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The International Writers Magazine: Indian Market

Mumbai market vendors – a league of their own
Meera Manek

Stall after stall of flowers greet me as I enter a chaotic street in Bhuleshwar, one of Mumbai's oldest markets. A man stands on my right engrossed in stretching his hand and pouring hot chai from high above into a small glass, a cart-puller leisurely approaches me with strawberries, and I notice some girls sitting in by the roadside playing a ball game as if in their home.
For a Tuesday morning, the market streets seem extraordinarily busy, but my friend Sonal, who lives in Mumbai, tells me the crowds never die down. "Make sure you hold my hand," she instructs me, as if I was a child. But after passing through the entrance of this market, I realise that it is in fact difficult not to get lost. A man carrying a heavy sack on his back and dripping with sweat is approaching us. He is marching so intensely that it would be a sin to stop him. We let go of each other's hands and let him pass.

Amid the talking and movement, I hear a familiar Bollywood song coming from above me. As I look up, the brightness of the sun attacks my eyes. India in June is scorching, but I’m glad I’ll miss the monsoons. A lady who is trying to bargain with the spice-stall vendor below shouts in Hindi to the open window where the tape recorder sits. But for me, the strong beats enliven the street, making me want to dance.

When entering the market, it felt as though I was about to submerge into mayhem, but standing stationary amidst the hundreds of consumers and vendors, I realise there is a structure and organisation on these frenetic streets. As in every arena of Indian life, a caste system is in place. There is a league of sellers.

A man holding a basket of freshly roasted peanuts approaches me. A cloth turban, used as padding to carry his basket, lines this old man’s head. He looks thin, but walks with a youthful energy. Roaming the streets of this market, he sells paper cones filled with peanuts for three rupees each. Many like him journey the day with their baskets, selling food, hair-clips, pens, flowers and books. They feature near the bottom of the market pyramid.

Cart-pullers come next. A fruit vendor stands on one side leaning to the front to organise his abundance of apples and guavas. A circular line of smoke passes over his fruit from the two incense sticks erected on a guava, lying on the edge of his cart. A warm sandalwood smell wafts to me, attracting me to the stall. Other carts sell anything from vegetables to decorations, and with a constant influx of buyers, they certainly don't seem desperate for business. Some stand lazily while customers approach them, while others walk around flaunting their products.

Parallel to cart vendors in the class structure are tea makers and market-cooks engrossed in preparing their fresh and tasty food on the street. At the juncture of another street stands a young boy hidden behind a stack of roasted papads. He seems to be minding this cart for his father, who shouts to him from across the street barber where he is getting a clean shave. Touching the barber’s corner sits a man comfortably on his stool polishing shoes, taking advantage of extra customers drawn in by the barber.

A notch higher are the outdoor booths, vendors with somewhat larger makeshift stalls, selling shoes, clothes, belts, tools and absolutely anything else. I approach a crowded stall whose inner walls are squeezed with shoes. Hardly one particle of white cloth peeks from between the array of sandals. The clothes stall next in line boasts splashes of bright colours. "Madame, a skirt for you?" and out he pulls a pile of brilliant pinks and blues from the plethora of organised heaps. "Maybe a top for you," he looks at Sonal, who does not understand why I’m still standing here.

The feverish life of the market continues between two rows of old buildings. It is these that inhabit the highest class of traders in this market; those who make business. Sonal takes me to a small shop housing antique jewellery. She tells me the owner is an expert, and knows how many hundreds of years old each item is.

Our entrance does not stir the large man whose body is pressed between the locked table showcasing antique bracelets and the glass window behind him displaying necklaces. He seems bored by the newspaper that stares at him, and does not appear to be interested in selling. We quietly browse through the shelves of history.
"Mahantji isn’t here?," asks a middle-aged lady who has just strolled in. The skilled owner has gone home for lunch. She seems to be a regular customer of his. Around her neck is her mangalsutra, a necklace made of tiny black beads clutching a rusty gold pendant, a symbol of marriage. "I bought this here," she said trying to peer down at it, "I don’t know how old it is, but I asked Mahantji to carve God’s name on the plaque. It looked a bit empty before."

I realise that this particular stretch of shops are all in the jewellery trade. There is a labyrinth of streets in this market, and each gullie or alley is dedicated to different products, from decorations and flowers to jewellery and wedding clothes. "Even if you know these streets well, there’s no way you can finish it in a day," Sonal tells me.
A few hours has given me only a taste of market life in India. I don’t want to give up the exploration so easily, but the sun is beaming like a torch on my head. As I leave the market, a strong masala chai smell awakens my taste buds. My eyes turn to the man still pouring hot chai, and I persuade Sonal to join me for a quick shot.

© Meera Manek September 2007

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