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

Monday, October 18, 2010

an afternoon in festive Dussehra

It was the red, green and silver festoons glittering in the afternoon light that filled my first few moments at the Gandhi Bazaar in Bangalore. People were choosing their festoons and choosing their flowers. There was such an abundance of both on a street filled with people, with children. Everyone was out shopping for the Dussehra festival.

The festoons swayed this way and that in the gentle breeze. There were the voices I heard of people wanting this colour or that. I went closer to the shop front from across the road from where I had watched until now. There were more than five salesmen to this small shop. It was a day when business would be good and fast, as it was then. More hands were needed as the exchanges happened.

The festival of Dussehra celebrates the victory of Lord Rama over Ravana. It is the day when Rama (the eighth incarnation of Lord Vishnu) killed the great demon and king of Lanka, Ravana.
It is also on this day that the Warrior Goddess Durga defeated and killed the buffalo demon Mahishasura. There is fasting and there are rituals. People all over the country celebrate the victory of good over evil. The Bazaars of India are a place to experience during the ten-day celebrations that begin with Navarathri and culminate in Dussehra.

With each season and each festival as the year moves on, the bazaar takes on a different meaning. It is interesting to observe how the bazaar in Basavanagudi or bazaar anywhere transforms itself from one avatar to another through the year – for Sankranti or Pongal, for Ugadi or the Kannada new year, for the Varalakshmi puja, for Vinayak chavithi or the Ganesh festival, for the Dasera or Navarathri, for Diwali and so on. And, each festival brings with it a magnificent new collection of goods that bring people in large numbers to the bazaar.

In a Street bazaar, where there are no boundaries, it seems as if space for more vendors and more goods is always possible. However, it is not as democratic as it may appear. The vendors do guard the territories of their selling spaces. Mattias Kärrholm in his paper Territorial Complexity in Public Places defines 'Territoriality' as a spatially delimited control. He suggests that a territory is a bounded area characterised by a certain set of rules or some kind of regular behaviour.

In Gandhi bazaar, there is no clear demarcation between road and footpath. At some parts, the footpath is wider and in some parts, it is narrower. One looks for the EDGE – the distinction between where the street vendor belongs, where the pedestrian walks and where the vehicles drive and one finds it difficult to distinguish between what is road, footpath and urban selling space. Here, as I looked on, there were customers bending over the goods, making their careful selections, as they stood on the footpath. The Edge was along the middle line of the footpath, as it always is during a festival when the shop begins to step outwards to reach out and attract.

I was now looking at a “corner shop” which is one of the best locations a shop can have. The footpath curved around it and as the shop turned the corner, it attracted people from both the streets it sat upon. There was also another Granthige shop nearby on D.V.G.road and it had more than just the festoons. It had just about everything you would need for the puja.

One of the shopkeepers asked if I wanted to come in to take some more pictures. I could if I wanted to, he said. There was brisk sales taking place, there were little items displayed horizontally and vertically in as many possible ways, never enough space to show what there was to sell, there were unending queries from potential customers, there were the several salesmen behind the displays and someone in there had had the time to notice me with a camera and to extend an invitation to be part of it all and not leave without having seen everything there was to see or buy. There was both good salesmanship and goodheartedness in that gesture. It made me stay longer by the shop.

Every shop was brimming with activity. Each one had extended its limitless boundary to a new limit just for the festival week. I had noticed that there were a few policemen. I wondered why they were there. They were at least not policing the territory that was meant to be a public domain and had been usurped for private consumption. If the shopkeeper had extended his shop and if he sold goods that the public wanted so much to buy, his utilisation of the footpath space was justified, it seemed.

Bazaars have not been a part of the Master Plan for a city in India. There is within Urban Planning departments, a category called ‘Markets and Fairs’ which serves the shopping needs of inhabitants in an urban settlement. However, the physical implementation includes a few market buildings that are built and operated by the local municipal authorities. These do not adequately meet the needs of the public and is perhaps the reason why street vending easily finds customers.

I continued to walk onto the Gandhi Bazaar main road. There were so many garlands in any direction one looked. If it weren’t for the sound of the cars and the autorickshaws that bolted into one’s mind, one would have thought that on this day, you were alone on that street, standing in the midst of an art installation with flowers of many colours in that “art in public place” that had been created by flower sellers weaving strings of flowers to make every part of the bazaar that day into a place of visual and aromatic delight.

There was a slight change in the light and in the flow of the air around us and everyone sensed that it was about to rain. The vendors came out with their plastic sheets wherever water needed to be kept away. It started to drizzle and then pour. I stood aside watching the display of dasera dolls through what Bangaloreans call the four o’clock rain.

Read about :
Mylapore Temple Bazaar, Chennai
Fish market, Mumbai
Gandhi Bazaar, Bangalore

Wednesday, October 13, 2010

Antique Furniture Market

If you are looking for antique furniture in Mumbai, there is a large market for teakwood and rosewood furniture at Jogeshwari in north suburban Bombay. It is a market where a few shops selling old furniture started business forty years ago. Over the last decade, the antique market here at the Oshiwara bridge on S.V.Road has grown with more number of shops dealing in antique furniture. 

Read the full post at: a way of seeing architecture

Read about:
Fish market at Sasoon Docks
Udaipur City
Bollywood Posters

Tuesday, October 05, 2010

Wandering Educators

Wandering Educators is a global community of informed, engaged educators who share their travel experiences and dialogue about international education and travel.

Recently, Indian Bazaars was featured on their website – an interview asking questions about how travellers can get the most out of visiting Indian Bazaars, how travellers can give back when in India and tips for visiting Bazaars with children. I would like to thank Dr.Jessie Voigts for asking us. This is the link to the interview : Exploring colourful Indian Bazaars at Wandering

Friday, October 01, 2010

Street Food in Mauritius

This post is about the Street food in Mauritius and about the nice people that you meet as you savour Food around the world! For months after I returned from my trip to Mauritius, there were two experiences that I thought about ever so often – one, was seeing and touching for the first time waters of the ocean that were unbelievably beautiful. The other experience was meeting people who were so very warm. On the streets and anywhere one went – the people were nice to you. If there was anywhere I would have been happy moving to forever from India, it was Mauritius.

I had walked the streets of Port Louis, Rosehill and La Caudan and enjoyed what I saw. I would watch as the locals stood by the street food stalls and savoured with relish – sometimes the dhol-puri and sometimes the samosa. Of course, I soon decided to be like a local and started to eat my lunches where I saw the most crowds at the street stalls. That’s a principle to follow, isn’t it? More crowds, tastier food?!

In Mauritius, the Dhol-puri is part of the local cuisine and not to be missed! The Dhol is yellow split peas cooked with spices. The puri is a kind of bread – wheat flour dough rolled out like the Indian roti which is stuffed with the dhol. This is served with tomato sauce and pickles.

I remember the first time we ate Dhol-puri was during our first week there, when we had hired a taxi for the weekend sight-seeing. I went to Mauritius three times that year on a work assignment – each time a great experience! Within half an hour of starting out that morning, the taxi-driver stopped at a roadside stall for his breakfast. We were invited warmly too. It was a Dhol-puri breakfast and the street vendor who served us was as warm and friendly as our taxi-driver. It was a great way to begin our day!

There is some interesting history to the origin of the Dhol-puri, which is similar to popular local cuisine in northern parts of India. The first of the Indians arrived in Mauritius in 1834 as indentured labourers to work in the sugarcane fields. The end of the 19th century saw the arrival of Chinese migrants. Mauritius was colonised by the Dutch, the French and the British and became independent in 1968. Today, most Indo-Mauritians speak Creole and Hindi, sometimes Bhojpuri and English as well as French and the Mauritian cuisine is an interesting mix of French, Chinese and Indian cultures.

You find street vendors selling cut-fruit and pickled fruit. At the bus-stand in Port Louis, there are street vendors with glass containers on two-wheelers selling fried foods. These vendors mostly cater to the locals. When you get to the Caudan waterfront, you find the sugarcane juice stall that offers several varieties of the juice – natural sugarcane, sugarcane juice with lemon and ginger, chocolate sugarcane or sugarcane juice with yoghurt and aloe vera!

The street vendor at the Caudan waterfront caters to the tourist. The sugarcane juice stall is part of street vending but this is high-end street vending – better hygiene, higher pricing. It adds vibrancy to the pedestrianised zone at the waterfront and in terms of the investment from the vendor, a semi-permanent stall costs less than a shop within the Caudan shopping centre which has duty-free shops, fashion boutiques, a casino and restaurants. It is interesting to know that the floating tourist population in Mauritius is almost equal to the resident population of the Island.

It is true that not all of us can eat street food, even if it looks attractive. It is our levels of immunity that decide if we can survive it. Whether it is the Indian streets, Mauritian streets or the streets in Thailand, Indonesia or Puerto Rico, street food stalls continue to do good business – it is the survival of the fittest for both consumers and the vendors.

Read about:
Mauritius Bazaars
Things Indian Things Mauritian
Bollywood posters
a Street corner in Mumbai

This blogpost is part of the ‘Lonely Planet Blogsherpa Travel Carnival’ which is being hosted at Tie Dye Travels by Kat Robinson. Do check out the posts at: Food around the world!