Its kind of interesting isn't it, that we are able to enjoy the complexity as we manoeuvre our way through the chaotic bazaars?

Anil: I wasn't aware of this. I guess the resilience that Bombay has, life would have been normal soon enough. One does like the city more for that.

Radha: I suppose it is difficult to have two agenda at the same time. Initially, I would worry about attracting attention with the camera. Now, I realise that everyone in the bazaar has so much to do that "camera & me" go totally unnoticed! I love that part.

Ginger Beirut: Georgia, thanks for dropping by!

Jason: The metaphor of the 'play' comes from an essay I read many years ago called 'Theatre Stage, Carnival Square' by Val Warke

Savaari: Each time one revisits Mumbai or any place for that matter, its like one has hand-picked a few more memories. And then, you put them away almost like putting away little flowers into the leaves of a book, to look at them years later. They are still there, intact, as if time had waited.